All posts by Elie Calhoun

Elie Calhoun writes at ExpatBackup.com, where she explores how expat aid workers can have happy and healthy lives in the world’s most challenging environments. "Go Local," the third issue of the Expat Backup e-magazine, launches today so check out the site and download your free copy.

How to stay in love with your job in aid and development

There was probably a moment when you knew you wanted to do this. For me, it was listening to my mother talk about dengue epidemics and child survival at the dinner table. From when I was very small, I never doubted that I’d do work that made a difference in people’s lives who were poorer or less resourced than I was. Even as a four year-old in India, I saw the gap; I knew it wasn’t fair, and I wanted my life’s work to do something about it.

So, here we are. You’ve got the job, the places you like to hang out on the weekend. Hopefully, you’ve got friends to hang out and explore with. But maybe you’re working late hours more often than not. Maybe you don’t get out into the field anymore and don’t have the time or inclination to go see how your projects are working, and more importantly, to get to know the people they serve.

Don’t feel guilty. Jobs are like any relationship. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, they work out for awhile and then, just like that, they don’t. Things change. Communities change. Projects change. So do we. Staying in one place requires work, especially for those of us who move around a lot. It’s up to you do put your time in and to do the work, but at the end of the day, how things work out is beyond your control.

Nurture your relationship.

I love being a consultant and getting to decide what I work on. I follow what interests me. But it also means I’m responsible for my own professional development. I spend time each day reading widely about public health and tech4dev innovations and initiatives on the Internet. For me to stay engaged and interested in my job, I need to be constantly learning and trying new things.

We all have this innate love of learning in us. Linking what we do to that inner joy reminds us of why we got into this line of work in the first place and makes us better and what we do. Although there’s a difference between aid workers and missionaries, we both identify the work we do with a higher goal, a vision, a cause. As aid workers, we just have a harder time remembering it.

If you’re feeling connected to your job and your sense of purpose, great. Take time, every now and again, to check in with yourself, to make sure what you’re doing matches up with your vision, and that you’re doing what you love. Life’s too short not to.

Put time into mastering your job, getting to know your stakeholders and colleagues, and learning the language and context you live and work it. Differentiate between short-term discontent during rough or busy spots, and the more pervasive sense of dissatisfaction that points towards a need for change. If you’ve tried and tried, and it just doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t be hard on yourself.

Maybe you’re not in love anymore. That’s okay. Move on.

I remember at summer camp, we’d have to choose each morning’s craft or activity and the feeling of exhilaration and crisis it forced upon me: candle-making or sailing? Why couldn’t I do both? Formal education, especially as we get older, makes us do that. Year after year, with exams and degrees, we’re forced to specialise, get practical, and narrow our focus, at the risk of excluding parallel interests we also love.

Life doesn’t have to be like that, though. Neither does your job. Careers these days aren’t expected to offer us the long-term stability they offered to our parents’ generation. I think that’s a good thing. It’s energising for me to always be learning and actively pursuing my interests, especially when they’re things that can help me earn a living by helping people. Constantly expanding my professional and personal skills makes me a more integrated, resilient, engaged member of my community. It means the work I do is more interesting, more innovative, more informed by what academics call ‘cross-disciplinary’ influences.

If you’re falling out of love with your current topic area, start to read widely in your field and see what grabs your attention. As long as you’re not changing entire career silos every five years and are willing to put your time in, it’s easy to strategically transition to a slightly different line of work that’s more focused on your interests. This is particularly true if you’re genuinely and deeply engaged in what you want to be working on next and have cultivated some expertise in the area.

Maintain healthy boundaries.

At the end of the day, a job is a lot like a relationship. Because aid and development jobs involve an element of social justice, it’s easy to give them a sense of urgency that is often absent in other career paths (e.g. ones that aren’t trying to change the world). We can over-identify with our jobs, obsess over whether they– or we–are good enough, and struggle to try to make things work in environments that are already extremely challenging.

Occupational studies on aid and development workers’ mental health have found that our stress and perceived isolation levels are very high. Part of the reason is that we don’t differentiate from our jobs enough and we work too hard.

If you’re doing something you like, keep it that way. Don’t make your job your life. Have friends inside and outside your professional circles, and be sure to explore where you’re living and nurture lots of outside interests. Put your time in during working hours, but after you’re done, give yourself a break.

Let yourself explore widely, diving into learning about what interests you. Even if there’s no apparent link with your job right now, pursue learning for the joy of learning. You’ll be surprised where it takes you.