Character Building

Three years ago, in a dingy, decrepit, and barely standing government building in Manila, there I was. In a nine-to-five job that’s supposedly “great” for my CV; running workshops and preparing presentations for the top brass. It was your typical civil service job for any young, bright-eyed, & idealistic kid in a third-world country. I got to do the soul-crushing tasks, got to be gloriously underpaid, and got to be the overworked footstool for everyone else above my station… nothing out of the ordinary.

In a blink, I found myself nearly a year into the job, hands calloused from all the forms and paperwork I had to file to get anything done, ears desensitized to the whirr of the decade-old copy machines, eyes sunken from all the unpaid overtime I had to clock in to meet ludicrous deadlines. But beneath it all, I found myself afraid; afraid to take another blink and see years of my life go by in the same crumbling building; afraid of being too invested in another deadline to not notice time pass me by. I was afraid of being too busy to even think about what I was going to do with my life.

So as if in one swift motion, I got my affairs in order, turned in my resignation, and went back home. I thought, if not for a change in direction, then at least it’s for a change of pace. At home, I had time to think about answering a question I’ve been asked before many years ago- what do I want to be when I grow up? What do I want to do with my life? It was the first time I had the time to really think about my answer. Back in college, I didn’t have time to think about any of that. I had endless papers to write, exams to needlessly cram for, and a lot of very wholesome social gatherings to attend (of course). After college, I was so caught up in everyone saying I needed “experience”, that I got myself whisked away to the first job that would look cool on my resumé. Now, left to myself with nothing but my thoughts, I had to come up with an answer… a real answer. In a sloppy effort to delay this, I turned to the two things I felt I was fairly comfortable in- learning and business. If anything, at least it would give me something to do while I figure things out. So, I took every management job I could in any company that would let me, and a few months afterward, got myself enrolled to go to Sydney to get a master’s degree.

In another building in a completely different continent there I was. I had a room to myself on-campus and a keen sense of purpose. This time the building was less the dingy and decrepit kind, but more the clean, hip and modern kind. There were heaters instead of A/Cs, the toilets swirled the other way, and door handles don’t fall off when you turn them. Outside the building, there were even more differences. Here, I learned that everyone calls everyone by their first name here, regardless of age, hierarchy, or uniform. There are no “Pos” or “Opos”, no “Titas” or “Kuyas”. Your friendly product peddler doesn’t even call you a “mamsir”. Here there is less prejudice based on how young you are or what your position is. People call you by some variation of your first name – you’re everyone’s “mate”.

Also, here people are absolutely in love with the outdoors. There are parks and outdoor spaces on every other block, and people actually enjoy walking out to these places. It took me a while early on to adjust from the life I was used to back home- going from an air-conditioned room to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned office, all while actively avoiding the non-air-conditioned outside since it would either be blistering humid heat or pouring torrential rain.

It was just another crazy thing Australians do, I thought to myself. But after a bit of time, I’m ashamed to admit that even I go outside every now and then too. So, I spent my days swimming in the sights and sounds of a new city, getting lost in the streets and subways, complaining about food prices and picking up sausage grilling tips along the way. My days were peppered with me trying to thrash and flail my way in the land down under.

On one such day I was on my bicycle, riding along Broadway mulling over what I was to do with my life. I was admiring the brutalist oddness that is the UTS tower building when it hit me. A gust of frigid wind barely strong enough to last more than a few seconds, but strong enough to tell me -not so subtly- that it has indeed been months since I was home, it was the first week of winter, and that my frail, tropical body was not build for this kind of weather. As I shivered and quivered while staring at the infamously forceful visage of the “ugliest tower in Sydney”, I took a right down Harris street and another realization hit me.

Australia uses the left-hand drive, so I was in fact supposed to cross to the far side of the road when turning right. So, on the one hand, I nearly crashed onto a wave of oncoming traffic, but on the other hand, I got to learn a slew of previously unheard-of expletives and obscene gestures from the friendly Sydney drivers. It is in fact a different world down here; from colloquialisms, to street rules, to weather. In some ways, it is so different from home, that it seems one of us is going the opposite direction.

My first thought in seeing it was that it looked more like a crumpled roll of toilet paper than anything else, with its jagged and uneven curves, in a kind-of washed out brown.

But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the beauty of building 8. It was where I was supposed to spend most of my time studying after all; especially so during the winter months, when going outside meant that I would freeze my nose hairs off. It is in these crumpled halls where I spent the only resource I had plenty of… time. I had time to sift through my self and my thoughts; time to come up with an answer to my question of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

What I also had in abundance was schoolwork. I was up to my eyeballs in it. But, as it was back home, I soon found myself enjoying doing what I was doing, so it wasn’t an issue. What I realized soon after I brushed off this seemingly forgone conclusion, was that it was exactly what I needed to pay attention to.

As boring as this may sound, I legitimately enjoyed learning about building businesses. I liked getting to study how to build organizations, how to manage teams, how to think in different disciplines. I liked getting to tinker with and play in all the different companies and different environments in a landscape so foreign to my own down here. I liked learning about the tools that could help me make and create and build something that would have value to society. This was my answer. It was something so trivial and mundane that I couldn’t even spare it half a thought. I didn’t come from some grand sense of perseverance, not from any hard-won introspection nor a hapless attempt in self-actualization. It was insultingly simple. I wanted to keep building.

What’s more, is that I knew, one way or another, that I was already built for this. The more I thought about it, not only did it make perfect sense, but that I was also already utterly prepared for it. My grandfather was a carpenter. He used his hands to build houses and his heart to build homes. My father – a teacher and a leader. He used his mind to shape minds and his vision to lead hearts. I come from a family of builders and leaders. My whole life, they’ve ingrained in me the joy of building something that matters to the world and leading hearts and minds. My parents and grandparents were builders in every sense of the word; and through them I have been taught how to be one, been molded how to think like one; and with their meager means, I was afforded the opportunity to learn and study to be a good one. It was why I was so miserable in that dilapidated old office building. I wasn’t building anything. It was why all the buildings in Sydney looked so fascinating to me. I looked at them differently, in my heart of hearts I knew, I wanted to do the same thing. It was the only thing I knew to do, the one thing I was brought up to do.

I know now what I should’ve known years ago. When I grow up, I want to be a builder.