When I went to law school, I knew I wasn’t going for the money or for some crazy high profile career. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to affect people and help those in need. I chose internships where I worked for nonprofits, governmental agencies and volunteered to help the needy in a non-legal capacity. I did this work because I enjoyed it, and truly feel that I was
making a difference. However, I also expected that some of these experiences would open the door towards a fulfilling and demanding career working to serve others.
Naturally, I found myself disappointed that the work I’ve had since graduating was not in the public sector. So far, for struggling lawyers, the only way to pay the bills is by selling our souls to for-profit organizations like recruitment agencies and law firms. While I would have been happy accepting a job that paid $20,000 or $40,000, instead, I earn more, but find myself unsatisfied and mad that nobody will hire me to help others. I’m also sad that the work I am paid to do is not giving me skills that would transfer to a “real” job. So far the only useful skills that I’ve gained have been from volunteering for nonprofits since I graduated. So I basically have to choose to lose money in order gain skills, a tradeoff that I am willing to make. Given that the nonprofits that I’d like to work for are either not paying people who work for them (or at least have no open paid jobs) and because I know that the ones that do have open positions get an overwhelming number of applications, I’ve come to realize that maybe working for a nonprofit in a legal capacity might not be in the cards for me. But that doesn’t mean that I have to give up on my dream of helping others. While I’m still applying to every nonprofit and government job I see, and have been for three years, I’m thinking… why not reframe things and see my place in society in a more positive light?
What if the way that I’m meant to make a difference is by helping individuals, outside of my career or capacities as an official lawyer?
To be honest, this revelation came to me not in some wise VIEW of my own life, but in the form of advice to a good friend in search of her calling. She felt that she wasn’t sure if she was making a difference or using her whole potential. What I told her (because I know this person well and know that she does make a huge difference in others’ lives, without it being on purpose or to show off) was that she DOES make a difference by the way she leads her life and treats others. I can think of concrete ways that I am the way I am today because of her living by example.
After our conversation, I wondered, why can’t I see myself in that way? Not that I need to hold myself up on a pedestal, “Wow, Mirabelle, you’re so amazing. Look at all the people you affect.” No, no. That wouldn’t do. But we can still frame our lives in a different way to see that we do have purpose to what we do… and that we are making a difference.
Maybe we aren’t making a big difference on a global scale, but think of all the little good deeds you do. Think of the ear you lend to a person without a voice. Or the choices we make to do something the hard way to be on the right side.
When I volunteered for a domestic violence program, I felt that even though that wasn’t my real job, and I didn’t do it every single day, I was actually helping a person. Each time I listened to the person’s story, or offered advice, I was giving that person a voice. Showing compassion. What they were going through was already going to be an uphill battle, why not go above and beyond to make at least my part in their journey less painful or unpleasant?
What I’ve realized is that we all have a cause that we care about: the environment, feeding the hungry, building houses for the needy, mentoring kids, rescuing animals… There are so many ways we are needed by our communities. Why not reframe our view of ourselves not as what we do for a living, but as what we do outside our professional lives as making the difference? Does it really matter whether we get paid to do it full time? Just a few hours can make a difference if we are consistent and dedicated. If anything, it might make even a bigger difference if we put in the time to do something special outside of work.
The other reason I have been feeling disappointed in not having a career in the public sector, or working on large-scale projects for others, means that what I can do as an individual can only be on a small scale. But why do we think that going to Africa and helping a school full of children, or working for the UN in changing country-wide policy is the only way to make a valuable difference?
Putting a smile on one person, or adopting one puppy, or saving a little bit of energy by switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs. All that seems pretty minor, but it adds up.
Volunteering consistently for a cause I believe in does give me that feeling that I am making a difference. For instance, I’ve been mentoring a little girl for a little under a year. We get together every other week, and do something spectacular like going to a magic show with pirates, or something mundane like playing board games or writing songs in her living room. While in the big scheme of things, sure, I’m only helping one person. However, when you look at the challenging circumstances in this person’s life, and at statistics, you realize that every person who is a positive influence in her life has the chance to really help her. I’ve realized that to me, these interactions are not only worthwhile, but remind me that I’m still the same person that wanted to change the world. Only now I’m thinking on a smaller scale – one person, one family, one community at a time.
I know I would have benefited tremendously having had a mentor in my childhood, not only in my education, but in building my self-confidence and developing my wider world view. Why can’t I see my own efforts today as being valuable to society? While even one volunteering gig might not add up, I’ve noticed that in the span of the last 10-15 years, I’ve volunteered with children in many capacities. I’ve gotten incredibly diverse experiences and learned really valuable skills that might not land me a job, but that certainly make me a better member of society, a more sympathetic and open person, and someone who knows that she is doing all she can to make a difference. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?
How do you make time to help others? Did you expect to work in a field where you were helping people? Do you feel like you are doing this? Does anyone else frame “making a difference” in a work or large-scale context, or do you guys think that helping one person, or doing something small but consistently throughout your life is just as rewarding and helpful to the world?
Please comment, share your thoughts and let me know what you think. Please help me keep this a positive forum, though. I am so excited for some debate, but let’s respect each other please. I reserve the right to monitor and delete inappropriate posts. Thanks in advance!