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Reader question #46: I have a great job and a great life, but I feel like I should be doing more to help others.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m a 23-year-old in Chicago who’s had a pretty smooth transition out of school and into a job I like.  I get to use some of my skills from my history major, I have flexibility and can afford to live on my own, and I’m getting professional respect from doctors and physicists who value my work.  In the year since I started I’ve been offered the chance to go from contingency to full-time work and been promoted.  In a year or so, I plan to take them up on a tuition credit that could allow me to go back to school for very nearly free (I’d pay for fees and books).  I work in pediatric radiology research, managing the studies and making sure that they’re carried out efficiently and ethically.  The work we do allows children to get an MRI instead of a biopsy, or avoid being exposed to radiation just to figure out why they’re sick.  If I sleep poorly at night, it’s definitely not because I’m irradiating children.

But can I honestly say that I love not irradiating children?  It’s good work and I’m learning a lot, but the issue that makes me mad and breaks my heart isn’t childhood illness, it’s poverty.  I’m still proud of the activist I was when I was younger, but I’m not like that now.  I was vice president of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance during its most active years.  When I was 15, I was protesting in downtown Chicago the night we started bombing Iraq, and I was back the next year serving dumpstered vegan food to the protestors from a bench in Federal Plaza.  Those things are great, but what have I done lately?  Mostly: given some money, signed some petitions, and not irradiated some children.

I’m thinking about ways I can grow in my work to address this.  Pursuing an MA in medical ethics then going to law school would allow me to teach, write, pursue human rights work, and speak with some authority on the things that really bother me.  Getting out of school and into work has already been clarifying, and I know the answer to my career path might be something I develop, not something I find.  But I’m doing my thinking with a lot of guilty asides about how much my employer has done and will do for me.  In a way, I feel like I’ve gotten it too good too soon– I don’t know that being a 23-year-old with something to lose is a very stable situation.  And I’m not sure how much my activism needs to be part of my work if I can find some other way to make it part of my life.

And I do need to make it part of my life.  I have all this time on my hands and I know there are people in this city who need it more than I do, and the world is only getting scarier.  Not irradiating children and smashing the patriarchy would actually add up to a pretty great life.  But the volunteer opportunities that appeal the most to me need more flexibility than I can really give.  Most of the activist groups I’ve found seem to be student groups, and I’m not a student.  I do want to get out and work on this with other people, though, and maybe meet more people too.  I’m 80-90% happy with my very solitary lifestyle (even introverted friends make fun of me for not getting out more), but I could stand to know more people who care about these issues as much as I do and it would probably make me feel less like my life shrunk somehow.

So, something’s definitely missing.  But I’m having trouble cutting through my own bored overthinking and deciding what to work on, what to wait on, and how to put one foot in front of the other in a way that helps someone other than myself.

I’ve been sitting on this question for a while, my dear activist, and here’s what I think.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying having a good day job where you help people and get paid and treated like a grownup and where the company wants to invest in you.  There is nothing wrong with having a great job that you use to fund your future of adventure little by little.  You could keep not-irradiating-children and find a way to volunteer on the side and try out a lot of things before you settle on grad school or your path in life (sock away as much money as you can now, while you can).  But I definitely applaud you for realizing that when much has been given, much will be asked, and challenging yourself to look beyond that comfortable life and see what you can do.

There is a ton of activism going on in Chicago that is not led by students.  Let me recommend the organization One Brick to you. You do small, short stints of volunteering at a variety of organizations, meet a lot of people, and perhaps gain exposure and some perspective to figure out if there is one particular organization or cause that you want to form a deeper relationship with.  That might be the perfect vehicle to feed your activist soul and meet new people.

But your heart yearns for adventure, you say?

Bad news first:  Non-profit organizations are important and many of them do amazing work and can be great places to work.  However, there is nothing particularly great or romantic or magical about the day-to-day of working for a non-profit organization, even a more nitty-gritty or activist nonprofit than your current gig.  It’s just a fucking office, people, with fucking photocopies and mailings and meetings and bullshit job titles and territorial pissing matches where people try to pretend that their M.A. in subjects that end in “studies” matter more than your B.A. that ends in “studies” so you’re the one who has to seal all the envelopes for the annual mailing or standing out on the sidewalk asking people if they “have a minute” for your cause.  Seriously, while I have met some of the most brilliant and hilarious and amazing people while working at non-profits, I have also sat through a lot of self-righteous dysfunctional verbal masturbation about “the mission” that takes the place of actual money or actual doing stuff.  Go read a long contentious-yet-tedious comment thread on Feministe (sorry guys, I love you, but I can’t hang) and imagine having staff meetings that are like that every single day of your working life but also you spend your days making PowerPoint presentations.  No.

There is satisfaction to be gained that your routine office labor is in service to something greater than yourself, and I don’t knock a career in the non-profit sector (for real, it can be awesome and I can’t say I’ll never go back there) but if you have a great office job where you are well-paid and respected and that will pay for continuing ed, leaving it for another office job at a slightly different good cause doesn’t really make sense.  A program assistant is a project assistant is a project coordinator.  What matters is pay and the people you work with.  Don’t get seduced by the “sexy” sounding cause or the people with nose rings and messenger bags who look cooler than you – look past the “I only drink my $4 coffee from Intelligentsia rather than $4 coffees from eeeeeevil Starbucks” (says the girl writing from The Grind in Lincoln Square)  veneer to see the ancient hulking computers on the desks and the $23,000 a year proposed seriously as a starting salary. So only make a lateral move if it means more responsibility, more money, and more contact with something you love, better day-to-day work, you’ll learn concrete new skills, aka, it’s a good career move  for you that gets you where you want to go.

So what I’m saying is…if you have the wanderlust and the urge for adventure, which is totally right and natural and perfect, especially when you’re 23 and have no ties, don’t trade your comfortable life away unless it’s for REAL ACTUAL ADVENTURE.

Like Teach for America.

Or Americorps (though…beware the office job for really low pay)

Or Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Or The Peace Corps.

Like, leave the office and go to the front line of making something happen and also learn a new language and see the world under a completely different sky.  My friend L. became a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger.  She was trained in health education and midwifery, and she rode a motorcycle around to villages, delivered babies and educated midwifes on basic hygeine.  She also learned how to fix a motorcycle and push it through sand, and speak fluent French (among other languages).  BADASS.

So maybe you’ll light out for the territories.  It’s the right time in your life to do it, and when you come back you’ll have field work (plus your current office-y skills) under your belt and be much better positioned to decide about graduate school and wring the most from it that you can.

TL:dr  Don’t feel bad about having a comfortable life and a good job that you’ve earned – there are plenty of small ways you can get involved in making the world a better place.  Don’t trade that life away unless it’s for something BADASS.

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15 comments
  1. Jason said:

    Do not go to law school. I will hunt you down if you do. Please do help people, but not law school.

  2. Jesus Christ said:

    Law school? I know you’re not serious. I’m at law school. Your activism will be slowly squeezed out of you in a soulless hell hole full of jackasses. DON’T GO TO LAW SCHOOL.

    • Emma said:

      Hi, I’m the letter writer, and I don’t know if it makes any difference (hopefully you can tell me), but I do *not* want to practice law. A law degree is one of a couple possible terminal degrees to teach and work as a medical ethicist because there are so few PhD programs and it’s a fairly new area. My other options would be to get an MD– not my thing– or go back to a Catholic school that does have a program– super depressing, and medically unethical! From there you teach (med school), write, consult on ethically fraught cases like end of life and child abuse, and serve on the hospital committees that smack down bad research before it happens.

      • Jason said:

        Here’s the thing- if you do not want to practice law, then REALLY, REALLY, REALLY do not goto law school. You are already a medical ethicist. You have your ethics already- start writing. Get your opinions out there, and you will build up a critical mass of authority.

        Law school is so expensive. There are studies out there that indicate that you need to earn 100K a year to make going worthwhile, given the time value of money and the cost of the schooling. I know you’re not $ driven, but do you really enjoy eating nothing but ramen? Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy- you’re stuck with them forever.

        • Emma said:

          Thanks, it’s actually kind of a relief to hear that– I’ve had family members telling me to go to law school since I was a kid, and it’s never really interested me. My only interest now is that it’s my first choice terminal degree since the available PhD programs are at institutions I can’t support.

          I actually would not be stuck with loans under my “go at the pace my employer will pay for” plan, but it’s easy to imagine that the time and stress are priceless either way. I definitely found history grad school that way, and that was something I chose on purpose.

          • Karen said:

            I too once had thoughts of “Oh I’ll go to law school but not be a lawyer” because I knew a guy, ONE guy, who had done that and was super happy. I have since become convinced by dozens of other law school survivors that he was an exception.

            Also, I just read a hugely depressing article about how many law students lose their scholarships and need even bigger loans after the first year. Apparently tons of law schools who offer merit aid are BANKING on students doing this, not making the grade requirement which is harder than they let on. But I digress.

            I think it’s great that you are being thoughtful about this. Life is much, much better when you feel like you are making a difference. There are TONS of organizations that need your commitment and passion, and most of them don’t have any open jobs you could fill anyway. They don’t need more paid employees (they can’t afford them); rather they need people to volunteer, people who will donate some hours, head committees, serve on their boards, etc. You do not have to change careers or ditch your employer to find meaningful, helpful, world-changing activity. Like others have said, you may have to try several things before you find the right one, but the search is worth it.

  3. Kathleen said:

    I second the Captain’s assertion that a job is a job. I left a comfortable, well-paid job to go back to school to do what I love and now I work a stressful, not-so-well-paid job. I do not regret it at all and I’m well suited to this work, but in retrospect, I didn’t have to do something as dramatic as I did, since 90% of what I do now is pretty much what I did at the last place, for a lot less pay. Yeah.

  4. denelian said:

    if i were capable of it, i’d do Teach for America [they don't really care what Bachlor you hae, you know - and since i was a BS/BA Journalism/Political Science, i was good for a half-dozen different classes... sigh]

    i’d also like to point out, because the Captain talked it up so WELL, that it’s not always fun working with PeaceCorp or similiar. you’re going in the 3rd world – lots of places where you’d, the water isn’t safe, for example. it always seemed like a HUGE HUGE deal to join the PC or similiar, because it’s some of the HARDEST work one will ever do.

    also – it sounds like you LIKE your job, it’s just that you think you can/should do MORE. if you LIKE your job [and that's rarer than you'd think] i’d say keep it – just add stuff to it.

    there are lots of smaller places where being less available [or sporadically available] isn’t going to result in them turning you away – food banks, women’s shelters, soup kitchens… there’s always more work than hands.

    good luck!

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh, I haven’t been in the Peace Corps but I’ve done a lot of travel and international development work, and I can tell you: Expect to pee/poop your pants at least once. It’s really, really hard work under conditions that are harsh for soft Americans who are used to office jobs.

      • denelian said:

        i tried to join the Peace Corps, and they wouldn’t take me – i was too disabled even then :) which is why i know – they didn’t want to flat out tell me “No” [they apparantly have a non-officially policy of turning no one at all away] but they REALLY didn’t want me dying while in the field – and given the type and amount of work, it’s possible i would have.
        a case of me being impulsive and not doing research as a teen :)

  5. Emma said:

    Thank you, Captain!

    I will definitely be looking at One Brick today. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at possible volunteer opportunities and not finding anything that seemed obviously right, and I think that will really help.

    Next weekend I’ll be at one of YWCA’s racial justice trainings, and I’m hoping to get involved with Food Not Bombs again too.

    • Lesley said:

      Emma, I can’t help but feel like I know you. I remember marching the night the bombs fell and shutting down Lake Shore Drive. I’ve handed out vegan burritos with Food Not Bombs. I’ve attended fundraisers and protests and Jesse Jackson speeches and Women in Black.

      I’m about to move back to Chicago, after I went to grad school and realized that grad students don’t give a crap about protesting. It’s all about the debate and scoring political points during meaningless conversations.

      I can’t wait to get involved in Chicago politics and activism, but it sounds like you have a good gig that just needs some supplemental activism on the side. You are making a difference. And that counts more than working for IllPIRG.

      • Emma said:

        Thanks– I think it’s been hard to let go of those experiences because I’m still proud of them, and I would absolutely do them again tomorrow. That makes it rather harder to accept that maybe they’re *not* what I’ll do tomorrow.

        Seconded on grad students. I met some male GWS majors who were convinced that their in-progress degree meant more than my walking around being a lady all day every day, and just… No. And I didn’t want to put all that work in and end up with either no job or a job at an institution whose values are the opposite of my own.

  6. btothes said:

    You sound so organized and together! Congratulations! I was so not that way when I was your age.

    As a nonprofit job haver, I will second that is a job is a job. You don’t get a special tiara of cool when working for people who are saving the world.

    I will also add volunteering is like dating — try lots of things. Some will be dumb, but follow your heart and your interests and you’ll find something awesome and fulfilling.

  7. robiewankenobie said:

    having had a number of shitty “real” jobs, i have to tell ya – i’m envious. having a “real” job that isn’t ass? not something to take for granted.* i’m all about using your well earned gains (yea! helping kids!) to fund your nefarious plans to take over the world and make it a better place. it will free you from pesky things like figuring out how to pay the rent, and allow you to be really truly present for your volunteer work.

    *although having a trust fund would be even better.

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