"It Never Was a Clear Path": Reflections on Change and Consistency and Meaning in the Work that You Choose
For those of us who work in international development, consulting and social change, it is usually a long and winding road to get to this field. Even when you’re solidly in the work, it’s still tempestuous, going from country to country, state to state, assignment to assignment, working with all manner of partners, from government agencies to citizen associations. In the midst of the work, and the excitement and fulfillment that comes with it, it’s easy to become accustomed to all of this variability, even expect it.
I was recently asked to speak at Sewanee, my undergraduate institution, to a group of upper level students who are nearing graduation and who have interests in careers in non-profit, international development and other socially oriented professions. Spur of the moment, we videoed the talk. As it was shot from far across the room, the production quality isn’t perfect, but I thought it would be a valuable way to share some of the thoughts that came to mind when I stepped back and looked at my professional evolution over the past 18 years since leaving university myself.
I’ve summarized the four main points of the talk below. Themes of change, learning and reinvention predominate, but also a recognition that there are also some important constants, in particular the moral conviction and personal commitment that drew me to the work in the first place and that keeps me motivated through all of the long haul flights, time away and the myriad of uncertainties that accompany each project.
In the talk I focused on four areas where I encouraged students to question conventional wisdom, regarding failure, careers, non-profit versus for-profit work and the international versus local sphere:
1) No such thing as failure
In life, as in projects, things rarely go as planned. However, the upending of a plan or collapse of a dream isn’t failure fullstop, but an opportunity for learning and reinvention. Unexpected changes will hurt in the moment, but try to see these shocks as what another participant in the program labeled ‘beautiful collisions’ which send you down new and unexpected paths, which are perhaps inherently more rich because of their emergent, unforeseen nature.
I left university expecting to go into political work and law. More than a year on the road with Al Gore’s presidential campaign and the messy end to that election at the US Supreme Court sent me reeling back home to Tennessee, to Appalachia and into community work. I still aspired for several years to go to law school before realizing I hadn’t run away from my calling by working in community, rather I had finally come to it. Letting go of old dreams isn’t failure, it’s self-discovery.
2) No such thing as a career
There are very few people who will stay in the same job their whole lives. Not only will most people change organizations multiple times, increasingly we all will leap from sector to sector, from non-profit to for-profit to government and back again. This doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety but can instead be a source of energy and regeneration. If one toils continually in the same work in the same location, most people will grow tired and cynical and feel constrained in their opportunities and contributions. By changing locations and roles we learn more, have impact on new colleagues and influence the wider world through a variety of avenues.
Ultimately it isn’t really about the job anyway; it’s about the commitment you make, the contribution you want to send out into the world through your energy and gifts. The job is only a vehicle for this. The job will inevitably shift but the commitment can remain the same.
Even when I worked as a political organizer, I was happiest in small rural communities, listening to people and understanding their challenges. I struggled at having to rush away from these connections when the next round of primaries catapulted me abruptly to another state. In working in community development, I enjoyed the substance and impact of these relationships, over years not months. After 5 years working with the same communities and people, I moved on from my position as a service-learning facilitator and pursued an academic route in graduate school. Afterward I worked as a university faculty member and a university administrator, but always wanting to bring my students and institutions in close contact with communities. I found this easier to do working on my own as an independent consultant, educator and researcher and so started Empyrean Research in 2014.
My story hardly looks like a well-planned career path, but the thread that connects is my faith in communities and in everyday people to make good change in the world.
3) No more far away
It’s no longer a choice of whether to work locally or to work globally. The globe is more interconnected than ever and becoming smaller with each passing day. Our everyday actions have impacts across the world. Whether or not you actually travel or live outside of your native country, your colleagues, organization and products will reach across the globe and link you to multinational networks and result in impacts halfway around the planet. More than ever the internet and social media allow us individually to build networks and alliances with friends and colleagues everywhere who share our commitments and vision.
Particularly for those under the age of 25, your generation will be one of the most influential in history as your peer group across the world is massive, especially in the Global South. As my colleague Anita Patil-Deshmukh noted in an earlier Empyrean Research blog, “The world has never been so young.” Use the resources at hand and connect, connect, connect.
When I began community development work in rural Tennessee in 2001, I never anticipated it would lead me to a life as a global citizen. However, within two years I was visiting Bangladesh, studying examples of innovative rural community development that inspired and informed my work back in the US. That’s still the basic pattern of my work. Learning from, sharing with and connecting communities. In a given year, I typically work in several states in the US and a half-dozen countries around the word. It’s not about East or West, Global North or South. It all connects, it all relates. Ideas, innovations and inspiring action exist everywhere and communicate universally. I’m fortunate to be at the coalface of this exchange, but all of us are now involved in it in some form.
4) No such thing as a strictly non-profit livelihood
As well it will be very difficult to make a lifelong livelihood strictly in the non-profit world. The non-profit model is a challenging one which requires continual fundraising and grant-writing. Competition for resources is equally if not more fierce than in the for-profit arena. For this reason, non-profits are often unsustainable as a business model. This vulnerability has led to the rise of innovational organizational models such as social enterprises which generate their own revenue through for-profit activities but direct this income to socially valuable ends, or mosaic organizations which combine for-profit components and non-profits programs in a sustainable organizational eco-system. As such your skill set will likely need to span all sectors.
Fellow Sewanee graduate Becca Stevens has demonstrated the power of such integrated models with her nationally recognized social enterprise Thistle Farms, which supports intensive recovery and job training programs for survivors of sex trafficking. The organization’s programs are in large part funded by the sale of a bath and body product line produced in house and sold by Thistle Farms itself.
Again, it’s not the job or the role or classification of the organization that will matter. It will be your personal commitment which underlies and spans all of these roles and brings consistency, impact and fulfillment from your work.
I’ve worked in government, non-profits, universities, political organizations and now own my own business. Empyrean does the work of a research think-tank but is situated in the private sector. I consult with universities, government agencies, citizen groups and NGOs. I have to understand the political economy and room to maneuver for each of these entities within their sectors. I have to be able to analyze and strategize from their positionality and not just my own.
I don’t see consulting as a final destination by any means. The greater goal is to start a new university one day soon. But given all the roles I’ve played, the consulting I’ve done and my commitments to community and social justice, don’t think that this new university will be academia in any conventional sense; it will be a product of this new hybridized and integrated world.
Don’t Expect a Straight Path
Whether you are a college student nearing graduation like the students I addressed in October or a mid-career professional, the rules are changing for all of us. The old ways are shifting if not falling away entirely. Don’t be bound by the old lines or by mindsets, your own or those of others that are outdated. Prepare to be agile and adaptable. As Hamlet reminds us, “The readiness is all.”
As I told the students that day of my own journey, “It never was a clear path. It was always going to be complicated. It was always going to be fraught.” The future for those students, and for all of us, remains no less complicated and unpredictable. Prepare to embrace the unexpected rather than clinging to the past. If you hold tight to your commitments and the clarity you have about what you want to give to the world, then opportunities to live out this commitment will emerge in any context and in any role.
The world is not waiting with a job or waiting to fulfill your expectations. It never was, but the world is indeed waiting for you.
What commitment have you made or will you make to help mend this world?
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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