Real Talk: "How did you know what you wanted to do?"



This ECQ is bringing a lot of emotions and questions and I want to ask about how you knew what you wanted to do, personally and career-wise. And is there a time when you felt like the things you were doing were just ways to make yourself feel better?

-V


Dear V,


When I was younger, I was sure that I wanted to a doctor. I had a 16-year plan for my medical career. This plan unraveled when I didn’t get in my pre-med of choice and was instead accepted in my second choice, BA English Studies. Plan B was to be a lawyer. But as I entered the brain spa of literary theory and creative writing and fell in love with musical theatre, I was sure that I wanted to be an artist. Copywriting would be my “stable” career, and I’d write and perform too.


A few days after I submitted my thesis, I found out about an illegal wildlife trade case and co-founded an online campaign called Save Philippine Seas. It would be my hobby while I looked for a “real job.” 


Ah, Plan Sea.

Spoiler alert: I never found a “real job.” From 2011-2014, I worked as a freelance writer and manager for reproductive sexual health, climate change adaptation, and youth projects. I continued to grow SPS with different shark conservation and waste management initiatives. When people asked me what my job was, I’d say “writer.” Parang ang feeling sabihing “environmental conservationist."


In 2014, I applied for postgraduate studies in conservation science because I was passionate about conservation. I wasn’t sure if it was my passion. The more I studied, the more sure I became. I made a commitment to pursue conservation full-time — no more out-of-topic projects! But there were two truths within me: that I wanted to be a conservationist, but also that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t get the final grade I wanted, and for someone who measured her life in achievements and standards that could be easily quantified, this reflected that I wouldn’t be good enough. That same month, the last active co-founder of SPS decided to leave and the first SEA Camp project ended. The shiny, successful career I imagined started to sink.


When I got home, reality began to reintroduce itself. One year away doesn’t seem like a long time, but in funding cycles and job applications, it was. I had to restart fundraising efforts for SPS. From having about PhP8 million in operational funds in 2015, we only had PhP500k at the beginning of 2016. I applied for one grant after another, and received one rejection letter after another. And yet, I kept being invited to speak at events, appear in the media, and receive awards. I was unhappy and burned out, but these opportunities offered a balm to my bruised ego. I couldn’t get a decent paying job and my mom kept asking me to get a “real job,” but hundreds of people were listening to me and laughing at my puns. Our funds were depleting, but my face was in Mega magazine. Strange, strange times. My new plan was to finish all of SPS’s existing grants and let it die a natural death. I started inquiring about jobs in PR, marketing, and CSR. The only anchor I had to being Chief Mermaid was a calendar of reporting deadlines. They served as the finish line.


One evening, I found myself crying across one of my best friend, Anya. We were in a restaurant in Cebu. “I’m not good enough for this,” I said in between tears, looking at plates of dimsum and rice. “I’m not good enough.”

“Then… You’re not,” she replied. Her voice carried so much tenderness and kindness. (So much tenderness and kindness not to point out I had food all over my shirt.) “You weren’t good enough. But one day, you will be. And you will feel you are.”


Months later, I flew to Hawaii for a conservation congress. It was the second to last conservation event I needed to attend before I could start my new (unknown) career. YAS. I was in a room of people I didn’t know, talking about marine debris. People were curious about the Philippines and what we were up to. I suddenly felt tears pricking my eyes. 


Because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I didn't want to be anywhere else. I wanted to be in a room full of strangers, talking about marine debris. A few days later, as if on cue, the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines offered SPS a grant for the first regional SEA Camp and another local SEA Camp. It was the first grant we had received in 10 months. I guess I couldn't quit just yet.


Anya was right. I was enough. I was more than enough.


In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, she writes: 

“There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? What do you love even more than you love your own ego? How fierce is your trust in that love?”

I dismissed the possibility of closing down SPS. When I removed my backup plans and acknowledged my resentment, vulnerability, pride, loneliness, and exhaustion — all the feelings “leaders” and “visionaries” are not ~supposed~ to feel — the truth glittered under the sun: the thought of not being conservationist was harder to accept than being one. I put in the work. There were hours, LONG hours of writing and rewriting grants, meetings, improving existing programs, and redefining what success meant to me (and only me). The last one, my love, was the most difficult of all.


I don’t want to romanticize this and tell you that everything just fell into place. There are always challenges: colleagues not sharing the same work ethic, bureaucracy, rejections, and greenwashing attempts. COVID-19 poses new questions: can we organize events and workshops again, when will we get to travel and do fieldwork, will we still be able to raise funds? I worry everyday. But my trust in this love is fierce. We will adapt and we will overcome. As we have done before.


SPS is turning nine years old next month. It feels surreal to write that it has lasted almost a decade. Do I think I’ll be in marine conservation forever? I don’t know. I hope to dedicate my life to it. But I say it with the same certainty I carried when I wanted to be a doctor, writer, and performer. Are there still days when I want to quit and feel like giving up? Yes. Fuck, yes. 

Now, I’m on Plan Be. To just be. To continue putting in the work and the hours. There is no happy ending in this story, V. Or an ending at all. That, perhaps, is the best part. The story goes on. 


Thank you for bearing witness.

Love,

A

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