Taking a break in the beautiful Karetgin Valley in southern Tajikistan
If I wasn’t going to pursue a PhD what exactly was a boy to do? Well, to feed my body and pay the rent I began driving taxi for Blue and White Cabs. 12 hour shifts from 4-4 six nights a week. Soul destroying yes, but on the up side, I had lots of time to think. Mostly, I thought about Pakistan. How could I get back as soon as possible? My life was unfolding into a familiar pattern, a full decade on. It wasn’t a happy time.
As a birthday gift a friend’s French astrologer girlfriend ‘did my chart’. Amidst the celebrations she predicted that within 9 months I would be engaged overseas in some capacity ‘helping people’. I latched on to the word ‘overseas’ but smiled at the whole exercise. Stars and divination were an unholy practice, I had been taught so since just a lad.
My MA hung around my neck like a faded garland. Once so pretty, the aroma had completely evaporated. About the only thing it qualified me for was further study. I remember job hunting and being told that if I worked for 15 hours a day as a trainee manager at Long John Silver’s fish shop and handed my first month’s pay over to the recruiting company, in a couple years time I could make 19-20,000 Big Ones.
Several desultory conversations were had with my very supportive history professor who said he’d do everything he could to help me land a job at a small state university when the PhD (which would set me back my annual salary at Long John Silver’s) was completed.
About this time I switched my driving schedule from 4-4. Just the other way around.
I was eating bags of Wendy’s burgers and dunkin’ a helluva a lot of donuts in bad coffee. My future appeared to have as much sparkle as cold greasy fries.
Then, as so often has happened in my life, serendipity intervened. Steve, my friend from Lahore who had been researching NGOs called to tell me had landed a job with UNHCR in Peshawar. And well he might, I thought glumly. He was doing his PhD at Columbia and knew Zbigniew Brzezinski. Before he hung up Steve told me to send him a CV which he would show to people at the State Department.
Like NGOs this CV thing was a new concept to me but there was a small place in Dinkytown that typed them up. I heavily exaggerated everything except my name and birthplace but got the damn thing done and sent it by USPostal Service to Steve.
Some anxious months passed. The streets I drove filled with snow, then turned to slush. The trees were starting to leaf up again when one Tuesday the State Department called to ask if I’d like to fill a position with UNHCR in Islamabad. The paperwork came through in huge packets telling me that I was now a member of the International Civil Service. My salary was only about 50% more than what Long John Silver was offering but I was headed back to Pakistan. That was not only the icing but the entire cake as far I was concerned.
The day I left Minneapolis my friend, who’s Parisian girlfriend had predicted this day exactly 9 months earlier, took me out to breakfast. He couldn’t help telling everyone within listening distance that his friend had gone from ‘driver to diplomat’ overnight. As for me, I could not believe my dumb luck.
From this vantage point, indeed, I marvel at my good fortune. At various times I have held the belief that some super intelligence was concocting a grand plan, and to that degree this event had nothing to do with me. I was a pawn in a much larger universal chess game. I knew I hadn’t landed the job on the basis of my CV.
What lessons are there in this?
Getting into the sector has always been difficult. Not that I knew that at the time but I was not to be secure in my employment as an aid worker for several years yet, even with the UN on my resume. It was always 1 year contract after 1 year contract. The person in the State Department who interviewed me (on the phone; I never had a face to face interview) liked me. He said he saw something of his own son in my life. I have no doubt that that was what clinched the deal: one person making an assessment about another person that he thought was a good fellow. Of course, I also thought my knowledge of Hindi and Urdu was a positive and to this day advise young people who want to get into the system that they would do well to be fluent in a language other then their own.
But the biggest lesson is one much larger than interview skills, CVs or networking. It is this: follow your heart and if your desire is intense enough you’ll get what you’re longing for. But probably not in exactly the way you imagined it. Be open. Be prepared and able to talk well. Realise you’re not in control of the end result.
And yes, it is ok to be creative with your CV.