Starting 2015 With Some Variables, a Baader-Meinhof, and Some Perspective

2015 is the year I will finally head to my first post. I find that both thrilling and terrifying. How am I going to be prepared in 6 months to determine the merits of someone’s visa application, in Arabic? Luckily, I still have four more months of Arabic and a Consular General training to prepare me for the next two years. What do I have in the meantime though? A German exam. Because, you know, self-inflicted language torture is my thing.

I never got to test in German during A-100 because there were 100 people in my class and only so many resources to test all of us in all of our languages. So priority was given to people with languages on our bid list and people who self identified at a high level, that’s my theory anyway. From a resource management perspective it makes complete sense, you have only so many resources available and you need to narrow down and pair a list of 117 posts with 100 people. You need something to help with filtering. Once those resources are used, you may have time and capacity to test a few other people. Do you waste those resources on people who identified their language skills at low or do you test the people who have a good chance of getting off language probation? It makes complete sense to me, but it doesn’t mean I’m particularly thrilled to be taking the German exam 4 months into my Arabic training. But then I retort to myself, this is 100% self-inflicted. I could have taken the test earlier or I could have postponed it until consular training. I made the decision to take it in January during A-100 though.

Something I’ve discovered about myself recently is fairly intriguing from a Foreign Service perspective. This is in no way where I was going with this blog post, but let’s follow this train of thought. I always knew I was good at reasoning, deduction and pattern recognition, if you go back and search in my blog for “variables” “options” or “possible” you’ll find quite a few posts spanning the years. I always knew this was how my brain worked, but didn’t realize it until recently. Which lead me to remember the Baader-Meinhof concept: “Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information–often an unfamiliar word or name–and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.” It’s because our brains love patterns and we are always looking for patterns in the chaos. From my Hi-Lab (higher level language aptitude test) results, I know that my brain is seemingly extra hard wired for processing patterns. And now that I’m conscious of my own ability (also related to Baader-Meinhof, see how that works), I’ve become conscious of how my brain is processing the information. Before, I would just let my brain run and do it’s thing, such as with the decision to take the German test in January, a seemingly arbitrary month. But now, it’s like I have a window into what my brain is doing, as if I could watch it process variables, analyze patterns, and make decisions or inferences based on the information I have at hand.

To me it is like a tree. At first, I see the whole tree with every leaf, twig, branch. I notice the color of the leaves, how tall it is, and it’s shape. Then I look closer and focus on only one branch. It is as if I were trying to identify the species of the tree without having any prior knowledge of arboriculture. From the branch, I then look at the whole structure of the branch again. Then I dig deeper, looking at individual leaves and twigs. Then I start to prune away the branches until I have just a part of the tree left, the part that has all the information I need. Then I may have two or three ideas of what it might be. I take one last look, make a decision, but then immediately explain to myself my reasoning. Being very careful to acknowledge the variables and biases that influenced my decision, including my lack of knowledge. And most of this happens in the span of 30 seconds, maximum.

So when I decided to take my German test in January, I never thought to myself “why do I want to take this test?” I only thought to myself “when is the most advantageous time.” I knew that they were changing the test format in January. I also knew that I’d be in Arabic for 8-9 months. I knew that my German was rusty. I knew that I would have a few weeks of no class in December. I also knew that near the end of my Arabic studies, the pressure would be higher. I knew that I get a form of test anxiety. I also knew that I needed to pass my Arabic test. January was the only time that made sense to me, after looking at all those variables and factors. I never once considered how the German test would affect me stress-wise or emotionally. Those are non-factors in my brain. I’m hard-wired for rational, which is in fact thanks to the half of me that is German. A pretty big chunk of the reason why I decided to take the German test was because I knew it would help me prepare for the Arabic test.

So what am I getting at with all this rambling? I feel like this experience is very indicative of how my brain works. Right now I’m mildly stressing out about my German test, but I know that it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t stop the stress though. I can be conscious of what is going on in my brain, but I can’t necessarily change it’s course. I am mildly stressed because I want to do well on a test. Why? Because I grew up in an environment that emphasized achievement. I can be completely rational about a decision, but that does not mean it still doesn’t impact me in other ways. One of the reasons I decided to take the German test was directly correlated to preparing me for a future possibility. I found a way to better position myself for a future event, therefore I was willing to put myself through a bit of hardship in order to simply feel prepared. Which is exactly what I’ve done my entire life, I’ve always looked past the present hardships towards a simpler future. Consciously and unconsciously, I’m always trying to set myself up for success, even at the expense of present comfort.

But the beauty is that Peace Corps taught me that present hardship is not in fact hardship. It is all perspective: “this too shall pass.” Everything we do in life is a lesson for the future. We learn from our mistakes and successes and grow. We decide to take the difficult route (while finding the best route through the difficulties, at least I do) because that’s where we find our strength. I am not purposefully inflicting German language pain upon myself, I am doing this because I know that it will have a positive influence on my own peace of mind when the stakes are higher with Arabic, when it really counts. And my brain knows that is what I need. But that doesn’t mean I have to let German completely stress me out, in fact I quite enjoy switching back to something familiar. I’ve been so deep into Arabic for the past 4 months, it feels nice to step into something reassuring again.

With language you never know what progress you are making, so it is easy to feel discouraged. But through this process of attempting German and Arabic at the same time, I found a small confidence in myself. I was able to translate an article from German into Arabic in class on Friday, having been off for 2 weeks. I didn’t translate into English, I went directly from German to Arabic. And you know what? That was pretty damn cool. Even though I am still too embarrassed and lacking in confidence to speak German in front of people I find intimidating, I found a bit of confidence in class on Friday, the bit I needed. IMG_20150102_182113336~2~2Then I made an incredibly elaborate German meal: Jaegerschnitzel completely from scratch. I made the breadcrumbs, I made the sauce, I even had to have a lengthy conversation with a Whole Foods butcher to get the cut of veal I wanted. It reminded me of my Oma and how proud she would have been that I actually pulled off the perfect schnitzel.

I think she’d be proud of what I’ve accomplished so far as well, besides the schnitzel. So even when language kicks my ass, whichever language it is, I can’t lose sight of the purpose and my reason for doing this. I’m doing this because I am lucky enough to have the coolest job on earth.

2014: And I went from this to that and this again

I sit on my couch, having just finished watching one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies: My Best Friend’s Wedding. I incidentally just returned from my best friend’s house as well, clear on the other side of the U.S. The past 24 hours represent the past year in a nutshell: a whirlwind of balancing my new career with my family and friends.

2014 has been the best year of my life. It has also been a test of patience and adjustment. I went from being an only child with no relatives living within 1000 miles, to suddenly having sisters and a very large extended family within 50 miles. I went from Peace Corps back to advertising, and clearly not handling it very well. (But the blog post it inspired continues to strike a chord with RPCVs everywhere!) I went from complete uncertainty about the future to more uncertainty to far too much excitement to care. I went from “now what” to 8 months of Arabic training! I went from RPCV consumerism guilt to taxpayer guilt. I went from Arabic to German four separate times on the plane just this morning.  I went from being a cashier at Whole Foods to a diplomat in one day.

January of this year, I sat in a computer room awaiting my fate. That hour ticked by so slowly as I waited and waited, while people kept being called away leaving me with two other people questioning what we could have done differently. But with one smile and a “let us be the first to congratulate you” my whole world changed. That moment, forever etched in my brain, was one I’d dreamed of for 10 years. And when I finally opened my envelope and saw that my score was high enough to ensure I was called off the register, I felt every emotion possible stream through my body. The second I saw my score, I knew that my dreams came true because I worked for it. I put everything into that day and I was rewarded. Turns out hard work and dedication really do produce results, but sometimes it takes a while. January 23, 2014 changed my life.

This year has also been about maintaining the relationships that are most important to me. But, it isn’t easy when there is a lot of physical distance between you and everyone else. And it won’t improve next year when you can tack on an extra 10,000 miles. But, I’ve tried really hard to make the time for my family and friends. Financially, it isn’t easy either, but I know it is important to them. It is always hard on me when I get back though, because it hits me that I live a completely different lifestyle than what 90% of people are used to. I’m a fair weather friend, daughter, sister now and while I don’t particularly like labeling myself that, that’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles. My lifestyle and priorities are completely different from most of the people I know (outside of the Foreign Service). It is not a vacation until I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve meticulously researched. Or it is not a family event until I’ve explained “yes, I’m aware of the dangers of living in Egypt.” I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m a complete outsider within my own family or friend group. I’m that wackadoodle relative or friend that you bring up over the dinner table, wondering “what’s she doing now?” But it’s okay, this is what I’ve chosen and I know that if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

2014 was the year in which I sat at a picnic table on my lunch break devouring my delicious Whole Foods salad when everything changed. I still remember looking at my phone while scarfing down some mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. I remember checking my email and reading in big bold yellow highlighted text that my name was added to the register and my score was high enough to be selected for the June/July class. And then proceeding to lose it. My fork was still midway to my mouth when I started half-crying, half-hyperventilating. And then I called everyone. Passing the oral assessment was the most glorious feeling on Earth, but getting invited to a class that truly was hyperventilate worthy. 2014 was the year that I made my dreams a reality.

My father is an immigrant. His family didn’t have a lot. My mom didn’t have much growing up either; her dad worked in a sardine factory. But they both worked hard and did everything they could to provide me with opportunities, the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. I went to a competitive and challenging public high school 30 minutes from home, because I knew that it was what I needed to grow. I pursued my own challenges and I haven’t stopped since.
This is my lesson from 2014: hard work pays off. Dreams are a reality, but only if you accept that they are also a challenge. You can’t just be handed your dream career or vacation or experience or relationship. You have to work for it. You have to want it and you can’t give up. Dreams are difficult to obtain for a reason, but determination to succeed and just plain ole hard work can put them within your grasp. I didn’t give up, even after failing multiple times. But as my favorite quote from Edison goes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

2014 was a year of many changes, but all of them put me right where I am today: extremely happy, grateful, and humbled to have been given such a wonderful year to cherish.

Why Life Ain’t So Bad

Let’s cut to the chase, here’s why life is currently just grand:

1. Spoke in Twi twice today to two different Ghanaians. Turns out, I’ve still got it! Commence Azonto dance now:

2. Told a story in Arabic today in a conversational tone at a regular speed, as if I were telling the story in English. I was so happy, even if the story wasn’t as funny as I always thought it was.

3. This time next week I will be in San Diego with my best friend. Bring on the burritos!

4. Finally making friends in DC outside of the Foreign Service bubble. Don’t get me wrong, I love my colleagues, but sometimes it is nice to hear someone talk about something besides language training. Plus, as it turns out, non-State folks do really awesome things too. And they are normal people, normal cool people.

5. I’m still getting paid to be a language sponge. The Department of State is still high fiving me everytime I walk into my apartment.

6. I’ve stopped drinking as much caffeine, 90% less I’d say, and I feel much more alert and awake. Funny how that works.

7. I learned the proper way to say King Tutankhamun today, so that made everything seem a little more real.

8. Speaking of real, I sent in my housing form today. Now that makes things feel real. I just hope to the housing board gods that they give me an apartment that doesn’t smell like dead fish and is not inhabited by a gang of wild flat spiders on tour from Ghana. It still feels like language training is going to last forever, but I guess it is just another 4 months.

9. Christmas is right around the corner and I’m always reminded during the holidays about how grateful I am for all the opportunities that have come my way.

Because I Can and Data!

If you know me at all, you know how much I love data. Numbers upon numbers all jumbled together looking for meaning. After discovering that FSI is really just a giant social experiment, I decided to start tracking my own numbers for shits and giggles and good time in Excel. So what did I discover?

Well I discovered my body is pretty damn predictable. Since October I’ve been tracking when I consciously let out a giant yawn in the third hour of morning class. That yawn signals the exact moment I lose all semblance of focus and my brain turns to mush. There are a number of variables which impact the timing of my loss of focus. While I cannot track their exact effects on my yawn size, I can acknowledge their existence. So here’s to you variables!:

For the award of most likely to skew the data earlier: How long I slept the night before! Congrats.
For the award of most likely to extend the data later: Amount of caffeine consumed! Bravo.
For the award of most likely to cause a premature data point: Boring class topics! Always a winner.
For the award of most likely to have some unknown effect on the data, we have a three way tie: temperature in room relative to what I am wearing, if someone else has yawned, and amount of studying that occurred the night prior.

So, what did my lovely data sample tell me? It told me “I’m just a sample, geez! Back off!” It also told me to keep tracking, because I know it happens daily. I also need to track the days I don’t yawn, so I can analyze what I did the night before. My data had one outlier, which I promptly discounted because it was the first data point ever recorded and I don’t think I trust it. Therefore, out it went. Because you see, the Foreign Service hires us for judgement and I just assessed that data point as untrustworthy and I can just toss it aside. Also, I vaguely remember just guessing. My data points also told me that I’m fairly consistent. Let me backtrack real quick and give you an idea of my method, because you know, science. So, I took the time I logged as my first yawn and entered it with the date into Excel. I then subtracted the time class started from the time I logged. I multiplied all the times by 24 and 60 to get the minute, that way I had an exact numerical digit to play with. I then averaged my sample, calculated sample size percentage based on work days, variance, and standard deviation. I plotted the data points and hoped to god for a regression line. Apparently god doesn’t grant pretty data regression wishes.

My average time from the start of class to my first yawn was 148 minutes. Which puts it exactly at 10:08am, which also happens to be the median. Don’t you love when that happens?!

The variance was 14, meaning my data only varied by 14 minutes between the earliest recorded time and the highest.

My sample size was 11 out of 58 work days. Although I only really started recording in Phase 1, which started in October. So if we adjust for that, my population is actually only 38 days starting at Phase 1. That means my data represents 29% of the population, all workdays being equal. See how much fun it is to manipulate numbers!

My standard deviation was 3.79, which means at least 95% of my data falls within a 3.79 minute window of my average: 10:08am. So my big yawn occurs primarily between the times of 10:04 am and 10:12 am, rounding.

Here’s the plot:

chart for yawns

As you can see, the data looks like a mountain pass. And the regression line does absolutely nothing because the data sample size is relatively small with the range of values. Also, it just doesn’t work, so there’s that. This just ain’t the tool for the job.

But here is the takeaway from all these fun numbers: I become tired after about 148 minutes of class. Therefore, if anything important needs to be discussed or learned, it needs to be before that cutoff. Anything after those 148 minutes should be review, otherwise, oh hell no, it ain’t sticking.

I’m going to keep tracking and adding sample points to my data so I can continue to distract myself from what I should actually be doing, studying.

So you want to pass the Foreign Service Written Exam?

I’ve written about every other topic, so I guess it was high time for one of these. How did I pass the written exam? Well the first time I took the test, I didn’t pass. I failed miserably. So, don’t lose hope! There is always hope, and a little strategy. I am still not allowed to disclose information about my exam, but I can tell you what worked for me in preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Don’t wing it. Take the time to know how each part of the exam works, what is being tested, and what you need to focus on. You are only doing yourself a disservice by not preparing, especially since you can only take it once a year.

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Profit.

See, it’s easy! Alright, fine I’ll go back a few steps.

2. Do you know your resume like the back of your hand? No? Well, you are going to need to for each step along the Foreign Service Mt. Everest job climb. I highly suggest making a spreadsheet. (Please note that as a management officer, I feel like I am 100% compelled to say that for everything.) At the top, list out every job you’ve ever had, college, internships, volunteer work, or otherwise blank periods of your life that you did something. Now on the leftmost column list out all the 13 dimensions. Now start filling in the blanks. What did you do as a lifeguard in high school that demonstrated composure or judgement? Just do bullet points, think of short examples you can pull from.

This will help you in the personal experience section, the PNQs, and prepping for the Oral Assessment. Plus it is a nice self esteem boost.

3. For the “you need to know a little bit about everything under the sun” section, the only thing I can recommend is brushing up on your US history. I read the mental floss guide to US history, which was entertaining and informative. Knowing a thing or two about international organizations, treaties, and general management principles helps too. And when it doubt, it is multiple choice so go with your gut.

4. The essay portion should be treated with utmost love and affection. And by that I mean, stick to the 5 paragraph basic, simple essay. You’ve got one paragraph to start with your opening line and your thesis statement. You’ve got three paragraphs to make your points. And you get one paragraph to wrap it up. Stick to the high school/college essay format that you used for the ACT or SAT. That’s really all you need to do – stick to the format. And practice. Set a timer, get a topic, and go. Above all else doing a couple practice runs will help you with time management.

5. For the section about your personal experience, have bulleted examples ready for any number of questions. You shouldn’t waste time thinking and using all 200 some odd characters. It should come quickly since you made a list of all the awesome things you’ve done in your life. Don’t write out long sentences detailing what you did, just throw some concise bullets down. Just prove you did what you said you did.

6. English. I don’t think you realize how hard this section was for me. Well, if you have read my blog for a while, you will see that my command of the English language is, ummm, lacking. Well, maybe not lacking, but less than perfect. My grammar is right real Oklahoman. And it gets worse by the day thanks to German and Arabic telling me to do all sorts of things with my sentences. For a month straight, I did practice ACT English tests to prepare for this section. It’s probably better to just read up on English grammar from a ACT like prep test book. I do recommend doing a few practice exams though (look around online for some English section only tests) just to see what you should brush up on. For me, that was everything. This is the one section you can theoretically truly study for.

7. Don’t fret if you don’t pass the first time; it makes you all the more determined to succeed the next year.

Lastly, I get asked quite often about timing and the test with Peace Corps. If you are currently serving, take it during your first year. If nothing else, you can defer for Peace Corps service (at least on the register). Plus, if you take it in your first year then you can always test again. But figure out the timing, work backwards from your likely COS date. I COSed in November and knew that based on timing, the June test would allow me to take the Orals anytime until February. That way I wouldn’t have to fly back to the States for the Orals before my service was over. So, do the math backwards for your service.


Feel free to leave questions in the comments.

Things I Do Instead of Studying

Language learning is exhausting. But even worse than struggling to pay attention for a full 6 hours a day, is motivation. I have a hard time finding and keeping motivated in the evenings. I have lots of things I could do, but I still don’t know what works best for me. What makes it stick?! So, instead of studying, here are the things I do that I think seem productive, but really it is just me avoiding the inevitable:

1. Clean my house. Need your toilets scrubbed? Because I would rather do that than sit down and conjugate verbs.

2. Vacuum. The sweet dolcent tones of the vacuum cleaner are so soothing after listening to Arabic all day.

3. Translate English into Oklahoman. Because I don’t have enough languages in my brain already.

4. Blog. Avoidance level bravo.

5. Eat sour cream. Alright, I have an unhealthy relationship with sour cream. I sneak into my fridge, grab a spoon, and eat sour cream like it is ice cream. I just ate chips and salsa, so I could have an excuse to eat sour cream. So, basically, I just ate chips with sour cream and a wee bit of salsa.

6. Dance around my sunroom. Turn off the lights, blare the Taylor Swift, and shake it out. Nothing beats avoiding language like shaking your hips until they fall off or your neighbors complain.

7. Happy hours. That’s work right?

8. Watch the cleaners in the office building next to my apartment. They have these nifty little backpack vacuums that look super fun.

9. Shop on Amazon, but never buy anything. It’s the best of all worlds.

10. Read the FAM. The Foreign Affairs Manual, because it’s only creepy if I quote it.

11. Text people. Everyone needs to know every little thing I’m doing right?

12. Do yoga. Well sorta, and in bursts. And then I get bored and would rather stare at those vacuum backpacks.

13. Make lists.

Grumbles and Gratitude

I often grumble about language classes. Mainly because I never talk about anything else besides language nowadays. I grumble about how mentally exhausting it is and how everyone expects more out of us than I physically have the capacity to do. I grumble about how difficult it is and how somedays I feel like nothing sticks. I grumble about homework and not knowing how or what to study. I just sorta grumble all day long. And this negative energy is miserable. Language is hard, boo hoo. It can be incredibly frustrating to have no measurable or perceived notion of progress. We know what score we need to obtain in order to get off language probation and go to post, but there is no real measure in class of how we are doing. It feels like we are just building a lego castle one brick at a time, but we have no concept of what the final design is supposed to look like. I spend so much mental energy on Arabic, when I get frustrated it seems to come out as whatever emotion my body’s emotion roulette wheel just landed on. Most of the spaces are filled with tears. Because learning a new language is hard.

But when I get too far into the weeds of language despair, I sit back and think about everything that has happened in the past year. I start listing off things I’m grateful for. I start thinking about the little things that make me happy. I think about how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. And suddenly all my worries seem so much less significant. And I feel right with the world again.

Three years ago, today, I was boarding a plane bound for Ghana. I spent two years hot, sweaty, and poor. I treasured running water and air conditioning. I obsessed over food. I was rarely healthy. And now I have the greatest luxury of all: a good paying dream job. I am eternally grateful for everything I have, because less than a year ago I had barely anything. I used to grumble about the stench of my latrine when someone forgot to put down the cover. Now I grumble about getting paid to learn a fascinating language all day? Perspective is truly everything when you’ve seen both sides. Sometimes, I just forget to look back. We all do I guess. It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own world and issues, that we forget to be thankful. We forget to take a step back and see the bigger picture. And sometimes this girl needs a post-it note on the back of her door that says: “suck it up, cupcake.” Just a friendly reminder that gratitude can affect your attitude.