- Wise Words -
*writer opted for anonymity
Not to sound too hippie, but the more I think about John Lennon's line that "life is what happens while you are busy making other plans" the more I think it is relevant to my career. Unless you take some risks and try a few things in your twenties, you career will just "happen"!
I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for about 15 years and the catch is this was a deliberate choice I made when I first started out after my MPP/MBA.
I really didn’t care for the MBA-part of my post-grad work so justified my initial move by saying to myself that I would do the “feel good” thing, work for a cause I was passionate about for only a few years, get the bug out of my system and move on to the corporate sector and make a proper living.
Well, guess what, it sucks you in – the soft, feel good organizations that you think are good as short-term transitionary jobs that will pad your resume, end up being not so short-term. Part of it has to do with comfort and complacency.
When I started in the non-profit sector back in 2002, I thought (and rightly so) that the work I was doing was very cool, innovative and dare I say it, “sexy”? I was working overseas doing economic development work for a reputable non-profit. As I moved back to the U.S., I still had the bug. Being someone who “did” Int’l Relations and was interested in Politics as many of us are when we enrol at a university, not realizing how saturated and low-paying the field is, I decided to move to D.C. and work for an advocacy group.
The job was exciting as it was less than a block away from the White House with a lot interaction with K Street celebrities as well as the wannabees. I went to tons of events, met dignitaries, and developed my network. That’s when I knew that it would be hard for me to move to the corporate side (note: I am not calling it the “dark” side!). I liked working for an organization with a strong mission, where there was culture of daily happy hours, the people were my age, and we all felt important, whether it was because we were escorting foreign dignitaries to their seats or whether it was knowing the Chief of Staff of a Senator on a first name basis.
New York City: A Chance to Change.
If it wasn’t for my husband and the realization that I would stay at the same organization and job if I weren’t nudged, I would have stayed in D.C. If not at the same org, a similar one with a similar role. So it was a mix of comfort (because I knew I was good at my job) and complacency (why change if it’s working?) that would have kept me there. Nothing wrong with the scenario above because I thought it was a great 5 years of my life that I wouldn’t change. For me 5 years was just enough time at the organization because I think I had gotten as much out of my role and the organization as I had given and I was almost at the point of not growing anymore.
I had mastered all my responsibilities and wasn’t being challenged so the timing was perfect. After the stint in D.C., I thought, "been there and done that".
There was though an Act 2. This is what I mean by it sucking you in. I had the chance to change when we moved to NYC, a city where you are not limited to working in politics or research think tanks, but have the luxury, or so you think, of being exposed to a number of industries. You can pretty much be in any line of work and find companies that specialise in that line of work in NYC. With too many choices comes the predicament of… too many choices! Such a vast job market can make you feel overwhelmed so why not fall back to your comfort zone and play it safe.
That’s what happened. While I didn’t work for a lobbyist or an advocacy group, I was still in the non-profit space because those were the jobs I thought I was qualified to apply for. So I didn’t even look beyond idealist.com and the search engine came through for me. Before I knew it there I was at another fantastic non-profit doing something a bit different but would soon master and I stayed for 6 years. After these two long-term jobs where it was both the organization and the people that contributed my longevity, I now find myself questioning what I should have done differently and how would I even go about getting out of the non-profit world.
This is the thing. After almost 15 years in the non-profit sector I am now pretty much defined by it. That’s ok as I am happy but I wish that I had thought longer and harder about my career path. While I am very comfortable and happy to be in the sector, in hindsight I feel I got too comfortable too quickly.
So what’s my advice?
Take a few chances when you are early on in your career. No one expects you to know exactly what you will be doing for your entire career and so long as you don’t drastically job hop (try to stick with each job for at least two years) try your hand at a variety of sectors in your twenties so that by the time you hit your thirties you know where you fit and why.
You may find that Non-Profit is truly your calling, or you may have luckily stumbled into a position in a great for-profit industry. Being informed of all the opportunities out there is something I would do if I could have my time over. This is my cautionary tale!
For more on "Career Experimentation" see Kirsten Rasanen's column on how varied experiences can help in career success.