On an unexpected meet with an ex-colleague

Just a few days ago, I got a bliss to be contacted by an ex-colleague who worked with me at the research institution during my first few months joining it. He is now a researcher for an international NGO, having a business trip here in Saigon. I was quite surprised receiving his call, saying he would like a catch-up. It was quite a long time since we last met, in his wedding in Hanoi and since then, I almost had no news of him.

Despite knowing nothing in advance about the topic that we are going to catch-up over, I am so thrilled to meet with and to talk to him (this is not so strange, given I am thrilled every time an old friend dropped by the city and made an effort to contact me, which is a great pleasure during these boring days).

Exactly his old style, punctual and well-prepared, he got to the building where I worked at 12 p.m., maybe just even before the time. As I got down the lobby to see him, he was waiting outside, turning to see the road, carrying his black back-pack. Usually, each time a friend came to my place, I would have to rack my brain, trying to pick a place to eat. This time, nevertheless, to my surprise, the guy came prepared. He told me there was a place just nearby that he already researched and got recommended and we just walked straight there, smoothly without any juggling of choices.

Crossing the road, just across the building lies Nu bistro, situated on top of a popular Korean chicken restaurant. The bistro has impressive decoration, with its wall painted in a blue kind of lagoon color. Some chairs at the entrance were modeled after bird cages. Stepping inside the room, he looked around with the waitress attending just beside for his decision of seat before doing her job. As we got a table near the window rear of the room, the lady handed out the menu to us.

He did not look any different from his image in my memory, which I think must be at least 2 years ago. His calmness, level-headed and somehow seriousness do not fade away. But I sensed some deep mental transformation he had undergone over the last couple of years (which should be revealed through his wisdom advice during our conversation later).

As we started the conversation with some getting-to-know questions about workplace and general well-being, we also looked at the menu to choose the course for today’s lunch. Let’s see! I thought the menu look nice and obviously, significantly more expensive than the places where I usually had lunch. I was a bit hesitant on  selecting a dish, scanning over pages of the main menu and had some intention of glancing over the “lunch menu”, which I thought would be surely more affordable. Dishes here ranged from around 180 to like over 300 thousand dong, a big deal for my tight pocket and I definitely had no thoughts on getting paid for by my colleague.

My colleague, nevertheless, looked firmly into the menu, picking up one dish – seared duck breast on cooked red rice. Oh alright, this dish sounded delicious and was in the prices’ mid-range, like 220 thousand dong. Meanwhile, I had not got my dish selected yet, juggling between salmon and another dish I cannot recall. He immediately encouraged me to take the fish, which I realized to cost 320k. OMG, that was totally out-of-budget. So I tried to scan thru the menu again to see if there’s any other more reasonable dish, which I ended up with a duck leg over risotto rice. On top of that, he ordered a salad and tea for him while I asked for a watermelon juice as my drink.

While we were waiting for our food to be served, we got into the conversation with full attention. He briefly told me about this new workplace, the structure, the time when he joined it and what he was doing here in Saigon. Then he got to ask about myself. Apart from the general information which I may pass on to anybody about my workplace such as my division, the kind of work that I am doing and when I started with it, I accompanied it with some complaints. To my amazement, his wife used to work for the same company as mine, just different division. Hers was in financial advisory while I was in performance improvement, a type of management consulting.

As the surprise unfolded, he seemed to got lots of insider information to offer me. That was when I got really excited and felt blissful as I got to meet him during my cry for help on my aimless workdays. First, I told him about how my bosses were so ignorant to drive us in projects. He gave me the advice from his experience: Out of all the places he have worked, there were none entitled to be a “good and satisfying environment”. What he learnt from that was despite the work environment, he had to be in control of his own work, setting clear boundaries of his tasks, clarifying with the managers. It was his “personal brand” that he had to protect and build. Nothing else matters.

When I told him about how good and capable I were and that bosses would not listened to me but to those ignorant sugar-coated persons, he advised me to “be original”, just need to adapt to fight for “the personal plan” – which I should have for myself to reap all the benefits that the workplace can offer me to my advantage. That is it! To have my own plan, use the environment as a tool to support my plan, fight for my benefits or any thing that affect my plan but be myself, be the good version of myself.

Aha, that is mind-blowing and eye-opening to me. That may answered lots and lots of questions. If I ain’t have a plan for myself and if I ain’t have a goal, whichever way does not matter. The same like work, where do I seek the perfect work environment? None? The only thing in my control is my plan – (1) the plan I have to actively craft for myself and live up to it. 

OK! The first, foremost and fundamental advice: Take control of my life and have a plan for it.

Now on to the tricks at office. As I got less serious with the advice that may change my life, I got to the next little tricks that help me navigate easier at office. Starting from the point that we were both very serious persons, he offered me really down-to-earth tips that he, I thought more intelligently, realized while I seemed not to. For instance, he told me about the tricks of find the soft spot of the managers to kick-in. Haha, that does not mean literally. It was meant that I should find away around to soothe the boss, but how I do my work is up to my way. Secondly, telling lies is of no harm, if used wisely. He gave me one example: his colleague, during the peak of a very busy period with fired discussions and decision making, suddenly dropped out by asking for a leave day with the excuse that her daughter was sick. Despite not doubting the validity of the reason, he told me she smartly got away with the heated up debates and storms of anger from the boss and only returned when things were already settled. Yeah! Second lesson is “to leave at the right time” rather than being the upright person who was always there, waiting to help and support and…be stormed at with fury and displeasure. Now you know, and you just need to be the upper-hand person (so unethical as a serious person like me and him could think). But this is life, and you want to protect your (1) PLAN.

He even gave me tips of being market-ready by always in constant state of spreading my applications to different workplace, to get insider information on a company long before the insider person realized my intention of applying to it, to go networking and to play the game of “finance people” who seemed to excel best at selling themselves in talks.  All great tips I must say.

My head swirled around with all these great advice from the person who I thought may have been in the same situation. I thanked him a lot for showing up at the right time, for spending his valuable 1.5 hours talking to me and to treat me at this very nice bistro.

Sometimes I questioned whether I have not been lucky these recent years, been struggling with finding a direction for my life. But I think I have all I need. I even have the bliss of meeting these people, who were kind and giving out love and care and showing humanity. That is too enough. The other part – it belongs to me to realize all the wisdom I have been granted.

That is how I am counting down to my 28, a year I am courageously looking forward to. Thank you and I hope I can share my blessings to all the people who suffered out there cause love is the thing people cling to to live by.

Saigon, July 29, 2017.