I left nonprofit health advocacy work for a job in tech. My current job is a better fit than my last one, but I miss the clarity of working for the cause of lessening human suffering.
It’s been six years since I switched, but I still agonize over my choice to leave the resource-strapped nonprofit work for the resource-rich tech job. This rumination has led me… nowhere.
Ditching the Dichotomy
Recently, I returned to one of my favorite books, Stanford D School’s Bill Burnett and Dave Evan’s Designing Your Life. The book is chock-full of ways to apply design thinking skills to one’s time on Earth.
The authors taught me that the idea that I am either engaged in the projects that move me or I am selling out in tech’s lap of luxury is a false dichotomy. Advocating for change on a local issue reminded me of the perniciousness of the work/cause dichotomy. The skills I spend honing at work are not solely applicable to my tech career. In fact, I observed how my time working in tech has sharpened the skills I’ll need to continue working on causes that motivate me.
Finding a Hill to Die On
I am a lucky in-office worker who is in love with her commute. I peddle along a winding river path 5 miles to the office.
You can imagine my frustration when I was halfway through my ride one beautiful early summer morning, and I was forced to a halt. The park pathway I use to cross the river had a newly erected metal gate across it, blocking my ride to work. Both alternative routes were more dangerous, and I tried to hoist my bike over the fence a few yards from the gate. A security guard stopped me, informing me I was trespassing onto the lawn of a private building.
I asked the guard why the gate was locked, as I had been using this access path for decades. He told me that the officials of the small village I was crossing through had made the decision. He said I could take the issue up with them and that, in fact, they were having a village meeting that evening.
Putting Work Skills to Work
At that moment, I realized I had found a cause that energized me. Before joining Atomic, I’d have called my husband and complained about the new gate, realizing that I would need to drive to work if it remained up.
Since working at Atomic, I’ve developed a better understanding of systems of decision-making and power. I decided that I would work to open the gate back up, restoring an important pathway for walkers, joggers, fishers, and cyclists like me.
This was the first of the lessons I applied from my career development at Atomic that helped me in the battle to open the gate. Here are the subsequent ones:
1. Pairing strengthens solutions.
After I eventually got to work via the dangerous alternative route, I texted my friend Suzette. Suzette is a de facto leader of the local bike community, and she is a great organizer. She’s corralled many group rides with hundreds of people, and she has a vast social network. I knew if I told her about the situation, she would spread the message to stakeholders and connect us to helpful people quickly. She’s also very smart, and I knew reaching out to her would help me consider things I hadn’t yet. When I called her, she shared my dismay and sent out the bat signal via social media to ask additional cyclists to attend that night’s meeting.
I’ve developed more respect for teamwork in my training at Atomic. Teams, especially ones made up of diverse thinkers, develop more robust approaches to problems than individuals. Teamwork is baked into Atomic at the most basic level. Our software developers write code in pairs, and our CEOs even lead the company as a duo. Before, I believed in a model of political action that worships the charisma and might of a single figurehead. Atomic has taught me that gathering a mighty team deepens insight and makes more robust plans. Plus, solving any hard problem is a lot more fun with good company.
2. Seek first to understand.
When I observed how pissed off I was about the gate’s closure, I had an instinct that I might be leaping to conclusions or missing the whole picture. Indignant anger has a way of obstructing my vision. So when I got to work, I also did some research. I pulled up the village’s previous meeting minutes to learn what was on that night’s agenda and what officials had previously discussed. Next, I called the village’s clerk to make sure I had the details about the situation and whether the meeting allowed public comment. I sought to understand what the zoning law was covering the land with the gate on it.
These findings strengthened my clarity around the issue, and helped me conceive of the issue with empathy in addition to my outrage. The village members, I learned, opted to lock the gate over concerns about trespassing.
3. Know your audience.
After doing my research, I was ready to prepare my public comment. Working at Atomic has taught me so much about writing for an audience. I’ve prepared writing for mahogany board rooms, open houses, and hackathons. Time has reinforced again and again the necessity of shaping language around its recipient.
Though I was angry about the gate’s closure, I had a hunch that the older, more conservative village board would reject what they might see as youthful insolence.
So instead of leading with anger, I sought to craft a short speech around the village’s own stated values and vision. I’ve come to appreciate these cultural “north stars” in my time at Atomic, and I see the ways they show up every day. We’re much more likely to decide to make a change at Atomic if it reinforces our values or vision, and I think many organizations enjoy this same concept.
When I saw the village’s goals included investing in a greener future for the village’s children, I saw the hook that would give us common ground in opening the gate again. The gate’s reopening would allow non-driving commuters to limit our carbon impact in the community — a cause we both agreed on.
4. Show up early.
After writing my little speech in the office, I prepared to bike to the village hall after work for the meeting. I got there early, which I’ve learned to do whenever possible at Atomic. In interviews, meetings, and presentations at Atomic, I’ve seen how showing up early helps for several reasons.
First, it limits stress about anything that might go wrong along the way so that you can show up as your calmest self. In this case, I realized the hall didn’t have a place to park my bike. So, when I had to stash my bike in the wooded area, I didn’t need to rush.
Showing up early also shows respect for others’ time — something I’ve found makes people more open to hearing your opinion.
It also lets you get a sense of the new environment before you contribute. In this case, I listened to the small talk the board members were making among themselves. I noticed collegiality and a strong sense of community among them. I also saw the environment was less formal than I’d imagined it to be.
5. Gather the data.
After Suzette and I made our pleas during public comment, we were disappointed to learn that the village had not made a formal decision to lock the gate. To re-open it, they would need to investigate the issue over the next month to bring it up as a formal topic on the following month’s agenda. To me, that meant being unable to ride my bike during the most wonderful month of the year for biking.
During the meeting, the board members expressed curiosity about how many people used the gate’s passage as part of their daily activity. I had no good answer to this question, but I became curious as well. At Atomic, we are often asked to defend our positions with data.
So the following week, I sat for an hour and a half by the locked gate. I observed cyclists, runners, and walkers approach the gate and either decide to slip past it or turn away. Additionally, I kept a careful record of the people and their decisions in a Google Sheet. I also spoke to those who appeared as angry as I was about the gate and encouraged them to get involved with my mission at the village board.
6. Follow up.
Armed with the data and Suzette’s investigative networking, we continued emailing the village clerk. We asked the clerk, whom we had become friendly with, to continue updating us on the status of the gate. Suzette and I emailed her about whether the folks who had decided to get it locked would reconsider. We also connected the clerk with another official from the city’s parks department to share his perspective on the situation.
At Atomic, I’ve seen lots of power in persistence. It’s taught me that entropy fills the world, and people often don’t prioritize your problems. Friendly, polite, and persistent follow-up is what moves the world.
This was confirmed for me about a week before the following village meeting. Someone had unlocked the gate, and it’s stayed that way ever since.
Powering Your Cause Work with Your Day Job
This story is not meant to inspire awe about my and Suzette’s political act. Our world is beset by problems much, much larger than a locked gate. Instead, I share the story as a way to reflect on my own experience and prompt some questions.
What are you learning now that you can apply outside work? How have you grown as an effective member of your community through your professional training? What networks, tools, relationships, and knowledge have you cultivated that you can use to address the problems you want to see solved?