Posts by Afutami

A generalist idea-organizer constantly in pursuit of an answer. I express my thoughts better in writing.

A Plea to Mother Earth

Dear Mother Earth,

My nation gave you a different name and made you ours—Ibu Pertiwi, they call you. But I your motherhood is too vast to be contained in our archipelago’s language alone. It reaches the breathtaking savannas in Africa, to the falling flower petals on busy Asian streets, to the deepest canyons in America, and hiding in the romantic boreal forests of northern Europe. So let me call you Mother Earth, for your love overflows to the entire planet.

Dear Mother Earth,

While your fondness to mankind is universal, neither of us could deny that you play favorites still, and my guess is that we’re right on the top of your list. At the beginning of time, you chose us to be given the lushest of trees, the most fertile lands, and the bluest, vastest seas. Tropical rainforests in the lowlands and the tallest mountains of Sumatra, of Borneo, of Papua giving us everything we need—leaves that cure, fruits that feed, and honey that sweetens, all the while keeping us clean water to drink. From the curve of your ocean waves, our bravest sailors caught fish, made salt, and understood beauty.

Dear Mother Earth,

Since the first sapiens settled down to grow their own food on the ground, we have failed you over, and over again. We had become greedy. We thought we tamed nature, we had the power to make nature sprout, bloom, and spring all kinds of plants. We opened up the very forests that had fed us, to make ways for more than we needed. We called those lands ours, made an entire system to govern them. We waged wars and killed one another in order to keep those lands, and sometimes to acquire more. We put animals into labor for us, we made clothes, carriages, tools that allowed us to do more. We had children, and grandchildren, we multiplied at the rate faster than we ever did—in all corners of the world.

Then sometime in the last few decades of 18th century, another miracle happened. They called it the ‘industrial revolution’. We could then make large factories that can produce goods at the rate never imagined before. We were able to make more food, more clothing, and more everything else for more people. The ‘economic pie’ as they called it, increased by tenfold per capita, while our population increased from a little over a billion people to almost 8 billion. About 3 of every 100 people on the planet today lives in my country—can you believe it?

Dear Mother Earth,

I thought it was pretty bad when we started opening up forests, removing a biodiversity of animal species out of their home. But what I earlier called a ‘miracle’ came as a deal with bad news—it turns out our factories, power plants, and cars emits large toxic gases to your atmosphere. When we burn our coal, oil, and other fossil fuel—they emit carbon dioxide and a bunch of other gases that trap heat on your surface, almost like a greenhouse effect; I guess that’s why they call it greenhouse gases. In less than two centuries, we have released gigatons of those emissions and putting your average temperature up by more than 1°C as a result.

Already, your ice sheets are melting, rising sea levels and drowning low-lying coastal areas—including hundreds of small islands in my country. At the same time, drought and heatwaves hit, bringing wildfires to California and Australia, burning peatlands in Sumatra and Kalimantan, killing many in Europe, and failing rice harvests for thousands of Javanese farmers. This year, almost 170,000 of people in Jakarta had to celebrate new year’s being drenched in flood, and over 200 even died. Hundreds of scientists from around the globe had told us that if we continue doing this and letting you warm by more than 2°C, then a mass extinction begins.

Some people don’t get it. They said an increase of 2°C temperature is something anyone could easily survive. What’s the big fuss? What they failed to understand, is even for a human body, getting from 37°C to 38°C could be fatal. Worse, some people don’t even think you’re sick at all, or that if you’re sick, us humans were not to blame, because this is something you just go through every century. We should just keep doing what we do, for the sake of the ‘economy’.

Dear Mother Earth,

The scientists said that we only had 10 years to save you. They could not be more wrong!

You are fine on your own. It is us who needed saving.

You have withstood billions of years of extreme events—you went through the ice age, thousands of deadly volcanic eruptions, perhaps even meteor strikes. You persevered and continued doing revolutions after revolutions around the sun like nothing happened.

But us, we’ve only lived here for 0.005% of your time. Yet in that limited timespan, we have shaved your extensive forests, extracted minerals from your stomachs, polluted your rivers, your air—the same air that we needed to live. Just how insatiable can my species be!

This whole time, over 200,000 years, you have let us be. In silence, you watched us destroy our own home, putting ourselves at risk, onward to the fringe of our own extinction.

Dear Mother Earth,

I learned that when a virus visits a human body, a fever shows that the body is defending itself from the virus. So I kind of understand, if global warming is the way you’re finally telling us off. You have let us mess up so much, and you’re finally saying that enough is enough. I know. After all, my country is one of the 10 countries that emit greenhouse gases the most, mainly because we used to chop down trees for palm oil and burn peatlands to open lands for agriculture.

You need to understand though, that not all of us are the bad guys. Some of us here are fighting the good fight, especially the youth who realized that it’s our future that’s at stake. We also know, that these destructions only benefit a few—this ‘economic growth’ they keep talking about mainly go out to a few at the top. Meanwhile, the miners live off minimum wage, and people living around coal power plants or burned peatlands have to pay hospital bills from respiratory illness. We have to do better.

I’m just afraid that we don’t have enough time to do it. What do you think?

A Decennial Self-Audit

What would my 18-year-old self think had she met me today? Would my somewhat inflated vanity disgust her? Would she take me as a superficial woman who is not sophisticated enough to deserve her respect? Which parts of my life would she approve and others she despise? But more importantly: why should her opinion matter?


Several days ago, I came across Mbak Ayu Kartika Dewi’s video about the importance of ‘auditing’ your friendships. She asked the audience to list down 10 names of the people they interact the most with on a daily basis, and identify which ones make you feel good vs. bad about yourself. Based on this information, restructure some of those relationships strategically—basically cut off those who have been toxic to your well being.

Beyond auditing friendships, what the post effectively did was prompting me to evaluate my entire life instead, which sent me only half an inch away from spiraling into a whole other level of anxiety on whether I have the life that I wanted. This post is an attempt to regulate and put some of those thoughts into perspective.

I.

First and foremost: I’m married, have been for almost four years. I remembered being adamant about exclusively marrying my twin flame when I was younger (used to have really looong conversations with Diku about this), but I also remember tweeting a lot about Alain de Botton’s ‘compatibility is an achievement’ tenet. I must say, if twin flames are what twin flames supposed to be, I did not end up marrying my twin flame (although Wikan doesn’t believe in this astrological nonsense). Wikan and I are almost exact opposites in many ways, and while we therefore balance each other almost perfectly, sometimes it will take a lot of work for us to meet in the middle. One thing I never had any doubt on, however, is that we love each other (the kind that runs way too deep to ever change regardless of the circumstances; the kind where I will still love him even if we ever get separated), and that we are both committed to make this work. Over the past four years, we get better and better at post-fight making up, and to quote de Botton again—he’s the only person with whom I could “negotiate our differences intelligently”. Wikan is the rock that gave me the strength to soar, to grow, and to become who I am today. We may not have the same topical interests (books and research vs. music and filmmaking), or communicate in exactly the same way (lengthy written words vs. oral and visual) as spiritually connected twin flames but we share the same taste, we care about the same things, and we both have strong bullshit radars. So yes, he might not be my twin flame, but he is exactly what I need and I’m grateful that we stuck together. So yes I’ll take some credits for that.

II.

That said, I think I have phenomenally failed at being a good friend. Or any kind of ‘friend’ for that matter. I even lost a few of the closest friends I had at the beginning of the decade. Poof. Sometimes there’s a clear stopper: roommateship that didn’t quite work out, one confrontation that did go where it should have, and a move to a different city for school or work. But others are more elusive: it wasn’t quite clear what happened, or who did what. I often resort to blaming my two years in Cambridge as the reason why I lost constant contact—as an introvert who feels really uncomfortable about picking up calls but has no time to write long emails, no facetime almost means like a death sentence to the friendship. I used to think that I could pick it up right where we left off—but maybe it’s not that simple, maybe you could also grow apart. It also applies the other way around—now that I’m back in Jakarta, it’s been hard to maintain connection with the family and friends from Cambridge time.

These days, there’s been a lot of second-guessing what the other person feels about our friendship, how they already have much cooler friends now, how our conversations did not spark the same way it used to. It is possible that I don’t enjoy some of these friendships as much as I used to, as I’ve become more obsessed with work. Although maybe, I have been distracting myself with work just so I didn’t have to face how lame I am to my friends? Does it have anything to do with the fact that I’m married? Has my complete vulnerability to Wikan effectively disabled me from being emotionally available to others? The possibility is endless. Recently someone I considered a best friend even told me that I didn’t care about him as much as he did about me, that I did not make time for us—and the part that hurt the most there was maybe the fact that he’s right. The truth is, I miss my friends, but I also know that it will never be the same as our lives have fundamentally changed. Maybe I should accept that the things I could afford—like periodic Instagram DMs and modest lebaran hampers—is what friendships in my late 20s look like, and that it’s okay. I should say though that my younger self—who was all about grand gestures and treasuring friends—would probably say that I could do a lot better on this aspect. Point deductions for me here. Sorry, self.

III.

Next, career. I feel like this is one area where there’s no clear benchmark and hence there’s no way that I would let my younger self down. I know 18-year-old Afu would think that working where I am would be just as respectable as anywhere else, as long as I do what I love(d) doing: tinkering with knowledge—its creation, transmission, and more importantly finding ways to use it to drive impact. I know that some people really have strong opinions about the institution I decided to work with: some think it’s the best place to produce robust research and influence policy, others think we have some hidden agenda to advance capitalism. Let me just say that I’m fully aware that it’s not perfect: there are trade offs between working for a massive international organization with the government as your direct client vis-a-vis working for a smaller civil society organizations. It’ll take working for both to really understand how complex it is. What my younger self should probably be proud of, however, is the fact that I know myself enough that I turned down the temptation of trying out the private sector when I finished grad school. I am one heck of an indecisive mess, but at least I knew that I would probably despise working just to sell products (even when the products ought to improve lives).

On a slightly related note, I also just realized how I keep doing the same thing in the past 10 years: use my extracurricular time to build organizations that empower young people with knowledge—it used to be Indonesian Future Leaders (2009), Indonesia IR Students (2012), Parlemen Muda Indonesia (2013), Podium.ID (2015); none of them quite made it but they also lead me to where I am now, and I have a good feeling about this one. All those other products that allowed me to learn enough about what we did wrong, about unfounded conceit. With Think Policy Society, I will now take my time, which is only possible because I have amazing people who to build it together with. So stick around, self, as we are barely at the beginning.

IV.

One thing she will perhaps be deeply disappointed about is the fact that I have stopped writing in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, I write every day at work and publish papers, but I don’t really blog (except for these personal journaling), and I don’t share my authentic voice on printed media anymore. What she might find hard to accept, is that I know that people don’t really read these days, and that it means I have to choose a different medium to say the things I would’ve said in a written form: speaking forums, video essays, and podcasts. I hope she finds solace in the fact that quite a handful of people see value in my content regardless of its forms. She would probably have mixed feelings and told me that they’re different, and that I written thoughts are irreplaceable, that I should write anyway. “And what about that book you’ve been trying to publish since you were 18?” Well, between making a home, excelling at work, being a mediocre friend, building an organization, and speaking up, I only had a little time left to write. And frankly, I wonder if at this point publishing a book is just fulfilling an ego to see my name on a shelf of Gramedia or actually getting my point across to reach as many people as possible. Because if it’s the latter, I really should just keep making videos with Wikan, shouldn’t I?

V.

I want to close this reflection with some thoughts about my family, and how I have been as a daughter and sister. I put this last because it’s the most difficult one, the one I’ve been trying to avoid. I am not sure how I could be a better sister and daughter. There, I said it. I know that my parents want some things I could not give them. I realized that I don’t check up on them often enough. I tried to make time for my little brothers but we never really open up to one another that much. Even though I know we love one another in the family—I’m still one lousy daughter and sister by regular standard. I warned myself that I might be stuck with this label for a long time. As I traced back, I realized that I’ve been an outcast since they put me in boarding school when I was 14. It’s possible that I left my nest way too early to have roots that grounded me. I’m the only third-culture child in the family—when my brothers left for college, they went to schools with similar values (I’m the only one who took liberal arts and spent another two years in the US). I’m a chameleon who could fit perfectly at home, but with the painful awareness that I could never really connect at a much deeper level with them the way some siblings or families do. I’m sorry, self.


With that, I’ll maybe give myself a score of 2.5 out of 5? But my baseline is somewhere in the minus area so I’m actually doing pretty well? Regardless, I have thoroughly enjoyed this self-audit and think that maybe I should do this again in 5 years. What about you? Where are you guys in terms of self-audit score? Feel free to share on the comment section if you feel like it.

Cheers.

The Homes that Made 2019

I.

Between feeling grateful and undeserving, I have spent this year subconsciously waiting for someone to give me the permission to be happy. On the surface, it may seem like I have quite accomplished a lot in 2019: (1) an unexpected promotion to a dream title, (2) a brand new home we get to call ours, and (3) a community where I found purpose. Underneath, however, lingers layers of guilt—mixed in a bowl of sadness. Apparently ticking certain boxes others define as ‘success’ does not mean that you’re protected from a different kind of pain that comes with adulthood.

II.

2019 is the year with many good byes. One of my best friends moved abroad indefinitely. He was a non-judgmental confidant and a competitive board game partner, although we still couldn’t explain why or how we ended up as friends. We still chat regularly slash respond to each other’s Instagram story with an emoji, but it’s not quite the same. I’m just glad that we got to say an intimate good bye that I still cherish to this day.

Just a couple of months later, my mentor-friend followed his lead, although not to the same country. He was an office neighbor who used to stop by just to talk about animals, and from time to time invited Wikan and I for dinners. After he left, I effectively lost the anchor that had allowed me to not just survive, but actually navigate the new habitat I moved into. I hope he knows that he trained me well, because I have made a home out of the winds blowing my ship to various directions since he left.

Other than these two, at a different scale but still very much felt, I had to bid farewell to an officemate from whom I learned a lot (one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever known), two passionate environmentalists slash boss women I look up to who took me under their wings and opened doors for me, and an old friend who’s now conquering New York as a law school student.

Meanwhile, the two best friends who actually came back home to Jakarta this year, I feel like I keep failing to reconnect with. Maybe it was because I worked too much, or they worked too much, or both. But truth be told my biggest fear is that maybe in the three years we stopped hanging out, we simply grew apart. If that’s true, I hope they know that I still love and wish the best for them regardless.

All in all, it’s been a relatively lonely year. There are glimpses of moments when I got to hang out with friends in one-on-one lunches/coffees/dinners or big groups, and I cherish those deeply.

Image
Like that time Wikan and I got to host a Hogwarts-themed party.

III.

It is also an important year when I’ve tried to figure out what being a ‘married daughter’ means. As my dad got diagnosed with parkinson’s disease, I started wondering about what that would mean to us as a family, how we could be the support system that he needs us to be (or not to be). Reading journals and watching videos helped, as I understand that other families have found ways to make sure that their diagnosed loved ones could still have a full life. But even after all that, I still couldn’t settle down with what counts as enough. My worldly ambitions had defined who I am, but they now seem arbitrary in comparison.

That said, just last weekend (last of 2019) a good friend reminded me that maybe my parents’ happiness stems from mine, so as difficult as it is, I still want to pat myself in the back for several good (great?) things that actually happened to me this year. They mostly come in the form of ‘homes’—some more literal than others.

IV.

The first ‘home’ began with an Instagram story that grew into a group of over 100 passionate individuals and growing. It was an evening after the head of International Relations department in my alma mater asked me, “If we were to invite you (to guest lecture), what exactly would you like to share about?” Her question helped me realize that what I really want to teach about is public policy—i.e. the art of creative problem-solving in the public sector.

Since she obviously wouldn’t let me do that in her classrooms (and perhaps it’s my way to cope with rejections), I decided to just create my own classroom. One thing leads to another (including a nagging, amazing old friend who showed up to actually drag me to do it), and suddenly almost 600 people applied to what was a pilot series of 12 classes (we had to select 30 of them). From then on, one by one more people have come forward to kindly say that they have faith in this movement, and by doing so gives me the conviction that we have to move forward. 2020 will be an exciting year full of possibilities. Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton puts it best: just you wait.

A space of possibilities

V.

The more literal home, however, was slightly more planned than that. For so long, Wikan and I had known that we wanted our very own house, as homemaking has always been our favorite project as a couple. After busting our asses off and saving up for the past few years, we finally had enough to make a downpayment and signed a mortgage for the perfect house in May. As a nomad of a little over 13 years (4 of them with Wikan), finding relative permanence was a great deal of blessing.

We moved to the outskirt south of Jakarta in October, and since then we have been mostly occupied with the business of homemaking. Between dining table and bedsheets, the highlight for yours truly had been the three white bookcases that we won’t have to knock down in twelve months, where I could take out my books from their boxes and organize by genre/author. At the end of 2019, after three stressful-yet-enjoyable months of figuring out furnitures and layouts, we finally arrived at a place where the building felt like ours.

We now have a 5-10 year long mortgage and commutes are much longer now, but hey, we don’t have to worry about not getting security deposit back if we nail the walls. What I do worry about, however, that having a home will start a sequence of much bigger changes we don’t know yet about.

Non-fiction on shelf #1, fiction on shelf #2, and the rest on shelf #3.

VI.

When I thought two were more than enough, the universe surprised me with one last trick up her sleeve—maybe because good things come in three (although maybe so do bad things). On September 25th, I received a call that allowed me to do what I’ve wanted to do for so long: telling the economic story of the environment. After being a research consultant for a little over a year in the organization, I finally was offered a term position as an environmental economist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first (and perhaps still don’t until today) but one thing I do know is that it allowed me to finally belong. A new team I get to call home.

Since that call, there has been a lot of figuring out to do: as the new girl I did something wrong without knowing it, did something knowing it would have consequences, and sometimes they’re both a little mixed up. In the beginning I felt lost, unsure whether they’ve made the wrong decision (especially since they rejected me at first), but it always helped to remind myself that so many women before me doubted themselves after they asked for more, but with hard work and the right support system, they made it work. So will I.

VII.

Finally, 2019 was a year of many first times. Beyond the ‘three homes’, it was the year when I joined my first (and second) public protest in Jakarta: the first one was on plastic waste, and the second was one of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. On both, I was moved to see how some people really care, but more importantly, I was reminded that taking up public spaces matter. I always feel like it was an experience taken away from me during my undergrad, because I was too focused on the academics.

It was also the year I got to be on podcast interviews, which turns out to be quite enjoyable. I especially appreciated the interview with a friend on public policy, and one with another one on critical thinking and privileges. The hosts of both shows have helped me realize that good questions come from a place of empathy.

What protests look like in Jakarta

Among the many speaking engagements I had this year, one stood out. It was when I visited Semarang and met one of the most charming, kindhearted young women who called herself an admirer. I was moved by just how pure her intentions was, how genuinely she expressed her appreciation, how she hugged me, how I felt seen because she’s read almost everything I’ve written online. It’s the first time I feel like I’ve affected someone’s life so deeply. At the end of our encounter, she gave me a long letter she’s written, which I promised to treasure.

VIII.

Too many MRT rides (one of 2019 highlights!) and evening showers were spent thinking about whether I deserve any of it at all. Sure, I’ve worked hard for it, but so has everybody. Having an awareness about ‘the system’ and the socio-economic constraints that come with it, I know that none of these accomplishments are mine alone, and if anything they’re reminders for me to give back as much as I could. I know that I owe much of them to my parents, to Eyang, to Wikan, and to friends who are one Telegram/WhatsApp chat away. Without this amazing support system I’m blessed with, I would’ve crumbled down into pieces.

That lingering feeling like there’s an impending bad thing to make up for all the good things this year

I wondered if this guilt/undeserving feeling had anything to do with my childhood and upbringing, how my dad never quite allowed me to be proud. If I came home with math score of 90 he would’ve joked, “Maybe it was a typo!” When I won a gold medal in a nation-wide math competition, he brushed it off with, “They must’ve mistaken you for another Andhyta!” Looking back, I think it trained me to never take my achievements for granted, and to never feel entitled. Or maybe the guilt had to do with my being a Sundanese, with my tendency to over-empathize, with my bring a confused human being.

IX.

It would’ve been a lie to say that 2019 has not been a good year. Feeling guilty about the good things that happen might be a “non-issue” for some of you or, borrowing a friend’s line, “a good problem to have”. I am grateful—immensely so—but it’s still a dissonance that occupies my mind.

For 2020, I wish to stop being apologetic, I wish that humility will stay a company, and I wish to finally find a way to be both a good daughter and a woman with ambition for myself.

Happy new year!

Eleven Lessons of 2018

Last year had been a lot of things: humbling, elating, upsetting, overwhelming—sometimes all at the same time. It was also one of the most formative years of my life, one where I felt like I became a fuller human being with a little bit more compassion, self-awareness, and less anger. Against my wish, however, the moments kept fleeting before I could properly imprint them in my memory (taking pictures helps, of course, although it often gets too interruptive and energy-consuming).

[Disclaimer: this post is about me and my experience throughout 2018. If you want to know what happened in the world (including the unfortunate series of disasters in this country that broke our hearts multiple times), I recommend this 5-minute video by Vox instead.]

Quite a large number of strangers seem to learn about me for the first time this year and to you, I’d like to say hello. Surprise: my thoughts and I had been around before I started studying abroad or made video essays with my husband. This blog had been home to those thoughts for almost eight years now, and if I hadn’t said this already: welcome.

(Oh and yes, by the way, I use more brackets, em dashes, colons, and semi-colons than your average writer.)

That said, if you’re part of the smaller crowd who were here last year or the many years before, here goes another one of my annual reflections. As you’re probably familiar with, there’s a pretty big chance that it won’t be relevant to your own lives, but if it somehow amuses you, read on: 2018 seems like as a humongous bag of lessons, and this post is a peek inside.

1. Fulfillment: A Dream Degree and Generous Friendships

Given my unhealthy obsession with completions, this year’s highlight is the fact that I finished my master’s program. (And with a distinction grade for my capstone analysis on village fund too!) Although it was pretty heartbreaking to leave the quiet city that had become home, I am mostly grateful to have had two years packed with learning not just about public policy, but also myself.

I tell friends that I wouldn’t mind another semester at Hogwarts—which is true—but at the same time, I’m also glad it went the way it did. I did not get all straight As, but I get just enough to prove that I tried my best, while also spending an ample amount outside the library to make some of the greatest friends in the world that I will forever treasure.

2. Confidence: A New Medium to Braindance

Ever since Wikan and I started Frame & Sentences in August 2017, we have had an insane amount of fun. While I loved the space that writing had provided for my ideas, it is pretty exhilarating to be able to share my thoughts to a significantly larger audience just by switching the medium. With op-eds or blogposts, roughly a thousand-something people (?) would take the time to read each piece, probably not thoroughly either. But thanks to Wikan’s videography and editing skills, now I get to reach over 20 times that number for each episode.

It’s not the same, of course, but I ended up enjoying writing video essays a lot.

Having known that many channels had to work really hard and produce regular (almost daily) content to get where they are, we are blessed to have collected over 108,000 views and almost 6,000 new subscribers from just uploading four videos this year. F&S also got interviewed by Indonesia Mengglobal and Magdalene, which is pretty cool. We are behind our own production goal, of course, but considering the significant transitions in our personal lives, I’m thrilled that we did at all.

People’s reception to the videos we make—especially from our closest friends (you know who you are)—has allowed me to enter a new level of self-assurance that what I have to say matters somehow. That there are people out there who care enough to watch every second of our 12-minute-long video.

That it is crucial for us to keep making them. (And, probably even more importantly, for us to not let this inflate our ego!)

3. Voice: A Stage to Speak Up

Beyond the screen, the second semester of 2018 was also full of in-person sharing: thanks to the invention of electronic calendars, I could track that I have been to exactly 23 speaking/teaching/moderating engagements before roughly 2,500-3,000 people spread throughout four islands—Sumatra, Java, Lombok, and Papua. It took almost all of my weekends, which means that I probably need to slow down and rethink my priorities in 2019, but for now, I’m just pleased to have all these opportunities to give back.

From all these talks, the pinnacle was my TEDxUIWomen speech (video coming soon!). It was one of the best 10 minutes in my life, and I am deeply thankful to have been given the stage to share my genuine thoughts with the world, highlighting the need to talk more about gender-based issues in professional settings. I summarized it here.

I’ve also rediscovered my joy in leading classrooms—this year I conducted several half-day workshops on argumentative writing and fundamentals of negotiations. Above anything else, what I always look forward to is when, at the end of each session, my students snuck up and told me that they learned something new. That specific moment made it all worth it.

4. Responsibility: The Expectations to Live Up To

Apparently, probably thanks to point 1-3, I now get noticed by random people in the unlikeliest places—during a lone stroll in a museum in Makassar, a Ramayana ballet dance in Yogyakarta, cafes, cinema studios, and concert halls in Jakarta, even on a deserted beach in Lombok. While I should probably be cooler about this, these encounters always leave me awkward, unsure about what to do/be.

It is very flattering that people (usually young girls) approached me and said that I am their role model, someone they want to become when they’re older, that I have inspired them to study or work harder. (I always tell them that they shouldn’t want to be ‘like me’, because fixating your eyes on a single path might lead to oversight on other opportunities from the specific quirks that only you have).

At the same time, however, when the same conversation is repeated dozens of times, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of duty that prompts me to be more careful at what I say and do as it might affect these people more than I think. Furthermore, although it is wonderful to receive these messages, I worry that people will be disappointed when they find out that my introverted self is not as welcoming to small talks or spending time to share wisdom 24/7 in real life. While I try to practice kindness as much as I could, I’m also generally impatient and not the friendliest person.

That said, I almost always, always appreciate long, thoughtful messages through direct messages or emails—which I have been showered with throughout 2018. If you’re one of the people who did this, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

5. Peace: To Forgive Ignorance

Needless to say, putting your thoughts out there also means that people will disagree with you, and people have disagreed with Wikan and me at least a hundred times this year through F&S’s comment box :)) Of course these dissenting opinions take many different forms: some are genuine questions I was more than happy to answer, some are good counter arguments founded with logic and data (my favorites), but the hardest ones to deal with came from people who were, for whatever reason, triggered and didn’t have any agenda other than channeling their own furiousness.

When F&S received its first thumbs down in 2017 or any time someone completely misunderstood our point in the past, I used to be outraged: “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST AGREE? HOW CAN YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THIS SIMPLE IDEA?”

Throughout 2018, however, fundamentally thanks to the adaptive leadership course I took at HKS, I have effectively stopped being angry at ignorance. This shift is rooted in the realization that we are all just products of the environment we were raised in, which informed our loyalties and the ‘voices inside our head’. The people who leave condescending, thoughtless comments might have done so without the awareness of why they believe what they believed, let alone the impact of their words. So why should I be triggered by these trivial responses?

I consider this as my biggest achievement of 2018 and have made it my personal goal to keep making content that will bring people to the same space.

6. Anxiety: An Abundance of Choices

Another low point of the year is the fact that I wasted 70 good days of 2018 in limbo: I put my life on hold just because I could not quite resolve about how I want to pick up my post-grad school career (and have written about this at length, so I won’t talk about this too much here). If you watch The Good Place [mild spoiler ahead], there’s a character whose biggest problem is his indecision, such that he made the lives of the people around him miserable. I was that guy in 2018.

In addition to my inability to choose a professional trajectory among all the available options, I realized that people have invited me to speak/moderate/teach on hardly coherent themes: sometimes it’s climate change, sometimes it’s gender, youth, education, peace building, the list—if anything—only gets longer over time.

I consciously picked the path of a generalist, but having been trained in public policy analysis, I can’t help but worry about all the opportunity costs from all of these identity ambiguity. When people ask me, “What should we put as your title?” I always end up stuttering because I’m not quite sure myself. I am sometimes a research analyst, sometimes content creator, sometimes youth organization co-founder; never consistent.

Maybe I should embrace this as a strength instead of weakness because it allows me to be more agile in joining many different activities. That said, it might simply be a symptom of my cowardice to bear the consequences of making a choice, something that I want to work on in 2019.

7. Courage: A Jump Into the Unknown

My first attempt to stop being afraid of leaving the fence is by actually making a decision (face your fear, etc.). So in August, I finally made the call to join an old, massive international organization. The nature of my new workplace is the opposite of where I had always been before: small (and therefore agile) organizations at the early stage of their growth.

The rationale behind this verdict was simple: I didn’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I feel like two years was not enough to learn, and my thirst for growth prompted me to look for places that will give me the steepest learning curve.

In the beginning, this made me nervous: I wasn’t sure whether I would be useful (or how), and there were adjustments in expected coordination and overall process. Although I knew most of it already from my research about the culture and have been here for over four months now, there are still many things I have to learn.

A good friend told me to make decisions that are driven by hope instead of fear. This was a wake up call because I almost leaned into decisions because I was afraid of missing out, of not working with the same familiar faces, of being left by the train, but I’m glad that at the end of the day I chose hope (to build an expertise in something, and to continue to learn).

For 2019, I pray that this courage will stay with me.

8. Conviction: The Ability to Say No

Flash news: I’m Leslie Knope (from Parks and Recreation)—or at least that’s how I think of myself. In one of the episodes, Leslie sat down with her boss Ron Swanson, who reminded her to ‘never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing‘.

While I don’t know if I could ever ‘whole-ass one thing’, this year I have accomplished the difficult task of reducing my urge to ‘multiplieth-ass tons of things’ to just ‘whole-ass two (three at most) things’. Had this happened in 2017, there’s no chance that I would be able to say no to a free trip to Israel, to several speaking engagements, and to a number of paid buzzing opportunities (unless the companies’ values align with mine).

In quiet, underneath my newfound ability to decline invitations, I can hear the vague sound of conviction that I recently discovered. This might be part of growing up or my training in school of government, but I can now give people advices with significantly more confidence than I ever had.

9. Patience: The Fortitude to Wait

The first five years of my post-college-life had been very full life-changing events and instant affirmation. I got an offer to my first job before I even finished college, helped the institute grow more than four-fold, led a national movement of political education for youth, got accepted in my dream school, got married, and already got a second degree under my belt. All of this conditioned me to a certain pace and somehow hungry for immediate gratification.

Because of this, last year I forced myself to have more patience. By choosing an organization where people take their time to perfect their work, I have come to see the beauty and sound of silent growth, day by day. I have also understood how not knowing could open doors and that, even when nobody’s looking, you know you’re growing and that’s enough.

This year I aim to invest my hours in slowly building my expertise and to specialize in certain skills that make me an even more effective generalist. I want to learn more about macroeconomics and fiscal policy, I want to become fluent in both languages of development and environment.

If I’m lucky, I might find just the right way to marry them.

10. Guilt: The Pressure for Presence

Although Wikan and I had been married for 2.5 years now, this is the first time that we are in Indonesia as a married couple. At the same time, 2018 was also the year that my little brothers left home (one for work and the other for college), making my parents’ home emptier than ever.

The theme of separation—especially between children and their parents, including the story in Ralph Breaks the Internet—always ruined me. I think it’s one of the saddest tragedies in life, and I wish it never had to happen to my aging parents. But of course it did.

The year had partly been about making peace with the fact that I could not always be there for them. At the same time, it is also a year of doing my best to be a good daughter, despite my shortcomings.

11. Love: The Forever and Ever

Above anything else, however, I am grateful for all the love that I received throughout 2018. From the daily dose of companionship and understanding from Wikan, to my family’s patience about us not wanting to have a child yet, to kind words from F&S subscribers, the colleagues and mentors at work who forgive my uninformed comments as a newcomer, over and over.

Here’s to 2019 filled with even more love and lessons. Onward!

P. S. I’m considering to resign from Instagram for a little while. I believe that this will allow me to look at life in a picture much bigger than simply a stitched sequence of story dashes. Should you need to reach out to me, please consider Twitter direct message or email instead.

Ad Astra Per Aspera (a.k.a. Afu’s Unabridged Guide of What You Need to Know Before Applying to Harvard: FAQ)

Alright. This is happening.

Kalau teman-teman mengikuti saya di Instagram, kemungkinan besar kalian sudah tahu bahwa saya tidak terlalu senang ketika identitas utama saya diakarkan pada fakta bahwa saya lulus dari salah satu institusi pendidikan paling elit ini. Saya—seperti halnya semua orang—tiga-dimensi, tersusun oleh pemikiran, kata sifat, dan kata kerja yang perlahan-lahan membentuk ‘diri saya’. Karena itu, saya lebih suka menerima apresiasi untuk apa yang saya buat, tulis, atau ucapkan alih-alih nama alma mater.

Pada saat bersamaan, saya juga sadar ada rasa lapar yang tak terbendung di antara pemuda-pemuda Indonesia yang beberapa tahun belakangan ini terbangun dari tidur panjang dan mendadak sadar bahwa kita yang tidak terlahir dari keluarga kaya—dengan kerja keras dan beasiswa yang tepat—bisa juga menikmati pendidikan berkualitas di kampus-kampus terbaik dunia.

Look. I get it.

Karena itu, setelah puluhan (mungkin juga ratusan) kali ditanya, “Kak Afu, gimana caranya masuk Harvard?” saya putuskan untuk menulis blogpost ini sebagai upaya menjawab teman-teman dengan lebih terstruktur dan konsisten.

[Disclaimer: program yang saya ikuti adalah Master In Public Policy di Harvard Kennedy School jadi kemungkinan kurang menjawab untuk program dan sekolah lain.]

[May 24, 2018. One of the best days of my life.]

1. Start with the right mindset.

Frasa Latin yang saya gunakan sebagai judul tulisan ini berarti, “to the stars through difficulties“. Memang, untuk mendarat di antara bintang-bintang, kita seringkali harus melalui berbagai kesulitan.

But here’s the thing: Harvard is NEVER supposed to be your stars. At best, it’s a transit planet that would allow you to fly further, maybe twice as fast. That said, not everyone has to go through the same route—your aim should be much bigger than a transit planet.

Beberapa orang bertanya pada saya tentang apakah mereka harus ikut organisasi X alih-alih Y atau kerja di perusahaan A alih-alih Z agar bisa diterima di Harvard. Bukan jarang, ada yang mendeklarasikan diri ingin masuk Harvard bahkan sebelum tahu program apa yang ingin mereka pilih/yang ada di sana.

Ini cara berpikir yang keliru.

Salah satu alasan Harvard akan menerima orang-orang yang mereka terima—menurut saya—justru adalah karena mereka memiliki (atau setidaknya mulai mencari) raison d’etre alias tujuan jangka panjang yang lebih besar dari diri mereka sendiri. Raison d’etre ini lah yang kemudian memandu keputusan-keputusan besar seperti memilih tempat bekerja atau kegiatan luar kampus, dan tercermin dalam CV/resume mereka. Nantinya, ‘bintang’ ini juga yang menjadi justifikasi untuk memilih kuliah di jurusan tersebut.

Raison d’etre ini bisa berbentuk sangat abstrak—misalnya melakukan ‘pelayanan publik’, atau ‘sektor pembangunan’ tanpa bidang spesifik—karena bagian dari sekolah bisa jadi menemukan astra yang lebih konkrit. Sedikit seperti ayam dan telur, tapi poin saya: see beyond the brand.

2. Know your shit.

Setelah astra teman-teman sudah sedikit lebih jelas terlihat, coba cari tahu kampus dan program mana yang akan membawamu ke sana. Jurusan yang saya ambil di Harvard Kennedy School, Master In Public Policy bisa jadi ada di mana-mana (termasuk di Berkeley atau Chicago), tapi tiap sekolah memiliki menu kuliah yang sangat berbeda-beda.

Beberapa informasi dasar yang mungkin membantu:

  • Harvard Kennedy School adalah sekolah profesional, bukan sekolah akademis. Karena itu, kebanyakan kelasnya bersifat praktis dan tidak teoretis. Tugas akhirnya pun berupa capstone project dalam bentuk analisis kebijakan publik dan bukan tesis master pada umumnya yang menjawab pertanyaan ilmiah.
  • Sekolah ini juga membanggakan diri sebagai rumah bagi para generalis yang ingin belajar sedikit-sedikit tentang banyak hal, alih-alih banyak hal tentang satu topik. Kalau ada spesialisasi, itu dilakukan berdasarkan konsentrasi dan topik tugas akhir yang dipilih (bagi para MPP). Karena itu aku terpapar mulai dari isu pembangunan, growth diagnostics, perubahan iklim, behavioral economics, sampai keamanan. Namun, keterampilan dasar yang dibangun tetap sama, yaitu analisis kebijakan publik—yang di dalamnya termasuk statistik dan econometrics, ilmu ekonomi, ilmu politik, negosiasi, serta kepemimpinan.
  • Program-program yang tersedia—mulai dari MPP, MPA, MC-MPA, MPA/ID sangat berbeda antar satu sama lain. Secara umum aku merasa bahwa jika teman-teman ingin kuat secara kuantitatif lebih baik pilih MPA/ID, kalau MPA lebih keterampilan kualitatif dan pemahaman isu, sedangkan MPP yang relatif berimbang di keduanya.

Two years is a long time to be away from your loved ones back home—make sure it’s for the right reason.

3. Have some work experience first.

Salah satu cara paling mudah untuk ‘menemukan’ raison d’etre kita adalah dengan memiliki pengalaman bekerja terlebih dahulu, paling tidak selama 1 tahun.

Ketika lulus dari jurusan Hubungan Internasional Universitas Indonesia di tahun 2013, saya belum memiliki bayangan sama sekali untuk mengambil jurusan kebijakan publik. Baru setelah bekerja kurang lebih 1.5 tahun di sebuah lembaga riset, saya menemukan permasalahan kebijakan publik sebagai puzzle yang ingin saya pecahkan.

Beberapa pengecualian terhadap aturan ini: (1) jika teman-teman ingin menjadi seorang akademisi, (2) sudah punya pengalaman ‘dunia nyata’ karena bekerja selama kuliah, atau (3) alasan profesional atau pribadi lain yang menjadikan gelar master sangat penting.

Secara keseluruhan, pengalaman kerja sepertinya akan lebih menguntungkan teman-teman daripada kampusnya sendiri. Harvard Kennedy School sendiri tidak memiliki persyaratan tegas (hanya ‘disarankan’ punya pengalaman 3 tahun untuk program MPP, tapi saya punya teman yang langsung ke HKS setelah S1).

Namun, selain sebagai proses self discovery, pengalaman kerja juga memungkinkan teman-teman untuk berkontribusi lebih aktif dalam diskusi di kelas. Seringkali, diskusi yang dilakukan dapat diperkaya oleh pengalaman profesional para mahasiswanya. Kalau belum punya pengalaman kerja, takutnya teman-teman malah tidak bisa berpartisipasi dengan maksimal.

4. Do your research.

Setelah sering menerima pertanyaan terkait proses aplikasi, aku bisa mengkategorikan penanya ke dalam dua kelompok: (1) penanya dengan informed questions, dan (2) dengan pertanyaan malas.

Contoh pertanyaan malas: “Kok bisa masuk Harvard?” (Yang biasanya aku jawab dengan, “Karena daftar.” LOL.)

Contoh informed question—alias pertanyaan yang sudah spesifik karena dilandasi riset sebelumnya: “Di program MPP ada tugas akhir berupa capstone project dengan klien. Itu nanti cara mencari kliennya seperti apa?”

Riset awal menunjukkan bahwa kita cukup berkomitmen untuk menginvestasikan waktu ke dalam proses mencari tahu jawaban. Terkadang, jawaban yang teman-teman cari sudah ada versi lengkapnya di Google.

Percaya atau tidak, semua informasi terkait proses aplikasi yang saya lakukan sampai akhirnya diterima sumbernya dari Google, karena saya tidak kenal orang Indonesia yang diterima di Harvard Kennedy School sebelum saya.

So there you go.

5. Build a solid story arc.

Sebagai orang Indonesia (untuk saya lebih spesifik lagi—Sunda), kita dibesarkan di dalam budaya yang mengutamakan kerendahan hati. Sama sekali tidak ada yang salah dengan itu, namun kita sering mencampuradukkan kerendahan hati dengan rasa rendah diri.

Bagian penting dari aplikasi S2 ke sekolah di Amerika pada umumnya, adalah kemampuan ‘menjual diri’.

Almost literally.

We Indonesians have *not* been trained for this (not to mention the additional English-as-second-language handicap) so half of the battle is about finding that humble-yet-confident voice inside your head.

Setengahnya lagi adalah kemampuan membangun cerita yang koheren tentang ‘siapa kita’. Untuk melakukan ini kita perlu ‘menjebrengkan’ semua hal yang sudah kita lakukan dan capai di waktu lalu, untuk kemudian kita hubungkan sebagai satu cerita keseluruhan yang utuh.

Tentu, secanggih-canggihnya mengarang tidak akan membawa kemana-mana jika tidak ada ‘bahan’ yang bisa dipakai dalam membangun cerita tersebut. Karena itu, penting juga untuk kita ‘menabung’. Buatku yang bisa ditabung ada tiga hal—kredensial, jaringan, dan kapasitas, dan harus dimulai seawal mungkin. Lagi-lagi, proses menabung ini kalau bisa dilakukan karena raison d’etre tadi.

6. Strategize your test preparations.

Sampai di sini teman-teman sudah riset, menemukan program yang diinginkan, dan membangun cerita tentang diri sendiri yang siap dijual. Great.

Bad news, though. There’s still a couple of tests you need to pass: the GRE and TOEFL.

Berdasarkan pemahamanku, HKS tidak punya batas ambang spesifik yang menentukan teman-teman diterima atau tidak, karena setiap aplikasi dilihat sebagai suatu keseluruhan. Dengan kata lain, misalkan TOEFL atau GRE teman-teman kurang dikit, tetep bisa diterima asalkan kuat dari aspek lain misalnya CV atau surat rekomendasi.

Meskipun demikian, penting untuk menyiapkan diri kita sebaik-baiknya dalam menghadapi tes ini. Salah satu strategi yang bisa dipakai, berdasarkan pengalaman saya, adalah melakukan tes terhadap diri sendiri (dengan buku yang bisa dibeli di toko buku impor seperti Kinokuniya atau gratis secara online) untuk tahu di mana kita sudah jago dan di mana kita masih kurang.

Misalnya, bisa jadi teman-teman sudah kuat dalam bagian quantitative dari GRE tapi masih lemah di analytical writing. Lalu alokasikan waktu secukupnya (1-2 bulan?) untuk lebih banyak berlatih di kelemahan kita tersebut.

Baik juga untuk mengetahui seawal mungkin apakah teman-teman tipe belajar sendiri atau ramai-ramai. Sesuai dengan kebutuhan, teman-teman bisa bentuk kelompok belajar atau dengan investasi yang cukup besar (sayangnya), ikut kelas persiapan yang tersedia di Jakarta dan kota-kota lain.

7. Don’t pursue a recommendation letter from a famous person for the sake of it.

Aplikasi ke HKS membutuhkan tiga surat rekomendasi, dua dari atasan profesional dan satu dari pembimbing akademis atau skripsi kita ketika S1. Pada umumnya, surat rekomendasi menjadi tempat untuk memvalidasi klaim-klaim yang kita buat di dalam resume.

Perumpamaan lain yang sering aku pakai: kalau kita adalah rumah berdinding, setiap surat rekomendasi adalah jendela untuk melihat ke ‘dalam’ kepribadian kita. Sebisa mungkin, setiap jendela diposisikan di lokasi berbeda agar komite seleksi dapat melihat kita secara menyeluruh, dengan tetap memiliki benang merah yang sama.

Contohnya, kualitas yang ingin ditunjukkan adalah bahwa kita memiliki komitmen tinggi. Penulis rekomendasi A membicarakan komitmen kita di kantor, B di kampus, dan C di kegiatan kerelawanan.

Salah satu mitos terbesar tentang surat rekomendasi untuk keperluan aplikasi sekolah adalah bahwa semakin tinggi jabatan pemberi rekomendasi kita, semakin tinggi pula kesempatan kita diterima. Sehingga kadang aku temui kasus di mana seseorang meminta rekomendasi dari Menteri atau orang penting lain, meskipun baru membantu mereka sebagai penerjemah selama satu hari (which is cool, by the way, but your relationship isn’t intense enough to get you a robust story).

Prinsip umumnya: semakin dekat hubungan atau semakin lama kalian bekerja dengan pemberi rekomendasi, semakin baik. Jika ada dua orang yang kenal pada tingkat yang sama, maka semakin tinggi jabatannya semakin baik.

Kualitas dan intensitas hubungan profesional tersebut menjadi penting karena nantinya kredibilitas klaim dalam surat rekomendasi akan ditentukan oleh banyak-tidaknya ‘bukti’ dalam bentuk anekdot-anekdot nyata. Jadi semakin *personal* surat tersebut semakin baik.

Jika sang pemberi rekomendasi cukup terbuka, teman-teman bisa diskusikan elemen apa yang ingin ditekankan dalam masing-masing surat sehingga dapat tersinkronisasi dengan keseluruhan aplikasi.

8. Write shitty first drafts. Then have your confidants and/or mentors to review them.

Yang juga memakan banyak waktu adalah esai-esai (biasanya ada 1-4 dengan pertanyaan yang berbeda-beda). Kuncinya berasa di menulis draft pertamamu seawal mungkin, karena itu memungkinkan teman-teman untuk punya banyak waktu untuk melakukan revisi.

Penting juga untuk memiliki teman atau mentor yang dapat membaca dan memberikan masukan kepada draft awal teman-teman. Aku secara spesifik berhutang pada beberapa orang terdekat untuk hal ini.

Kadang, kita merasa malu atau protektif terhadap esai yang sangat personal. Karena itu aku juga tidak menyarankan untuk mengirim ke terlalu banyak orang, cukup 1-3. Perlu diingat bahwa ketertutupan itu juga akan menutup kesempatan untuk mengembangkan esai teman-teman untuk menjadi lebih baik lagi.

9. Take your time.

Finally, remember that everyone lives in their own time zone. Some people might do their master’s earlier than others but it doesn’t mean it would’ve been good for you. Maybe waiting longer means you can get more out of your study later.

Point is, there’s no use comparing yourself to others—but it’s generally a good practice to look at how far you’ve grown from your past self.

Sebagai referensi tambahan, aku ingin membagi beberapa tautan untuk mempelajari proses aplikasi Harvard Kennedy School lebih lanjut, serta organisasi Indonesia Mengglobal yang sudah memuat banyak sekali informasi:

Kalau ada tautan lain yang bisa berguna, ataupun pertanyaan lebih lanjut, silakan tinggalkan di kolom komentar di bawah.

I’ll stop here because I run out of points to make. If I think of anything else, I’ll update this post in the future.

Dengan ini, saya mengucapkan selamat dan semoga sukses untuk teman-teman yang, seperti saya dulu, mulai dengan ingin.

You’ll be surprised to find out where that willpower could take you.