Written by David McConnachie

It’s all about the game and how you play it.
All about control and if you can take it.

Motorhead, THE GAME (2001)

So, you want to make a life – and a living – doing good? 

Good for you – and, hopefully, good for the future, too. The world needs an awful lot more energy devoted to powering progress on so many important fronts, starting with the existing climate emergency that holds the potential to threaten our way of life (and maybe our lives, too). 

Here’s the thing, though. While we all must be doing more, making more sacrifices to current habits and investing in future solutions – and we must do so with an urgency in our words and actions – you will still want to live a life that is enjoyable, pleasurable, beneficial and sustainable. The tactical goals of conquering a challenge (collect the signatures, lobby the government, etc.) all require time, energy and effort (Herculean, in many instances), and should only be marshalled with a strategic mission in mind. There’s no use ‘dying on a hill’ only to realize that it was a foothill in the greater range of challenges. And in your life, you’re in charge and need to make sure that, like the parent in the airline’s safety video, you take care of yourself first before you begin to assist others.

As the editorial team was reviewing the issue line up to see what else we could be adding, they tasked me with bringing forth a few tips and tricks to help you, dear reader, avoid the dead-ends, traps and pitfalls that may come up as you play the game of your life doing-good. 

Ready, Player One?

Ready Player One

In 2011, I left behind a career spent in business and industry to take on responsibility to manage the business affairs of Alternatives Inc., the charitable organization that publishes Alternatives Journal (A\J). In the intervening years, I have learned lessons gained through my own experiences and by watching the growth and development of the various team members. In general, a synopsis of the advice that I’ve distilled from the lessons can be broken down into three parts:

  1. The Money Trap
  2. Career Dead-end
  3. Personal Life Pitfalls?

You’ll notice that I started with the most difficult conversation – THE MONEY TRAP – at the very outset because, here’s the thing, it is a lot easier to spend a life dedicated to doing good if you have the resources to make that work achievable. In a perfect world, you’d make your millions (and/or billions) before you swear an oath of going-forward poverty, aka high falutin’ volunteer work. That’s not to say that you can’t make a good living in the environmental community. The challenge is in understanding and defining what that ‘good living’ represents in terms of the time, energy and heart-and-soul that you will need to invest to acquire.

Proving yourself – and making a name for yourself and your abilities – at a small eNGO is probably not going to pay more than minimum, but that experience can be leveraged to get a more substantial position for a larger iteration of your eNGO or a partnered, corporate entity.

Or you can learn the lessons and build the relationships that you then utilize to launch your own business providing in-demand products and/or services to a growing base. 

There’s a knock-on concern: in a community started by counter-cultural, anti-establishment (insofar as the establishment was heavily vested/invested in fossil fuels, for example), there’s perverse pride in trying to do more with less. That starts with the organizations – and, be advised, that the pooh-bahs and fancy-pants grantmakers expect you to sweat for each dollar that they deign to dole out – and then trickles into the most ardent team members. I am reminded that the cost-of-entry for martyrdom is death, so it really isn’t a recommended career and life development strategy!

But you can avoid the money trap, with smart planning and a view to the long-game. Speaking of which….

One of the first exercises that the A\J editorial interns are run through is the task of writing their own, NY Times-style IN MEMORIAM (aka obituaries). Getting the interns to read a few obits from luminaries and legends, and then tasking them with imagining a life’s-path that may be purely science fiction at that moment, forces them to appreciate that there will be many stops (and probably an equal number of starts) along the way.

“Measure twice and cut once” is an old tradesperson’s axiom and definitely applies to your career development.

Your relationship with your career (and the stops along the way) will be one of the most important and impactful relationships that you’ll ever experience, and it behooves you to put as much thought into future plans as it does into your RRSP planning.

Think about stops-and-starts. Think about how long you want to make-do-with-less and when you want to make-out-like-a-bandit, as both are achievable if you do your homework, plan your leaps and know when it’s the right time to jump. You are not the seat that you sit in, or the title on your business card. You are uniquely you, and you need to be placed in the optimal condition for you to succeed.

“Do what you love and love what you do!” is a powerful motto. But what happens if what you love requires you to watch vigil over the extinction of your beloved species? Or what you love asks that you overlook the uninformed opinions (and your own ennui) to plow ahead with the latest petition drive aimed at making legislative change? Or what you love led you to found an organization dedicated to keeping our GhGs below 350 ppm and the latest report shows that we’ve blown past 400 ppm (409.9 in 2019, to be precise)…and no one seems to give a shit?

One of the greatest challenges that I’ve personally wrestled with has been working to maintain my inner sense of purpose. I’ve had a long-time motto: purpose equals power….so you really only need to understand your purpose to step into your power. My purpose, since joining A\J, has been in doing whatever I can to help sustain an organization that has contributed so much and can contribute so much more in the future. I’ve drank the GMO-free and organic kool aid, and I’ve drank deep.

But there are days when the weights and pressures of the role rest heavily on me. I get tired and I start to question….everything. The good news? My current work responsibilities include a lot of check-in meetings with interns, students and volunteers. And their energy, their passion for the causes that inflame them, reminds me that my purpose is being fulfilled when I ‘zoom out’ and enjoy the view as the work is being done. The magic, dear reader, is not in the creation but in the creating – and that goes double when you watch vicariously as young storytellers get a chance to perfect their craft and raise their voices.

So, please, guard your heart, your soul and your spirit as you do good work. Your ability to enjoy your version of an idealized work/life balance will be predicated upon your eagerness to open your eyes in the morning and move the cause a few steps further ahead. And doing that will give a boost to your life’s journey as you play the Game of a Do-Gooder’s Life to your definition of victory.