Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where Does my Strength Come From? Part 2 - A Theory

Everyone draws their strength from somewhere - family, friends, spiritual leader etc.....So what makes me strong? Where do I get my strength from so I can keep my inner Energizer bunny going?

Now that my background is out there (Read This Blog First), I can look back and think of all the places that my life could have gone in the wrong direction but it did not. There are many factors that make us who we are. Some will chalk everything to "destiny". Which may be true, but then it takes away our power of analysis and self-reflection. We will not attempt to do anything, which may also be destiny, but as a human being we should feel we have some control and we should have the ability to do self analysis.

My Home Life - My Parents (years 0-16)
My first credit of strength goes to my parents. We learn our values from home. The main things are written below - I will write details later for each phase of my life (coming later). All of these have brought a center of gravity for me - put me on a path with good foundation.
  • Togetherness - We were always together as a family; we traveled together, played cards together, went on walks together, studied together, always ate together. We were a close knit foursome. 
  • Communication - We talked a lot as a family. All the time at home, at walks, during playing cards or watching a movie - we would be talking - making comments. For a long time we had no TV - so talking was the thing to do in our home. My parents would communicate about so many things - friends, incidences, family structure etc. 
  • Written Communication - Since we were out of India our only way to communicate with relatives there was letters. So I learned how to write letters from my parents. Even now, I write letters or make sure I maintain my connections. Letter writing is a lost art these days.
  • Helping Others - My father is of a very helping nature. He would help anyone, anytime and in any circumstance. I realize now that many people don't have this characteristic. And that help, for most part, did not go unappreciated. I have thus learned that if anyone is in a position to help then one should, otherwise what is the point of earning money or having "things". 
  • Good Habits - My parents never talked about drugs or alcohol, but their off handed remarks were enough for me. I never even wanted to try any drugs etc. Even now I have no inclination towards any form of neurotransmitters (except caffeine - tea is a must!)
  • Social Life - We had a very active social life in the 12 years we were in Nigeria. The friendships were strong and we all depended on each other. I have carried on that tradition of making good friends. Luckily, for most part, I have been a good judge of character and have not been cheated too much. And where ever I have moved I have maintained my relationships.
  • Cultural Awareness - We are Hindus but we are not conservative. I grew up with an open mind and heart. Our friend circle included people of various countries, backgrounds, religions etc. I learned to mingle with everyone. Even now my friend circle is as diverse as a botanical garden.

From My School Years (until High School) (11-16 yrs)
These were some of the hardest years of my younger years. But here are the positives. I also learned some things that made me cautious and the depth of certain relationships.
  • Competitiveness - since I was the youngest one in all my classes all the time, I had to work harder to get good grades. And I had a brother in the same class, so there was that sibling rivalry. This characteristic always drives me to do better in whatever I do.
  • Daring nature - I don't know how, but I have always been strangely fearless. I don't care what people will think about me. It may have started at Vanasthali where I was the foreigner - the girl from Nigeria. I had to be able to do what I wanted to do, otherwise it would not get done.  And thus began my independent streak.....
  • Its Okay to be Alone - that was one lesson I learned in Vanasthali.  I did not, could not make friends, no matter how hard I tried - the Indian girls were just different. So I learned to be alone at 11 years of age. And I still work on this at this stage of my life.

College Years (India) (years 16-20)
Technically from this point onward I consider myself an independent adult. I used to come home for vacations but I felt sometimes like I was a guest in my own home.
  • Compromise - Living with relatives for four years taught me a lot of compromise. I really grew up fast in Meerut (B.Sc.). Hazing in college really teaches you to be humble. 
  • Not Taking Things Seriously - At that time the only way I could teach myself to get through some of hard days was that, "don't worry, its going to be over in a few months!" And that is because I was a guest for most part where ever I was - at home or in the hostel or wherever. This is good and bad. The good is that I can bear anything for a while. The bad is that I have never had to live with anyone in a long term commitment.
  • Trust and Friendship - I knew true friendships for the first time during my M.Sc. years. My girlfriends there were amazing. I had genuine, down to earth friends and we were all loyal to each other. 
  • The Power of Connection - Both my admissions, B.Sc. and M.Sc. were through connections of my uncles. I realized the value of connection and knowing people during those years - here in USA we call it networking. 
  • Hard Work - After enjoying too much in B.Sc. I realized that I had to do better in M.Sc. So I studied my behind off. And it did pay off.  

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (year 20)
The best advice I got was from my boss in the AAU chemistry department. He told me this as I was leaving for USA to do my PhD. He said, "Sapna, you don't owe anyone any explanation for your decisions." And boy he was right!

USA Years
Ph.D. taught me even more about hard work, having good friendships, value of social circle. When I started doing my post doc work I realized that chemistry was not an easy field to get into for women. During Ph.D. I was valued as an "Indian" student, although I did not feel Indian (I also faced discrimination because of my ethnicity). During post doc I felt the discrimination of being a female in the male dominated field of chemistry.

So Really.....
I still don't know where I get my strength or if I am even strong.  All my past experiences have contributed to my being able to stand up for myself, make my own decisions and be independent. My biggest comfort comes from the fact that I don't really have to explain myself to anyone. You can accept my decision or not - its up to you because I am going to do what I have made up my mind to do. I can give my reasoning if anyone is interested - and really most people are not.

There have been some heart breaks and major negative events on the way; I had to force myself to not get depressed. I have to keep going - mostly because I have only myself to depend on. If I give up on myself then I might as well give up on life - so better shake off the bad feelings and keep moving. If I stop, then life stops for me. I think being away from home since 16 years of age has given me some ability to protect myself by being stubborn and decisive. I feel I am the one who knows myself the best so I am the only person to make decisions for myself, and I am the only person responsible for myself.

Living alone has made me do things that I would never do when I was with friends: simple things like watching a movie alone or touring places by myself, driving in the loneliest of the highways in the pre-cell phone era (and keep praying that you don't have an accident). I realized that if I don't do these things that it was going to be my own loss.  Among the hardest things I have done, is pack up my home 5 times and move to a brand new city with no idea of what I was getting into (that part of strength I get from my parents who did the same thing!!).

This will be a whole separate blog, but I still want to mention that I have felt all sorts of discrimination: as a female, as a short person, as an Indian, as a foreigner (even in my own country - India) and so on. It made me realize that people are not very accepting in general. But since I have always been a fish out of the water, I have learned to swallow bitter pills and not let them pull me down. I don't know if that made me stronger; but it definitely made me more aware and I learned to live with it.

Last Word....
Couple other pieces of advice I got when I came to USA; and I found both to be very useful for me. I follow them at much as possible.
  • If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything.
  • If you do something, give it your best otherwise don't do it.

Where Does my Strength Come From? Part 1 - My background

Am I strong? How do I make myself do the best I can everyday, living alone for so long? What is in me that gives me inner strength? Life has had its challenges and I have been dealing with a lot of them on my own.  I have achieved some things I wanted to, but some are still eluding me. As I am nearing my mid-life I have been thinking about this a lot.I don't have good answers - but I have given it some thought. 

First of all - why did I think about this at all? My background is quite different from a number of my peers and the more I think about it, the more I wonder how did I manage it all? I feel comfortable in my life right now - my job, house, health, social life etc. I have been living alone for about 20 years and have had to take care of a number of things myself. Where does the strength for all this come from? I may have an idea...but I have to go through ALL my life on this earth so far.

The Early Years:
My mother's love showing in this picture
My first 8 yrs in Dehra Dun (where I was born), were okay for me. There are a few things I remember I disliked: one was that being the youngest of all my immediate cousins, I was teased a lot; I never felt like I fit with my classmates - don't know if it was because I was the youngest? My parents move to Nigeria (with my brother and I) when I was 8 years old. My father had just changed his career to begin a new one as a professor at University of Ibadan. 

After two years in Nigeria, when I was 11 years of age, my parents sent me to Vanasthali Vidyapeeth, Jaipur, India, for one year. I was in the 8th grade at that time. Living in the hostel was definitely not easy. It was one mishap after another. But most of all - it was lonely.

After one year, my parents decided to bring me back to Nigeria for four years to finish O and A level (10th and 12th). Not easy at all!! My brother and I were in the same class (and section!!)  It was hard work and since I was always the youngest in the class - I had to work twice as hard to understand what everyone got easily. I finished 12th grade when I was 16. 

The College Years:
I was sent back to India to do my B.Sc. in Chemistry. I am very thankful to my father that he persisted on me studying Chemistry. I was back in the hostel after four years of living at home. I was also under the guardianship of my maternal uncle (mama) who I had met only once before.  So I had to adjust living in someone's else's guardianship other than my parents. I was only 16, and I did my best! And I am grateful to my uncle for making sure I got admitted in RG Girls College. I would not change that college experience for anything!  

After two years my father made sure I did my M.Sc. in chemistry and the only place I got admission was JV Jain College in Saharanpur (thanks to another uncle).  This was an adjustment of mammoth proportion - although I did not realize it at that time. First, I was living at home in my aunt's (bua's - my father's sister) in-law's house (not in the hostel), and second the family was a joint family. My first and only experience of such a home. Oh I have stories!! Again, in retrospect this was the best time of my education yet.

Oh back to Nigeria after 4 years; here Papa advised me to take some classes to pass time until we packed up and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. So I took two classes- sewing and typing. Both were very useful - typing more than sewing :-). 

All these four years I was flying back and forth to India from Nigeria on my own. Now that I think about it, I lived out of two suitcases for those four years. That in itself was interesting as I had such few belongings :-) Parents would pickup and drop me off in Lagos and relatives in Delhi.

Then time to pack and move to Addis. Oh what an adventure! I will write details in another blog but needless to say it was another experience of my life. Again, on Papa's advice, I volunteered in the lab of a wonderful professor and mentor (and thank God - an organic chemist!!) in the chemistry department, University of Addis Ababa. (Educationally speaking, Papa has been my mentor and director, and it has paid off - at least from my perspective.) I also gave my GRE exams and prepared for PhD in chemistry in the USA.

One year later, I was in University of Toledo admitted and starting my PhD. I was very different than the other Indian girls as they all came from India (I considered myself part African). I also had a cushy landing as my brother was already in the university so I never had to go through what other foreign students had to go through of settling in a new place.

My brother and I in Chicago
PhD time was most eventful and memorable time of my life. I would not change a thing!! I had the best boss, best lab mates and a great room mate (my brother!). I also finished my PhD in a good time of four years. 

I would say that my education was smooth from my point of view. Whether it was my uncles or father or brother - they all helped make my education a smooth process.  All I had to do was study hard.  Well...and I did have a lot of fun on the way; I enjoyed every aspect of my higher education. By age 24 I was ready for post doctoral work.

Post Doctoral Life:
With a little networking I got my first post doc position at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, a premier place for PDT scientists in the world - as it was the birth place of PDT. This was also my first time living on my own in my apartment, managing my money, driving around in the city on my own etc....had some micro hiccups.

After working there for one year, I felt my first major hiccup. I was jobless for the first time in my life, at a place in time where I was supposed to have secured a job and be independent. I was 25 years old. I had a very hard 4 months. I literally hit the pavement in Buffalo, as they say, to find a job. I was wondering what would happen to me if I no job? What about my status in the USA? Where would I live? The uncertainty was too much. I had to move to Detroit to live with my brother and parents and go back on a F-1 visa. Not pleasant. 

Luckily while I was working at Roswell, I had managed to secure an interview with another leading chemist in PDT, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The interview happened in November in Ottawa, Canada (that interview was another experience I would rather not have again - ever!). I was offered a post doctoral position at UBC and I was happy to go to Vancouver, Canada the next year. One of my uncle's sister lived in Vancouver and they became my family there. It was such a blessing. 

My "Real" Working Life:
Just after 9 months in Vancouver, I was offered my first teaching job at Park University - how I got the interview is also another story! I interviewed in Seattle and nailed it! (When the provost gives you a hug after the interview you know you have the job!) I did not even know where Park University was on the map of USA. One month later, I moved to Parkville (near Kansas City) in January - middle of the snow season.

I have to mention that I had never been to Buffalo, Vancouver or Parkville before. I went to these places mostly by myself, found a place to live until I got a more permanent place. It was a little better in Parkville since the college had faculty housing, but I had not seen the work place!! What a surprise that was! A pleasant one. This will be a huge other blog.  Many key events happened while I was in Parkville: my H-1 visa, my marriage, my divorce, my green card and my citizenship. All very important events of my life.

My next move came after 11 years to Shenandoah University, Winchester, Virginia. I interviewed there, saw the place; but kismet would have it such that it was the worst two years of my life. I would never want to relive those again. I met some nice people and had some good experiences but as an academic - worst place ever.

My desperate search for job brought me to West Palm Beach, Florida, where I currently am. Here again were some adventures and mishaps very early on (mostly in the residential part of my life) - but all things happen for a good reason - right? As a result of those I quit renting and ended up buying my first home here which is now my little piece of heaven.

Then in 2011, I realized I was getting bored over the summer (and I did not want to teach) so I decided to go to India on my own (previously I had always gone with Papa because I never really felt safe traveling in India by myself). Went twice in two years and it was good experience. My blog for those years is already written.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about managing a house on my home, renovating, painting, finding a handy man etc etc. 

Its worthwhile to mention that while I was working in Kansas City, I went to University of Hawaii, Hilo, to teach organic chemistry during their summer semester (sadly, just one time). Lately I have a nice relationship with Capital University, in Columbus, where I have been teaching over summer, when I am not in India. So yet again I live like a gypsy!!

While at Park and Shenandoah, I was very active in attending conferences and workshops.  I got the chance to see so much of America through my professional development. I have driven in so many states and taken so many road trips.  I know for sure that I could do only because I was living in this wonderful - most comfortable country - USA!

So back to my original point - what makes me strong? Now that my background is all out there; I think I can assess what has helped me get here.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Work Management

This was sent to me a while back. It is about being productive and happy in a work environment.  I have edited it a bit to incorporate my own ideas.
  1. Be a team player:  Being a good team player is attained at the point of realization that the company and the team come before you. Outperforming in a team project lifts your morale, which obviously increases your chances of being promoted. Personal attitude matters a lot here. Not everyone in the team can be your good friends, never a possibility. What counts is your professional maturity of not voicing your difference against another while at work.
  2. Be a good observer:  There is no excuse if you miss to observe what is happening around you and how things are done in your organization. Observation means involvement too, rather an indirect participation. Here you should try to find out what are the values of the company and how are they enacted? What is the process of decision making? What is the risk tolerance level? You will get an accurate idea about the culture of your organization by finding out the answers for the above questions and thus you can design your style of work in your organization.
  3. Be a good communicator:  Communication doesn't only mean that you talk and develop a good rapport with everyone around you. Rather, it's how you let everyone know what you have achieved in a con vincible manner. But at the same time, a fallacy of exaggerating your success or taking undeserved credit for your role in teamwork will land you to neck-deep office politics. A good communicator creates friends and a makes even enemies talk good about him - he is the master of diplomacy.
  4. Respect all:  Respecting your subordinates is as important as your superiors. While you shower your boss with countless salaams and behave with people working under you or co-workers in an autocratic manner with the wrong notion of positional hierarchy, you can never expect respect from anyone. In the heavily complex professional and personal relationship web in an organization, you never know to whom someone might be connected.
  5. Manage your own behavior:  You got to be calm and cool at times of tensions. Refrain from gossiping, questionable judgments and spreading rumors. Grow beyond interpersonal conflicts. You should never compromise on your integrity. Professionalism and work ethics should be the basis of your actions. Above all, you should be extremely careful when revealing things to others - never blindly rely on confidentiality.