Dear Students – 1: Motivation

13 Mar

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon (click the image below to visit the Amazon purchase page).


23 Responses to “Dear Students – 1: Motivation”

  1. brittanygoesglobal 14 March, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    This is an absolutely invaluable blog post. Thank you so much for writing this, and please write more.

    I was fortunate enough as an undergrad to have already traveled the world and worked in aid organizations, so I’ve already had to have had such a frank conversation with myself about what I am truly looking to get out of working in international development. I’ve found all reasons to be selfish, even the supposedly selfless side of me that wants to ‘save the world’- frankly, helping others makes me feel fulfilled and gives my life a sense of purpose. You can define that as selfish. But as much as we don’t want to admit it (even though we shouldn’t feel bad about it), so much of what you wrote above is very true. Thanks for honestly pointing it out and making us really think about the choices we are making. I hope you write more advice like this in the future.

  2. TAR 14 March, 2011 at 5:50 am #

    As someone who has just been accepted onto a Masters course in Humanitarianism, this post came around at the right moment. Everything you said, to some extent, is true to why I initially decided to pursue this career. However, I think most people can ask themselves this question for any career- it isn’t just for aid workers.
    A friend of mine is a teacher, and for years all she talked about was how great it would be to become a teacher, how she was going to be the best, inspirational and revolutionary teacher she could be. Throughout her training, she complained and whined and moaned every day, all with the caveat of “it will be different when I qualify.” Now she has qualified, 2 years in and she still complains yet, secretly, she loves it, and wouldn’t change it for anything. I think we all just like to have a good moan.
    I’m pursuing a career in aid work because I can’t think of any other career I want to do. Yes, I want to travel and part of me would like a job where the hard work may have some positive influence, but a main reason is the goings on in the World interest me and I’d rather have a job which I find interesting. I have already had a career elsewhere that bored me to the core. Tell me if I am disillusioned, but can any of you say you don’t find your work interesting, regardless of its negatives?

  3. JB 14 March, 2011 at 6:26 am #

    I agree with you that it is important to conduct honest self-assessment at an early stage– I loved your Curse, Drink, Shag post as someone who once participated in the perpetual sins of ex-pat aid workers, and I love this post as well for, again, saying out loud what we should be admitting to ourselves but are too afraid of.

    But I wonder whether you are being too harsh on the student commentator as an individual. The fact is, you can’t just blame them as individually being too naive or dishonest when they are taught, encouraged and pressured to lie over and over again by schools as well as aid organizations themselves. The student would not have gotten into whatever school he or she is in without writing that personal statement about how he/she wants to save the world and is qualified for it. Sure, while IN school, he/she may hopefully have some honest discussion that challenges this notion, but by the time he/she applies for jobs, it will be all over again the same lies about how he/she wants to save the world. Even while working in the field, he/she will perpetually go through the same cycle when asking for grants and/or funds or schmoozing with important people to lobby for the agenda. So how can you give “F” to the student when ability to lie is an essential qualification for the job and there’s nothing better to perfect your lie than self-delusion?

    And while I think the student’s comment to your post was extremely unfair, it is also true that I also sometimes annoyed or even disturbed by some aid bloggers who seem to get almost perverse joy out of cynicism (I’m not saying that you’re one of them, but there are plenty out there). Perhaps that’s because the reality is otherwise hard to swallow, but the fact is, cynicism is also a form of dishonesty– it’s in fact just another name for narcissism. Their ego is too big for them to admit that they actually also hope for the better even though there is fear that their expectation may not be fulfilled. But why would they stay in the field if they truly believe that aid works are meaningless? If that was what the student was referring to, I can see why he/she felt frustrated (although the frustration was directed at the wrong person here).

  4. J. 14 March, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    @brittanygoesglobal – thank you. Yes, I have a short series planned.

    @TAR – Answering the question of your last sentence was part of the point of this post. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but for me, yes – humanitarian work is not just interesting. Beyond and despite those dark days, it is extremely rewarding and fun. And it’s okay to like it because of that.

    @JB – I’m not sure I agree with your redefinition of ‘cynicism’. I’ll have to mull that over. But otherwise I agree with you: while that students’ comment was supremely unenlightened, perhaps I should have been harsh on her/his teacher instead…

    • Claire 14 March, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

      Rewarding and fun, challening and difficult, with a touch of cynicism, plenty of dark humour and occassional brushes with death. What more could you possibly want from a job?😛

  5. Clare 14 March, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks for this post, shared with a group of students who are coming to these conclusions over the course of their undergraduate research and service experiences. I think that at least some of them were relieved that it was OKAY to be ambivalent about aid work, and even that it was OKAY to change your mind about doing it.

    It also clarified a long-standing disconnection between myself and some of my students. I didn’t understand how they could become so upset by conditions On The Ground that they were almost paralyzed. By contrast, if I could find a group of people “On The Ground” who were muddling along, I spent time with them and learned about how they were muddling along. I realized that because of my disciplinary background, my orientation toward life among the recipients of aid has not generally been about “helping.” It’s been about listening, which can be a form of helping but is not always so. So…now I get it a bit more about the ‘helpers’ and their frustrations.

  6. Martha Cook 14 March, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    I love this post. It might be my most favorite one of all. Real. Well said. Important to those thinking of this line of work.

    Still, I agree with JB. I think you were hard on the kid. It’s like this. If you see an infant crawling on the ground, can you really chastise that infant for not knowing how to walk?

    Part of being an early 20-something or a late teen something is thinking you know something. God, if any of us knew at 20 how clueless we really were then we COULD NOT get out of bed in the morning. They only know what they know. It is unfair, I think, to make fun of them for saying what to them is the truth.

    You know you’re right. And I know you are right. And it is OK for them to be as honest as they can about who they are at that moment, which they see as altruistic (even though to us it is naive).

    There is one other possibility. That some kids are actually altruistic. Ghandi had to come from somewhere right? The likelihood that another Mother Theresa is on the way is low, but it exists. It is not possible to know for sure that your experience of yourself is the same as their experience of themselves. Just sayin’…

  7. ert 14 March, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    As the student commenter in question, I think perhaps my comment was poorly worded and misunderstood. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with admitting further motives for wanting to go into humanitarian work. I have all of the motivations you wrote about in this post, or at least most of them – in addition to helping people, I want to travel, to meet new people, to make a difference, etc. And I recognize that these motivations are inherently a bit selfish, in that they focus on the aid worker’s desires and goals instead of the aid work. I certainly did not intend to come across as trying to appear altruistic but instead express my frustration at how negative this and other blogs appear to me.

    As a matter of fact, I do not think I am altruistic in any way, which is why, as I tried (and apparently failed) to say in the initial comment, I do not want to go into aid work as a field worker because it seems to me that SO MANY people in this field are miserable in their personal lives, or see the work as futile and plagued by bureaucracy, or see idealistic young people as naive and stupid.

    As written on “Few people like to talk about it, but seasoned aid and development workers are seldom the happiest bunch. Not surprising given the realities they deal with every day. But what is surprising is just how many aid workers wear their cynicism like a badge of honor.”

    I for one do not think its something to be proud of. And I no longer think I am cut out for this kind of work.

    In all, I really didn’t mean for the comment to come across the way it did, and I don’t really believe in altruistic motives for anyone. I don’t think I’m better than anyone here, I just think so many of my ex-aid worker professors, and so many aid bloggers seem bitter and cynical, and I personally don’t want that in my future. Maybe I’m reading too far into it.

    • J. 14 March, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

      Fair enough. From time to time we all write or say or in some other way communicate things which come across not necessarily as we mean them.

      I personally believe that there is tenable, liveable, navigable space between full-on cynicism and naive idealism. I won’t lie to you: it’s not necessarily easy to find or stay in. It means confronting and dealing with the bad as well as the good. It means introspection and a commitment to emotional honesty. Some days you’ll wake up wondering what the heck you’ve wasted your life on. Some days you’ll see that what you do does make a difference. The former nets more hits on a blog post. The latter is why I’m still doing this after 20 years…

      • Alanna 14 March, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

        I know I tend to blog the negatives, because there is enough damn happy in the narrative about aid work anyway. We’ve got happy shiny success in every donor report and call for donations. The internet is where I present the other side. The bright side is all over.

    • Martha Cook 14 March, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

      Damn. Now I have to retract my Mother Theresa comment.

      ERT, seriously the only thing that can change things in any line of work is thinking about things in a new way.
      That’s what young people do without even trying.

      I work at a job in the suburbs of a big US city. There’s tons of people who drink way too much and ruin their marriages with flings and juvenile behavior. And they swear a lot and are pessimistic and cynical.

      There are plenty of people who are optimists and happy and have never engaged in any of the above mentioned activities (except swearing–I only know one person who doesn’t swear and that’s my father). Their behavior has nothing to do with the job they have. So if you have to hang out with cynical, swilling, shagging people (and you do) you might as well do it from a place that is exotic and with the hope that you might make a contribution. Plenty of people couldn’t care less about what goes on outside their little square of personal comfort.

      And for what it is worth, I think altruism is alive and well. And to be admired.

    • Happy Aid Worker 17 March, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

      Dear ert:

      Bitterness and cynicism are, at the end of the day, optional. I have seen enough in my career to make me question the whole nature of foreign aid and also to make me believe that enough good gets done to justify it. Two people could experience very similar circumstances, and one walk away bitter, and the other rewarded.

      Now, bitter and cynical are normative judgments. Perhaps someone laying out the facts makes you uncomfortable about a field that you previously idolised, and you interpret that to be bitter and cynical on the part of the fact-bearer. Is that fair?

      Now let’s say that in fact bitterness and cynicism are present, then I challenge you to find a career that does not have seasoned folks with a certain level of cynicism.

      Lastly, in my line of work I am often surrounded by those folks who are cynical, and often with good reason, but I just CHOOSE to instead focus on the positive aspects of my work, and focus on the little good that was accomplished. It matters very little how those around me feel, because I have my own convictions. And convictions my dear ert, you will not learn in school, but develop over time. Not sure walking away at the first sign of imperfection is the most mature approach, imho.

  8. JYTC 14 March, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    I’m really looking forward to a Dear Student series, as I’ve been seriously considering going into the International Development field. Though I bet many of the people on this site would consider me a baby since I haven’t even gotten my undergrad degree.

    I like reading all the aid blogs because the cynicism seems more honest of what I perceive the aid life to be: 3 parts suck, 1 part “good results from good aid work”.

    I think a series would also be good in terms of clearing away a lot of misconceptions about the aid field. I have family members who think you can take any degree and go into aid, which is clearly not true, though I do have my doubts about what an “International Development” degree means to hiring officers. In conclusion, I just wanted to say thanks for posting this out there, and to keep doing it!

  9. angelica 15 March, 2011 at 1:47 am #

    well said. personally, I think mother Teresa did what she did for selfish reasons, and that doesn’t take away one bit of worth from it. From the point of view of someone who blogs about the difficulties of juggling aid work and a family life, I have to admit I don’t know why I never think the happy happy stories are worth writing about… food for thought

  10. How Matters 15 March, 2011 at 3:28 am #

    An important post. See a great related one from Satori Worldwide on “So You Want to Save the World? Save Yourself First”

  11. Patrick 16 March, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Thank you. As someone trying to truly reflect about what the next steps in my career are- posts like this are just one more valuable resource to really think about! Thanks so much!

  12. jerry jose 16 March, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    What i take away from your post is the need for better awareness of some other aspects of the motivation to contribute to humanitarian work (here in the Philippines, refer to it more as development work). That while idealism can fuel the fire for getting things done, some simple blessings (i.e. travel perks, friends from all over) can also help me get up from my bed every morning.

    And I like the frame that you were using, development/humanitarian work can also be fun. In fact they are essential to humanize you and me who work in development. That we are still men and women, after all. That while we endeavor to contribute to a more just society, we also take care of our own selves. Amidst a world that needs taking care of.

    So I resound with you J. I hope to read more of you.

  13. Arbie 20 March, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    HAHAHAHAHAHAH Oh god I kept laughing at this, especially on the selfish motives part because those are the exact things which makes me want to do humanitarian (including having multinational friends on Facebook haha!). But at least I admit it and I am not disillusioned by my Messianic tendencies to ‘change the world’. I’m just a lucky guy whose selfish and selfless interests fortunately diverge into my chosen career path — best of both worlds! Woohoo!

  14. d 12 April, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Totally agree with this. Aid work is an ideal career for me because I love to travel, to meet people from all over the world and to on some small level gain a better understanding of how the world works. To be honest, yes, I do enjoy being the oddball at the cocktail party who just flew in from Gulu. And it helps that I’m good at a lot of the mundane aspects of the work (proposal writing, report writing, budgeting, etc).

    And I really really hope that we’re helping people (and I do think, often, we succeed), but if that were my only motivation I would have quit for a different career path a long while ago.


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