Lessons Learned

My amazing friend Sara over at Our Yuppie Life wrote a great post last month about the key to happiness as an expat in Addis: staying busy. Sara’s positive attitude and many talents are truly inspiring, but I never would have imagined that Ethiopia would similarly enrich my life.

When I got here six months ago, I was on leave from my job. I was anxious about how we could keep up our two careers with the same employer, especially when there were no positions in Ethiopia for me. I was also overwhelmed by having two little kids. We’d spent a few months without a house or our belongings, so every day was a struggle to keep the girls occupied and happy.  I was already exhausted because Willa was not sleeping through the night, but then I had to come up with ideas for how to get through each day.

It seemed like as soon as we got here, I got inspired. I had ideas for blog posts almost every day. I thought about writing all the time. I took a lot of photos and stopped using the crutch of the auto modes on my camera. Still, I remained frustrated by my limitations. I wanted to branch out and write more than just a personal blog. I wondered if my technical skills would ever match my vision for photography. One day while I was nursing Willa, staring out the window at one of the neighborhood jacaranda trees, I had this revelation: I don’t have to be the best. I can just do it. I can start a photography blog. I will call it Jacaranda Tree. It will be my new project. It took a week for me to build the site, and then I didn’t really know what my next step would be.

I didn’t give out the URL for that blog to anyone at first. It sat there for two months, barely indexed by the Internet and unknown to the world, and then one day an email popped up in my inbox, asking if I was available for a shoot, and the next thing I knew, I had a gig. Lesson learned: put yourself out there. You don’t have to be “ready.” If you are mostly there, that’s usually enough. If you wait until you’re near-perfect, opportunities will pass you by.

I wrote a blog post recently about how my ideal job would involve all of my interests in some way; maybe I would do something different each day of the week. Well, sometimes you just have to name your goals and they come to you. Lesson #2: just ask for it. Tell the world: this is who I am, this is what I want. You might not get it, but then again, you might. The day I wrote that post, I was literally crying because I has just written my resignation letter. That was exactly one month ago, and a lifetime ago. Now I have a new consulting business and am a little bit too busy. I resigned from a really good job, which was hard, but here I am, doing everything I want. As it turns out, I don’t actually care about having a cool title. I thought my ego needed it, but I am so much happier working on individual projects as a consultant. Last week, I did a photo shoot for an NGO, developed a plan for new library programs at Charlotte’s school, consulted on a local capacity development project, continued Amharic lessons, trained 24 organizations in financial management, and put in a few days of work on a large acquisition.

That being said, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and busy now, and not in a good way. Lesson #3: find balance. Over at the NYT Motherlode blog, KJ Dell’Antonia refuses to be busy. I totally respect that and want to be more like that. Sometimes I take on too much at once, and I tell myself it’ll be fine because it’s only a short-term situation. But short-term can easily turn into long-term, and I am always happier with less on my plate. That may sound contradictory, since I prefer to take on lots of different activities instead of focusing on just one thing. But I have found that I need to be very deliberate about my choices for how I spend my time. I just read a great book–one of the best, most practical self-help books I have ever read, actually–about people like me who have too many interests. One of the activities in the book involves identifying how you spend your time, and deciding which of those tasks truly reflect your values and interests. This is a really helpful exercise for me, because I find it hard to say no to people. Now I am forcing myself to justify every activity before I commit to it. Does it fit within my long-term goals? Do I really enjoy it, or am I doing it out of some sense of obligation? The author also advocates choosing only four passions at once. This was a tough one for me. I had a lot more than four things that I wanted to do this year. Furthermore, focusing on family counts as a passion that one might want to follow. I think she is right: at the moment, I’m feeling stretched too thin. I think I’ll have to give up a couple of things for now. I can always switch at some point in the future. The point is that you choose how to spend your time. Time is really all we have; money is nice, new experiences are great, but if you’re rushing around trying to squeeze in too much, you’re missing things.

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