Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Career advice: Oxford, Akhmatova, and Isaiah Berlin

When people ask me for career advice--and in particular, when they ask me, how can I get to be doing what you're doing--I have a hard time answering that question. Because honestly, I can't say I had any intention to be doing this--say, attending the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship at Oxford--when I first started thinking about my future. Looking back, if this is where I was intending to be, I'd say I had a lot of false starts.

First, my parents, being Japanese, very decidedly mercantile middle class, and pretty old-fashioned, really didn't think I was going to college. (It's one of the reasons I was allowed to attend international schools. If I had been a boy, they would have made a bigger effort to keep me in Japanese schools, and in the Japanese system, studying for the be-all and end-all university entrance exams.)

Then, when I did go to college, I was a Russian history major--when I first fell in love with Isaiah Berlin--and I ended up continuing on to grad school to become a Sovietologist (fully intending to become an academic.) And in fact while I was an undergrad at Harvard I was unhappy enough that I took the Oxford entrance exams--to go study law at Magdalen College. (I got in, but never left Harvard--another false start there).

Then, in 1991, when I was in grad school, the Soviet Union fell apart, and my desire to pursue an academic career in Sovietology evaporated--partly because as Sovietologists we'd signally failed to see the end coming, and partly because the government funding for Sovietology dried up. And that's how I joined the World Bank--as a Russia expert for a new member country. The best part about the job was I got to do what I had intended to do as an academic--to understand, if not undo, the repressions that had stifled all the things I had come to love about Russia, its history, people, and culture.

And ten years later, I left, to start GlobalGiving with Dennis Whittle. And now, eight years after that, it's all come full circle with Kenneth Brecher's incredibly eloquent story about Anna Akhmatova, and how we can but aspire to resemble Isaiah Berlin's description of her devotion to poetry, to witness, and belief in the future. So maybe, next time they ask me, how do I get where you are, I'll take them around the long way--and start with Isaiah Berlin.

Come to think of it, I think it's the first book I lent to Dennis, when I first met him, 17 years ago.

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