Subway thoughts: on careers

The idea of a career is an interesting thing: countless people graduate from school and start their way from the bottom of an industry until they retire or leave it.

My parents are prime examples, two academic professors who have spent their entire lives employed in the civil service. My mum at least switched careers, my dad has worked in the same building for more than 30 years – minus sabbaticals.

Growing up in such a household, I guess the idea of a career made complete sense. And the plan was apparent too: graduate, get a job, and enjoy it forever.

Except that it’s more than five years since I graduated and that career (the one I want) has not started yet. Instead, I’ve found employment in industries I don’t have a passion for.

On some level, it’s probably my fault. I’ve always felt – and still feel – that I would be best served in a career doing what I enjoy: engineering design of consumer products. But I’ve never been lucky enough to get hired in such a company: in Nigeria, there weren’t (m)any of such companies and since moving away it’s still been tough. But here the problem is different: having gained other experience, I’m not exactly entry level but then people don’t really advertise entry level jobs – they get hired from universities. The listed jobs all require experience that I don’t necessarily have proof of: engineering is such a field that working in it is proof that you have the skills. 

So in the meantime, what have I done? Everything.

I write about technology in Africa, I design products in my spare time, I remotely co-organize a meetup group on product development, for work I’m a design researcher and data analyst in the public service. 

And then people ask: why did you take the job if it’s not what you wanted? Bills accrue, man. I’ve got bills to pay.

So what type of a career is that? Frankly, I don’t know. I’m searching for the answers too.

On one hand, I’m thinking: would I ever be able to practice engineering design? I’m getting older and probably no one wants to hire an older guy with no experience. Or maybe I give it all I’ve got: develop an online presence as a designer/design engineer posting designs regularly. 

On the other hand, I’ve got a job I’m pretty good at: I’ve been promoted two levels in 18 months. It’s in the public service so that’s a career right there, the people are great and my managers genuinely love me. It’s also 40 hours a week, which affects how much you can do on the side. And it’s not designing consumer products, remember that.

Then, there’s the side that maybe if I developed a product that people loved I could be an entrepreneur. I actually tried that with wonda, but hardware is a different ball game – figuring out manufacturing is not a one man thing, and that’s before you even get income.

Anyways, here I am on a Tuesday evening on the subway thinking about these things. Because writing is how I think.

I’ve missed this blog.

Passing Through

I haven’t written here in a while because I can’t find the words. I do not know why but I don’t seem to be able to put my really personal thoughts on paper in anything more than 20 words anymore.

One of the things I really wanted to do this year was release a math toy I had designed and launch it on Kickstarter. I did; it’s still available now and has been funded already. That experience has taught me a lot about fundraising especially for products and I have a couple of ideas I’d like to write about for that.

I’m also writing more hardware-related articles. One of them got published in Africa is A Country, I’ve just written another and submitted someplace, others go on my other (pseudo-technical) blog. There’s not enough written about African hardware so I’ve started to talk to more people across the continent and publish a monthly newsletter written by people from different countries and myself.

Learning has always been interesting to me and now I long to just sit in conferences that are remotely interesting to me. I attended a hackathon on Breastfeeding and just sat there and listened to women talk about the complexity of feeding their children when they have to return to work so soon after childbirth. I’m doing a data science online course as well as a psychology one.

Having been born in Nigeria and lived there for most of my life, I may have taken the weather’s impact on my mood for granted. But witnessing four seasons for the last two years has quickly changed that. I would trade Winter for Harmattan any day and wouldn’t mind some sun guaranteed four days a week. The problem is that summer also has no thermostat and the humidity can be so irritating for most of the day. So what’s the result? I never leave my apartment.

One Thing for (Only) Fun

As children, we did things for fun. In growing up, unfortunately, common sense creeps in and we have to develop rational reasons to do things:

Q: Why are you eating?

A: Because I'm hungry.

or

Q: Why aren't you going for class this morning?

A: It's snowing and I can not come and kill myself.

In fact, rational thinking is one of the signs of a functioning person. This year, mostly because I’ve found that people are completely irrational, I decided to do away with some of that occasionally. We often do things that make no sense, because we are human. And because our brain has to rationalize it to defend our reactions, we (often) offer flawed arguments to defend ourselves.

Q: Why did you give him the finger?

A: He was wearing a ugly t-shirt.

Since January, I decided to do one thing every month for only fun. No other reason, just fun. No matter how flimsy, just for fun. I don’t even remember all I’ve done this year.

In February, I curated 5 playlists (collated from people) of songs that make the happy, help sleep, fuel creative work and other activities. In May, I went on a road trip to Chicago with three people I had never met before (friends of a friend who also went) and stayed in an Airbnb with them all weekend. In July, I took a picture every day sharing them on VSCO. In November, I uploaded one of my old designs online for free. In December, I sent 13 postcards (of my pictures) to people that I’ve never met in person.

They’ve been fun! And I particularly like the response that I get when people ask why I did/do it:

Q: Why would you do that?

A: For fun.

Q: *pities me silently*

Other Stories

This week, I finally brought my two feet back to this blog. In reading the things I have written here again, I am reminded of how good a year 2015 was. So, on today’s episode of what’s happening with me:

I completed my Masters and got a job in a city seven hours away from my previous one. It’s a bigger city, also bilingual so I’m trying to learn a bit of French. On Fridays, I go to the Cathedral for evening mass as it is in French and so far I have figured out that Notre Seigneur means Our Lord. Surely, I’m doing well but it is early days.

Although most of it has not been here, I have written a lot this year. Particularly on Medium where I mostly muse about design and manufacturing. There’s a draft for a article on Africa Is A Country that I hope gets published soon and that explores business models for makers in Ghana and Nigeria, written with a technology researcher.

Somehow, my friends and I have managed to plan and organize Hardware Lagos. It is a community for makers and entrepreneurs in the Nigerian hardware space, with quarterly meets and a monthly newsletter: Hardware Things. I think there’s a lot to be achieved by partnerships within the space, especially as investments are hard to come by and similar equipment are used by most people. Maybe it’s just a way to keep in touch.

Last year, I designed a map puzzle of Nigeria states for kids to play with and learn the different states. A lot of people actually ordered that design, and I began to see how 3D printing could help the design of niche games. Over the weekend, I released the design free for anyone to 3D print it with a guide on how best to use: here. But the good news is, I’m finishing up my design of a new game!

I have taken up photography as a hobby, and there are some projects that I would like to undertake. Just playful experiments with a point of view; I would also like to learn to wash film (the old way) for fun and for technique. In my opinion, having the constraint of film means one has to get the picture one wants in less takes.

So my WordPress fam, what’s happening with you? (Don’t fall my hand and not reply).

On Creating

Creating anything has never been easier; the knowledge is mostly available online and the tools are getting cheaper. But what we create has also changed. Traditionally, people created physical (brick and mortar) artifacts. These were hard to do, and having tried to work a lathe I know that the tools were designed for the skilled.

But then, we started creating digital products. So you could download programs or apps to do almost anything. It optimized time and effort and was intuitive to use (mostly).

Now, we’ve done one better: people are creating tools for their users to create experiences. And the beauty is that it’s mostly intuitive. In a sense, the modern tools available invite you to create.

Take for example, the Instagram Story feature. While essentially copied from Snapchat, it allows users who already have a following for their pictures upload short time-lapsed pictures and videos that extend (or provides additional context) to the pictures in their feed.What is interesting to me is the variety of experiences people are able to create. And how easy it is to go from a noob creator to one who can mix features (or in this case, filters). But not many people reflect on the ‘addiction’ caused by this.

I check my Instagram at least 20 times a day, it helps with boredom and I am often bored a lot (the good kind of boredom). Now in the past I would work on a project when I was bored, some design of the many ideas I have sketched on post-it notes on my wall. Lately, that has been taken over by checking social media.

While creating an Instagram Story or a tweet is an experience you essentially design for others to see, the payoff is considerably less than if one created an actual artifact. And that is the lesson for me: ‘longer’ creation begets longer (and definitely a more critical) reception.

When are you coming back home?

‘You’ve forgotten your home’

How can I forget my home when I’m reminded of it everyday? The food is different and there are way too many types of cheese. I’m reminded that I’m Nigerian in almost every conversation because people share personal things I will never be able to share. My name is Igbo and i make them say it right. How can i forget my home?

‘All you talents keep leaving the country’

We presuppose that our talents are for ourselves or for our country. Surely, we were born for a purpose, to make some kind of change in the world. You don’t think that purpose may be for or better realized in another place? Maybe our talents are for the world, irrespective of divisions.

‘You are already forming a different accent’

It’s actually pretty difficult for people to understand what I say in my Nigerian accent. And since it’s pretty easy I can switch to a North American one.

One time on the train back from a work trip, a friend from school called me and i replied in pidgin and my colleague beside me jumped in his seat. He had never heard me speak pidgin.

‘Don’t you miss home?’

Terribly, I miss my mother and my sisters. And my father.

I miss my Surulere apartment and my old 3D printer, I miss exhibitions in Art 21 and Rele and travelling from Lagos to Ibadan every other week.

‘When are you coming back?’

‘Soon, I’m not sure when.’

On Photography

I think photography is a skill everyone should learn.

A selfie a day kills the battery, but taking pictures of a catholic nature can give one a heightened sense of observance.

I took a fair bit of pictures in July. It started when a follower on Twitter spoke about a #PictureADay Challenge. It sounded interesting and as I’ve always been visually inclined, I decided to participate. I took one picture everyday of July.

It started very normally, I took a picture of a house in the rain the first day.

5

But then slowly, I started to see patterns and lines. 

And slowly, the interplay between lines and colour (or the lack of it).

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Buildings became interesting, as did other structures.

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Faces too, and the movements people make.

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But then, nothing beats a little bit of luck when you happen to be just in the right place at the right time.

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Very important for me had been realizing that the best moments can not be captured, and even if you see a shot you can’t capture it fast enough. These moments are to be experienced: a father smiling when he sees his child’s appear on his phone, a guy smile because he gets the movie reference on a person’s shirt, or that split second when the top of a truck is parallel with the tunnel it’s driving through.

Closure

I’m in that phase of my life where I’m applying for opportunities, mostly online but some by referral. As anyone who does this fairly-regularly will tell you, I get rejected most of the time. In fact, getting a reply out of an application is a happy event. Most times, these replies are just another one. You get used to rejection pretty quickly.

But there are a few applications that I feel like I should have gotten. I’m not the best in the world but there are times (I’m sure) you feel you should have gotten some opportunities. You prepare a really good pitch/cover letter, apply on time and when the reply returns you can tell that you weren’t chosen from the email title.

Sidebar: on Masters applications, if you see ‘Update on Your MSc Application’ in the subject, you probably didn’t get it.

Now, you should be mad at these events. I get really disappointed sometimes and say I will never apply to the same body. In the moment, I come up with ‘good and terrible’ reasons why I was not selected. Latent racism has been one of these reasons lately. Another of my favorites is that the person advertising the post has little knowledge of the very thing he/she advertised. Quite a reach, isn’t it?

This can affect your moods, I know it affects mine even though I try not to show it. In recent times, I have found that closure is important for these events. I think we enter a kind of relationship with applications that we carefully prepare and when we do not achieve the outcome we prepared for, we should have closure.

For pitch events, closure for me is watching the pitch live. If possible in person and present dressed in good clothes. I find that even though all the final contestants are not as good as I judge myself to be, the eventual best is better. And that is gives me closure.

So, I’ve learnt to only apply to competitions that I trust the process. If you trust the process, I think you’d come to closure much faster/better.

 

Big Brother Concern

I’m concerned that my junior sister is under undue pressure to be like me (academically, at least).

I’m the 4th kid out of 5 and the only guy, so in some way my path was different from my elder sisters. It was okay for me to tank primary and secondary school and then pick it up in university. I graduated well, and my parents were really happy. They had to be, even my SS3 teachers did not think my WAEC result would be good enough to enter university. But to be fair, they were making this judgement based on my grades.

My junior sister looks up to me in that regard (in many other regards too, it’s my fault she’s a Chelsea fan). But I’m concerned because she stays up reading until 3am – even in secondary school. Who does that?! In secondary school, I played football for my school and read for exams in the car on the way to school on the day of the exam. She finished her first year of university last month and was waiting for her result with such apprehension  that I could feel it from here. She did really well, but I’m concerned she’s not discovering other aspects of herself.

I don’t know how to handle this, especially as grades are obviously very important. But is a well-rounded life not important too? How do you handle this?

If you have any advice for me, please comment. Thank you.