"SHOOT FOR THE MOON, BUT MAKE SURE YOU AIM"
LIFE ON YOUR OWN TERMS
My first experiences with aid were in small NGOs in Colombia and Côte d'Ivoire – in hindsight, they were slightly “voluntourist” experiences, very valuable for me but I’m not sure how much I contributed. After college and a year as correspondent in Argentina, I joined UNDP in New York and then WHO, first in Sudan and now in the organization’s regional office in Egypt. A combination of plain curiosity, a desire to broaden my horizon, and a sense of social justice drive my work in this field. Over the years, especially the latter has grown deeper, as I’ve come to understand better how many unearned benefits and privileges I’ve enjoyed and still do to this day. I guess my work and life have become about how to use that to level the playing field, while also continuing to develop myself.
For me, life on your own terms is about knowing your direction and setting your own course. This wasn’t always the case. For a while, I did interesting work in different countries, but it somehow all felt coincidental. About a year and a half ago, spurred by friends, the election of Trump, and writers like Rebecca Solnit and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I started making more conscious choices about my life, purpose, and career. Life on your own terms is about being free-spirited, open and flexible, while at the same time having intention and a sense of direction. Yes, shoot for the moon, but make sure you aim.
ROOTS AND SEEDS
I'm from the Netherlands and have lived in Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Spain, Argentina, the US, Sudan, and now Egypt.
WHAT YOUR FOUR YEAR OLD SELF WOULD TELL YOU TODAY
Wow, what the f**k... Do it again!
I have an ability to be playful and entertaining even in difficult situations. I can put things into perspective and find a spark of inspiration and joy. I think it helps that I think outside the box, as long as those in the box with me are open to that.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH MOMENT
During one of my recent jobs, I think my attempts to innovate and be creative backfired. My vision of communications didn’t seem to align with the job’s expectations. I felt I needed a new beginning. Somewhere my creativity and my drive to reinvent would be seen as an asset, rather than a risk.
MOST EXCITING HIGH
Over the past months I worked with a coach on discovering more value-driven career paths. Finding untapped potential, unseen horizons, unopened doors, felt really exhilarating. I organized a first “Playground”, a creative evening where all attendees are invited to perform in some way. The show ended up with a poetry reading, piano songs (including one I wrote), a beautiful song about the Arab spring by an Egyptian friend, and an amazing “Fish Fun Facts”quiz. There was a category called “Whale Sounds” and one team added interpretive dance to their answers... I have no words. Except maybe “MUUAAAHHHHBBBHBHHHHHAAAA.”
MOST CHALLENGING LOW
This happens when I’m disconnected from my loved ones and sense of purpose for too long. A feeling of apathy will slowly settle in, the idea that what I do doesn't matter, that no change will come. I remember a brief episode where I lived this clichéd fantasy of a tormented writer, walking around the house in my bathrobe nursing a bottle of Scotchand being morose but doing precisely zero writing. Whew. I'm glad that’s over.
I think what I realize more and more is: if you know where you’re going, you can navigate the bad weather when it inevitably comes. Doing the work to define and redefine your purpose, to understand what makes you tick, where you want to be – that gives you that bearing. Without that compass, when the weather hits you’re just lost in the storm.
BEST PIECE OF ADVICE
“Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful.” Yeah.. still working on that.
WORST PIECE OF ADVICE
“Be a specialist.” I do see the value of being an expert in a subject and really deepening your understanding of it, but I also know I need change, novelty, the vibrance of human diversity. Every once in a while simply throwing life back on the drawing board to see how it lands.
BOOK OR PEOPLE THAT HAD AN IMPACT ON YOUR LIFE
A recent favorite is “So you want to talk about Race”, by Ijeoma Oluo. It fits with a lot of reading that I've been doing and helps me understand my blind spots better. “Men explain things to me” and “Mother of All Questions” by Rebecca Solnit. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Several people had a positive impact on my life. For now, I am thinking about my mother, who encouraged me and my brother and sisters to spread our wings. She was a huge influence on me broadening my horizon and planning adventures abroad.
My friend and mentor Shana. I worked with her in New York and she is someone who from the start valued my creativity and playfulness. She's very intuitive and reflective and I always get a lot of inspiration from her.
Also, in a more recent timeframe, the coach I mentioned. She was super important in rebuilding my confidence when I was in a tough spot, helping me reconnect to my values, and committing explicitly to what matters to me.
BIGGEST LEAP OF FAITH
There have been several of these in my life. I moved to Argentina on a whim at 25 to chase the dream of being a foreign correspondent. Looking back this was clearly a case of shooting for the moon, but with horrible aim. The decision to go was great, but my preparation and execution were awful. Rather than fully immersing myself in life in Buenos Aires, I withered in my ramshackle apartment, pitching stories to editors over e-mail on a diet of alfajores, coffee, and cheap Malbec wine. Great wine though, to be honest.
FEAR OR BELIEF YOU LET GO OF
Life is best if it's a chase, spontaneous and unplanned. I used to have this vision about living grandiose and wild, being adventurous, following my heart no matter what. I still feel that but I’ve learned to sometimes pause, be at peace, and see the beauty that’s right in front of me.
IF GIVEN A CHANCE WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY
I would have another go at the Argentina adventure, with more preparation and less time spent behind my desk. I'm really happy and grateful about how my life and career are now, but I do wonder about that path and where it may have led.
Build and maintain the routines that matter for your wellbeing. A workout before going to the office, a short meditation when I come home from work, at least one social event during the week, making time for my partner and eating properly. Oh, and enough sleep. I also need intellectual stimulation, so I try to find time for reading, writing or talking to friends and fellow aid workers online. And as with any rule, sometimes joyfully break it.
HARDEST PART ABOUT LIVING ON YOUR OWN TERMS
#LOYOT is a double-edged sword. Living on your own terms means that you’re in charge, for the good and the bad. Owning your mistakes and doing the work to grow. For example, when the #MeToo discussions blew up, tons of my friends posted and said yeah, we’ve all experienced this in some form. So, so many. I thought I was a pretty feminist guy and knew how real sexism was, but that really blindsided me. It also made me reflect on my own present and past behavior. I started remembering moments in my dating, personal and professional life where I had not listened to women (colleagues, loved ones, partners) enough, had not honored my emotional commitments to them in big and small ways, or had otherwise been part of patriarchal patterns instead of taking those apart. I also realized that it's never too late or too early to start doing this work on myself, and that that work is never done.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO LESS/MORE?
I need to listen to my inner perfectionist less. Be kind, including to myself, and accept that the first try is not going to be perfect. I also try to be more present and grateful and celebrate the little things. It's tempting to rush on to the next shiny thing, instead of stopping and appreciating.
I want to stay in the region for a while, work in more challenging situations and deepen my experience with what WHO calls “risk communications”: using information and communications to help communities make informed decisions.
I'm also developing my writing and have some creative outlets that I love, like the illustrated short story I’m making with my sister, and “Playground”. Finally, I’m digging in to concrete ways I can share some of the luck and privilege I’ve had, for example through mentoring or coaching talented people that could use a leg up.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful – my mom.
If you don’t lick it, you’ll never know if it tastes good – Max, the dog we had in college.
Shoot for the moon, but make sure you aim - me.
WHERE TO FIND HIM
On Twitter: @simonvanwoerden