I. Shaping Your Career Philosophy

Identifying Your Cause


People often ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Children usually reply, "a fireman, a doctor, an actor, a musician, a princess, a basketball star . . .," perhaps recalling the hero in a recently viewed movie or naming the profession of a relative they admire. They have yet to realize that they will be asked this question repeatedly as the years pass. Responding to the question as children was just our first experience with identifying our cause.

Your cause is a major force that guides your career decisions. Whether clearly defined and structured, or perhaps hazy and still in need of refinement, your cause is, as Howard Thurman phrases it in the quotation at the beginning of this book, "what makes you come alive." In this first chapter we focus not on clearly delineating the steps up a structured career ladder but on helping you locate something much bigger—the force that will illuminate your career path.

Sherry approaches the quest to identify a cause from the perspective of "your place in history": how your search for a cause is inevitably anchored in the trends and happenings of a particular period. How will you find your place in today's historical context? What will historians say about your cause and career when looking back many years from now? Or more importantly, what would you want those historians to say? In Sherry's view, how you approach these questions will help you define your cause and develop your career.

Mark, on the other hand, approaches the issue of finding a cause from the postcollege question of "What am I going to do with my life?" For him, there is less focus on the bigger picture of finding a place in history and more attention to microlevel decision making, namely, figuring out what is right for you at this point and proceeding from there. Even if you are unsure of your exact cause or how you want historians to view your choices, Mark urges you to go with what you do know. Pursue your interests, follow your feelings, and listen to your gut. If a certain path is attractive at this point in your life, it is probably a good direction to take, even if you're not sure of your ideal destination.

Sherry: Your Place in History

There are certain forces at work—economic, political, military, and social factors—that make possible or restrict certain job options. Understanding these factors can help you approach your job search more realistically. Certainly the economic marketplace is vastly different for you than it was for your parents. I have often fielded the question, "How can I explain to my father why it is taking me so long to find full-time work when he found his first job right after graduation?" As economists debate whether unemployment is structural or cyclical, the reality for the job seeker is that it is (as some readers may be painfully aware) much more difficult to find a job—particularly that first job—at certain points in time than at others.

There are still many bureaucratic organizations with rigid hierarchies. Nonetheless, technological advances, current management practices, and economic strictures suggest that lean, downsized, and restructured organizations are the norm in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds and in some government agencies. In some cases the result has been the reduction of jobs in traditional institutions or an increase in one part of the world with a corresponding reduction in other geographic areas.

Paradoxically, there are fewer jobs at the top of many organizations (upper management), as well as fewer at the bottom (receptionists, secretaries, clerks). A job that represents a rung on the career ladder in the traditional sense is increasingly scarce; this concept may eventually disappear.

We tend to think of history as those events that occurred before we were born. In our textbooks, history seems to be a series of dramatic events, such as revolutions, wars, and social movements, all far in the past. We should bear in mind that some decades hence our time also will be a historical period. Historians will assign labels and designations, analyze trends, and otherwise describe the context in which we now live. Your effort to find your place at this particular point in history may be more productive if you start by viewing your career in a more holistic way. Instead of focusing on finding a job with clearly defined next steps in the same organization, focus on identifying your cause.

As Mark and I were discussing this chapter, we reflected on the historic context in which I started my career compared with the backdrop that existed when he launched his. As a farm kid from northern Illinois, I chose to attend the School of International Service at American University (AU). I didn't even know what the Foreign Service was, but what I did know was that serving internationally was appealing. A child of the Cold War, I graduated from college and attended graduate school in the late 1960s. Despite the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the stirring words of his inaugural address continued to motivate many of my generation as we began our career journeys: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." One of my favorite memories is handing out programs as an undergraduate at the AU commencement on June 10, 1963, when President Kennedy gave a seminal speech on foreign policy. He urged all to work together "to make the world safe for diversity." That admonition describes one of the causes I've embraced ever since!

The Alliance for Progress with Latin America and the newly minted Peace Corps were just two sources of job opportunities that beckoned at that time. There was a call to public service. We had not yet become as disillusioned with our major institutions or those in authority as we are today. Despite the hovering nuclear threat, it was in certain ways an easier time.

In the Cold War era, the United States was the "good guy." We were generally (in some cases grudgingly) admired. There was not a lot of ambiguity. In fact, the superpower prism was a somewhat comforting, if overly simplistic, way to view the world. The book The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, published in 1958, was instructive and, in retrospect, one of the key factors that inspired my own career in international education and exchange. (I still require my students to read it.) Though a novel, The Ugly American nonetheless made trenchant observations about the need for cultural and political sensitivity, carefully tailored and appropriately scaled approaches to development, and behaviors that produce constructive international relations. These are still valid. The book helped me identify my cause. I wanted a career that would help project a positive image of the United States abroad and lead to new avenues of cooperation.

In the intervening years, the Vietnam War and other events produced disillusionment, distrust of authority, and a much more variegated and complex global scene. As I often jokingly reply to colleagues and friends when asked about my cause: "I am still idealistic; I still want to save the world. Only now, I realize just how reluctant the world is to be saved!"

Mark and his contemporaries faced this complexity and the crisis of credibility surrounding many institutions much earlier in their lives than I and many of my idealistic classmates did years ago. Ironically, given these conditions, the need for exceptionally able people in service-oriented fields, such as international education, exchange, and development, has never been greater.

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