2014 has been a busy and eventful year. Over Christmas as I sat down to write to friends back home, I realized I had many things to share. (I hope I did not bore them! :P) Apart from my studies, I (assistant) taught undergraduate classes, and volunteered with a local school and a local nonprofit. Over the summer, I also joined Education Pioneers and Teach For America to fight educational inequity.
Public service and nonprofit work have always been a huge part of my life, and will always be. Therefore, a major career change came as a huge surprise, even to myself. I accepted a new job in people and organizational change (in the US) that would begin after I finish my studies. It meant that I had to step away from the Public Service in Singapore.
It was a very difficult decision. When I look back on what was most painful, it was the struggles with: a) leaving the purpose-filled work of public service and nonprofit, b) stepping away from the community that has nurtured and given me much, c) perhaps even a sense of “betrayal”.
Coincidentally, my work over the summer had looked at the motivations and concerns of people who switch careers from other professions to teaching. Among the second-career teachers I spoke to who made the switch successfully, identity and purpose were key factors in their decisions. It is not surprising then that my own career decision would also be racked by struggles over identity and purpose.
Many struggles become problematic when we frame them as “either-or” dilemmas. We must choose one over the other. To use my own example, the issue becomes whether I am a public service person, or I am not. Such “either-or” frames can be very restrictive. Sometimes they are imposed on us from the outside, but often they are self-imposed. We become prisoners of our own ways of thinking. For me, my struggles over identity and purpose were most definitely personal ones.
Rather than frame things as “either or”, a better approach might be to ask whether it can be “and”. In my case, rather than frame the decision as a choice between two opposites, what if the career change was: a) not about leaving public service, b) not about stepping away from the community, c) not about “betrayal”? Can I still do the same life work I want to do, in a different form? When I asked the questions this way, a new world of possibilities opened up.
Perhaps because I have been in public service and nonprofit for so long, I have come to see them as the solution for many of the societal ills created by the downsides (or dark side?) of the business and capitalist world. As I thought more about the “and” perspective, it became clearer to me that the answer to the problems of the business world cannot be an ever growing public service or nonprofit sector. A public service or nonprofit sector that grows ten times larger is nothing to be proud of – it simply means society’s problems have increased ten-fold. That is a very sad world! Contrary to this, there is a popular belief among many nonprofits that we should strive to eradicate the issue and make ourselves irrelevant some day. Yet that day will never come if the business world being such a huge (and ever growing) part of society is always the problem and never the solution.
A better world is one where businesses are a growing part of the solution. This will not happen naturally, and it will not be easy. But it needs to start somewhere, and the area of organization development is a good place to begin. Organization development lies at the sweet spot for organizations that wish to bring their business and human/social dimensions in closer alignment. (Business and social alignment is a huge topic for a separate discussion some other day).
After much soul searching, I was eventually convinced that the career change was not necessarily at odds with my identity, and purpose. In fact, it can be quite complementary. Experiences and lessons from the business world in managing people and organizational change, can also be relevant and useful for the public service and nonprofit sectors. Most important in this, I must remain clear of the direction I want to head towards.
So, it may be a new chapter, but the storyline has not changed. I would like to believe there are many possible paths to make the world a better place, and perhaps, the more paths we can find the better the chances we will get there.