Saturday, November 19, 2016

Rations & Irish friends

In high school I told an Irish friend that my mom used to "ration" our food -- i.e. we had to have a base amount of sources of  proteins, vitamins, roughage, etc per meal. Once we had had our basic portion, then we could have helpings of whatever else we wanted. We were not allowed to leave the plate unfinished, for our base helping or for any additional helping we may opt to add.

I still don't see anything wrong with this approach. I am always shocked how much food is wasted during any habesha digis, which has always struck me odd. While growing up I was told qunTan was newr.  As for leftovers, they were never leftovers, because if we somehow insisted that we couldn't finish a meal and won the appeal (maybe once in my life?), then we'd have the remaining food the next meal. So, what leftovers? Just next meal's appetizer.

I don't know why I just remembered this, but it cracked me up. However much I assured my Irish friend that the rationing was to maximize the min, rather than to cap the max, she was horrified ... now looking back, I think stereotypes associated with my nationality may have had something to do with it.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016


When I was heading to business school one friend who'd already been through said she'd only one advice to give me,  "Play the chicken game". What is that? She explained when her school assigned team was expected to get together and work on assignments, everybody would agree to a certain time. If anything came up in her schedule that seemed to conflict, my friend would notify the group as early as possible asking to reschedule. Sometimes she pointed out schedule clashes that affected other people in the group too. On the other hand, she used to get very annoyed by teammates who'd only notify the larger group that they wouldn't make it to the team meeting at the last minute. Sometimes multiple people would be missing, necessitating a last minute reschedule.

As is typical practice in business school, there came a time when the group had to give each other feedback. The unanimous feedback they gave her was that she was disruptive to scheduling, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of requests to reschedule she sent out. But ... she thought ... that's because I look at my schedule in advance!?

So she started playing the chicken game -- if she saw a conflict, she'd never call it out. Inevitably, somebody would find some conflict at the last minute, and she'd ride that train to reschedule to a time that  better worked for her. In the odd case that she was the only one who a conflict, she'd just bow out of that meeting, but that rarely happened. She named that "The Chicken Game". 

I don't remember having to play "The Chicken Game" in business school. In fact, I remember my core group being reasonably punctual. In any case, most of us had identical class schedules, didn't really have many free time slots to reschedule. Later in the program though I remember people becoming very flaky, as our schedules became different and people started searching for jobs. 

In recent years I have noticed that 'maybe' is becoming a popular answer.  For me, if a plan is looking too tough to navigate in my schedule, the answer is a definitive, 'no'. 

Question: "Will you be able to join us for dinner on Thursday?" 
Answer: "Oh, I have two other dinners I have committed to. Maybe I will try to swing by."  

Wait, you have two dinners, and you're considering accepting a third one? Why, because you think I can't live another partial dinner without you? Are you doing me a favor? Because now I have to organize a dinner with x% of  seats with maybe-sayers. If this is at a restaurant, I have to reserve this idiotic person a chair. Or I can not reserve them a chair, and then have to act all concerned and try to accommodate them if they eventually show up at a full table, trying to figure out ways to pull a spare chair and draw them into the fold.

If 'maybe' was a polite no, I wouldn't mind. But it is not. People do leave engagements untimely, announcing they had a similar concurrent invitation awaiting their grand entrance. And they do show up at my events partway.

I distinctly remember a time in NYC in my mid-late twenties coming the realization that I could at most have 3 commitments on a weekend day before the weekend started becoming unpleasant and stressful. So I started aiming for 2 commitments / day, giving me some free time to feel like the weekend wasn't work. When I declined to join friends on things that seemed legitimately cool but conflicting, I remember especially this group of girls who'd say "But try, ok?". Um, no. I can tell you in advance, the probability of me making it is very, very low. If there was a change in scheduling, I'd call you back and ask if it was still ok for me to join, because now my answer is 'yes'. And I would take no offense if at that point it was no longer possible for me to join.  If a friend allowed me to confirm attendance late, I'd even offer to take on the admin of calling the restaurant where the friend already has reservations to add myself to the table. 

Tonight I have a dinner at a restaurant where previously I had failed twice to make reservations as the restaurant is too new and popular in town. Finally, I took a far in advance date where they confirmed they had openings and I invited friends, one of whom is a friend who I know had also struggled to get in a reservation. I also invited her most recent date. Her confirmation? "It will be me, and maybe +1". Then she confirmed that the +1 I'd originally thought wouldn't make it, but maybe it will be another date. Maybe. "We'll see", she said. Yeah, I can't wait to see -- it will be the highlight of my evening! Meanwhile, I can't invite other friends I want to see because I have to reserve a chair for her maybe. 

After observing friends who are serial maybe-sayers, I have come to conclude two things:
1) They are invariably younger than I am -- solidly millennials
2) They have major FOMO issues

I need to find a polite way of saying, "I will count your 'maybe' as a no - maybe just becomes too complicated for me to manage". Or maybe I can be impolite about it. 

WSJ had an interesting read on it in 2010: The Many Powers of Maybe 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

When the world values America more than America values itself

Somebody sent me a link from Aljazeera, "Spoiled Americans now want to flee what they created". Over the last two days, as 'the rest of the world', watching American election results has evolved from disbelief, to concern, to disgust. 

The disbelief was to watch American repeat the Brexit experience yet again, and handing over the most powerful position in their country to a bigot and, by self admission, a sexual predator. Jury is out on his racist tendencies. 

Concern was watching European and Asian markets react, and wondering what crazy things Trump could say that could start a war. 

Then disgust was watching Democrats throw tantrums post-election results. My own friends became really annoying. As if the election wasn't in their hands, as if they didn't spend the election season bitching and moaning about Hilary, as if Democrats didn't act like idiots at the DNC behaving like Sanders was their one and only option to Nirvana. Millennials, fucking millennials, repeatedly asserted that their only interest in the elections was legalization of weed. And now they turn around and start marching ... marching against what? The very same election system Democrats were upset Trump wouldn't unconditionally endorse for fairness? Democrats have proven who's stupid in America. 

Of course, that is concerning because I have always had faith in left-leaning ideals. In this election there were more failures than the electorate failing to show up to vote. One of my co-workers argued that Hilary had given it all. She had expended all her energy and deployed immense resources. But had she?

She sure had a lot of resources, but not sure if she used her resources well. She did better than Obama in traditionally blue areas -- what a waste! Instead of preaching to the converted in California and New York, she probably should have been crisscrossing rural America while she had time & money.

For Democrats, a party which claims to stand up for the disenfranchised, they sure missed a good cross-section of America's despondent rural population and its supporters.  Liberals decried any messages that trickled from the "other side" labeling it bigotry and racism (which probably fueled more bigotry and racism), as if those were root causes, and not symptoms.

I went door to door for Hillary Clinton in 2008 in rural Pennsylvania (and met some really scary Republicans :). I liked her then, I like her (enough) now. But she's made a series of mistakes along the way, and the sooner Democrats flip to self-examination mode and correct, the better for Americans ... and the world.

One of my co-workers, German guy, shared an insightful article on I passed it on to HC-voting American friends and they thought it was an eye opener, which is good, but sad.  Why weren't such views printed in The New York Times, WahsPo, etc, last year? Why aren't there such articles on these news outlets even now? So far the closest I have seen a "respectable" media outlet show self-examination is here. That's not good enough.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Cost of (lack of) Free Speech

A recent article from the Washington Post nailed one (and possibly more) topic when it quoted an anonymous source saying:

“Ethiopia is more vulnerable to the rumor, misinformation and provocation coming out of the diaspora because it has prevented an independent, professional and ethical media from growing inside the country .... I actually think they are beginning to realize that.”

Let's hope that assessment in the last sentence is right.

The lack of an independent and credible authority that can assess whether what the government or the people says is true or not is a loss for the the people and the government.

Another quote that had me chuckle was:

“The government doesn’t have a clue for using alternative voices even to support their own policies,” he said. “They can’t tolerate even a 1 percent deviation from their own view.”

The only shame about this article is in the fact that nobody in Ethiopia would have the guts to write it. 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Brexit, Trump vs. Clinton and Current affairs in Ethiopia

I woke up this morning to news that 11 foreign owned businesses have been burned down by protesters in Ethiopia. Soon after, a reuters article broke the news that Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency. I was wondering when the the government was going to crank up the volume. It turns out today is the day. The funny thing about Ethiopian news is that even as we saw people getting killed, we all know (should know!) that that was the government showing restraint. After all, we have had government after government which have only been able to control the state through unrelenting force. How and why should this be different? Did the people change? No? Well then, the government can't change.

One mixed blessing / curse of increased information flow of our times is the ease with which people can compare where they are to where other societies are. If we lived in a closed system, a government that fights protesters with tear gas could have been an advancement in the Ethiopian context. Alas, we live in the internet age where people compare Ethiopia to the United States. We compare our infrastructure to countries that have had centuries to build theirs, we compare our education to countries in which a single institution of research may very well spend as much as Ethiopia spends on its entire population. We compare our democracy to 1st world nations which, again, have spent centuries building the democratic tradition and institutions that can support complex government mechanics. We saw democracy have " a glitch" in the UK recently, with Brexit, and the world has been watching the greatest entertainment/disappointment to ever come out of the United States of America in the form of the 2016 Presidential Elections. Still, we expect better of Ethiopia.

But Ethiopia is not the US or UK, and even if it had another 20 years of peace and prosperity it's not going to be in a position to be compared to them possibly for another century to come. I looked up the Ethiopian government's budget the other day -- it's about $100/citizen per annum. By comparison, federal government in the US requested for a $4 trillion  budget in 2016, i.e. $13,000/citizen per annum. The way Ethiopians scramble to protest the government and opine on better ways of governance, one would think they had tricks up their hats. What on earth is anybody going to do with a budget of $100 per person? To be clear, if Ethiopia were to grow at 10% for the next 50 years straight, a near impossible feat, it could have a comparable government spend per capita as the US today in 2066. But even then Ethiopia will still be behind the US on the account that it wouldn't have centuries worth of infrastructure, and of course, US will by then have surpassed its current state.  For all those clambering for power in Ethiopia, I have to wonder if they know what they're wishing for. I love how Americans always call the US Presidency "the toughest job on earth" -- give me a break. Give Obama a $100/person budget, a landlocked country prone to famine, warring and stateless neighbors, and watch him run away at faster than Usain Bolt's WR speeds.

This morning I had a discussion with Ethiopian friends in the US who woke up to news of the newly declared State of Emergency. One asked how it will work out -- a police state? Well, the same way every day has worked out for the past 20 odd years for some of the people who're now protesting. The country has always operated on a silently understood state of emergency basis since ...well, forever. The state of emergency is now just explicit.

Watching the anger that has now unfortunately called the iron fist back into the forefront of national operations, I couldn't help but compare how the situation parallels the populous rejecting the status quo in the US and UK in recent years. Back in the day, it was usually urban citizens who'd lead the revolts in Ethiopia. Students and cities. These days Addis is quiet. It could be for fear of repercussion but having been to Addis recently, I'd say it for lack of conviction. On the surface I'm sure there are many dissenters, but deep down, its questionable whether people have the desire to risk it all. Because they have something that's worth not risking, i.e. they are doing reasonably well.

The government used to be very good at strong arming the urban masses (20% of the population) and placating people in the countryside (80% of the population). For years, urban dwellers had come to understand (subconsciously, unfortunately)  that policies and concerted government efforts focused on the rural populations meant that cities were alone in their intellectual grievances. Without rural buy-in, who would fight the fight? Arada kids? Ha! This all worked for a while, but somewhere along the way the grand strategy lost track of an important detail till havoc became the name of the new game in the countryside. Like the US and the UK, the Ethiopian government lost touch of what matters to its largest demographic. The demographic which is difficult to raise once it falls, and one that isn't necessarily impressed by round-table discussions nor reason.

There may yet be salvation for the ol'strategy, depending on how far into the rural-scape these protests have spread. So far the smaller towns have roared the loudest, which are still within that 20% urban population spectrum. The key question is: is the quintessential Ethiopian, the farmer, angry? As far as we can see for now, who knows! Crafted urban/rural information flow has been the glue that's kept things standing so far.

Whichever way it's diced, this chapter that can't end well. But it's still a chapter, and the page will eventually turn. Let's hope somebody is already thinking about how the first paragraphs of the next chapter will read. For the sake of 100 million people caught in the story, those early paragraphs better be damn engrossing!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What is this madness?

When I was 17 my great grandmother died. I was not living in Ethiopia at the time, but she died 1 week before I was supposed to go to Addis for a visit. When I was growing up my parents kept us secluded to the nuclear family so much that there were very few people I grew to know and truly feel like they were family... and my great grandma was one of them. She stayed sharp to the end. She was fun and funny. By the time she passed away she was in her mid 90s and she had no business dying as far as her body strength and health was concerned. But she fell asleep on a chair, had an accident, and so she went.

My mother decided not to tell me of her death until after I landed back in Addis, i.e. a week post death. She whisked me straight to the leqso bet  from the airport. I don't recall having much time for emotions or processing the news. Things were just happening. I don't recall crying that day, or after. When I think of that day I have an image of somebody from geTer visiting a big city and everywhere s/he turned, having car after car honk at them. Everybody else was in on a joke that was on me. I remember noise, incongruent images, people talking at me, and just general confusion.

At the leqso bet I was bombarded all the leqso bet guests who I had not seen in years. As soon as we entered the gibi, I could hear as 'ah! she's back' comments made their way to the house . Soon there were faces looking out from the door. Of course I had to greet my way to the house, and how shall a 17 year old raised in Addis and abroad react in this occasion? I sure wasn't going to follow the wailing and prostrating route. The people who were greeting me, who'd digested the news for the past week, were smiling. So I smiled back.

 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."
 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."
 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."

.... times 30, or whatever was required! By the time I was inside the house, I guess I had a resting smiling face. My mother came to my side and said, "Don't smile!".  I don't remember anything else from this day. I don't even remember a single face who I greeted that day, though I can guess who had to have been be there. I am still not sure why that day had to unfold as it did, but it's apparently something to do with our culture. Deaths are announced not as they happen, but at some later date to benefit ...who knows who it benefits.

I hadn't thought about that day until today -- earlier today I learned that my grandmother passed away last Monday. Today is Wednesday end of day. My parents apparently "forgot" (read: in their infinite, mysterious wisdom decided to postpone) to share the sad news with the extended family.

So began a series of unfortunate incidents as various family members found out. The first victim was a sibling who received a condolences call for a grandma he still assumed to be alive. I got mine via a whatsapp from a friend/family who was afraid I'd be left out of the news loop (which works for me, but I doubt this was the intention when parents withheld the news). A traditionalist cousin (let's call him TC) found out when he called to say "hi" but was instead told everybody was out at her funeral. Another cousin was told the news earlier but was afraid to share it because he once told the TC of a close family member's passing, and TC disowned him because the news was shared in daylight (apparently merdo should be reserved for 5am).

Instead of feeling sad, I found myself getting angry with how the news was (not) handled. I personally think my grandma, who was probably in her mid 90s or older, is now in a better place. This is not a sentiment that should ever be shared with Ethiopians, so I wouldn't dare utter this in public.

When I think about how my parents handled this news, I am at a loss to explain why they thought secrecy (which ends up becoming morbid carelessness with today's technologies) was the way to go. Was it so that we'd not be disturbed by the passing away of our oldest family member? Was it so that we don't insist on leaving work to attend the funeral? Or was it because they were afraid we wouldn't offer to attend the funeral, and the best way to save face was not to let us have the option?

As I was telling a friend after my discovery that there are somethings in the Ethiopian culture I wish I understood, even if I didn't agree with the concept. Like FGM. I understand its origins, and what society was trying to do with women through the cultural process. I vehemently disapprove of it, but at least I understand it. She told me my parents weren't the exception, and I should not try too hard to understand -- this is an enduring game.

But the fact that I don't understand bothers me. A lot. It doesn't serve to reduce the blow. It doesn't serve to respect the dead nor the living. It irks me that I don't understand how these ideas formed in their heads, and their questionable judgement was released upon the world. The fact I don't understand it all raises serious practical concerns.

For example, my husband's parents have a tradition of taking in their grandchildren for a week during which time the grandparents get to enjoy the kids while the parents get to enjoy short periods of freedom. If I had children, I'd have serious reservations about leaving them alone with my parents even for a few hours. What do I know? If I go away for a week, I might come back and they may tell me "Oh, we didn't want to worry you, but your daughter died last week and we buried her."  My husband said, "Aaaaaaah!", in protest when I gave this example. But when I pressed on how he can figure out if what I said is not within the realm of whatever convoluted reasoning is going on through my parents minds, he didn't have a response.

And that is my point!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lessons from a former job

I recently bumped into an ex-co-worker. We shall call the company we worked at X. I was with another woman who had also worked at X -- one of the few I keep in touch with.

The guy we bumped into had left before me. Once in a while I indirectly hear of him from non-X related friends, but hadn't actually seen him in ages. I didn't even know he was still in town. After we chatted a little I realized that he didn't know that I had also left X, so I mentioned it to him and also pointed out that I hardly keep in touch with the crew at X anymore. He said, "me too!"

The thing is, X was an environment where people ate, slept, breathed work. It is the kind of place that prides itself for hiring "insecure overachievers". It was more than a job - it was a cult. Work took up 80% of people's waking lives, and for the remaining 20%, employees moved together in herds between a select few restaurants, pubs and events. I remember thinking it was nice at first. That people would send out mass emails welcoming anybody in their 'class' (i.e. level) -- the company even maintained a well updated email-list for us.

After I left, I invited the woman who used to sit next to me to a lecture I had heard of in town -- I thought it would be particularly interesting for her husband who I knew worked in a related field. Next thing I know, half my ex-coworkers were at the same lecture because she'd passed on the invitation. I was a bit taken aback -- I realized that if I wanted to exit the cult, I had to excommunicate even those I'd have preferred to stay in touch with.

So back to this guy we bumped into, he proceeded to take my phone number promising to give me information in the tech space in town (I am yet to hear from him, but it's only been a day). I thought it was amusing, given that we'd just both pledged we don't keep track of the X crew. Later I mentioned the irony to the friend I was with and she said, "Yeah, it's almost like a litmus test: I didn't like everybody who I met there even if I was part of the heard. Now that I have left, a good indicator that I will like ex-X coworkers is if after they leave the break away from the cult. And this is an observation based on who I seem to keep as friends, not a requirement."

I left X with mixed emotions. I had really wanted the job and worked very hard to get it. It was my #1 choice employer. During interview prep I remember people passing by me during my free time -- I always took the same chair/table in a courtyard -- and joking I must be glued to that spot. I prepped for every potential question I could get my hands on for 3 weeks. When I finally entered the interview room, I was like an interview robot. They would ask these random industry specific questions, and if you gave a good enough 1st answer, you'd know things were going well if they kept asking "what else? what else? what else?" I had ample ideas.

So it was a disappointment when it didn't turn out to be inspirational as a job. Within my first year I had created a file called "How not to manage", where I took notes of things I didn't want to become based on what I was seeing around me. I was sure that I was surrounded by intelligent people, but I couldn't understand why individuals or the organization behaved/operated as it did.

After I left that job, I once told a friend that something about the organization felt like fraud. She halted my thought process there and asked, if I felt that it was a sham, then what does that say about my time there? Good question. What exactly did I learn during my time at X?

There are many lessons I learned which are probably noted under that "how not to manage" file I used to keep. I haven't read that file since I left, but I should. I will.

Today I want to write (or start writing) about some of the positive things I learned at X. There were some, and they were insightful. At the moment, they're not grand enough for me  think in hindsight that the job should have been my #1 choice, but they're powerful lessons nonetheless:

  1. Communication for impact: The content of your message is nothing if you don't sculpt how to communicate it well. A well communicated BS answer can be much more effective than a badly communicated brilliant answer. If your audience doesn't "get it", remember: it's always your fault. 
  2. Socializing ideas: Your ideas are nothing if they can't get acceptance with the right stakeholders. 
  3. Cultivating promoters: You are nothing if you don't have people to who like you, and speak for you. People confuse competency and being liked, or that the former should beget the latter. They don't necessarily correlate. In mid/higher career, never compromise on being liked. Competency can be leveraged. (This probably explains why so many people get mystified when they find that their boss is an idiot - turns out competency is not the leading requirement.)
  4. Responsibility is not given, it's taken: My favorite quote from a guy I worked under on my first project. I learned the others through observation/experience -- this one landed on my lap and turned on a light bulb on my views & expectations. 
  5. "What's the 'so what?'": If a slide, activity, meeting doesn't have a compelling answer to the 'so what?' test, it should be considered for exclusion. Coincidentally, consulting itself fails the 'so what?' litmus test as a career choice, especially at the MD, Partner, Partern-1 levels. 

That's all I can think of for now. I will have to come back and update if I think of more. 

Friday, August 05, 2016

In what world is Gonder "ok"?

For years I have identified as an Orthodox Christian in practice, and as an atheist/agnostic/ignostic in theory. The precision of the latter is irrelevant to me because ... well, the topic isn't of great interest.I need to identify as Ethiopian Orthodox because despite my convictions I think and act within the value sets I was raised with. Sometimes I have successfully broken off cultural/religious norms, and sometimes not. In a place like Ethiopia where moderation of religious views is essential for peaceful co-existence, I think it's each citizens duty to support and influence where they came from. In my case, my responsibility is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

I feel uncomfortable identifying as Amhara, despite what my ID says, because I think that if I identify myself as anything then I have to identify others as something (else). Also, coming from a mixed heritage,  it'd be a disservice to pick one over another. Again, one of the (imperfect) values I was raised with prompts me deal with issues at an "Ethiopian" level. In a perfect world, that'd be great. In reality, I have come to conclude that this mindset is akin to 'white privilege' -- if you don't feel the need to pick an ethnicity, then you must have it good. Still, I have been happy to engage others with their ethnicity AND consider issues without consciously having the need to be ethnically more inclined one way or another.

Then these Gonder protests happened. My first thought was, 'well, not too surprising'. The Wolqayt Tegede issue is something I'd heard of since the inception of the Kilils. What is surprising is why they picked 2016 to act on it. Or their 'solidarity' with Oromia -- since the two issues don't have much in common other than 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' type camaraderie. Anyway, I don't want to judge the severity of the reasons that caused Gonder to have mass protests -- maybe in the past 20 years there were progressive changes they couldn't take anymore.

What I will judge is the public display of property destruction, and the accompanying rally as if it's a jebd. Let's be clear: this is a bunch of Amharas going around destroying their Tigre neighbors properties because they believe their Tigre neighbors are members of TPLF. What are people going to cheer next, a bunch of Amharas going around killing their Tigre neighbors? What is this -- warming our way up to Rwanda?

Here are my 5 Amhara cents: if you want to protest, protest. If they beat you up, disperse. If you want to fight, fight the army, fight the police with the knowledge that they are trained to fight back.

But don't go on some bloody destruction rampage of the property of very people you'll live next to, whether or not you stay in Tigray or Amhara kilil, and expect me to cheer you on, or empathize with your plight. People on people violence is never, ever acceptable! 

As for the rest of Ethiopia watching this and staying silent: what goes around, comes around. Speak now, or forever hold your peace. And don't you even dare blame EPRDF, TPLF or whatever scapegoat slips off your tongue for baiting inter-ethnic violence -- remember Gonder, you did it to yourself!

Gonder, shame on you!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Note to self: Political Skill Inventory (PSI )

In line with previous post, I have been reading on office politics and came across a test called Political Skill Inventory (PSI ). It asks 18 questions and based on a self-assessment score, one can judge if one has the soft skills to continue to grow in one's career to achieve "power", where power is less about behaving like Mugabe, and more about being effective/influential.

Here is a note to self for a few years from now. Based on my assessment, here are my scores as of May 14, 2016:

Avg Score
apparent sincerity 6
interpersonal influence 6
networking 2.5
social astuteness 3.8
Grand Total 4.2

"Higher scores mean you have more political skill, lower scores mean you have less.  You should be above 4—and possibly well above 4—if you have aspirations to reach great heights of power."

So in a few years, if I remember to check here again, I will find out if I went on to develop soft skills .... or stayed true to my primary (in every imaginable sense) values. 

Effectiveness or Correctness, but not both

The last few years I have started thinking more and more about things like effectiveness, competency, sincerity, likability at the work place. For a long time, competency was my primary objective in life. This was in line with basic values instilled in me as a kid, in a family where egos were very tightly wrapped up in academic excellence. This value (or rather, the pursuit of it) served me well for some good decades, but I am beginning to realize that I may be at a point in my career where I can be under-served, if not derailed, by it. 

When I was looking into applying to business school, I asked alums I reached out to one of the mandatory questions, "Of all the classes you took, looking back, which class do you consider most influential". Many people said Negotiations. Not surprising to hear, before or after business school. Many also mentioned Organizational Behavior. They warned me that while at business school, I would likely fail to see the true relevance of the topic, and it would feel like a waste of time. They said I wouldn't understand how valuable it will be until years after ... at which point I may regret not having paid better attention to those OB classes afterall. Well, I have finally arrived! 
Recently I was talking to a friend who was irate due to some of the office politics shenanigans at her work place. A few months earlier I had developed similarly strong sentiments when I received an email from alma mater advertizing a webinar (no longer available to share) by Stanford prof called Jeffrey Pffeffer, on Office Politics. I took the bait and half worked half listened to the webinar. 

At the end, in Q & A somebody asked, "I don't like office politics. How I can I succeed in the work place without being sullied by it". Pffeffer sounded a bit annoyed as he answered what ended up being my light bulb moment.  He questioned in return, "If you like playing (American) football, do you pitch up to a game and say, 'hey, I like this game but I don't like the violence, can we please play 'nice' ... for me?' No. You either play the game as it is, or you get off the field. The workplace is the same, you either play the games by the rules, including office politics, or you don't play at all."  I imagine the "you don't play at all" is the equivalent of when you quit working at a place because it's environment was too ''toxic''. 

Another person asked, "Some companies seem less political than others. How do I find a place that seems less toxic?" Pffeffer's response: "If you think a company is less political, chances are that office politics in that particular environment is working well for you. You have access to the right people at the right time, most likely at the expense of others ... who in turn will consider that environment 'too 'toxic' for them."

In consulting I had another epiphany after I was made to do and redo the "messaging" on slides over and over again. It  sometimes felt as if I spent more time getting the message right, than I did getting to a more refined answer. That made sense one day when somebody told me that a solution 50% right and 90% implemented was much better than a solution 100% right and 0% implemented.  Effectiveness, not correctness, was the name of the game. 

Office politics seems dirty to me because I've been ingrained to value things like correctness, technical competency, truth and sincerity above most things. But if these things get in the way of one's effectiveness, how am I served by them? Who am I serving by them? 

I would bet that my parents would sacrifice effectiveness for other 'higher' values. The way I think these days, I'm not sure that I would. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


When I was last in Addis, I set out looking for non-touristy art spots, i.e. avoiding the Mankushes and Asnis, etc. Turns out, that's a bit tricky.

Some habeshoch deflected me with, "ayee ... yihen'ma ferenj meTeyeq new". Ere!?

Finally somebody called somebody who recommended Habesha Art Studio, which turned out to be pretty close to Asni Gallery. TripAdvisor tells me that neighborhood is called Kebena (lekas Qebena iza new?!) I was obviously told directions as "Ras Amba Hotel aTegeb", which worked like a charm.

So I went to see Habesha Art Studio with a friend. You've to go down this tiny road, and down a korekonch. My friend opted to park his car while we were still in the paved section. We walked a some few meters off the paved street and knocked and knocked, at a gate labeled the gallery. Finally somebody opened the gate into what seemed like a regular residential compound, albeit a bit rustic.

To our left were a circle of people who all either stared us down (we did knock incessantly), or were bored by whatever discussion had ensued prior to our arrival, and reveled in the distraction we generously offered. I suspect the former.

We pressed on. I was thinking the whole thing had a bohemian feel to it. Past the circular assembly, we were guided into a dark room (how do they paint in there?) filled and lined with paintings in no particular order. It clearly wasn't meant for display. The kicker though was this ferenj lady discussing 'artistic expressions' and what not at the far corner with a guy who appeared to be one of the artists. All that digging and I find yet another tourist spot? Fail, Tobian, fail!

In any case, I should confess, I'm not a very artistically refined person. Consequently, the greatness of the artworks escaped me. This (bottom left)  was the painting (or something very similar) the artist had in front of him that day.

We were baffled.  We were told some of the artworks in there weren't for sale, as they were about to go on tour (oh wow?) The rest of the stuff wasn't priced, so when they offered to call another artist to help us we told them not to waste his time on our account, and departed. Weeks later, while on board my ET flight back, I was to browse through my Selamta and have my eyes pop when I came across a painting in style of those artworks destined for tour. The artist, I found out, is called Dawit Abebe (top right...his 'fro itself is a work of art iko). Among other tours, he's scheduled to show his work in Cape Town in 2016. Mad props, good man! Sorry I wasn't able to appreciate your work, but wish you success.

After the Habesha Art Studio stop, I caved and went to Mankush. I didn't like most of the art there either but I totally fell in love with the work of a person who signs 'Dimetros'. S/he paints typical Ethiopian town scenes with vaguely defined shapes of people who I imagine to be draped in neTelas. In one painting, I was convinced the scene was from Harar, even though I've never been there. The collection at the gallery were either warm (red/brown hue) or cold (blue, like the ones below), but somehow gave the impression they were all morning scenes. So I looked up Dimetros, and below are some paintings I was able to find from Ethiopian Artisans.

Alas, I was buying art for somebody else (their pick!) and didn't end up buying Dimetros' art either. But when I next plan to buy art for myself, I will sure be on the hunt!

p.s. Price range I was quoted for Dawit Abebe's work was ~25,000 Birr, and Dimetros for ~7,000 Birr. Min? I'm sure we all have worse ways of spending money.

Monday, February 01, 2016

No Man's Land

Circa 2007/8 I stopped keeping track of Ethiopian current affairs/politics. I noticed that modern Ethiopian affairs went in cycles. The cycle involved some variations of strong, top-down government policies, protests, bad quality reporting, imprisonment, more protests, and release from imprisonment ... bla bla bla... 

Observation 1

Leaving reasons for/from all sides of the isles aside, personally I had two concerns with this cycle 1) I was spending valuable time to keep up with news of a platform that wasn't necessarily maturing over time 2) the process reminded me of one of Eisenstein's layman friendly observations, that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. 

So then I withdrew, which freed my time for other things. Like reading up more on the American election, scouring rural PA to canvass voters for Hilary Clinton (yes, I started out as pro-Clinton till she fried herself and Obama took over) and being chased by angry Republicans. Some people were really scary, like the one guy who yelled at me, "Didn't I tell you to get off my porch yesterday?", as he opened his door. A potential retort could have been, "Umm, no ... unless you think all black people look alike!" Instead I blurted 'Uh ... I've never been in this town before today in my life ... ", turned tail and bolted. Second amendment and all, no need to mess around! I would have made one pathetic page 10 corner of the local newspaper, "Today, a non-American citizen was shot dead by an angry swing-voter while canvassing votes for Hilary Clinton". I don't think so, but I digress ...

Over the following years, I continued to stay off of detailed Ethiopian news. I did look at some business news, and never gave up athletics (though athletics gave up on me!). In March/April 2015, I happened to be in Addis when they government okayed a rally to support(?) Ethiopians executed by ISIS (to date, I'm not sure what the purpose was) but I was amused to observe, the cycle was still going strong. I talked to our driver at the time why the rally ended on ugly terms and he said, "Federalochu hizbun CHefeChefut". I asked why. He said, "oh some kids threw rocks at them."


In the United States, assaulting a law enforcement officer can land one in jail for up to 25 years. As recent police brutality cases in the US show, curbing police brutality is actually a very difficult problem. I would think, the last thing one'd want to do in Ethiopia (or anywhere) is to f*ck with the police. And yet, there I was with our baffled driver who seemed surprised about how shit went down. Recall, "Insanity is doing the same thing ...."

Observation 2

I remember having a chat with a friend some time around 2009/10 where I  played the devil's advocate for ... everybody in the Ethiopian political spectrum. At some point he stopped me and told me I couldn't be for real, I must be hiding behind some fake image of "transcendent  fairness" I was trying to concoct/achieve. He promised me that one day, he was going to figure me out when I slipped or self-contradicted. Alas, I didn't get as many opportunities to talk to him post 2011,  so I don't know if my story stays glued ... I sure continue stay glued to my story.

The world makes a lot of sense if I take other people's positions and apply, to best of my judgement, some degrees of ignorance, fear( a lot of it!) and greed to their perspective. Then Rush Limbaugh, Mengistu, Haileselassie, our current government, the opposition ... all start making much better sense. I can begin to view the world in a space that doesn't contradict theirs too much and that, fortunately, allows me to be less and less upset by the state of affairs. Sure, I also have to wonder how these three forces are affecting my narrative, but that's a whole other topic. What I am left with is then arguments for all sides, and solutions for none. Upon first glance, this can seem apathetic ...

Recently, I listened to an NPR interview with Obama when he said, “Every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run. But you don’t swing at every pitch” And I thought, aha!

Aligning nitty gritty details, butting heads, cycles of futile engagements, misinformed discussions, etc ....  I don't see the point to them.  Ideals are great, until they distract from reality. The point for all concerned is not to swing endlessly, but to find those few knock out home-runs. This isn't just in politics, this is in everything.

I recently worked for a company where one of the most valued (and elusive) skills was "communicating for results."  Sometimes this meant that the right answer wasn't necessarily the best answer. The hardest part, I found, was detaching oneself from the right answer.

In the end, if we can't inspire results, what's the point of it all?

p.s. Coincidentally, the movie No Man's Land is a good illustration of the futility of polarization, fueled by fear and ignorance. Despite the grim topic it handled, I remember finding some of the dialogue ridiculous and laughing out loud in the theater (I think I was the only one laughing, I embarrassed my friend). Great movie!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Super Car

In a perfect world, one would want to learn the language of the in-laws for improved communication. I feel that about 80% of the time, and for the rest, I find myself enjoying various occasions emanating from our comprehension gaps.

I was CCed on a group email from the mother in law tonight. My language skill is weak enough that I must surely be missing something. To me, this is how the email reads:

Subject: Super Car
Message: This evening super car helped us get back to the house. Well done everyone for the creation. I have a fairy tale for the super carrot.
Kisses, mom

Attachment: darkness/black, interrupted by a white box in the middle, as if the photo was taken at night by photographing a lighted electronic screen. The screen is so bright that nothing is discernible on it.

Maybe she finally got around to using the GPS on her car? I don't know.

When I finished reading, I had to laugh. Why would I want to miss this  comedy in the name of improving my diction/grammar?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Staying tuned

Three years since I put up something here!

I was looking at my blog 'logo' and was wondering if I needed to change it, given that I don't live in the US anymore. For now, I've decided to keep it, since I get accused of being American on so many occasions. Yes, 'accused' is the right term, often arising when I'm being contrarian. Why I can't be contrarian and Ethiopian, I don't know.

Besides there are some habits I've not yet given up. Such as going back to the US more frequently than my bank account likes, for starters ... though admittedly, that's been as much due to functional requirements as desire.

Other notable habits I've kept, or picked up, which are very American-inspired are:

New episodes of This American Life continue to account for weekly mini-delights of my week. Even though I discovered TAL in the 2000s, sometimes I dig old episodes when the occasion presents (frequently?). E.g. this early episode about horror vacations, featuring an American family in Ethiopia in the 60s or 70s. So bizarre. So funny. Chinese father, German mother, and typical American kids ... attempting vacation in war zone Ethiopia. And to top it all, they wanted to travel by bus. Good grief.

Another episode of regional interest was This Call May Be Recorded... To Save Your Life, on Eritrean refugees held hostage in Sinai desert. Insert Somalian or Ethiopian for Eritrean, and that story would be true for the region. As much as I enjoyed the episode, I never quite figured out how it got to feature on TAL (it doesn't involve Americans or the US). But thanks anyway, TAL.

Finally there was also the story of a Somali refugee in Kenya, trying to get through to the US, Abdi and the Golden Ticket.

Serial: TAL's little sister, and awesome. How could I resist?  Hooked on it via a girl who told me about it after our mutual love for TAL confessions. In return, I got an Ozzie friend who's never even been to the US but is a fan of TAL hooked on Serial.  A week later I got a distraught message from her, "This world is not fair! I cried all the way to work listening to Serial. I'm sad!" That'd would be Adnan's story, Season 1.

Modern Love, NYT : about 80-90% of articles are good weekend candy ...

Social Q's, NYT: If it wasn't for the person who answers them, these would be boring. But Philip Galanes makes this column hilarious.

I've a few other habits in tow, but  will have to think about why they'd be worth typing out ... 

Update: I also found this artist, Kelela ...