It was one quiet afternoon on the outskirts of Bangkok. A team of former Philippine government officials and their co-writers were wrapping up a 3-day alignment session with their Thai counterparts. The collaboration had drafted work memoirs compiling leadership lessons in their home countries, and are about to go to press. Mission accomplished.
I was part of that team now permitted to relax at a floating restaurant and enjoy a lazier sumptuous lunch. The meal, in true Thai fashion, was fresh, spicy and made heartier by the fact that I am done with what I came here to do. I can finally breathe and be a tourist in Thailand.
The officials were far more relaxed than the staff as they happily relived the highlights from the meetings over tom yum and pad thai. You can feel their excitement, which was rare in our workdays, as they now thought about the book launch, the fallout they expect from their tell-alls, and our country’s future. There was so much wisdom in that table that I could not help but wonder how I ended up in their esteemed company.
Some unexpected topics came up, such as the search for a new speechwriter for a newly elected senator, Benigno Aquino III. The job was being offered to my colleague who was seated next to me. She politely declined given her family commitments, but when we were left to ourselves, she asked me if I would like to take that job. It was interesting, I told her, but I was not sure if it was right for me.
My concern was, I had no background whatsoever in politics, and what I knew of it was not exactly helpful. I had always thought of politics as a cesspool of dumb greedy people. I mean, if the word “corrupt” comes up, is that not instantly synonymous with someone who works in Congress? Do they get work done? My doubts were mere perceptions, though, likely triggered by my innocence. I did not want to reject an offer based on that.
So I agreed to come in for an interview with the Senator-elect. It was our first meeting ever, and I found him unusually casual and warm for a famous person. He was also candid with his answers to my questions, one of which confirmed for me that this is a totally different realm beyond development work. I was still unfamiliar at this point with the process of making laws but it did not seem to matter to him. He said the job is mine if I wanted it and the meeting was just a formality. Later I would learn that in politics, you rely on the word and referral of the people in your trust circle, and at the time, I happened to be outside of that circle. I was lucky.
I said yes to a job I had no competency for whatsoever, and to this day, it remains a bright light in my professional career.
I would move up from that job into the highest echelons of power as the Assistant Secretary/Chief of Staff of President Benigno Aquino III’s communications office. After three years in that job, I pursued my Master’s degree in the US.
I was invincible.
After graduate school, I was hit hard by reality. The job market was tough, especially in a town bursting with predominantly smart people. I had to linger around the Boston area to apply for jobs, but the available jobs were reserved for residents, and I was a stranger in a strange land with an extended student visa. I would not hear back from the people I reached out to and this went on for a while. Meanwhile, in my fruitless penniless search, I was pouring money down the drain. I paid my way through student loans and would have to start paying off the principal on that soon. So I was anxious about the nearing deadline for my first loan payment, and unemployment-induced torture. You know when you are at a cafe, sipping coffee you cannot afford, with your laptop pretending you are useful but really just browsing for jobs? Worst feeling in the world.
I have never felt that helpless, but I said yes to the experience by accepting it as part of life. There was no point in sulking and making a negative situation feel worse, but it wasn’t easy.
In a few months, and just a week before I was to leave the States, I got a call from a company in Massachusetts. The CEO had asked around for a chief of staff and I was referred by a former colleague. I was flown in from DC for an interview and offered a job. It was a dramatic turn of events that I was delighted and frankly, quite relieved to say yes to.
Five months later, the same CEO let me go without warning. The drama was never that far behind.
I have never been fired before. I have always been the reliable staff, rubbing elbows with powerful people, naturally influential by affiliation. But I had to accept the inevitable. What other choice did I have? So I started canceling my apartment lease, sold my barely used brand new SUV, and gave away most of my stuff that in the dead of winter was costly to pick up. I even almost got scammed a thousand dollars by someone who offered to buy my furniture on Craigslist. All this was happening while I was grieving. I got out of there stat to move in with my family in DC.
After three months of job hunting, no job was forthcoming so I went back home to Manila to stop burning cash. Good fortune was elusive — I still could not get a job in my own town. I jumped on contractual projects, a wellness distribution business, and met with mentors and friends who could be helpful. Nothing was happening, but I kept saying yes, making the calls, dressing up and showing up.
I said yes to all the meetings, even though I had close to nothing to pay for gas.
I said yes to standing for 8 hours for two days in a bazaar selling products people ignored.
I said yes to financial literacy workshops I could barely afford because I could not afford to be this broke again.
I said yes to a hotel job I hated and then ended up getting fired…again.
I said yes to wisdom from the elders who were getting concerned about my plight.
I said yes to a consulting job at a non-profit that paid little but was doing something worthwhile.
I said yes to another consulting job that was doing something even more worthwhile and finally paying me what I deserved.
I said yes to all our band gigs even though the pay was low because music was a positive in my dreary existence.
As I kept saying yes, I could sense that something inside me was changing.
I became a minimalist. I learned to track my spending. I thrived in silence.
I was growing up.
The halo of good fortune is finally descending because I kept saying yes even if I really felt like a no.
As I look back on that fateful afternoon in Thailand, when I started to pivot towards politics that led to a turbulent but eventually fulfilling career, I realize the value of adventure, especially at that tender age of twenty-five. I was game for anything. I faced my fears and survived every single nadir, thirteen years on. The prospect of dying was never close.
Having overcome tumult and despair has built in me some strength to withstand future struggles. I know there will be many, but I also know I can defeat them.
Say yes to everything, because the best is yet to come.