If I could go back to 1997 with the knowledge I have now (I’m 44), I’d probably not start at university that year and just spend time read the books I needed to read when I needed to read them.
And thereafter build a career on the internet selling website services and marketing and learn things as I went along – just staying a few steps ahead of my clients (which is a perfectly possible foundation for a business).
I studied social sciences and communications at university and I did grow as a person there. I had a lot of good experiences. I got general knowledge of the complexity of the world and methods to analyze said complexity critically. I also met my spouse and a lot of good, inspiring people …
But too much time was spent reading useless stuff – with regard to what interested me personally and with regard to what I could really use to create a lucrative career.
A brief example: At university I learned a lot about analyzing and deconstructing power structures. But nobody pays you to do that – outside of university. If you want a job or want to sell your services as an entrepreneur you have to figure out what people want to pay for and/or buy. But again: Nobody wants to buy an analysis of how corrupt they really are. Just sayin’ …
I was also interested in ‘changing the world’, like working for NGOs that did development programs in Africa to fight poverty. I wrote my thesis on a related topic – how the NGOs could do better in the media to advocate on the fight against poverty.
The problem is that NGOs that fight for social justice and against poverty are, more often than not … poor. And marginalized in the political power game.
Their funding, especially here in Denmark, is also not very broadly spread out between state, market and society. There is a huge chunk of funding coming from the state – (which makes the term Non Governmental Organization somewhat … less convincing). And then some huge private donors. And then a very disinterested public at large – many small donations.
As priorities among the big donors change, so can your job change – or go away, at a moment’s notice. Like, if you are working with problems in Latin America and nobody wants to fund Latin America anymore because now there is more interest in Africa.
In the private sector businesses can close at a moment’s notice, because the market is a harsh mistress. However, you usually have some skills you can transfer to another business, or a job in another company – unless you are extremely specialized.
In development NGOs you are often extremely specialized, like knowing a lot about Bolivia. So when Latin America is out among the donors, so is your job.
If you are interested in positions with regard to PR, as I was, there are precious few and most of them fought over by journalists who were fired because newspapers and other old media closed down.
Currently, I am self-employed as a website and webshop builder while doing temp work on the side to get a steady cash flow. I do have a little pool of hours I give away to charity.
For example, I will do that work if the clients donate the fee directly to charity (it is too time consuming for me to do the accounting for that and tax deductions so I prefer that clients just donate directly and show me the receipt). It is about 300 USD per month, but variable.
If I had done that from the early 2000s and onward I could have had a huge firm by now which could have donated a lot more to charity – and to causes I decided, not some other mega-donor.
Then I would become the donor and make a much larger difference than if I worked myself in a charity based organisation.
It’s okay, though, that things turned out like this. There really is no other way to deal with it – other than acceptance. And then look forward the next 20 years and think about what I can do if I can hold this steady course and grow my company and increase my surplus to donate to causes that I decide.
At the same time: Do work for clients.
Which is actually not that bad – and sometimes can make a difference in the world all by itself.
Many of my clients are small business owners themselves who have a dream they want to pursue. Maybe it is something completely personal, maybe they want to change something via a service or a product – something that is important for others.
Helping them to succeed is also a worthy kind of work, even if I am not getting money to feed poor children or some such, not directly.
That kind of understanding – that you can make a lot of important impact on the world and it need not be to help with the most extreme suffering for it to be important – that is an understanding, I believe, that comes with age.
I wouldn’t mind merging with my younger self with that perspective so I can make more impact sooner, but for lack of that, what I can do with the rest of my life will have to suffice.