On Moving to Korea

They say that failure is the mother of success (실패는 성공의 어머니다). Who are they? Some of them are those annoying people who are trying their not-so-hardest to console you that your future will not slowly dissolve into utter mediocrity. Others, however, are telling you the honest truth and hope that you’ll absorb some lesson of perseverance from their indisputably cliché adage.

All of us go through that period at some point – that seemingly unchanging trajectory of consecutive failure. While walking down that road, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine a better outcome. One can become gravid with frustration while trying to prove to oneself that perseverance fueled with passion will eventually, magically, change one’s compass to point to a brighter and more successful destination just over that ridge, there.

Yet, I must admit success is sometimes a much more fickle creature than her mother.

I have been trying since the fall of 2008 to get back to Korea and continue to study the country and language. I’ve done my research and composed list upon list of opportunities and applied to a great number of them (including the NSEP Boren Scholarship, the Critical Language Scholarship, the Blakemore, the Korean Government Scholarship Program, and the Foreign Service). Most of them I’ve applied to more than once, each time receiving a varying degree of rejection – the email that begins with “unfortunately”, the deceptive status of “alternate”, and the blatant disapprobation of silence.

This was certainly demoralizing in addition to frustrating. I tried desperately to heed the advice of others to “stick to it” but, veritas lux mea, I should admit that I often flirted with the idea of abandoning anything and everything related to Korea and begging my cousin to allow me to tag along to Togo with him and his Learn Africa Project.

Eventually, however, perseverance won out and now – in a span of time that seems quite curt – I am supposed to be ready to move to Korea for three years starting this September. Am I? While I would love to say “yes”, I’m honestly not really sure if I am. Can anyone ever be “ready” for that? What does that even mean?

Why am I moving to Korea? I am going to Seoul National University to study a master’s in International Relations (정치외교학). Upon my second application, I received a scholarship to go there through the Korean Government Scholarship Program, or KGSP, which includes 1 year of intensive language training in addition to 2 years of coursework.

I have no idea how this will affect my life and I don’t think there’s a way of knowing. Guesses can be made but how many people can determine how they will feel about what they want to do with their lives in three years? Yeah, good interview question. But in real life, it doesn’t mean anything. Will I want to live in Korea? Will I be so sick of it by the end of the first year that I’ll be yearning to return to the States? Who knows?

I guess I will just have to wait and see. Since there was never any need to know what I was going to do three years from any other point in my life, why would this move all of a sudden require me to become clairvoyant? It doesn’t, right?

Having succeeded at one thing – in this case the KGSP opportunity and getting myself back to Korea – doesn’t really mean that the path I’m walking on will become any less befogged. Success doesn’t reset the coordinates on my compass and passing this one ridge won’t have landed me in a Great Valley of any sort. Those grand ideas that we often associate with life after a single point of success are no more than a motivational device that we employ to propel ourselves forward.

The only way to escape the resulting confusion is to recognize that assessing ourselves through the lens of success, while helpful, can also impede us from seeing how important it is to live the quotidian pursuit of another goal – happiness. We only realize this when all of a sudden we find ourselves confronted with yet another season of obsession with perseverance.

The question thus becomes, will I be happy beyond this ridge?

The Great Valley from the 1988 Universal Studios animated film "The Land Before Time"

“The Next 100 Years: a Forecast of the 21st Century” by George Friedman

Sometimes paying attention to what’s going on in the world at the moment will not shed any light on what will happen tomorrow. While our choices and actions may affect our immediate future, much greater forces – which lore often ascribes to “fate” – will shape the courses of our lives. According to George Friedman‘s The Next 100 Years, the same holds true for the future of international relations, which are shaped, similarly, by a concoction of geopolitical forces – specifically geology, geography, economics and demographics.

Friedman, beginning in the early 21st century, walks the reader through what he forecasts to be some of the major conflicts of the future. Citing Turkey, Poland, Mexico, and Japan as future contenders for regional hegemony, Friedman points to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and the American Southwest as conflict zones. Considering the advances in military technology, Friedman also includes space.

Basing his “predictions” (which he prefaces humbly enough to make them palatable to the reader) on geopolitical factors and historical patterns, Friedman does a great job at inspiring the reader to think outside of the box about geopolitics, the balance of power, and the trends that determine the future. While his book does not prove what will happen in the world, it does prove one thing for sure – we cannot assume that what we expect to happen will actually happen.

Though the intellectual exercise does the reader a great favor in serving as a reminder not to get caught up in the hype of the most recent trends in the media, Friedman’s analyses fail to incorporate more dynamic transnational variables.

Specifically, I am referring to the role of disease in determining human history. Pathogens played  a large role in enabling Europeans to swiftly carve out the New World for their own interests. Malaria prevented the Dutch from being as successful at colonizing southern Africa as the French were in west Africa and the Maghreb. HIV/AIDS and Malaria have inhibited and continue to burden the growth of many African nations. If Friedman considers demographics to be so important in determining history, how can he possibly justify avoiding a discussion of the role of maladies that so powerfully sculpt demographic pyramids? It would have been interesting to see him try to factor this into his discussion or even to hear him explain why he did not.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

I’m not sure what to say about this book. In fact it’s taken me more than a month to publish this post. I’ve spent much time thinking about what to say and I’ve drawn the conclusion that there isn’t anything that I can say that would be able to encapsulate, summarize, or even describe a portion of what Didion (bio) has written. The subject of her work and the way in which she expresses her experience is with such natural logic and inherent tact that I cannot attempt to convey it without diluting it. What I can say, however, is that The Year of Magical Thinking is an intellectual yet pure expression of a universal human experience gravid with emotion, of an attempt to understand and adapt to those most final, irreversible, and destabilizing aspects of death and mourning.

It is important to know that despite the weight of the subject matter of this book, The Year of Magical Thinking is in no way dark and does not feel heavy. The hardest and saddest moments could only be so described because of the honesty of Didion’s writing, which, both directly and indirectly, discusses all the twists and turns that the mourning mind takes in its search to make sense of the world.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a book about the environment of death – mourning, grief, loss, and the inevitable questions of self that arise in this landscape. Reading the last line and closing the back cover with nothing more left to read was like getting hit with a wall-like gust of wind or plunging into cold water – not because of the plot but because of the thoughts that Didion conjures. The thought process that immediately ensues is akin to a philosophical and somewhat existential rumination.

Read and reflect.


“Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West” by Benazir Bhutto

Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West by Benazir Bhutto was probably one of the best book choices I have ever made. Other than for the unique historical significance of the woman, factors of my own certainly contributed a great deal to the personal import of reading Bhutto’s work. Without a doubt, Reconciliation has instilled in me a strong conviction that opportunities for democratic growth in the Islamic world must be more creatively and universally supported by both American civil society and American foreign policy.


Reconciliation is not only a good book for those who have spent too much time reading article after article about the Islamic world and following the debate on civilizational and ideological conflict. It is also a prime spot for beginners. The book presents, essentially, two stories. First, the book shows Bhutto’s theory; the argument that the essential obstacles to democracy in Muslim nations (particularly in Pakistan)  are the conflicts between democracy and dictatorship and between moderation and extremism – not the religion of Islam itself. Second, the book recounts Benazir Bhutto’s own struggle for democratization in Pakistan.

In her analysis of the obstacles facing Muslim democracies, Bhutto’s argument traces many perspectives on Islam, democracy, and the Western role in the Muslim world.  She assesses the history of democracy in Muslim nations from one end of Ummah to the other. In her assessment of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, she draws heavily on the text of the Quran, differentiates between religion and tradition, and identifies the conflicts within the Muslim community that bar its achievement of democratic momentum. Building her argument from the ground up, this historical overview allows Bhutto to access all readers on all levels of understanding.

Bhutto’s personal experiences are none other than inspiring. The corrupt political environment in Pakistan clearly forced her to adopt aggressively creative tactics to promote the Pakistan People’s Party and fight for democratic principles and enable equitable economic development. In Reconciliation, she employs this creative critical thinking to problem solving in the greater context of democratic development in the Muslim world – resulting an identification of the key target areas (education, gender equality, women’s economic empowerment, civil society, etc.) as well as a series of innovative proposals.

Enlightening and inspiring.


Social Media, Surveys, and the Dutch Example

The era of internet connectivity has provided sociologists and marketers with a truly invaluable resource – easy access to massive amounts of people. The trick, however, for tapping into this resource for sociological purposes (which most often rely on surveys) lies in the ability to motivate netizens to participate.

Of late, I have noticed an increase in survey taking on Facebook. Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York times recently asked, “What country will be the world’s most powerful in 2100?” for an article on the rise of India. It seems as though he has gotten a decent number of responses (though I would have thought there would have been more). This survey format – as a single question – appears with a bar graph. Each bar will increase with each response, giving the Facebook user a feeling that their individual response will have some sort of tangible effect on the outcome. In a sense, this is a sensation of empowerment in exchange for data.

By using Facebook, Kristof is also depending on the innate standard of participation that is created by the structure of social media itself – a force similar to gravity in its dependence on mass, a type of peer-pressure, an environmentally induced desire to participate in one’s friends’ activities.

Something I think that will always be more effective, however, is an extension or addition of the old trick used by every university psychology department – money, food, a prize, or a chance to win money or a prize. By turning a survey into a lottery ticket, any organization can easily up the number of participants in their studies online – especially when administering said technique through social networks with consistently active and obsessive users, like Twitter.

While most governments and government organizations tend to be relatively slow on the uptake in terms of taking advantage of crowd-sourcing and social media – the Dutch are a true exception. comScore Inc. (an organization that assesses digital participation and marketing, see more here) recently gave the Netherlands first place in a global assessment of social media penetration (for Twitter and LinkedIn). While the survey was not assessing governments, it is clear that the government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands represents its people even in this trend. I would have to add to comScore Inc.’s conclusion that the Dutch also have a great degree of skill at motivating other people to participate in their social networks and fill out their surveys.

The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United States has a twitter account (@DutchEmbassyDC) and about a month or so ago they had asked their followers to fill out a quick survey to provide feedback about their website design and have a chance to win a Dutch designer mug. Spending a lot of time paying attention to diplomatic missions in Washington, I figured I’d take the five minutes to fill out the survey even though, with over 1200 followers, I knew that the chances of winning were slim. I still felt that, somehow, such a small chance was worth the five minutes of my free time. After all, I was in front of the computer anyways.

I’m glad I filled out the survey because in the end, I actually got a mug!

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And now the Dutch have got me hooked and if I ever see another survey with a chance to win a prise that shows up in my Twitter feed – I will certainly take the five minutes to fill it out. Even the worst chances of winning at that game makes me want to participate.

Organizations that want to become more self-aware or active could learn a lot from the Dutch example of taking advantage of social media to penetrate into online communities and then employing games to increase participation.

Opinion: Resume and Cover Letter Writing

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s resumes and cover letters lately. In general, I’ve noticed a high frequency of basic errors as well as the lack of effort in coherent and aesthetic organization. The result is that I, the reader, wind up believing that the writer of the resume or cover letter in question either lacks motivation for the objective position or struggles with fundamental writing and compositional skills. When reviewing resumes and cover letters for a position, I tend to decide whether or not I like the documents or not (and therefore the applicants) within just a few seconds. Spelling errors, inconsistent formatting, and an ignorance of aesthetics are all immediately noticeable and quick solvents for any obligation I ever felt to thoroughly review the applicant in question.

So, after being on the other side of the job application process, I’d like to share some dos and don’ts as well as some general advice.

Undoubtedly (and I had thought, obviously) the most important aspect is effort. If there is ever a point during the composition or editing process that you ask yourself, “do I really need to (edit it again/go over this/rephrase that/reformat/resize etc.)” – stop asking yourself the question. There’s not a second option. If something causes you to want to call into question what you’ve written and you care at all, you will take the extra steps to ensure that your application materials are flawless. Otherwise, you are risking that you get rejected or put on the bottom of the pile in just a few seconds.

Resumes

Do:

  • Clearly, neatly, and coherently structure and format
  • Include a header containing the name of the applicant in bold and the contact information
  • Use lines to separate sections
  • Use consistant formatting (including the “-” between dates, etc.)

Don’t:

  • Write more than 1 page (or if you are FORCED to under pain of death, 2 pages)
  • Include a language section if you only speak one language (e.g. Languages: English [Native])
  • Include Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or other social media (unless the job description specifically mentions and requires these skills) under your skills section. I mean, this is the 21st century version of knowing how to seal an envelope, sharpen a pencil, and pick up a phone – would you put that in your resume too?
  • Include more than 4 bullets under any 1 position if you have more than 1 former work experience
  • Use fonts other than Times New Roman or Helvetica
  • Use periods unless it’s a full sentence

Cover Letters

Do:

  • If you are emailing, include both in-message and attached versions – not everyone likes printing out emails people
  • Format it as a formal letter – if you don’t know how to write one, take the time to figure it out
Don’t:
  • Use fonts other than Times New Roman or Helvetica (must match resume font – no Comic Sans, ever!)
  • Misspell the addressee’s name
  • Address the reviewer by their first name
  • Use the wrong address (i.e., Ms. when it’s a man or Mr. when it’s a woman. If you don’t know, call the organization, do not identify yourself, and ask if they are a man or a woman. Or, alternatively, use a different form of address)
  • Use Mrs. all the time – since you do not know the marital status or age of the individual in question, erring on Ms. is better than erring on Mrs.
  • Use the same cover letter for multiple jobs, replace the position name and company name but forget to delete the old one… ahem
Additional Advice when emailing job applications:
  • Do not include quotes, images, or personal affectations in your email signature. Not matter how great you think your message is, the only things that are ever appropriate are the following: Name, contact info, address (if necessary), LinkedIn.
  • If you mention in your email that you have attached something, make sure you attach it. For those of you who have had problems with this before, when you first open the email attach the files immediately before typing in the email that you will attach them.
  • Send ideally .PDF or .DOC versions of your documents. Not everyone can open and read .DOCX and it would suck if you that’s the reason why you didn’t get picked.
  • Make sure the file names of your attachments do not indicate that you are applying for other jobs. In other words don’t name your files “Name_Resume4” or send “Resume_Macy’s” to a job application for Sears. If you have a problem of having multiples with names that are too similar, keep separate folders for each job – this way you can always keep your resume title as “Name_Resume” and still have different content. The same goes for cover letters.
  • Do not send an entire folder of documents.