Social Impact Career Coaching: A New Paradigm
The first time I thought hard about wanting to help others in a serious way was in 1988. I was six years old, and watching The Price is Right on daytime TV. Suddenly, during an advertisement break, I was confronted with images of hungry African children and a man telling me that for just a few cents per day, I could help feed one of these children. That advertisement helped me to see just how good I had it, and just how unfair it was that some children were born into such starkly different circumstances. It started me thinking about how I could make a difference in the world.
That advertisement also contributed to subconscious beliefs in my six-year-old brain that white men were meant to be the saviors of starving, brown-skinned people who apparently could not take care of themselves. So while that advertisement made me want to change the world for the better, it also contributed to warped subconscious ideas about how that should and could happen. My desire to serve others eventually led me to join the Peace Corps and complete three years of service in Paraguay, work to build and expand high quality schools in Washington, DC and West Africa, and eventually become the Director of a youth service agency in Washington State.
Throughout my career in the nonprofit and social service field, I struggled with uncertainty, lacked mentors who could model healthy relationships with their work, and frankly took too long to uncover personal blind spots regarding race, equity, and privilege. I flirted with the idea of hiring a life coach or a career coach, and met with a few coaches to see if it seemed like coaching would be worth the investment of time and money. While I liked the idea, I didn’t personally connect with any of the coaches I spoke with. As I reflected on this experience years later, it occurred to me that I had not been able to find a single coach who had direct experience in nonprofits and the social services, or who focused their coaching on social impact.
As I gained more experience in mission-driven organizations, I began to take note of how many unhappy people I met who had supposedly signed up for social impact work because it was what they wanted to do. I witnessed people who had been hired to serve “at-risk” populations who were more mentally and emotionally “at-risk” than their actual clientele. I also went through a phase of my service-oriented career deeply unfulfilled, and it came down to this: The stories I had been conditioned to tell myself about what service is supposed to look and feel like did not match reality. Deep in my subconscious, the man from the 1980s TV advertisement was telling me that my job was to swoop in and save lives. When I met the people I had signed up to help, they were stronger and more experienced than I was in most aspects of life. This dissonance made it very difficult for me to experience joy in work. When the joy went away, my personal power went with it. I had set out to change the world, and only seemed to be changing myself into a miserable wreck of a person.
At one of my lowest points during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay, I happened upon a book called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, which teaches the power of living and being in the present moment. This was my introduction to the concept that all stress and anxiety stems from our disconnection from the present moment. This concept transformed the way I experienced life, and it opened up the doors to happiness and contentment. By learning to connect with the present moment, I eliminated the stress and anxiety that had come from the dissonance between my preconceptions of public service and the way things were in reality. I realized that I needed to stop trying to force change to happen, and that just like a seed sprouts and grows in its own time, positive change in a person, community, or country must follow its own natural rhythm. If you overwater a plant or give it too much fertilizer, it will die. If you push for a community project that has little community buy-in, it will fail. So by doing less, and by dropping my stress about the past and my anxiety about the future, I became a better support to others. This awakening did more for my happiness and career satisfaction than any amount of professional development or graduate school coursework ever could have. I realized that the most important work I needed to do was to focus inward, and to do the work of transforming myself.
As I took on more and more responsibility in social services, the moments that brought me the most joy were the moments when I was able to help someone with a breakthrough like the one I had in Paraguay. Having experienced—and thankfully recovered from—many of the reasons that people are unhappy in social services has helped me to be a support for others who may be unhappy but not quite know why. Some people suffer from vicarious trauma. Some feel compelled to sacrifice in ways that make them ineffective supports for others. Some have the nagging feeling that their work has unintended negative consequences for the people it aims to serve. These factors and others often play out simultaneously for people.
I developed the concept of Social Impact Career Coaching because I wanted to build a support system for people who find themselves suffering in a line of work that should bring us joy. Life is precious. The recognition of this fact is often the reason that people sign up to serve others. Somewhere along the way, things go awry. We become unhappy, which makes us ineffective public servants. My aim with Social Impact Career Coaching is to help people right their ships. It is to help people take shortcuts to happiness and make the most of their desire to serve others.
Social Impact Career Coaching is coaching for people who want to make a positive change in the world, and it consists of two components: the internal and the external. The internal work is by far the most important. This is the work of personal exploration that helps someone clarify the thought patterns and belief systems that have contributed to where they are in their career. What is your personal version of the 1980s TV advertisements that influenced me—and so many others? What beliefs have you had about serving others that no longer serve you?
It is not easy to answer these questions, but doing so will help you to redirect your talents and energy toward work that renews your spirit and thus makes you a deeply effective public servant. Feeling renewed and inspired is not simply a desirable goal; it is a prerequisite for helping others. It is also a prerequisite for the second—external—component of Social Impact Career Coaching. This work consists of coaching and support on the logistical and technical aspects of a major shift in your career and how you approach it. What seems mysterious or out of reach about a job you would love to have? What areas of professional growth would help you make the most of the job you currently have? Does it make sense to create a new organization or build on an existing organization’s work? I offer this coaching with a specific emphasis on the technical skills, cultural norms, and governance issues relevant to the nonprofit and social service sector. This provides a safe space in which to really talk through aspects of work in which you feel unclear and to receive practical guidance on how to build up technical competencies outside of your normal network.
Whether it is through Social Impact Career Coaching or other means, if you are driven to make a positive impact through your career, I urge you to find ways to engage in critical self-reflection, tap into new ways of experiencing life, and experience the joy of connecting your talents and values with your vocation. Your happiness, and that of everyone around you, depends on it.