Sunday, May 17, 2015


I've been meaning to write a post on morale for oh, a year or so now, but I finally decided it was now or never (my English is deteriorating pretty quickly with all this Italian studying). I felt like it was important to share my personal thoughts on the subject and the experience I gained in Lagos (and before that in Bosnia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, etc) in the hopes that I can help other people who find themselves in challenging assignments.

So first, the reality:

Consular work in Lagos may not be the hardest tour in the foreign service but I sure as hell hope it's close. It combines the tedium of 6 hours straight every day of adjudication (and sometimes 7+) with the stress of an environment rife with fraud and inefficiencies. We say no a lot and that's just plain no fun.

Added to the stress of consular work in a visa mill is the incredible crush of life in one of the toughest cities in the world. Poverty, traffic, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, violence... Lagos has got it all. It's not as if you can escape the city either. For my first eight months at post I didn't leave the islands at all (picture two neighborhoods in a typical city back home - that's the islands). I was eventually blessed to get out of Lagos and see other parts of Nigeria three times in two years, and that made  me extremely fortunate. Many of my consular colleagues have been to other parts of Nigeria only once in their entire tour. The city is nice enough, but all that restriction would make any place feel a bit like prison.

Plenty of people hate living in Lagos. It's painful to say it, but it's true. So why doesn't everyone?

Partly I'm sure it's just disposition. Fortunately for me, I'm easily entertained and have generally low expectations - I'm sure this is in part due to traveling for so many years and being broke for many of them. At this point in my career I feel like I know what to expect in developing countries. I may not always like it (hello hotels without hot water) but it's not a shock to the system. And after the times when I washed clothes in a bucket and slept sweat-drenched under a mosquito net that always seemed to let in exactly one mosquito per night I can appreciate the basics that are standard in the Foreign Service. A high threshold for frustration and discomfort seems to be a common trait among the other people I met who thrive in developing countries.
But I think there's a second big reason that some people enjoy tough places where others just can't, won't, or don't.

They choose to.

I know this is easier said than done, but there are some very practical ways to choose happiness. It starts with planning to be happy. Obviously this looks different for everyone. During A-100 I came up with a list of things I would do to be happy in each of the 'worst' places on the list. These lists got me excited about even the places that I bid low. And once I was assigned to Lagos I started googling Nigeria in depth to find out all the good things I could about it. When I arrived I was ready to enjoy those two years rather than just survive and that made a big difference.

Not only does it help to look forward to being happy but I find it really useful to look back and be happy. Every night, as cheesy as it sounds, I think of five things to celebrate from my day. These things might be a great meal or conversation with a coworker, a new food that I got to try, something hilarious that happened on the line, or one of the many blessings that you only realize you have when you are surrounded by poverty. This countdown never fails to make me truly happy and put things in perspective. If that's just flat out too cheesy for you I'm sure there are other strategies out there.

Getting involved is also one of the biggest differences between the happy set and the unhappy set. The happy people in Lagos were constantly out exploring, trying new things, and soaking up every experience Lagos had to offer. Their schedules were full and they were always ready to share a restaurant recommendation or invitation to something cool. This certainly beats the alternative coping strategy - which is spending the majority of one's time waiting, miserably, for the tour to be over.

Which brings me to the age-old 'fake it til you make it' strategy. Complaining about problems just makes you think more about them, so the best policy (I confess that I haven't mastered this one yet) is to just ignore the things that annoy you and spend your time talking and thinking about the stuff you enjoy.

I certainly don't always maintain a good attitude. (My friends and coworkers can give plenty of examples I'm sure!) I have my moments of griping and I was often shamefully aware of exactly how many days I had left at post. The times when I did keep up a good attitude it was only with the help and example of my colleagues and friends. They've taught me a lot about how to 'bloom where you're planted' and live life to the fullest. 

So to my colleagues* in Lagos, thanks for teaching me the following:
- accept that life is difficult and move on, don't give in to complaining
- dive in to the local culture, explore and have adventures
- make friends with locals, even when it's difficult - don't live like you're only here for two years
- make your house a sanctuary and extend that hospitality to others
- put things in perspective and give people a break for not being perfect
- don't take life too seriously and be ready to enjoy whatever comes around
- invest in relationships and prioritize people, be ready to laugh at things that frustrate you
- learn about your host country - the more you know, the more context you have to understand
- be polite when others complain, but don't add to the negativity  
- create things that you love and share them with others, improve old skills or learn new ones
- take care of your body and your soul, take charge and don't act helpless
- share the things you enjoy with others, you might be filling a need post didn't even know it had!
- don't be cheap about life, know what makes you happy and prioritize it
- realize that work is your job and your evenings, weekends and holidays should NOT be about work

And the biggest lesson I've learned (from the entire consular section): There's almost nothing that good friends and good laughs can't fix.

*Hey colleagues! I would love to write your names next to each of these statements because I wrote them with specific friends in mind - but you know, privacy... Instead, just know that every single one of you taught me so much and it was an honor to work in the trenches with such a great team!


  1. What a great post, one I will be sure to refer back to. Thank you.

  2. I love this post! It is a great compilation of wisdom and focus - so true that we all have the ability to choose to be happy!

  3. Thanks for this. I'm heading out to Lagos imminently and your blog posts on your time there have been a great resource.