Il bel far niente

Sometimes it takes one writer to coax another out of hibernation. Or at least that was the case for me.

The experience of re-introducing myself to my keyboard and the blank “add new post” page that has been calling my name came about because I decided one fine afternoon to re-introduce myself to the witty, colorful language of Elizabeth Gilbert. The reviews on the inside cover of Eat, Pray, Love are spot on–Gilbert is an “irresistible narrator,” “everything you would love in a tour guide” and just so darn down-to-earth that it’s hard not to take her words–and her lessons–at face value. Using colorful phrases like “as that old country-western song out of Texas goes, “I’ve been screwed and sued and tattooed...” Elizabeth Gilbert is that friend you wish you could take everywhere with you, echoing your sub-conscious and telling you, why yes, that dress does make you look 10 years older than you are, when you really just need an honest opinion–and she comes all wrapped up in a $15 paperback book. Not a bad deal. Regardless, what’s really important–and what I reflect on at this most auspicious time of year (i.e. the beginning of a new school year)– is Gilbert’s lesson on Il bel far niente, or “the beauty of doing nothing.”

In fact, this phrase epitomizes perfectly the annual beach trip that our family takes with  friends almost every summer that we’re all back together in Virginia. This summer it was back to an old haunt–Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Even though we’ve changed over the years, luckily it’s still as beautiful as ever :)

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A couple of things happened at the beach:

The twins turned 20 :)

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…and cooked (kind of). Inesha got creative with her pancakes.

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We spent time at the beach and, of course, didn’t miss our opportunity to jet ski!

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We even picked up some new music from the guys–this one has been on replay in the Premaratne house :)

All in all, between plenty of Sri Lankan food, a ladies’ afternoon out to the nail salon, lots of laughs, and jokes good and bad, the beach is always a great place to round out the summer and I’ll always relish the time we have there.

Now, I realize that my Italian vocabulary is pretty much limited to “gelato,” but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate its beauty nor the fact that it is as poetic as they come. And this phrase–‘the beauty of doing nothing‘–is one that I count among the many gifts that Italian has given the world. For all practical purposes, here’s what I think it’s trying to tell us (thankfully, I can relay this in English): doing nothing really is something after all. And we owe it to ourselves to try it once in a while. Goodbye, Summer 2013! Onwards to Junior Year….!

Lean In Moments: Bari Saltman on her fellowship at Year Up

By Bari Saltman

I have always been terrified of the telephone. Easily distracted and frequently awkward, I have consistently opted for alternative modes of communication – lunch dates with friends, G-chatting with my parents, texting with my grandmother (which, as you can imagine, does not always yield a timely or coherent response). When I am forced to partake in a phone conversation with a professional contact or a physically distant pal, I often find myself interrupting sentences and my attention drifting to other items on my to-do list (or, more commonly, the episode of The Newsroom that I have conveniently left open in my browser).

Yet throughout the first few weeks of my fellowship at Year Up, I logged more phone calls than I have made in the past ten years combined.  As a New Sector Alliance AmeriCorps Summer Fellow serving at the national headquarters of a fast-paced, quickly-expanding non-profit, I was forced to jump in feet first—and jump out of my comfort zone. I’m spending my summer supporting the Human Resources team at Year Up, which provides urban young adults with skill development and corporate internships. Year Up is incredibly people-focused, and my work involves capacity-building projects that will enhance the non-profit’s organizational development and talent acquisition initiatives. Before I could truly make progress and create impact, however, I knew that I needed to gain a better understanding of the practices currently being implemented in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. I also had a hunch that G-chat would not serve as a legitimate form of benchmarking research.

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I quickly filled my schedule with phone conversations with human resources contacts at relevant organizations, and used any free time that I had to cold call potential resources (as you can imagine, cold calling literally makes me sweat). My standard phone-induced anxiety was heightened by the fact that I didn’t feel qualified to be making these phone calls: I worried that seasoned professionals would look down on an undergraduate intern, that I wasn’t deserving of their time.

Once I leaned into the conversations and developed rapport with my contacts, however, I realized that my title at Year Up was insignificant. These individuals were willing to speak with me because I made a sincere effort to sound professional, thoughtful and relatable. In some cases, when I hung up the phone I realized that I had sparked a relationship that had the potential to continue past my service at Year Up. Though I had been speaking with strangers about unfamiliar topics through a very uncomfortable medium, I had acted as if I was confident and knowledgeable—and I came off as confident and knowledgeable.

Often, leaning in to a new experience or challenge involves not only taking a risk but also trusting that your unique assets and abilities will carry you through.

Aside from the fake-it-‘til-you-make-it lesson that is so apparent in this story, I learned throughout my research process that I did have relevant skills to bring to the table. While I had never before been directly involved in the human resources space, I was able to draw on my experiences in public speaking and counseling to effectively connect with the individuals on the other end of the phone. My finely honed Googling skills also helped me to better prepare for the conversations. Often, leaning in to a new experience or challenge involves not only taking a risk but also trusting that your unique assets and abilities will carry you through.

Above all, I have found it so incredibly important to take the time to reflect on these accomplishments, to pat myself on the back for leaning in. We too often reserve praise and encouragement for the end of a project or process, forgetting that small steps—like picking up the phone to dial a stranger—contribute to our development inside and outside of the workplace. Not only did my supervisor remark on my willingness to schedule so many conversations with so little preparation, but my blockmates have been receiving more phone calls from me than ever before. Leaning in certainly produces results in the office. Yet the practice also illuminates the strengths I possess, the skills I’ve acquired, and the areas in which there is potential for growth.

Lean in Moments: Joanne Dynak in Venice, Italy

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With a youth unemployment rate of 36% and climbing in a  culture stagnant in its brilliant history, Italian youth are increasingly forced to leave the country in pursuit of a better, stable life. This summer, I found myself  among a collection of youth venturing back to one of the most quintessentially Italian cities – Venice – in pursuit of understanding both its  current economic state, and the future of our global generation.

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Venice is a special place. In a brief two months, I’d had countless rides on the waterbuses around the city (the equivalent of a subway system, boat-wise); consumed a shameless amount of gelato, Nutella, cappuccinos, and fried fish; I was taught the skilled ways of Venetian rowing from a hardy group of singing Voga captains (think crew, but standing gondolier-style); I’d shared lunches of tagliatelle and scallops with Communist dock workers; huddled canal-side with friends in awe of the firework tsunami that initiated the Redentore festival; and explored the city-wide biannual international modern art exhibition known as Biennale, the exhibits of which lay sprinkled between Crusade-era churches, hidden courtyard gardens, and dark, winding walkways that opened to small city squares.

But all these unique bits of Venetian life were welcome additions to the real reason I was there. For six weeks, I took courses in Italian language and Keynesian economic theory through the Harvard Summer School collaboration with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.  We studied alongside Italian students from Ca’ Foscari, many of them already doing graduate work.

Why travel all the way to one of the cultural, artistic, and historical epicenters of the world to take a macroeconomic theory class? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use my time there to embrace the rich history around me? These answers lie not so much in my own perspective as in that of my Italian classmates.

IMG_0231When we weren’t decoding Keynesian prose from The General Theory or explaining how in the world the serendipitous equilibrium moved from E to E’ (what? I know), we chatted over vending machine espressos (they have those) and prodded each other about our lives on the other side of the pond. While we relished in our similarities as young adults and students, what may have drawn us closer was the understanding of our different perceptions of our own futures.

One of my personal and academic passions lies in education reform. Coming to Harvard from an underprivileged background and attending a small, financially struggling high school, I know just how crucial access to quality education is at every level in determining our nation’s future. But as we come back to the individual level, what does having an education mean beyond being in school, upon entering the “real world?”

Although employment conditions are less than optimal in the States, it’s difficult to argue that the consequent blossoming of innovation and entrepreneurial optimism is anything less than booming. Students, employers, and even the political sphere all seem to be embracing the brink of technology and new ideologies in open and applicable ways to increase efficiency and collaboration. Times are changing, and people of all ages and backgrounds grow and change with them. However, in places like Venice and throughout Italy and Europe, the case isn’t necessarily so. Italy’s labor market often proves unfair and restrictive as it protects older generations with permanent contracts, leaving little room for oncoming waves of graduates and young adults to enter the professional sphere – let alone make measurable differences within it. This leaves many young adults in Italy facing the decision to either stay (likely with their parents) and cope with the current system, or become one of the 60,000 youth this year to leave this country for another where their skills and vision have a chance to flourish. I remember. This is the question my classmates face – at a time when their country needs them most.

IMG_7570In order to make education reform across the globe an even stronger cause to fight for, we need to examine the economies in which we endeavor to enact these reforms.  In studying the nature of labor markets at the macroeconomic level, I’ve come to connect the many nuances between individual preparation to contribute to society, and the frustration of a system that prevents these contributions from happening – and consequently preventing the economy and the nation from stability, peace, and growth. The Italian students I spoke with are enthusiastic businessmen, activists, writers, programmers, mathematicians, marketers, and overall inspiring visionaries. But all of them saw beyond the beauty of the Venetian exterior into its inextricable ties with the past, its ties to former generations, which overshadowed the rising generations searching for the resources and opportunity necessary to advance the nation.

As fellow students, it is our obligation to reach beyond our borders and help our generation harness its time before it passes. We need to find ways to open the pathways to both education and application thereof if we want to make economic stability and prosperity at the global level a feasible ideal. And it starts with us. Lean in to new perspectives and don’t be afraid to form connections between ongoing problems. Immerse yourself in the unfamiliar to discover the fundamental. Reach out to others with the potential to make a movement. Be critical, be compassionate. And if you ever have a chance, check out Nico’s Gelati along Canal Giudecca – best chocolate chip gelato in Venice!

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these days.

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Sunday, on Sunday I finally escaped Manhattan. A surprisingly quick train ride out of Penn Station and twenty minutes later I found myself in the pleasantly nicer suburbs of Brooklyn. You know, where there’s actually tress. TREES. My father would approve.

I spent the afternoon brunching with my former TF and his adorable little girl. It was a good reminder, of the simple things.

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Yup, that’s right– A-DORABLE.

New York, you see, is so very BIG. It’s a concrete jungle of platinum shining searing lights and plasma screens and funny people walking on the streets. It smells sometimes and when it rains it really RAINS. But tucked in here and there are little villages and collections of stores, bakeries and cute coffee shops. It’s a kaleidoscope, really, of different places and things and peoples. I told one of my close friends recently that if Washington DC’s word is ‘power,’ New York’s is ‘character.’ And of that, it sure has plenty.

It’s given me something I thought DC would but that I realize in retrospect it didn’t give me at all.

W i d e   o p e n  s p a c e s.

And yes, I realize how counterintuitive it is that I’ve found that in this concrete jungle of a city with very few trees and no pastures to speak of, apartment buildings stacked practically on top of each other and street vendors that litter the streets from here to the end of never. But in running around tourists and natives alike, in sitting in the middle of Washington Square park with my now dear weekly Economist, that’s exactly what I’ve found. It’s not what I expected but it’s given me a sense of clarity– a step back that’s let me see what I want irrespective of what others around me are striving for. New York is definitely a city of ambitious people but it’s also a jungle gym of different places and different avenues to get wherever you’re going. A jungle gym that is much more lateral than one might think– as my friend told me when I first got here: “Anyone, anyone can ride the subway in New York.” That little observation holds true in a much bigger way. And it’s why I love you so, New York. It’s why I’m finally readdyyy and why finally, finally, I really am back to blogging about all things little and small, the people I’m learning from, and the steps (and missteps) I’m making along the way! Here we go.

Happy Monday y’all!

xo Inesha

*Little moments from these past few weeks*

these are the days.

Lean In Moments: Anne Madoff at Palantir Technologies

When I was 16, my friend Sofia gave me a New Yorker article on Sheryl Sandberg. This article preceded the publication of Lean In by two years, and I hadn’t yet heard Ms. Sandberg’s name. “She’s the COO of Facebook,” Sofia explained. “I know you like computers and tech-y things, so I figured you’d be interested in reading about her.”

Sofia was right. I loved the article, and one passage particularly struck me; the torn-out magazine page that contains it still sits on my desk at college, where I now study Computer Science.

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A meeting of Harvard Undergraduate Women in Computer Science, of which Anne is the Founding President

From the article–

Sandberg graduated first in the economics department. At her Phi Beta Kappa induction, there were separate ceremonies for men and women. At hers, a woman gave a speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” During the talk, Sandberg looked around the room and saw people nodding. “I thought it was the best speech I’d ever heard,” she recalls. “I felt like that my whole life.” At every stage of her time in school, Sandberg thought, I really fooled them.

“Wow, it’s not just me,” I thought to myself. Like Ms. Sandberg, I suffered from the impostor syndrome. I was convinced that I had been “fooling everyone” throughout my academic career, that I wasn’t really as good as my accolades would suggest. I kept this passage on my desk to remind myself that this feeling of inferiority was just that– a feeling, not a reality. Ms. Sandberg’s fears were clearly misguided and I hoped mine were too.

When I started work this summer, my confidence was at an all time low. After some seriously nerve-racking interviews, I had been offered an internship at Palantir Technologies. Working at Palantir is a Computer Science student’s dream: everyone who works at Palantir is extraordinarily bright and they enthusiastically tackle some of the world’s most important data-driven problems.

Needless to say, I really didn’t want to screw up. I kept thinking, “I wonder when they’re going to realize they made a mistake by hiring me, that I am not as skilled as they think I am.” Despite how kind and welcoming my team was, this fear persisted through my first month of work. Everyone I met was brilliant and I couldn’t quash the feeling that I didn’t measure up.

One day at lunch, my insecurities finally subsided. I was sitting with some interns I didn’t know very well, and one of the girls I’d just met said, “Ugh! My Palan-fear was out of control when I got here. I’m so glad it’s eased up.” I looked at her confusedly, and asked what “Palan-fear” meant. “You know, the fear that everyone here is way smarter than you are,” she replied. I felt just like I did at 16 when I read about Sheryl Sandberg’s anxieties: “wow, it’s not just me.” Keeping that Sheryl Sandberg article on my desk was a good first step towards combatting the impostor syndrome, but it wasn’t enough. Fighting the Idonotdeserveanyofthissuccess feeling required more consistent reminders and conversations.

After lunch, I was talking to some other colleagues and told them about the term I had just learned. “This girl I met came up with the funniest expression,” I nervously offered. “Palan-fear, the worry that you’re the dumbest one in the whole company. Story of my life.” Everyone quickly started laughing. “I’m so glad someone else is worried about that,” said one. “Glad to know I’m not alone,” said another.

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Anne and her fellow Palantir intern

Next time I start to doubt myself, I will remember this moment. I will remember that sharing my insecurities with others – not fretting alone – is what helps me. I will remember how much the girl who was bold enough to talk about her “Palan-fear” in the kitchen did for me, and I will do my best to be that voice for the next girl who is sitting there quietly doubting herself.