So You Want to Save the World…
Or How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
There’s an old joke most people know that goes like this: A visitor gets lost in New York City and is late for a concert. He sees a man on the street carrying a violin case. Assuming he is a musician, the visitor stops him and asks, “Excuse me, how does one get to Carnegie Hall?”
The musician looks up and replies without missing a beat, ”Practice.”
It’s not really that different in the environmental business.
I’m often asked by college students “How do I get an environmental job?”
My answer is more than just “practice,” but it is just as practical. Since I’m asked for this advice very frequently and by so many, I thought I would share my thoughts with all of you. And if you think it’s helpful, please do pass it along to young people you know embarking on a job search. I remember wanting all the advice I could get.
So here’s my 2 cents.
First, you’re in luck.
The outlook for you has never been better.
- This is a great time to be in the market for an environmental job. Opportunities are booming as players in most sectors — business, NGOs, government, you-name-it — seek to catch up and build the many capabilities they need to pursue all of the environmental opportunities and challenges they face. Most organizations are understaffed and they know it.
- All skill sets are needed — science, finance, policy, tech, communications, and more. Wherever you’re focused, it likely lines up with the needs.
- And young people are especially welcome. The environmental world needs new perspectives, fresh ideas, and bold innovation. The old guard doesn’t have much of a head start — we’re reinventing how we do everything.
If not practice, then what?
Back when I was in college, big companies like GE and IBM sent recruiters to campus to find new recruits. Today, leading consulting and investment banking firms do the same.
But that’s not typically how one finds an environmental job. You need to hustle and find your own opportunities. Don’t be intimidated — this is not only very doable; it’s fun too. As soon as you get started and have some practice, you’ll become more confident and skilled at this.
Here’s what I recommend doing:
- Climb the ladder from the first rung.
I know you’re excited to jump right in and meet decision-makers. But it’s too soon to push for meetings with the executives who lead organizations. Start at the bottom. Meet with young people. They’ll generally be eager to meet with you too.
And don’t start by telling them that you’re looking for a job, because you’re not yet. You’re in the information-gathering stage. Ask for advice. Find out what people actually do every day, whether they like their jobs. Listen carefully. Develop a sense of where you might fit in.
A great way to do this is to reach out to recent grads from your college who work at places that look interesting to you. Shoot them an email and tell them you’d like to ask for some advice. People like that.
2. Seize the opportunity no one else seems to notice.
Volunteer. You need experience. You need things to talk about in job interviews. Some people make the mistake of being too picky on this front. They only want to volunteer at the places they think are the very best. It’s great if you can pull that off. But it’s not necessary.
You can learn a lot anywhere if you really dig in. Maybe you can’t afford to spend an entire summer or semester without a paid part-time job. Beginning can be as simple as volunteering occasionally at local parks supported by small NGOs. You’ll learn a lot just by hanging out with the team. How do they set goals, organize their projects, and recruit supporters? How do you think they might do better? Where do folks on the team think there might be opportunities for you? And so on.
3. Read all about it, and everything else.
There’s just no substitute for being well-informed. Challenge yourself. Read as broadly as possible: about the environment, the industry, the organizations to which you are applying. Seek out new sources and read in a variety of formats — news articles, magazines, blogs, interviews, books. It will signal that your interest is genuine, give you a deeper understanding of the issues, and prove that you are willing to do your homework.
4. Don’t stop at reading; start writing.
You know the best way to be able to converse fluently on a topic? Write about it. There’s almost no better way to hone your expertise — and prove it to a would-be employer — than by writing about environmental issues. And today virtually all the publishing barriers have come down. Write for your college newspaper, write a newsletter, write a regular Twitter thread.
Personally, writing this newsletter — The Instigator — has helped me to become much more articulate on the issues I want to discuss. When I get started on a new issue, I often think “this one will be easy.” Not so fast. I usually end up doing lots of research, bouncing ideas off friends, even rethinking my original point of view. Working on this newsletter has been fun, but more importantly, it has really helped me develop ideas.
For another and better example, check out Climate Tech VC, a great newsletter started by some really high-energy and smart entrepreneurs while they were still in college.
5. Get out of your comfort zone.
Don’t just talk to your like-minded friends. Make sure to talk to people not in the environmental community. Strike up a conversation with your uncle who doesn’t believe in climate change. Start a dialogue with your friends who don’t see a role for business in solving the environmental crisis. Understanding different perspectives and engaging in respectful debate will help you become a better communicator. And the environmental movement needs more people who can understand other points of view and bridge divides.
6. Seek out and start building your community now.
There are a lot of great environmental groups out there (online and in real life) that you can get involved with. Joining the community helps you make connections and genuine friendships, learn about different people’s experiences, and stay informed. I’m very grateful that when I first started The Instigator, friends encouraged me to join the My Climate Journey group. I’ve met some great people (from all over the world), made new friends, and I keep learning from them. You can do this too.
I’ve also made a lot of friends and been introduced to new organizations through LinkedIn. It’s another great learning opportunity. Of course there are other virtual communities and social media sites — pick what works best for you.
7. Launch a start-up.
Why not? If you have the idea and the motivation, do it. There are no limits on what you can do in this industry right now. I keep meeting more young people who are doing startups. Who knows which ones will ultimately be successful? Many will be, I’m sure. And everyone doing this is getting a world-class education about how to make a difference.
8. Be open to possibilities.
There are so many different jobs out there, you never know what you’ll stumble upon. Yes, pursue the jobs that you believe will be most fulfilling for you. But don’t limit yourself too much. Don’t turn down learning about opportunities because they’re not exactly what you had planned for yourself. You never know exactly how these things will turn out. Often you have to get your foot in the door before you can understand the opportunities on the other side.
Meanwhile, a public service announcement for the older people among us.
You can do this too!
I did it. And I‘m doing it again now (see at the bottom).
Back in 2008, I left Wall Street after 24 years for a job in the environmental community. Then 11 years later, I left the Nature Conservancy and switched gears once again. These transitions are the best career moves I’ve ever made.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but I am saying it’s not too late and the same recommendations for younger folks apply.
Rules to live by:
Yes, practice makes perfect, but there’s much more to it. Get motivated, keep an open mind, develop genuine interest in the perspectives of others, look for allies, keep learning, and try hard to find common ground with everyone. These practices will help you make the progress you seek. They really work. They’re fun to do too. And of course, always do your best to return the favor when others ask you for help.