Table of Contents:

Get Specific

Career choices not only have cause-oriented elements but task-oriented ones, too. Looking back on my internships and jobs, I realize I was gravitating toward organizations whose missions I admire, as well as toward jobs that offer daily tasks I enjoy. Balance your search for a cause with an honest and clear examination of what you like to do. Sherry poses the question in this way: "How do you want to spend your days?"

If you hate the idea of asking others for money, don't apply for a position with an international development organization as a fundraising professional, no matter how closely that organization's mission matches your own cause. If organizational skills are not your strong suit, avoid a job as an event planner, even if it is for an international education organization that perfectly complements your worldview. You may be able to convince yourself for a while that distaste for daily tasks comes second to fulfilling the mission. But sooner or later, enjoyment of your job will markedly diminish, and that will be a product of disliking and not being effective in your daily tasks.

If this notion seems a touch selfish, that's because it is. But to a certain degree, self-interest is necessary in your search for a cause and a career. By being self-aware in this way, you'll better serve your cause because you'll do your job well. And you'll do your job well because you'll be happy to perform the tasks involved. Search for jobs that will allow you to work for a cause you support and to do tasks at which you excel. This might seem like a simple point, but it's one that can easily be overlooked in the quest for a broad, all-encompassing cause.

This discernment should include an examination of the kind of environment in which you want to work. First, in what kind of organization, company, or firm do you see yourself thriving? A small NGO or a large consulting firm? A large NGO or a small consulting firm? A US government or multinational agency? A relatively small study abroad office within the edifice of a relatively large university? Will you thrive within, say, the structured bureaucracy of the US Department of State or be successful—and satisfied—in a nimbler nonprofit? It's likely that you can be happy and successful in more than one of these environments. It may also be difficult to know what you prefer until you've had an internship or job experience in several of these contrasting environments. Indeed, one of the common threads you'll notice about the professionals profiled in part II is that many have worked in different kinds of organizations (and fields) during the course of their careers.

Second in this examination of environment, and in many ways particularly pertinent to our fields, is the question: where do you want to live and what kind of lifestyle do you want? Many of us gravitate to these fields because we've lived or studied abroad and see ourselves living (or frequently traveling) outside of our home countries as part of our careers. If this is true for you, it's essential to think about specifics. Where are you willing to travel and how frequently? Are you willing to work on projects in Serbia, Cuba, and Peru, as profiled professional Tom Garofalo did? How much of your time are you willing to spend on the road—25 percent? 50 percent? More? Deirdre White told us that she spends about 100 days a year traveling and finds it challenging. If you want to live outside your home country, where are you willing to live? Are you willing to intern in Cairo, then relocate to Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, as Alanna Shaikh did? If you're interested in the US Foreign Service, are you willing to relocate every few years, cede control of where you are posted to your employer, and, in many ways, allow your job to become your life? (Sarah and Amit Mathur told us that being Foreign Service Officers defines them and is a commitment to a lifestyle.) These questions may not have tidy answers—at first or ever—but they're important to consider as you ponder your career direction.

Risk Yourself

For young professionals, sometimes the most difficult thing is bringing ourselves to make choices at all. With no clear career destination in sight and no way of knowing if our choices are good ones, it can be easy for those of us without the experience and knowledge of someone like Sherry to become paralyzed by fear. However, as James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, "One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself."[1] Follow your gut. Be true to yourself. Risk, and choose.

  • [1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 86.
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