Seeking my life’s work – one student’s strategy

by Lindsey Lee
JPST / Geology double major, 2011

[As a promising young scientist as well as a Justice and Peace Studies major, 2011 graduate Lindsey Lee took an exceptionally systematic approach to figuring out how to chart a vocational direction for life after graduation.  Most students and alumni will undoubtedly use more intuitive, trial-and-error or organic approaches.   Still, Lindsey’s approach and reflections might spark helpful ideas for others. – Gerald Schlabach, JPST Director]

My JPST Senior Seminar project consisted of a defining, creating and assessing a way to determine how to match “my greatest desire with the world’s greatest need” by developing a process contained in the format of an excel spreadsheet. The format of a spreadsheet may be a bit confusing for some to understand so I want pull out the “text heavy” pieces of that tool and put them into a coherent format for others, as well as reflect on the project as a whole.

My Process

First, I developed and defined the criteria for an organization to work with that I place great value.  These were in four areas. Below I name and describe those criteria and explain why I value them. (Point values are given in the spreadsheet.)

This first step was informed by my vocational seminar book and discussions, as well as much other reflection about what I want and need in my future life – i.e., what am I passionate about and why?

Does their mission match my values and interest me?

Mission matching is the most important aspect of searching for a vocation, for obvious reasons. It is such a loaded criterion that I tried to break it down in order to be able to assess what a "mission match" would mean.

What skills do I have to offer the organization?

It may seem selfish that I did not place more value on the skills I can offer an organization.  But my reasoning is that if I think, and the organization envisions, that I can attain such skills—that their instruction is doable and worth it—than I am confident I can make significant gains. Obviously, I will be more attracted to positions where I think "hey! I could really contribute!" But I refuse to be limited by lack of experience. If you only do what you've already done, you will only get what you have already got.

Does the organization have the potential to develop me in any way?

The potential to grow should be something that people incorporate into everything—relationships, careers, pants. It is absolutely crucial that people be life-long learners who continue to strive for new potentials. This doesn't simply mean a raise or a promotion; it means exactly what I titled it—"potential to grow” as a human being. On a less intense note: potential to grow may mean going from an intern to a full-time position, and this will be dictated by the level of stability desired and the ability to commit. I.e., I would easily consider taking an introductory 1-year-only position next year. But maybe in ten years when I am more certain of where my vocation (and family?) lies, I will need more stability and a longer-term opportunity.

Is the organization capable of meeting my needs 
(locations, funding, short versus long term, etc)?

Needs are very case- and time-specific so I just listed basic needs here. The value assigned here may also look selfish. It is. But I am unabashed because in order for me to accomplish much at all, there are certain needs that must be met to some degree—food, health, spiritual needs, a healthy work environment, broadly speaking.

The case right now: Student loan repayment or delay. I am pretty low maintenance and I love living communally so that shouldn't require too much.  But I definitely want to be involved in an organization where I can get down to work quickly. 


Second, I decided that I would choose four sub-categories of work related to “environmental” issues and defined each sub-category so that I would know if or where the organizations I explore in my next step will fit.  This step was informed by discussions of what the field is really like for these areas of work, my experiences of “insertion” (cf. JPST’s Circle of Praxis) working within the following areas, or from books and papers describing what it would be like versus what I am passionate about.

Outdoor Education

I think it is vitally important to teach or keep people connected to the environment. One of my best friends from high school told me "I just don't care about the environment" and at first I was just flabbergasted (okay, sometimes I still am) but it makes sense if people don't see how "the environment" connects to their life. If your food comes a grocery store, your water from a pipe or bottle and your materials from another store, then what is your connection? At all ages and in all scenarios if people a) have some relationship with the natural world b) connect the natural world to their life and c) learn how their action negatively or positively impact that environment they will have the tools and motivation to protect it. Discussions with Elise Amel, Will Steger and the folks at Anathoth and books like You Are Here and In Defense of Food have informed my point of view on this. 

Energy Systems

The category of Energy Systems or Climate Change is very broad, with very many different opportunities, from working for development and implementation of renewables to legislation to degrading the power of "dirty industries" to teaching people how to repair their bikes so they feel comfortable commuting to work regularly, etc. I like this category because it could be local, national, or international. It can be directly associated to addressing the major contributors of carbon to teaching people all the little ways to make their lifestyles healthier for them and the climate. I took an EXCO (Experimental College) class on Energy Systems—charting their historical evolution, confronting arguments about how a nation can’t be expected to address environmental concerns until it has established great wealth, and the power plays that control our current energy systems. The class then described alternatives, outlining why and how to transition to them.

Health Regulations

Environmental science teaches about the interplay or link between natural systems and human systems. We are part of the natural system, but we try to live outside its rules and this has created the problems we now identify. I am very passionate about how these problems affect people's health. The most horrifying example of this in our society is cancer rates: 48% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. The experience of cancer is too real to so many of us and this is unfair. We need to understand and implement policies that protect us from this involuntary form of torture. Much of the background to my passion for this comes from classes such as Medical Geology and books such as Living Downstream and In Defense of Food.

Basic Needs

I believe this closely relates to the "Health Regulations" category but can be broken down to apply to scenarios where people may be more aware that they aren't getting access to clean air, water, proper nutrition, health care or education—i.e. countries or areas that have incomplete infrastructure for providing these needs.

Sustainable Food Systems

I guess this so very closely correlated to "Health Regulations" and Basic Needs because it is both! We need healthy, safe food for everyone. Pretty simple, right? This means, sustainable ways to meet everyone's nutritional needs. From the health of the soil to biodegradable minimal forms of food packaging! By relating this to the other two similar categories I am in no way diminishing it, this is crucial and a passion of mine.
 

Third, I took the organizations I had researched (or that had been suggested to me) and placed each of them under the category or categories where I thought it fit best. If an organization did not fit under a category I began a “put aside chart” of organizations that did not fit my current criteria because of 1) mission 2) funding or 3) because I feel I am currently unqualified for their open positions.

This third step drew upon information about organizations that my colleagues in Senior Seminar had presented, or that professors, family members and other classmates had suggested.  I also discovered other organizations as I researched online and came into direct contact with their representatives. A couple books that have also been of use include Alternatives to the Peace Corps and Stories from Within the Peace Corps.

Fourth, I assessed remaining organizations based on the criteria/point system I had created in the first step. The result is a way to think about which organizations actually best fit what I want and need.

Final Reflections

The Value of Reviewing

‌The development of a bibliography was a very insightful process because it allowed me to think critically about why I hold the notions about “environmentalism” that I do and what are the sources of those ideas. I had to ask myself, “How informed is my opinion? What do I know of the opposing point of view?” On another note, it was also just a lot of fun to dig through a year and a half of books, classes, discussions, documentaries and literature that has been so formative for me. My brother recently said to me “this green thing is all wrapped up in who you are” and I realized he is right—and it has happened through a gradual process of information.

Important Gains

The first and second steps of defining “my criteria” and the four “sub-categories” of environmentalism were so crucial. Many of these ideas when I started this project were not obvious and I learned a lot through the process of constructively breaking ideas down, making lists, organizing thoughts, relating priorities (needs) and honestly assessing opportunities based on these ideas.

Thinking of Needs

The definitions allowed me to be honest with myself about what my needs are and not to err towards certain opportunities based on fear. What I mean by this is that I found I was often leaning towards businesses that would offer me more financial security but would be less in line with my vocation. I realized that I really want to take the time to pursue opportunities that fulfill my financial needs (mainly loan repayment) without sacrificing my vocation. What I found is that there are plenty of chances to do this, sans sacrifice. Another example is that this process allowed me to temporarily put aside my hard science tendencies and spend some time exploring the more human side. My fear would be that I would turn into a scientist and do all these great studies and nothing would be done about the problems I might identify.  I want to understand both sides of the relationship between science and policy.

Furthermore, I recognized that this system of thinking is flexible to the changes in needs that I will go through in the future. For example, I was able to identify that though I do want to travel, it would be better to stay local and gain some ground before doing so. Thus, instead of looking for a summer or fall opportunity abroad, I will be able to do work that I am so excited about, while staying in Minnesota with friends and family for a bit longer!

Defining Categories

By defining my “sub-categories,” I found that some organizations I had previously thought didn't apply actually could. This also allowed me to eliminate organizations that I believe in, but didn't feel that "called to," which can be hard to do sometimes. Recording all this in a coherent list form could allow me the chance to come back to organizations in the future—either when my interests change or when I learn more about a job and possibly discover that it does meet the criteria. I am very happy that I now have an organized set of the organizations I think very highly of as a reference for the near future—or even the extended future. This is the benefit of organization!

Possible Revisions

Specifically, I discovered that it is sometimes difficult to assess how effective a method is (which is a part of the “mission matching criteria”), and that I probably need to do more investigation into an organization once I have confirmed my interest.

Last Thoughts

In the end, the process allowed me to think deeply about the future. I remember when I was writing the contract for this project, excitedly telling friends and family that this was the chance to really invest time, thought, energy, research and writing into determining what my vocation for the next year or couple years is.  I feel like I accomplished that goal to a substantial degree. Adult role models in my life have described unbelievable moments where they “knew without a doubt” that this is what they were supposed to do, a moment where they realized a piece of their vocation. While I didn’t have a “clouds-parting” moment I feel more confident in my ability to navigate the next step of my life, knowing definitively what needs must be met and let the rest be a beautiful adventure!

Many times I have wondered, “How am I supposed to pick the BEST thing for me to do, when I am interested in so many things!” But after completing this process I am determined:  

Whatever I do I will do it fully.

I can’t do everything.

But I can do one thing with deep meaning.