Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Advice for the College Senior Who Wants to Make a Difference

My senior year of college I knew that I wanted to do work that made a difference, but I didn't know what kind of work that would be. I was a sociology major, but wasn't attracted to social work. I'd worked at a DC nonprofit the summer after my junior year that focused on policy work, but that wasn't a fit for me either. I also knew that a 9-5 work schedule wasn't the best fit for me.

A couple months before graduation I went to my religion professor's office hours to ask for advice. I can't remember the details of our conversation, except that he used a lot of words beginning with "C": courage, commitment, calling, creativity. For the first time, I didn't feel like a crazy person for wanting to have an alternative vision for my career.

If you are a college student, or someone in career transition, who wants to find work that fulfills your big vision for a better world, I have a few words of advice, and some books to recommend.

My advice:

1. Follow your curiosity. What are the things that excite you the most? What are the issues you follow in the media, or wish you could be involved with? What is the skill you say to yourself, " I would love to know how to _____________." Are there people whose work you envy? These are all good inklings of what you might want to do.

2. Do it, don't think about it. You'll never know if you enjoy doing something by thinking about it. You have to take action either by taking a class, doing an informational interview, volunteering, interning, going to an event, or taking a job in the field that interests you.

For example, at one point, I thought I wanted to be a massage therapist, but then I took a massage class, and realized I had to massage naked people I didn't know. Yuck. I never made the connection until I did it.

3. Take small steps. It can be overwhelming to have, "Find work I love that makes a difference in a the world," as a to-do. Once you've made a list of some of the fields and skills that interest you, make another list of small steps you can take to explore them such as:

* Send an email to my friends to see if they have connections in the fields that interest me.
* Look for a volunteer position on Volunteer Match.
* Find an event on Craigslist, Idealist or Upcoming about an issue that interests me. Go to it.
* Research classes/workshops in a skill I want to learn. Sign up for it.

4. Find support. Looking for a job can be a lonely, frustrating experience. Creating work you love that doesn't go automatically from A-Z (i.e. I get a degree in X, I get a job in X), can be extra challenging. Career counselors and coaches can be great support, but so can peers.

Find another person, or a group of people, who are also trying to find work that helps to create their big vision for the world. Get together. Talk about your big visions. Commit to taking three small actions towards your big visions by a certain date when you will meet/talk on the phone/connect by email again. Do your actions. Meet with your support system. Pick three more actions. Pick a date to meet. Repeat until you create your big vision!

A Few Book Suggestions:

Be Bold: Create a Career with Impact, a publication of Echoing Green. Boy, do I wish this book had been around when I was in college. This fantastic book is filled with profiles of social change visionaries like Priya Haji, CEO and Co-Founder of World of Good; Katie Redford Co-Founder and US Office Director of Earth Rights International; and Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America. They were all Echoing Green Fellows who received up to $90,000 in seed funding and technical support to turn their ideas into sustainable organizations.

In addition to inspiring profiles, the back of the book has a series of questions to help you create your big vision like:
  • If your career (in its entirety--think long term) allowed you to tackle a few big problems in the world (e.g., educational inequity, poverty), what would they be?
  • If you were to take more risks in your educational or professional career, what types of things would you do?
  • If you had one word tattooed on your body, what would it be and why?
If you are going home for the holidays and are dreading the, "What are you going to do with your life?" question from your relatives, order a copy of Be Bold and read it on the plane.

If you've already got an idea for an organization you'd like to create, the deadline for Echoing Green's 2008 Fellowship applications is December 3, 2007.

Creating a Life Worth Living: A Practical Course in Career Design for Artists, Innovators, and Others Aspiring to a Creative Life by Carol Lloyd. I taught creative career workshops for six years based on this book. Even though some of the examples are dated (it was published in 1997) I still use the exercises when I work with individuals today.

We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why by Kristin Layng Szakos and Joe Szakos. Do you love people, want to help others develop leadership skills, like to think strategically, and are able to transform your anger about a problem into action? You might have the makings of a community organizer. We Make Change is the product of 81 interviews with community organizers who answered questions like, what makes a good organizer? How did you start organizing? Why do you organize? What advice do you have for aspiring organizers?

Here's what one interviewee, Karen Waters, the Executive Director of the Quality Community Council in Charlottesville, VA, said about why she does organizing work:
"There's no other feeling like seeing people actually create change. It's amazing when people realize that they already have what they need to get what they want done. They realize how to make someone else change their mind. That's really cool. There's lots of autonomy. There's lots of opportunities for creativity. You have to be creative. It's fun, it really is. A the end of the day, it's a fun job."
If you've been wondering about what it would be like to be a community organizer, We Make Change will answer most of your questions.

A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World by Isabel Losada. As I mentioned in my book review in January 2006, what I liked about this book was that Losada doesn't make being an activist seem easy, in a normal way. So many autobiographies of activists either make the story of their life seem filled with such extreme and tragic obstacles you think, "I could never be as strong as them," or their life seem so easy and flowing you think, "I could never be as intelligent/talented/lucky as them." Losada's book describes the kind of obstacles to changing the world that everyone faces--lack of funds, apathy, bureaucracy, stressed out co-workers and bad weather--and how she overcomes them.

My final piece of advice is to have a long term, big vision for the change you want to create. Most of the challenges our world faces today aren't going to be solved by one piece of legislation, one change in consumer behavior, or one event, but by many pieces of legislation, many changes in consumer behavior and many events over a period of time.

On the other hand, your ideal work will be made up of many decisions, learning experiences and jobs over time that you can't even begin to imagine, so don't fret if you don't know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. Just figure out what you want to do now, and you'll figure out the rest as you go along.

Still wondering where to start? Follow the advice of one of the organizers interviewed for We Make Change, "Do what makes your heart beat faster."

Related blog posts for further reading:
Echoing Green: Taking Chances on What Really Matters by Rimmy Mahotra of Do Well & Do Good.
Great New Book on Organizing! by Steve Chase of the Well-Trained Activist.
Isabel Losada's Occasional Blog

Full disclosure: I was sent a review copy of We Make Change.
Image Credit: Changed Priorities Ahead by Christopher Whalen.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:12 PM


    Thanks for the terrific review of Be Bold. I'm glad you found us at the Craigslist conference last month.

    Now that Echoing Green actually has a blog, I hope you'll stay in touch with our goings-on.

    -Anthony Showalter
    Echoing Green


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