How does one decide on which livelihood work to sustain oneself?* Especially earlier on, when one’s more unique gifts may not be developed yet–and/or one may not fully understand one’s “niche” yet. And within given situational constraints (in my case, student debt, and wanting to work for a non-profit organization).
I anticipate livelihood is something that will change over the course of your life. Mine certainly has, and at age 57, this continues. As I anticipate living to 150, it is important to anticipate change. In this post, I provide a few basic principles that I intend to be “one size fits all” useful throughout your life, by culling wisdom from my life experience, economic research, and others’ life experience. Let me know in the comments to this post if I’ve met my aim.
1. Discerning vs. Deciding
First of all, notice that I’ve replaced the questioner’s term “deciding” with “discerning.” Discerning is an ongoing process you get better and better at. Deciding is a bit scarier. I shy away from it! One of my favorite quotes about this is from the historian Natalie Zemon Davis on how she decides what “really” happened:
I see complexities and ambivalences everywhere…am willing to settle, until I can get something better, for conjectural knowledge and possible truth…make ethical judgements as an assay of pros and cons, of daily living and heroic idealism. [My intellectual opponent] sees things in clean, simple lines; he wants absolute truth, established with no ambiguity by literal and explicit words; he makes moral judgements in terms of sharp rights and wrongs.**
We are right to be in a process of discernment throughout our lives, especially when it comes to something as all-important as how we will spend the bulk of our waking hours, our contribution to the planet, and our utmost happiness–all of which can be understood as “livelihood.” We are less well served by “sharp rights and wrongs.”
So think of figuring out your livelihood as a process.
2. Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese***
The questioner assumes that his (young) age might change the game of figuring out his livelihoood. Not so. Unless you say so. If you think in linear terms about your age, you box yourself into the categories of your own creating. That’s fine; just realize they are yours, not Life’s. I haven’t noticed Life caring about what age we are. Especially nowadays, when really famous, accomplished people do amazing things not just in their 40s, not just in their 30s or 20s–but in their teens. There are some wise children being born.
Likewise, I am seeing fabulous examples of people doing all kinds of interesting things as they near (and pass) “retirement” age. And you can bet I am looking for them! Nowadays, older people are finding funding to go back to school and starting 2nd and 3rd careers, or donating their lives to livelihood rather than a “straight” job when they were able to retire. This means they are taking on student debt, and wanting to work for non-profits, just like our questioner. (Lucy Kellaway is my favorite recent example.)
So think of figuring out your livelihood as something that ends when you die!
3. Niche + Gifts Still = Choices
The questioner wonders if, being youthful, the process is harder because “one’s more unique gifts may not be developed yet–and/or one may not fully understand one’s ‘niche’ yet.” I think of gifts as paints in a paintbox. Hopefully, as you get older, your palette gets more and more colorful. We know more, we become more useful to even more good things happening.
So true, when you are young, you have not developed all your gifts. If you view livelihood as a process, you anticipate knowing more and more about yourself. And you may throw yourself into more and more challenging situations. I hope you do! I try to live continually at my edge of growth, while utilizing the skills I came in with and develop as I grow.
The questioner continues:
I was intrigued by the part of your interview with Kimberly where you talked about returning to organizing projects, and how earlier on, as you said it: “in my heart I couldn’t figure out what was the most important thing.” Perhaps you’ve gleaned some wisdom over the years on that discernment task.
This refers to my 20s when I was beset by trying to figure out which cause was most important or most urgent. (We tend to confuse important and urgent, but that’s another blog post.) I was a social-justice organizer who finally chose to become a fulltime grassroots fundraising consultant because it allowed me to work on many different causes at the same time.
The wisdom I’ve gained is that my livelihood choices tend to revolve around a combination of the momentary, the cosmic, and the personal.
See Yourself at the Confluence of the Cosmic, the Personal and What’s Between
- The momentary: I see and seize the moment. I’m strategic in how I use my gifts. What is going on right now? That has huge impact on what I turn my talents to next.
- The cosmic: it matters to me that I think my work is meaningful at a cosmic level. (Everything matters. Don’t try to tell me it doesn’t; that’s just a given for me.)
- The personal: my happiness matters. I do a much better job at things I enjoy.
Don’t let niche or gifts make your choices! See yourself at the three-way intersection of the personal, the cosmic, and what lies in between. Choose! even if it seems impractical. Don’t fight, don’t resist what is, but don’t cave in to the merely practical, as what is considered practical will change before your very eyes. (On this, you can trust my aged wisdom!)
*Today’s question is from a new subscriber who took us up on our offer of a free half-hour of coaching for each question we deem worthy of answering in a blog post! This half-hour can be yours if you, like our alert reader, send us a useful question. Note that the decision about its usefulness is strictly subjective and up to us!
**I found her wonderful essay, “On the Lame,” here on 1/16/18.
***A bumpersticker whose brilliance I cannot claim, only quote.