I didn’t realize how important my job was to my identity until I changed jobs in 2015. And I’m still a bit embarrassed about that. After all, it’s a person’s character, values, and interests that are important — not their job…right?
For a little more than a decade, I worked in corporate communications, and for most of that time, I worked at one company (if you skip over the part where we went through one of Canada’s largest mergers). Eventually, I decided I needed a change.
At about the same time, I met a university professor who makes decisions based on instinct and intuition more than anything HR-sanctioned. He decided our skills were complementary and suggested I become the manager of a youth gang prevention project that he was implementing with more than 20 other organizations. I was hesitant and, among other things, created a spreadsheet to see if I could afford my mortgage on the new salary. I couldn’t. In the end, I threw the spreadsheet away and took the job. I was proud of my decision. Some people thought I was crazy; others seemed excited. I told myself it didn’t matter either way.
My new job was hard, but not in any of the ways I expected it to be hard. The stories of the youth we worked with were difficult, absolutely. But those stories also came with a big helping of resilience, courage, and strength. No, it was all the other stuff that was hard: working on a multi-stakeholder project takes a lot of effort and understanding.
But even beyond that, this new job was a big change in my life, and I often find change to be difficult. I knew that about myself, but still hadn’t expected it to feel so strange when people asked “what do you do?” Filling out forms with “occupation” as a blank space brought me a sense of existential dread. Who was I?
Fortunately, the new job became less new, and less difficult. In fact, it started going really well. And later, when people asked about my job, I watched their interest spark when I said that I managed a youth gang prevention project. I happily watched their interest grow when I broke down stereotypes about what “gang-involved” really means for youth in our city.
Later, it even became manageable (albeit barely) for me to do a master’s degree in addition to my job. When I started my degree in social work, I was convinced I would use it to work internationally. I remember firmly declaring this belief to a friend during a hike after my first semester. Somewhere in the next six months, however, I began to lose enthusiasm for the idea…and even became opposed to it. (See my earlier blog post for a bit more on that.)
When it came time to set goals for my required master’s practicum, I took the opportunity to think about the next phase of my career. In the fall of 2017, I identified three top choices, and they were pretty different from my original intention to work overseas. I wrote that I wanted to a) work in an organization that supported the skills and capacity of a wide variety of non-profit organizations, b) work for a foundation that funds non-profits in the social sector, and/or c) help shape social policy through advocacy or research.
A few months ago, I finished my degree. At about the same time, the federal funding wrapped up on the gang prevention project. We were thrilled to see the program continue on in the community, but – as we had planned – the structure changed and they no longer needed a me. So it was time, again, to think about a new job.
I wanted that next job to be meaningful. I wanted to keep learning. Amazingly, I received four promising job leads, and was grateful when three of those leads turned into offers. But then came the tough choice about what to do: all three opportunities would have been fantastic. Thankfully, the hiring processes were all fairly slow, which gave me time to think and ask others for advice. In that process, I became fascinated to see how other people would make the same decision. At the suggestion of one friend, I completed a complicated matrix scoring system to rank the jobs. As she said, if the scores said one thing and my gut said another, the process would still be telling.
Unlike many of the people I spoke to, I did not list salary, benefits, or the length of contract as my top priorities (which, admittedly, is a pretty privileged place to be). Instead, I most considered the size and type of impact I might have, and the learning I might gain. It was still tricky though. All the jobs offered impact, and all the jobs would have me working alongside brilliant people who would challenge and push my thinking. But one job was focused on a fairly specific sector, and I didn’t feel ready to narrow my focus yet. Then, as conversations progressed about the other two jobs, one seemed to more clearly promise the chance to have an impact.
So, I should have been left with an obvious choice. But it didn’t feel obvious. It felt scary, like I would be going backwards. Because here’s the thing: the job that appeared to have more impact was also in a foundation created by the same company I’d left a few years before.
As I questioned my thinking, I realized this foundation job had almost everything I wanted in a potential position – including most of what I’d written about in that assignment I mentioned earlier. My only real hang-up was the company name at the top of the job description, and some weird notion about whether I could/should go back. Let me be clear: I respect the company. Among its peers/competitors, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. Honestly, my biggest hesitation related to what people might think. Would my social work colleagues think I was a sellout? Would people wonder what the point of my last few years was? Would I miss that feeling of sparking interest in people who thought I was doing cool things?
Realizing I held these questions was tough. After all, I’d thought of myself as not caring what other people thought. But as I wrote earlier, I was proud of my decision to leave my first career…and pride is a slippery slope. Once again, I hadn’t realized how closely I held my job title — or my pride.
So, I looked in the mirror and examined the pride. I returned to the career goals I’d written in class during 2017. I looked at the matrix I’d filled out, and the rankings for each job. I revisited and reconfirmed my priorities related to impact and learning. And one week ago today, I returned to the same building that I left in 2015. I walked through the same doors, but to a very different job and as a very different me.
This past week has been difficult in other parts of my life. Truthfully, it’s a good thing I’d written most of this post a while ago, because my brain is not functioning very well. But as far as the work goes, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.
I’m looking forward to combining my two careers into one, especially since I never felt like I totally fit within corporate communications, and also had some questions about being a social worker. (It probably says something that one of my favourite-ever articles is this one – about not quite fitting in.)
I’m looking forward to taking my knowledge of what it’s like to be from an organization receiving funding, and using that understanding as a funder.
I’m looking forward to working toward supporting change from within a system.
I’m looking forward to meeting more people from across the social profit sector, and to learning from a Canada-wide network. I’m looking forward to working with like-minded people who hold jobs in a variety of areas.
In other words: I’m not going backwards. I’m looking forward.