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By Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a question that is asked every day, everywhere around the world. Virtually everyone has been asked that question.

The problem is it’s a question that’s outlived its usefulness.

The problem is it’s a question that’s outlived its usefulness.

What are the 14 things you want to be when you grow up? … Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

I wanted to be a journalist. It’s what I studied as an undergrad in university, and it’s what I was lucky enough to become, when I graduated.

But 21 years ago, almost to this very day… I realized how useless the “what do you want to be when you grow up question “– really was. And I’ll admit, it was a strange way to find out.

It was the spring of 1992, I was on assignment as a journalist in war-torn Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, in the heart of Europe -- at the beginning of what was to become the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

I was in a bulletproof car with 2 colleagues. My cameraman and my translator. We were just getting set to drive across the bridge, when a car swooped in, in front of us. It was like a bad Hollywood movie. One car in front. One car in back. And ours sandwiched uncomfortably in between. Of course you know what comes next…. In the middle of the bridge, the first car slams on the brakes. The car behind us squeezes us in. And armed soldiers jump out of both. They force us out of our vehicle at gunpoint – they yelled, and pointed and yelled. It didn’t take much translating to understand that what they wanted was for us to hand over our bullet proof jackets.

And in the flurry of that crazy moment … I had the calmest out of body experience, as I looked down to watch it all unfold in a kind of slow motion …and I asked myself…why am I here? I mean really, why am I here?
It certainly wasn’t for the pay cheque. Journalism is not the kind of job you go into to get rich. (apart from a very few exceptions).

It certainly wasn’t simply because my boss told me to go. That would be a silly reason to put your life in harm’s way.

The reason I was standing on that bridge, with a gun pointed to my head, had to do with something a lot deeper. And much more personal.

As a child, my father talked to me about his growing up in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. And my mum talked to me about growing up in Belgium, during World War 2. I grew up in Canada, watching the civil rights movement unfold in the US and the fight for women's rights taking place all around me.

So early on there was something deeply embedded in my DNA that had to do with social justice. And about wanting to make a difference.

That's why I was on that bridge. Even in the face of personal danger. It wasn’t just a job -- it was really about who I am - my sense of purpose – and what motivates me, in a deep and fundamental way. That made it worth it. Journalism was a good fit for me.

Clearly the bridge episode ended well. The soldiers got the bulletproof jackets they wanted … and more importantly, they let us go – scared but in one piece.

Time and again I went to places where I saw people’s lives change virtually overnight, as chaos washed over them – and they looked on, in disbelief. That kind of chaos magnifies everything about the human condition – because you see people at their most raw, vulnerable. Sometimes ugly. Sometimes heroic.

I will forever carry with me, the memory of a young mother I met in the market in Sarajevo. The market was an easy target for forces bombing from positions on nearby hills. It also happened to be one of the few places where you could buy and sell food, in a city where there was none. No food, no running water, no electricity. And there she was, selling one packet of spaghetti and two candles. She was trying to make some money, so that she could buy her two boys some chocolate, on the black market. The boys had been stuck at home -- day in-day out -- because of the bombing and the snipers outside. She just wanted to give them a treat – and was risking her life, to do it.

Meeting people like that. Reporting back from places like that…in the hope that that reporting would make a difference. That gave me a great sense of purpose.

I was 33. I thought I was going to be a journalist my whole life. Going from one war, one emergency, one story to another. And for several years, I did. Sarajevo, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Northern Ireland, Gaza, the West Bank … and much too rarely, to places where we could report on a wrong being put right – like that unforgettable, historic day in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was elected.

But my journalism career ended in Rwanda.

A genocide against Tutsis -- with as many as one million people killed because of their identity -- led to a massive refugee crisis – of mainly Hutus -- into neighbouring countries.

On this particular day, we were in the northwest of the country, as thousands refugees eventually came streaming back into Rwanda.

I was always struck by the quiet of moments like these.

Imagine the starting line of a marathon -- that massive sea of people, it looked like that.

But this was quiet. And slow. The little energy these people had, in that baking sun, with no access to water, was devoted to putting one foot in front of the other.

We were sending our news report over a satellite phone -- and my editor in Canada asked -- do you really have to call them Hutus and Tutsis. It’s really confusing to people. He may have been right. In the incredible transformation that has happened since in Rwanda, the new constitution makes sure to make no distinctions.

But at the time, it just seemed like all our reporting had made so little difference – not to the understanding of our audience back home. And even less to the lives of people in Rwanda.

So I found myself, much like that time on the bridge in Sarajevo – wondering -- why am I here? And I knew that my journalism career was over. Because I just didn't believe what I was doing, was making ENOUGH of a difference anymore.

My sense of purpose was still the same. I just had to find another way of channeling my commitment to social justice and a new way of making a difference.

I’m not sure I could have put it into these exact words at the time – but after 17 years as a journalist – of being a spectator and witness, I wanted to be more of a participant-advocate. I just didn’t know what that meant. Or how I would do it.

Making transitions isn’t easy… starting someTHING, starting someWHERE new isn’t easy…even if it does provide its own kind of positive adrenaline; part nerves, part fear, part excitement. I spent the next year and a half pulling together a financial pillow and doing some heavy duty networking.

I became a consultant, doing three things … teaching journalism in developing countries, providing media training to NGOs, and leading bike tours in France and Spain.

Because it’s important to balance all that purpose with some pleasure too.

Career #3 – came naturally out of the consulting. I got into humanitarian work, first with the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and later with Unicef. As a journalist, I’d seen the work of both – and I knew their global missions matched my world view and they certainly matched my sense of purpose. In both cases, when I asked myself the question – why am I here… it was clear, the fit was right.

One of my favourite quotes – attributed to Confucius, though I’ve seen a lot of discussion online whether he really said it, goes like this: Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Whether Confucius said it or not – I like the spirit of that quote.

It gets back to that ‘why am I here’ question – and figuring out what fundamentally motivates you, and gives you your sense of purpose. DO something you love -- and you’ll never work a day in your life.

For some that 'something' evolves and changes over the years.

It certainly isn’t all about your work life, either. It’s about striking a balance that works. Family, friends, personal growth. And yes, finding your place in a world that is changing exponentially around you.

Which is another reason I’d like to see us give up the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up question’… I mean, how do you answer that when there aren’t enough jobs to go around in the first place.

And, when many of the jobs you may end up in – haven’t even been invented yet?

The top 10 in-demand jobs in the US in 2010 – didn’t even exist in 2004.

Futurologists, are in the business of predicting trends. They’ve come up with what they say will be the 10 most lucrative careers in the year 2030.

Now I had to write these down because I’d never heard of them before – but just to give you a taste;

§ Body part maker Creates living body parts for athletes and soldiers

§ Nano-medic Creates very small implants for health monitoring and self-medication

§ Vertical farmer Farms crops upwards rather than across fields to save space

We are preparing students for careers that don’t exist. Using technologies that haven’t been invented. To solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

How do you navigate that chaos – when change is the only constant?

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of an award winning business magazine called Fast Company. He’s coined the term Generation Flux – it’s not a demographic, it’s a psychographic. And it refers to people who succeed, by brilliantly managing today’s chaos. For Generation Flux chaos is not scary – its oxygen.

These people thrive because, regardless of age, they embrace: adaptability, flexibility, an openness to learning … and are decisive, knowing full well that (business) life today can shift radically and quickly. As entrepreneurs, innovators, and people who pioneer ideas. They just come up with new ways of doing things – and invent their own jobs.

A few years ago – I was busy having another one of my ‘why am I here’ moments.

I was turning 50 that year. And I was thinking about how I was going to celebrate that milestone. I thought about the things I wanted to do with my life that I hadn’t done yet.

…on my dream list…

Be an Olympic athlete. That wasn’t going to happen.

Travel the world. I’d done a fair bit of that already.

Go to Harvard. And that was it.

I wanted to go back to school … to reinvent myself one more time. This is what people in human resources call – reskilling. Or re-tooling. Re-something. For me, it was just RE-warding.

You see, I wanted to get more directly involved in shaping public policy with governments and working with the private sector in corporate social responsibility.

Given my background, I speak three languages and I knew I needed to learn a fourth. So I went to Harvard to learn the language of business. And learn about human capital. To match that with what I already knew about human rights.

Why am I here?

For me – it’s still about social justice. It’s still about wanting to make a difference. And it’s a lot about learning. Being a full time student. Not just in a classroom. But in life.

A United Nations report released last month, tells us that life expectancy went up faster in the 20th century, than at any other time in history. The average life expectancy, globally, is 69 years.

We're among friends now, so let's just round it up and say 70. Knowing full well that in Malaysia it’s even higher than that. 70 years. That’s 25,550 days.

That’s a lot of time to fill.
Especially when the world is spinning as quickly as it does. And you’re likely to have to reinvent yourself, several times, along the way.

So I’ve found it really useful to keep checking in every now and again…and asking myself that ‘why am I here’ question. For me, it’s helped to avoid simply getting swept up by everything – or worse, sleepwalking through life.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

BETTER YET -- why are you here?






Wivina Belmonte - UNICEF Representative, Malaysia

Ms. Wivina Belmonte

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