I am an idealist. I always have been and always will be.
Like many others, I have a burning desire to do good that I cannot shake. It is as integral to my being as my bones and beating heart.
Throughout college, I imagined myself doing great things with my degree, channeling the skills I had acquired towards the betterment of mankind. Although I did not know exactly what I was going to do, I hoped it would be something great.
But shortly after graduating from college in June 2009, I found myself trading in my backpack for a briefcase and a bicycle for a metro pass. Another casualty of Corporate America, I spent roughly eight or nine hours a day sitting in a cubicle helping Silicon Valley CEO’s make more money. I often wondered if I was doomed to spend the rest of my life figuratively rotting in a box only to die and literally rot in another?
Given the economic Armageddon of the times, I told myself that I ought to be happy. While legions of my fellow 2009 graduates had been forced to take low-level jobs in food service and retail, I had managed to find a “real” job with a regular salary and generous benefits.
But I wasn’t happy.
Save for the hapless Ivy-League entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, I was not helping anyone, much less the world. Although I was making a living, I was not making a difference, and I wanted so badly to do so.
After enduring a year and a half in my cubicle, I decided to flip the equation. Leaving my salaried job that helped no one, I took a job that paid nothing but helped one of the world’s most disadvantaged populations.
For the past nine months, I have been teaching English to children in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bogotá, Colombia. When it comes to economic opportunities, English is everything in Colombia and my hope is that my efforts will allow my students to one day lead better lives. Although it’s not always easy to see, at the end of the day I can safely say that I am making a difference—and my idealistic urges are being satisfied.
With three months left in Colombia, I find myself contemplating what to do when I return to the United States. Obviously, I cannot continue to work for free—I want to settle down, get my own place, and have an adult life. This costs money.
But I also cannot reconcile the thought of going back to a cramped cubicle doing uninspiring work.
For those of us who feel the visceral urge to do more with our lives than merely increase the number of zeros on our paychecks, finding work that is both lucrative and fulfilling is indeed a herculean task.
This leads us to the question: Is it possible to make a living while also making a difference?
I wish that I could tell you I knew the answer, but I’m still working on it. It is quite possible the two are mutually exclusive and the idealistic job-seeker will need to choose one or the other.
Granted, my current idealistic outlook is likely to change the day I take on serious adult responsibilities. Sacrificing pay for passion might sound reasonable when I have no one but myself to worry about, but less so when I have family to help support and a mortgage to pay.
But even if circumstance places us in careers that do not satisfy our idealistic urges, there are still plenty of opportunities to do good. We can volunteer at a local homeless shelter, mentor children in an after-school program, or donate a portion of our paychecks to charity.
Regardless of what we end up doing to pay the bills, we need only to look in our own backyards to find opportunities to make a difference.
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