Tag Archives: university

On Failure

Failure and I have never had a good relationship. I was always that kid who could pick things up with relative ease, I was a star student and teacher’s pet throughout high school and did well in my university classes too. I won medals in my extra-curriculars and my bosses’ regard during summer jobs. I always thought that if I followed the rules, laid out a good path for myself and worked hard, then things would fall into place. But that feels like a very naïve perception of things now.

I understand that failure is a natural part of any learning process. I understand that failure allows people to evolve and become stronger. I even understand that it gives people character, experience and intellect. Yet despite understanding these things in theory, the fear of failure still stops me from living the exact way I want to. It means that I can’t stand being a beginner. Rock climbing, yoga, guitar –things I discovered I loved yet have completely stopped practicing because they involve too much public failure as a beginner. Even as I write this, I worry I’ll fail at getting my point across or at making this article compelling and relatable.

Lately, failure is mostly associated with the job hunt. I finished my Masters 6 months ago and I am still waiting tables. I’ve been told that’s a normal amount of time, and that in this economy it’s actually not even that long. But every day, my various visions of the future get a little bit fuzzier. That image of me managing a team of policy advisors then driving home in my electric car to my beautifully decorated home gets blurry when tips from work are bad that week and I worry about the electricity bill. The picture I have of working in the field, collecting data on endangered species in exotic locations fades with each rejection email. The constant feeling of failure does nothing to motivate me to keep sending more job applications into the void of HR email accounts. Each rejection letter ends up making me feel more entitled, like somehow because I’ve gone through this, I deserve the job more.

I’m aware I’m not the first recent graduate to feel this way. And I’m trying to take these daily feelings of failure in stride by making time for friends and being out in nature. But the sinking feeling is inevitable when I sit down in front of a miserably formatted Word document job application once again. I apply to most jobs knowing I’ll never get an email back, let alone a positive response. Every pep talk from well-meaning employed friends or family feels like a repetitive reprimand despite it coming from a place of genuine kindness and concern.

I’ve been thinking more and more that I want to get creative and approach the entire job process differently, as so many of my peers are doing. Young people are taking the cards dealt to them and turning their traditionally losing hand into something wonderful by starting creative businesses, working remotely in budding industries or foregoing the notion of a typically defined career entirely. But again the fear of failure stops me in my tracks, despite my extreme admiration for friends who have taken the leap.

For now, I’ll keep searching and enjoying the little things. No doubt that this idea of creating my own career path will keep brewing in my mind the whole time. Maybe I’ll try and think back to the days when I barely had a concept of failure. I’ll try to incorporate some of that boldness into my future career goals. After all, back when I was a straight A elementary school student, free from the fear of failure, I won our school’s Valentine’s Day lip syncing contest five years in a row.

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On My 4-Step Program to Finding Myself

EDITOR’S NOTE #1: This post actually comes from Michelle, but due to some technical difficulties, is being posted under another account. 

EDITOR’S NOTE #2: This post is the 8th in a series, intended as a space for the various authors and contributors of Embracing Ambiguity to reflect on the past year in each of their lives. 2014 has been a tumultuous year for each writer, from transitions and changes in the physical spaces they live in, to the internal turmoil of life changing decisions.  Each post follows the general prompt of thinking back to where we stood one year prior, and the head space we were in at the time; reflecting on what has brought us to where we are now and the change that has occurred in that 365 days of time. Happy reading and an ambiguous 2015 to you! 


On this day last year, I was in a surprisingly similar situation as I am right now. I was in a quiet mountain chalet with my family, surrounded by beautiful snowy landscapes and gorging on delicious food I could never afford on my own. Our agendas were filled with exactly the same activities as this year: going into town to get groceries and internet access, walking through the forest, skiing and spending quality time with family and friends. The only difference is that last year, the cottage in question belonged to my family and was just outside Montreal. This year, we’ve changed continents and I’m sitting typing this in the French Alps.

As pretentious as that sounds, it’s actually pretty indicative of how everything is sort of the same, but also pretty different. If my 28th’s of December 2013 and 201 seem similar, the years that preceded each of them couldn’t be more different. On New Year’s Eve 2013, after a few flutes of champagne and much to my family’s amusement, I dubbed 2014 the Year of Michelle. And I have to say, I think I was successful in making the year entirely about myself. It seems crazy, but I had never consciously made myself a priority before. So 2014 was by far the year where I spent the most time completely on my own, and when I thought the most about my path, independently of anyone else’s.

At this time last year, I had just completed my first work contract, and had decided to start grad school the following September. But we were only in December, which gave me 9 months of sitting in the waiting room of life. I was determined to make the most of it though; to take the time to shed the layers of school and work, and get down to who I was at the core. When I think back on it, I accomplished this with my very own 4-step program. Step 1: one month of absolutely nothing. Seeing what I did with absolute free time gave me my first real glimpse of me. It was fun while it lasted but I didn’t love what I saw initially. Step 2 lightened the mood a bit; I filled my time with volunteering, hobbies and friends. But the big test came with Step 3: two months of traveling through South America on my own.

This was a slight echo from 2013, when I studied in Panama for four months. Here was the thinking behind this new trip down south: I had an amazing experience in Panama, but with no control over what I was doing there. I wanted to see what it would be like to experience something similar, but entirely on my own and under my control. And that’s exactly what I got: a perspective-shifting, mind-opening trip that furthered my thirst for adventure. I no longer had any patience for people who couldn’t hold an interesting conversation. I had met so many fascinating people with so much to say, that a conversation about the latest in reality TV just didn’t seem worth the time.

Needless to say, coming back to a marketing job was excruciating after that. But this was Step 4 and I was almost at the finish line. The grumpy secretary that works in the waiting room of life? She was about to call my name! So I powered through and made the most of the little time I had left in my hometown before moving on to the next big step: doing my Masters in Scotland. The goal was to get a higher education all the while still making it an adventure. I’m on that road now, although I’ve realized that grad school may not be the opportune moment to develop hobbies and go on insane adventures, which has led to a nice balance of weekends spent with my head buried in the library and others spent exploring breathtaking (literally and figuratively) Scottish hiking trails.

Looking back, I feel confident that I made the most of my time in the waiting room. However, I do wish I hadn’t seen it as such. If I had just thought of it as another step in my life, instead of a ramp leading up to the huge move to grad school, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as alone at times. But that newfound solitude lead to more introspection than I had ever experienced. I feel like I know myself much better than I did last year and I am more confident in my independence now. In that sense, the Year of Michelle successfully reached its initial objective. My personal growth curve has been getting steeper and steeper every year and I hope that trend keeps up for a long time. I don’t know what next year holds, and there are no guarantees that December 28th 2015 will also be spent in a quiet mountain chalet, but wherever I spend that day next year, I hope I can look back on my year and be even more proud of myself than I am now.

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On blank canvases

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 3rd in a series, intended as a space for the various authors and contributors of Embracing Ambiguity to reflect on the past year in each of their lives. 2014 has been a tumultuous year for each writer, from transitions and changes in the physical spaces they live in, to the internal turmoil of life changing decisions.  Each post follows the general prompt of thinking back to where we stood one year prior, and the head space we were in at the time; reflecting on what has brought us to where we are now and the change that has occurred in that 365 days of time. Happy reading and an ambiguous 2015 to you!


A couple days after the 2014 New Years, I found myself at my rented basement suite.  I was pissed.

I had left a couple small items to move out still, back to my parents’ home, but the place was still a disaster, with no sign that my former roommate had come back to help with anything and I wouldn’t be getting my deposit back unless I stayed to finish the job.  It took me a total of 6.5 hours, and even the landlady felt bad and came to check on me to make sure I hadn’t passed out from the fumes from the cleaning products (which was most appreciated).

The immense cleaning session, however, gave me a lot of time to think and reflect.  The majority of which was dedicated to figuring out what my next steps were in the next few weeks; and life in general.

That morning I had received an email from the University telling me that my thesis was accepted, so that was one less thing to worry about, but it also meant I had one less thing to work on, and one more end to school and the regularity and familiarity that had come with it.

This meant that I was moving into a completely new blank space, one that encompassed all aspects of my life.  In some ways, I was moving on and forward with life, but I was also moving back home, so at the same time, it felt like I was taking steps backward. Well now what? I was unemployed, and I hadn’t heard back from the engineering firms and the non-profits that I had sent resumes and cover letters in to.  What about relationships? HA! That is one area that has never worked out either, so no good news there, but nothing that I haven’t been through before.  I literally went into the New Year a complete blank slate, with no direction, no plans, and no clue.

In the end, 2014 has been a year of practicing patience, mostly towards myself.  It was a year of learning, about limits and what I want in my life and of myself.  It was a year of finding direction and forming goals.

I was fortunate enough to get a job, and it was even in the field of my undergraduate education (note: not my graduate program however).  Most days I feel stupid at what I do, and have constantly learned through mistakes, asking lots of questions and listening to the perspectives of coworkers on what they would do.  I am still not 100% confident that my career path is one which I will stick to for the rest of my life, but it is one that I am enjoying presently, and I know if I want to stay in this industry, what directions I want to take or where I want to see myself in the future.  I started saving up my money, and I have been actively looking for a condo to buy and call home to start my adult life anew.  I made wonderful friends this year, and I’ve lost touch with some, but have tried harder to strengthen relationships with others, understanding more that I need these kinds of relationships in my life.  I started realizing how much time I put to work, but not on all these goals and hobbies I had wanted to pursue in years past. Even with actual vacation time to my name for once in my life, I decided not to use them and learned how much I can burn out, and should probably take some time off from time to time and go on adventures and invest back into myself.

From entering 2014, furiously wiping clean of what remained from the year before, I had produced a blank canvas, and I had started putting pencil to paper; sketching and outlining what I wanted to start seeing my life to look like.  The image isn’t totally clear yet, but there are shapes taking form.  It is just a matter of adding colour and seeing if looks right.  Let’s be honest, I’ll probably have to paint over some parts, and redraw lines and maybe even change up the medium.  But it’s a start, and that blank space doesn’t seem as daunting as it once did.

-Jeff

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on photosynthesis

Sometimes life throws you curveballs.

Sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior (2011).

Now, not to take anything away from the film – which is great – or from the performances of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton – which were greater – but I don’t think that the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what is causing the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face.

You may have noticed that it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog. Or not. I guess that’s maybe assuming a lot. Either way, the truth remains – I haven’t. But it hasn’t been for lack of topics.

In early October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada – two years of working there. My first real job, done. The end of an era. It would have been one thing to step away from this job for want of a change of scenery, but that’s not why I left. I wanted to fundamentally change what I was doing.

Ambiguity.

In late October I put on an art show with my photos and paintings. It is all hung at a place called Sadie’s Diner here in Toronto, and will be there until late December. I have never done anything like this before and doing it while unemployed has felt like a big risk, financially and otherwise.

Ambiguity.

The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is not that I put on an art show. The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is that I managed to find the self-trust to allow myself the chance to take a chance on, well, me, to put on an art show.

Then there’s the unemployment. It is only so long that the joke of #funemployment remains funny. Only so long until the daily grind and grey of unemployment sets in. The entry level jobs looking for three years’ experience, the unpaid internships, the rejection emails, the self-doubt and criticism – each one like a wave pounding the shore of your resolve and there are days where pulling yourself out of bed before 1pm seems impossible but for a small act of god. Or Santa. Or Captain Crunch. One of the three.

Ambiguity.

All of these things are ripe with ambiguity, and all of these things are ripe with content for blog posts.

But it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog.

I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. But my head has more often than not been cloudy and the thoughts hard to come by. I’ve been feeling lost. Uninspired. Deflated. It has been overwhelming, to say the least.

Sometimes it’s hard to see a reason to wake up in the morning, and sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior.

But I don’t think the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what has caused the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face. To try and explain what (maybe) does, I have to tell you a story.

It’s early January 2012 and I’m walking home along Bloor St. in Toronto. It’s cold, and at my sides hang six or seven grocery bags, stuffed to the brim. On my back sits a backpack filled with cans, and I’m coming back from a grocery trip to No Frills.

Now, the thing about coming back from a grocery trip at No Frills, is that I don’t live anywhere near a No Frills. But I’m a student and I’m poor and I have this stubborn belief that I should do the things I’m capable of doing. It’s why I carried a mini-fridge from Canadian Tire to my dorm room in first Year University. It’s why I moved the contents of my apartment – from desk to shelves to bed – by longboard, twice. And it’s why I’m walking back from No Frills, six or seven grocery bags at my sides and a backpack filled with cans on my back. Because I can.

So I’m walking along Bloor St and it’s cold and it has probably been half an hour already, with another 10 minutes or so in front of me. I’m walking along Bloor and my hands are crying out – the weight of the bags and their thin plastic handles are digging into my fingers, punishing my stubbornness. I’m carrying all this shit, just passing the Tim Hortons near Bloor and St George, when I feel the phone vibrating in my pocket.

I had only just recently acquired a cellular communications device and so this idea of always being in reach was still new to me, and so, my first thought was: “Who the hell could that be?” As you may or may not have noticed (depending on your imagination and reading comprehension) I’m not in the most opportune position to be taking a call. But when you don’t have caller ID and you don’t have voice mail and your first thought is, “Who the hell could that be?” the question of “Did someone die?” is too real a possibility to let the call ring out.

So I awkwardly fumble for the phone in my pocket, and still holding the three or four bags in one hand I lift it to my ear and answer, “Hello?”

I don’t recognize the woman’s voice on the other end but she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and she asks if I have a minute.

To take a step back, this call wasn’t quite as totally out of the blue as it probably seems, for myself and a group of friends had done some work in partnership with the Legal Network just a couple months prior, at the start of December 2011. Bill C-393 was going through Parliament at the time and we had organized a demonstration at Yonge and Dundas, to coincide with the Bill’s second reading and to try and put pressure on the government to make some crucial changes. As well as organizing the event, I filmed it on the day of and put out a video that we later sent to every Member of Parliament.

There’s a long and anger filled rant that I could go on about this Bill and the issues surrounding it, but I’ll spare you. The important takeaway is that it was an issue I was very passionate about and that the Legal Network – and their Executive Director, Richard Elliot – were something of an intellectual crush of mine.

So she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and she asks if I have a minute. I lie and tell her that I do, trying to play it cool so she can’t hear the strain in my voice from the three or four grocery bags that I’m still, for some reason, holding up to my ear with the phone.

She tells me that they want my help with something, but that it’s “sort of top secret” and before she says any more she asks me, “Are you in?”

Yes. This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

Now, I have no idea what to expect or what they could possibly want from me, but I say, “Yes, of course I’m in.” Partially because I love their organisation and have an intellectual crush on their Executive Director, and partially because of the off chance that this might be my one chance…to become a super spy.

When she proceeds to explain the situation I don’t get my dream of being a super spy but what I do end up with is a pretty close second.

I’m told that one of their staff members managed to record some footage with popular artist K’NAAN (of Waving Flag fame) backstage at a recent show. In the footage K’NAAN gives his support for Bill C-393 and the Legal Network wants to use this footage to kick off a massive petition campaign, to coincide with the Bill’s final reading in the House of Commons.

The only problem, she tells me, is that the footage is in a few different takes and it isn’t that great and they need it in a finalized and shareable format by tomorrow and they didn’t know who they could get to do it and so they thought of…me.

I know.

This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

I’m told to await an email with the footage, which will come once it’s uploaded, and so I hurry home with my six or seven bags of groceries and backpack full of cans, to wait.

And now I’m home in my shitty basement apartment and the groceries are put away and I’m at my desk in my cramped, windowless bedroom (gotta love the Toronto rental market) and I’m hitting the refresh button on my Gmail. And I’m hopped up on adrenaline and caffeine, too excited by the events of the day to do anything other than wait, so I wait. And I wait. And I wait.

A couple hours go by with no email and no word and I begin to worry, but then the phone rings, and it’s the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the footage is almost uploaded.

Finally the email lands in my inbox and I eagerly open it and download the footage and I hit play AND

What I’m met with is a grainy, poorly framed, 7 minute clip comprised of a few different shots, in which K’NAAN (bless his heart) repeatedly makes mistakes regarding the more intricate technicalities of the bill. All the right facts are there, they’re just in different takes and so I set out on the task of stitching together something usable.

It takes most of the night to edit and the rest of it to get the video uploaded, but come morning I send it off to the folks at the Legal Network who in turn send it off to K’NAAN’s people (I know…) for approval.

It takes a couple more hours but it comes back with the a-ok, barring one minor change: K’NAAN’s name is to be written in all capitals.

I could go on forever here about the bill, but the quick summary version is that the video got 21,000+ views, the petition got 50,000+ signatures, and the bill made it through the House!

I wish I could say that this ends on a high note, but the quick summary version ends with an even quicker punch in the gut, in that the Bill was later killed on paper in the Senate, thanks to some political shenanigans from the Conservative party.

But this post is not about politics and the problems with it in this country. Instead, I share this story for a couple reasons:

  • It is a pretty cool moment in my life that I don’t often get the chance to share
  • Because lately, I’ve been feeling as though I’ve lost something

When I first picked up the phone on Bloor St. that cold January day, and when I was asked if “I was in”, I was prepared to say yes, no questions asked. I would have done literally anything they asked of me in that moment.

At the time I was in University and working part-time and struggling with course loads and probably a bit of depression (or at least, Seasonal Affective Disorder – the shitty basement apartment with the windowless bedroom will do that to you), but despite all that I was completely and thoroughly wrapped up in this issue. It became my primary focus that semester, so much so that I can still – nearly three years later – rhyme off all of the details surrounding the bill and its journey through Parliament. I can’t tell you a damned thing about what I learned in class that semester. Hell, I don’t think I can even tell you what classes I had that semester.

And I don’t know why this was the case. I say that not because Bill C-393 and access to medicine is not an important issue, but because it’s one that I had no real connection to. I didn’t know anyone who had suffered from HIV/AIDS, I just saw something that, to me, seemed painfully and glaringly obviously unjust, and felt compelled to try and do something about it.

There was no pausing to reflect and no thought about whether I could handle this extra time commitment. Just action. Just fire and passion.

I tell you all of this, dear reader, because at the beginning of October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. In late October I put on an art show. And as we sit here at mid-November the joke of #funemployment has lost its humour. The days have become grappling contests between the often harsh self-criticisms of “you need to be more productive” that wail like bomb sirens, and the simultaneous and unshakeable desire to do nothing at all.

There was a time when then-me would have relished in this free time, would’ve taken it as the opportunity to do what I wanted when I wanted. Time to photograph, to video, to write, to volunteer, to protest. In these long weeks it seems that all I can motivate myself to do, however, is rock climb and drink gin and tonics while playing Batman: Arkham City.

And so it feels like I’ve lost something.

And somewhere deep down I have this horrible fear that this – this complacency and loss of fire – and not the full time job with benefits and a desk – is the marker of my transition to “adult life” that I’ve thought so much about these last couple years. A fear of some unavoidable dividing line cutting through my life, where on one side there is youthful optimism and spirit and on the other side there’s a tame and docile curmudgeon stocking up on for-sale toilet paper and toothpaste.

Case in point, the other day my roommate asked me to come with him to a march happening at the University of Toronto, in support of fossil fuel divestment, and I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to do it (for context, the march was happening at 12:30. This wasn’t a 7am affair). There was a time when then-me would have said “Of course I’m in!” There was a time when I would’ve been out filming, running alongside the march and climbing on top of newsstands to get a better angle. A time when I would have stayed up all night editing the footage to be able to put a video out by the next morning.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something.

For a long time my “anthem” was Frank Turner’s Photosynthesis. There’s a part of the song that goes:

“All your friends and peers and family solemnly tell you you will, have to grow up be an adult yeah be bored and unfulfilled. Oh but no ones yet explained to me exactly what’s so great, about slaving 50 years away on something that you hate, about meekly shuffling down the road of mediocrity, well if that’s your road then take it but it’s not the road for me. I won’t sit down, I won’t shut up, but most of all I will not grow up.”

This was my jam. This was my quote on my staff page of the EWB website. This is still a quote on my “About” section of Facebook.

And last week, I couldn’t pull myself out of bed to take part in the divestment march.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. And I’m left wondering what it is I stand for and where it is I’m going and whether any of this actually means anything or matters, or whether I’m just a self-absorbed 20-something millennial obsessed with a bullshit notion of “finding myself” and “making a difference.”

And so as heart-wrenching as Tom Hardy’s turn as “Tommy” in Warrior was, I don’t think it’s what had the faucets of my eyeballs leaking onto my face at 4:45 on a Saturday morning.

Instead, it was likely this unshakable feeling that I no longer know which way is up. It was likely the knowledge that the moments in my life that stand out as the most meaningful were driven by action and not pondering thought, and the simultaneous fear that I don’t know how to “just act” anymore.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. But I also don’t believe that it’s gone. This notion of the line of adulthood, from which there is no return once you cross, is silly. I know that. There’s no reason that the higher level of responsibility that comes with being an adult has to be mutually exclusive from being the idealistic, energy ridden millennial from early January 2012.

And so I don’t believe that it’s gone. That said, I’m finishing up this post in a coffee shop in Guelph and I can barely bring myself to fire up the computer to add in these last minute additions – the Grey of today has long set in and the grappling match is well underway. So it’s hard.

But I won’t sit down. And I won’t shut up. And most of all I will not grow up (but also, I will. Cause that’s ok).

And so while I feel as though I’ve lost something, I’m working on getting it back.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

 

 

 

 

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The summary post

Last week, Embracing Ambiguity reached the 50 post milestone. To celebrate, various authors who have contributed to the blog over the last year and a half wrote a post on a similar theme. That theme, roughly, was: “making the decisions that will impact EVERYTHING” and “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it.”

It was amazing to see different authors take the prompts in completely different directions, and inspiring to hear their experiences, interpretations, and fears. With five new posts in the span of a week, we realize you may not have been able to keep up! So, just in case you missed anything:

ON THE ALWAYS, EVER CHANGING | Author: Jeff Ku

“Things will always be ever changing for me, and if you stop and talk and listen, it is always ever changing for everyone else too.  No stint of work, no matter how short or long is a waste. It is a learning opportunity, each one being a directory guide on the long hiking trail, helping me decide which direction to pursue.  And you know what? I may not end up at a final destination where THE ULTIMATE MEGA JOB has been waiting for me to get to.  It will actually probably lead me back to the beginning where I get a good laugh at my work life, and I then discover the joys of retirement and being a bratty old man.  But as long as I am learning, and gaining and fulfilling some aspects of my life at my job, I will stick with it.”

Read more here.

ON BECOMING PROCESS-ORIENTED | Author: Maya Fromstein

“Slowly, slowly I am trying to learn how to focus on the present moment. To not necessarily focus less on “WILL THIS JOB DEFINE ME” or “WILL THIS MAKE ME THE MOST QUALIFIED EVER” and “WANT. TOP. MARKS”, but to actively incorporate and pay attention to the moments of “Well this is nice” and “mmmm” (four m’s, check it) into my life. To respect my body and my mind and all of their assorted needs, while simultaneously respecting my potential and my future aspirations. To truly believe that if I take the breaks I need, and stimulate the other areas of my brain or hands that thesis writing and computer typing leave wanting, it will enhance all areas of my life.”

Read more here.

ON PEOPLE | Author: Stefan Hostetter

“Rather, I had found the people that made the world make sense. If I had accomplished nothing else, I had done this, and I realized then and there, that I think this would be enough. I would never be making a choice that would impact everything. I could never have a failure too great. I could never be so wrong that I couldn’t be right again.”

Read more here.

ON CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCE | Author: Tyler Blacquiere

“I can’t accept that the “right thing” doesn’t matter – that there isn’t a choice to be made – because I can’t accept the alternative. Because the alternative is one of complacency and complicity in all that is wrong and needs changing in the world. Choice and consequence. It has to matter. Because for everything I said above, it still holds true that life is too damn short and too damn precious and people are too damn great and the world is too fucking awe-inspiring for it not to matter.”

Read more here.

ON COCOONS OF SAMENESS | Author: Mica McCurdy

“So now I sit here, feeling all warm and fuzzy for fall foliage, and wonder who I’ve become and what exactly I’ve done if I’ve not made many intentional choices over the past few years. Who am I if I stumble around from job to job, thing to thing, without really taking a moment to pause? Is this the person I want to be? And if so, what decisions am I going to start making to intentionally maintain that? But if not, who? what? how?”

Read more here.

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On choice and consequence

EDITORS NOTE: This blog post is the fourth in a series intended to celebrate Embracing Ambiguity reaching the 50 post milestone. Embracing Ambiguity received an email in response to a recent post, that asked a lot of great and challenging questions. In celebration of Embracing Ambiguity’s milestone, various authors will be responding to these questions over the next week. In general, the theme is (roughly) “making the decisions that will impact EVERYTHING” and “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it.” It is left to each author to choose how closely they reference / stick to these (and other) prompts. We’re excited to see what they come up with. If you like what you read, share it on Facebook and Twitter and help #EmbAmb increase its reach. Happy reading.

 


 

From this week’s prompt: How do we make the decisions that will impact EVERYTHING?! What if, at the end of the day, the “right thing” is bullshit, and it’s really just about the narrative you tell yourself about what you’re doing, why and how you feel about it? What if it’s as dumb and basic as fucking rephrasing it? How do we ever know anything if it’s as easy as telling yourself that one thing is right and another is wrong?

 

…So, it was a nice, light email for a Tuesday afternoon. I was sitting at my desk at work when it landed at the top of my inbox. Anna, in her characteristic way, had managed to cut to the heart of my recent blog post, and ask all the right questions. The effect of which, this time, was to send me into a tailspin of self-doubt and uncertainty. Thaaaanks Anna.  (<3)

Though it was unknown to her at the time, the email – and the flood of thoughts, questions and panic that followed – was coming on the heels of a rather large, relevant, terrifying and sudden life event: at the end of the month I would no longer be employed.

Part my choice, part a sped up decision to reflect the needs and desires of my team and organization, the life shift meant that, once again, I would be floating into the void of decision making, fear, uncertainty and ambiguity that I have, in past, referred to as the black hole.

Like many people my age, I have never been particularly comfortable with uncertainty (if this blog was any clue…). Raised through an education system that mercilessly pushes you toward “success” (read: good grades, the “academic” stream, a university education), I have become engulfed by this idea of “working it all out.” And how could I not be?

After all, grade school was never particularly challenging and so it was always made clear – by teachers, peers and guidance counsellors – that the “academic” stream in high school was the place for me. When I continued to excel in secondary school, University was the next logical step – I wouldn’t want to “throw away” my grades and potential, after all.

On top of this, I was – on a daily basis and like pretty much everyone around me – fed the lie that university education = job = stability = “it all worked out” = university education, etc.

As logic dictated, I went to university after graduating high school and after grinding my way through four meaningless years (from an education point of view) I graduated that, too. I was, then, somewhat surprised by the discovery that no one gave two shits about my major in Peace and Conflict Studies (But it’s from the Munk School of Global Affairs!! He cried, to no one in particular).

And so, I have never been particularly comfortable with uncertainty. The exact opposite has been drilled into my head consistently, since the day I successfully printed my name from left to right. I grew up on a straight path with one start and end point (education -> career). Is it any wonder that now, finding myself amid a large, open field, I was at a loss?

Compounding all of this, is the fact that I have always held my values close to my chest. The result is an, at times, paralyzing amount of thought that goes into even the smallest of life decisions. Is this really what I want? Is this the kind of impact I want to be having? Is it enough? Am I really happy?

You can see, perhaps, how the combination of these two things may act as a recipe for ambiguity (lollll).

All of this is just to say, that as I sat and digested my 28 days and counting of employment, as I pondered all of this yet again and considered just WHAT the hell I was going to do with my life, Anna’s questions struck something of a chord.

It’s this idea of “the narrative we tell ourselves” in particular, that stuck.

As someone interested and experienced in storytelling, the idea of narrative is one that is often on my mind. In response to Anna’s questions, I began to consider my own narrative – the one I tell myself about the world and the place I occupy within it. Some of this will be familiar to those of you who read my last post, but:

I very strongly believe that life should be filled with meaning. Within that, I believe that life is meant to be lived for other people, and in doing so, my aim is to leave behind more than I take. I want to live my life in service of this planet and these people and I’m terrified of complacency and settling for something that “pays the bills” and nothing more. I want to change the world. Or, at very least (and more realistically), the tiny fraction of it which I occupy. Failing that, I want to go out knowing that, if nothing else, I fucking tried. Because I’d rather be wrong and moving than right and stationary.

And maybe I am very full of myself in saying that. Maybe I’m giving into an inflated sense of self importance. Maybe it is (it definitely is) a privileged thing to even have the ability to say. And maybe, it’s all for not. Maybe, it is, as Tim Minchin once said in a commencement address:

“I think it’s absurd: the idea of seeking meaning in the set of circumstances that happen to exist after 13.8 billion years’ worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them.”

Even if you don’t ascribe to such an extreme view, maybe, it is, as Anna says:

“What if at the end of the day, the “right thing” is bullshit and it’s really just about the narrative we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it?”

OR MAYBE, it is, as another friend, Sarah, recently said to me:

“I don’t believe in right and wrong and good or bad, I believe in choice and consequence.”

If I’m choosing sides and swearing fealty, it’s in somewhere in between these last two bits of wisdom that my allegiance lies.

Because the “right thing” has to matter. It has to. Life is too damn short and too damn precious and people are too damn great and the world is too fucking awe-inspiring for it not to matter. It has too.

Because for all of our shittiness and intolerance and absurdity and injustice, humanity is – for all intents and purposes – pretty fucking beautiful. And sure, it needs a little poking and a little direction every now and again (read: pretty constantly). It sure as hell is not perfect. And it never will be. But it is, and can be, so much.

And maybe I’ve naïve as all fuck to think that I can alter anything, but if in my 90 some odd years in this body on this planet I manage to inspire, affect or alter one person – hell, one moment in time – I’ll consider it 90 years well spent.

So it has to matter. It has too.

Because if the “right thing” is bullshit, and if it is just about the narrative we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it, if it is as dumb and basic as fucking rephrasing it, then my narrative – the thing I choose to tell myself – is that it does matter.

I won’t, and can’t, believe anything else.

Because it has too. If I get to consciously decide what has meaning, then I choose this life and the decisions that impact EVERYTHING. I choose my actions. I choose working hard day in and day out for whatever I’ve naively decided in that moment, day, month or year is the “greater good.” I choose saying fuck you to a life of complacency, comfort and routine – to a job that is misaligned from the values I hold dear. I choose the path that is uncertain, difficult, stressful and, at times, emotionally exhausting – it will be my reminder that I’m doing something that truly matters to me, if no one else.

Because it has to. The “right thing” can’t be bullshit. It can’t. Because “choice and consequence.” Because if it is, what’s the alternative?

For all its beauty, this world is also one of poverty, injustice, war, sexism, racism, systemic inequality, animal abuse, child abuse, rampant exploitation, environmental degradation, climate change – pick your fucking issue – in the world of all this…shit, what’s the alternative?

For all those wide eyed University frosh with dreams of “changing the world,” for all those who mature and learn and grow and become leaders through the Oxfams and the Amnestys and the War Childs and the UNICEFs of the world, what’s the alternative to unending, youthful optimism, hope, and the pursuit of meaning? The pursuit of the “right thing?”

I can’t accept that the “right thing” doesn’t matter – that there isn’t a choice to be made – because I can’t accept the alternative. Because the alternative is one of complacency and complicity in all that is wrong and needs changing in the world. Choice and consequence. It has to matter.

Because for everything I said above, it still holds true that life is too damn short and too damn precious and people are too damn great and the world is too fucking awe-inspiring for it not to matter. To quote my friend Sarah, once again:

 

“How could a person not just be totally floored by everything??”

And I’m not saying that any of this makes the hard, complicated, stressful, shitty and unending process of “figuring it out” any easier – my naiveté only extends so far – I’m just saying that it gives you a reason to do it.

Because it has to matter.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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on losing faith

“#EmbAmb is…loving your job but questioning the org you do it for”

The above is something that I recently wrote on our fancy new Facebook Page, and it is something I have been spending a lot of time thinking about and grappling with this past week in particular, but for the past little while more generally. I have, for a while now, wanted to write something about this, but it was only the events of the last week that finally pushed me to do so. Even now, however, as I sit in a coffee shop with pen to paper – tiny baby screaming at the table next to me – I don’t even really know what to say, where to start, or what the “end” looks like.

I guess I could start with what is easy – the things that fall into the first half of the above quote: “loving your job”. See, I generally love the work that I’m doing. I love working with our all-star teams of volunteers. I love talking about the National Campaign that I am working on. I love the amount of freedom and trust that has been placed in me by my supervisors. I also love the team of folks that I get to work with on a daily basis; I love getting up for work knowing that even if the rest of the work day is shit, seeing and interacting with that team will always be a silver lining. That is something pretty rare to have found, and not a day goes by where I am not thankful that I have.

That said. This past week has been…trying. Frustrating. Demotivating. Marked by unspoken tension and unease, and perhaps most of all, uncertainty. All of these feelings stem from some financial difficulties that the org has been experiencing over the past few months, and that culminated last week in the dismissal of two staff.

The decisions around this whole financial mess, the reasons given for those decisions, and the proposed steps forward have all resulted in a serious lack of faith in the leadership of the organization. These feelings are not entirely new, but are definitely amplified by recent events. All of this reminds me that, as I’ve said before, no one really knows what they’re doing. The result is that I am left questioning whether I want to work for the organization anymore, questioning what is/isn’t appropriate or useful to voice, and perhaps, most importantly, questioning how I can fundraise for an org I don’t entirely believe in.

Now, there is an important distinction that I feel I must make here. The work, the goal, the “mission”? Totally on board. I think our “on the ground” ventures are doing incredible things and deserve to be supported in their work. I just no longer know whether or not the org is capable of making that happen. All of these feelings are made more difficult because of my (relative) “newness”. I am one of the youngest people in the office, and have been around for the least amount of time (discounting the regular inflow of 4 month interns).

Are my feelings valid? Or do they come from a lack of context? Am I just being reactionary, and missing the bigger picture?

Do I stick around? Do what I can do to help? Grin and bear it through the awkwardness and uncertainty in hopes that things improve?

Or do I jump ship? Say peace? Truly speak my mind in some disruptive way and then leave, never to look back?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I’m also acutely aware that I depend on this work to pay the bills, and that prior to working where I am now, I had a soul crushing job at a grocery store. A grim alternative, even with everything going on. I am ALSO well aware of my strong fear of becoming one of “those people” who makes decisions based on money – a fear that is harder to steer clear of when faced with rent and crushing student loan debt.

These are complicated questions and answering them is not something I am currently feeling capable of doing. So for now, I will continue to waddle through the uncertainty and awkwardness. I only hope I find an answer soon.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On sangria breakfast

I had Sangria for breakfast today. Yes, you read that right.

You are now considering how good of an idea that sounds.

The other half of your brain is now edging in, making you question whether it’s really a good idea, and whether it could possibly have been enjoyable.

It was. It was glorious.

Also, I’M AN ADULT I DO WHAT I WANT*. Also the second half of your brain is stupid. Stick with the first.

I realize that all of the above may make my current situation seem more dire than it actually is. Usually when you are breaking out the alcohol over breakfast, the shit has long since hit the fan and is now being flung at random around the room. I’ll let you enjoy that mental image for a minute.

Oh god, it’s on the drapes.

BUT! Things aren’t quite that bad. Not yet, anyway. Which is not to say that they have been completely peachy, either. I have definitely been trying (and mostly failing) to embrace ambiguity these past couple weeks.

See, I have been grappling with making a few semi-large life decisions, and seem to go back and forth about them on the daily. On days where I think the answer is “yes”, I can’t tell if I actually believe that or if I am just going along with it because it involves maintaining that which is familiar and easy.

Alternatively, on days when the answer so obviously seems to be “no”, I can’t tell if I’m just being a chicken – afraid to step out onto an invisible bridge that may or may not be there, on my quest for the holy grail (and unlike Harrison Ford, I don’t have any sand with which to check).

(Yes. I just dropped an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Reference. Wat up. See above*)

Which is why decision making sucks so hard – there’s making decisions, and then there’s the decision of whether or not you’ve made the right decision. Oy.

I know that making tough choices isn’t unique to someone in my position (a 20 something trying to find their way in the social justice sector), or unique to anyone, for that matter. I am well aware that the need to make tough decisions persists as you age. That said, I do think that the decisions hold a certain weight – real or perceived – at this age and point in my life / career path.

Whatever I decide has the potential to pretty drastically alter the course of where things go from here on out. How am I sposda deal with that shit? Man, fuck life. I just want to live on an island, eat bananas and have Sangria breakfast – ya know?

So, this is the part of the post where I drop some big truth or revelation…right? Where I tie up all the loose ends I’ve drawn out? Well, not gonna lie folks – I’ve never been very good with knots and on this one, I’ve got nothing in the way of answers.

I don’t know what the solution is for navigating these big uncertainties. I don’t know how to make them any easier, I don’t know how to know when you’ve made them “correctly” and I don’t know how to stop them from infiltrating the conscience on the daily (Sangria breakfast helped, but I don’t know if that is a sustainable strategy).

If I’ve learned anything from my time in University, however, it’s that sometimes you don’t need answers. Sometimes you just need folks to share and commiserate with. Writing this has already helped me, and hopefully – if you’ve been experiencing something similar – reading it has helped you, too. If any of this is familiar, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Ps. Give the Sangria a try…at least once.

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On comfort zones and unrealistic self-expectations

I haven’t always been as into social justice as I have been in the last few years of my life.  I mean, I was always curious about it growing up, knowing there was a lot I didn’t really understand.  I ate up a lot of the targeted advertising and skewed perceptions that media provided.  I dabbled in some social justice activities in high school, joining our tiny Amnesty International chapter, doing the 30-Hour Famine challenge (which I cheated I admit… I know…I’m a bad human being), and taking part in my friends’ initiatives to hold mini-conferences for junior high students on issues dealing with prejudice.

It wasn’t until halfway through my undergraduate degree in environmental engineering, that I was finally convinced by some amazing classmates and friends, to get more involved in Engineers Without Borders.  This is when I think I truly found an appreciation for social justice.  I found it empowering!  I was surrounded by so many remarkable individuals who shared this immense passion for disassembling and fighting against the numerous inequalities and injustices in this crazy world!

But by the last year of my undergraduate career, I found myself in a crisis.  What do I do now?  I’ve always been “good” at school.  Now that I was nearing graduation, I didn’t know what to do.  I’ve always been told what the next steps were, what I should be doing next, but things were changing, and changing fast.  It was finally up to me to decide the next chapter in my life.  I was mortified! Shit! I’m not ready for the “real world”! Fuck, I’m screwed.  I’m just sitting there, mindlessly busying myself, whereas my friends were actually looking for jobs and doing other adult things.

At the time, I was also getting deeper and deeper into this world of social justice and human development.  I didn’t want to give that up; I didn’t want to give up that family and network I slowly got to be a part of.

Then one of my professors said that she and one of my favourite professors were looking for a student to do some graduate level research projects.  I immediately jumped on that opportunity, and started the process of meeting with the professors and applying for graduate studies and scholarships.  It gave me a chance to stay in my comfortable bubble and stick with my EWB family.  I started applying for exec positions in our chapter and going on all the EWB things that I missed out on through my first 4 years of University.

The first 6 months of grad school went by, and I started going down this dark and dank rabbit hole.  I underestimated how difficult grad school was going to be; how its structure was so non-existent and something I wasn’t used to.  I also started struggling with finding meaning and purpose in my research.  I wanted so much to have my research project actually mean something; to have some strong social implication and actually help people.  I was slowly poisoning myself with my ridiculous expectations.  I even joined a third lab group, put myself in a graduate level class that I had no business being in, and worst of all, willing to compromise my personal and professional boundaries. I was becoming so depressed and down on myself that I had friends suggest that I should probably just quit, which hurt me, because I’m not a quitter.  I had pride myself on finishing what I started, and doing a decent job at it.

I was very fortunate however, to have two very supportive supervisors that could tell something wasn’t right with me.  A few personal meetings, an awkward break up email with that third professor, a winter break not knowing what I was going to do for a thesis, a trip to beautiful Montreal with friends and an amazing EWB conference in Ottawa later, things began to clear up.  That time off and realization to step back was the best thing to happen to me!  I could think clearly again, and figured out that I can challenge myself in realms I was still comfortable with, but was still forced to learn new things and that I can still make a difference, but in my own way.

A year and a half later, I’m rounding up my final bits of my project and writing my thesis; a thesis to be proud of and one that I saw a lot of personal growth from. Sure there were speed bumps and sinkholes along the way.  But that can be shared another day.

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On Transitioning to Real People Life (Pt. 3)

It started back in December of 2012. I can distinctly remember sitting in a café in Toronto; my good friend Anna was there and we were in front of a window. I was unloading all of my recent stresses and Anna was doing her best to ensure me that my life was not, in fact, falling apart at the seams (looking back, the number of times that this scenario has played itself out is alarming…).

Normally, Anna is able to talk some sense into my terrified, overly critical and self doubting brain, but on that day there was just too much going on. If you have been following my series of posts (“On Transitioning to Real People Life”) you’ll know that I had a somewhat (read: entirely) terrible University experience. I spent much of it freaking out about what I wanted to do, and never felt truly attached to or passionate about anything that I was studying.

BUT THEN! I found a home in social justice and videography. In doing so, a lot of my uncertainty disappeared. I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it…or how I’d know when I had, in fact, “done it”, but I did know that I wanted whatever “it” was to involve video.

What brought me to pouring out my stresses over coffee on that December morning, however, was the disappearance of even that small certainty.

See, I’d started to question myself. Did I really want to do video? That’s what I had been telling people for two years, but it seemed as though I was only doing enough to be able to keep on saying that. If I really wanted to “do video”, why wasn’t I out entering film contests, connecting with the Toronto film community, or even showing much interest the various film and documentary festivals Toronto is blessed with?

I had also begun to question if video was actually my value add. I was (if I may say) moderately talented, but when I looked at the landscape of “people doing video work” there were also plenty of others who were much more talented. Sure, I could improve – but I questioned if there wasn’t some other skill I could be leveraging, to greater effect, to achieve the kind of change I wanted to be contributing to.

All of those things would stay in my mind over the next couple months; slowly stewing like fine borscht (do you even stew borscht? I should really research my metaphors before committing to them). In January, however, after watching a Ted Talk from Jacqueline Novogratz (of Acumen Fund), the elements came together in a flash…in my mouth (cause they’re stew, remember!).

The Ted Talk was about a single mother named Jane that Jacqueline had met while in a slum in Nairobi. What really stuck in my brain after watching it was this one part (this is Jacqueline, paraphrasing Jane):

My dreams didn’t look exactly like I thought they would when I was a little girl. I thought that I wanted a husband but what I really wanted was a family, and I love my two children fiercely. And I thought that I wanted to be a nurse, but what I really wanted to do was to serve…

(You should watch the whole talk some time – for context, but also just because it is great).

I was thinking about this while sitting in a strategic planning meeting at Engineers without Borders when it hit me like the flash of a light bulb (which is ironic, given EWB’s logo).

I thought that what I wanted was to “do video”, but sitting there in my own little world, in the middle of a meeting, I realized that what I really wanted to do, was to tell stories.

Thus, The Storytelling Project was born…kind of. I spent the rest of that meeting furiously scribbling down notes, thoughts and ideas. I began going over all of the video work that I had done in the last couple years – work that, at the time, I hadn’t thought twice about. The creative thought process around video planning and editing had always been a near instantaneous one for me; I just knew what to do instinctively, and so was never very conscious about why I was doing the things I was doing.

Looking back in that moment, however, I began to notice that there were, in fact, clear and distinct reasons, ideas and philosophies behind the creative decisions I had been making around videos; around storytelling. It was a fascinating process. A conscious exploration of previously unconscious thoughts. Over the next couple of weeks I would develop these thoughts further, forming everything from the vision of the project, to ideas around how the actual storytelling process with people would work.

Instead of sharing those lovely details here, though…

I instead (very excitedly) invite you to check out my newly launched website for The Storytelling Project. On it, you’ll find my first story and a write-up of working through that process. Ambiguity abounds.

www.thestorytellingproject.ca

So as you can see, exciting things are happening. Some of the most exciting things that I’ve been involved with in…ever. But, that doesn’t mean that the ambiguity is gone. Next week I’ll share some of the fun questions I have been dealing with most recently.

 

Until then.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

 

Ps. Moral of the story: Not that I (by any means) have things “worked out”, but I think that what this story points to is the fact that things do, eventually, work themselves out. I know that I’m not there yet but it feels like I am, at very least, beginning to move down the correct path. It’s a long, treacherous, scary and booby-trap laden path, but at least it’s a path.

It is sometimes hard to remember that life is not, in fact, falling apart at the seams. But perhaps we don’t have to remember that. Perhaps we just have to hold the seams together long enough to reach a tailor.

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