A few weeks ago, I received an email from Ana, a biologist based in Chile, who was interested in moving into a career in conservation. She asked me if I could help her by answering some questions based on my own experiences.
I’m a real believer in standing on the shoulders of giants – most human endeavours have been done in some shape or form, or on some scale before, and I’ve often sought to learn from those who have gone before – so of course I was happy to help.
It occurred to me afterwards that my answers might be of interest to others, so here they are, lightly edited.
- How would you describe your work?
During the ocean rowing years, I was focused on raising awareness of our environmental challenges. I particularly focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which is a very important issue, but I actually think climate change is the bigger challenge – but I was spending a lot of time in the US, and was finding it very difficult to have a sensible conversation there about climate change, because most people seemed to have already made up their minds one way or the other. Plastic pollution was a relatively unifying issue, and also a useful gateway, because it’s visible and tangible, and it’s easy for us all to reduce our plastic footprint immediately and with relatively little effort, by stopping the use of single-use plastic items like bottled water, plastic bags, straws, and coffee cups.
Looking ahead, I’m considering two possibilities; one specific, and one more meta. The specific one is [under embargo for now!]
The meta-project ties in with my view that our environmental challenges are like heads on a many-headed sea monster. We can keep cutting off heads, but it will keep on sprouting new ones unless we attack the heart of the monster – which is our misguided belief that we are somehow separate from nature, and have the right to exploit, pollute, and abuse it as we see fit. This narrative needs to change! And I’m trying to figure out how to bring diverse groups together to work on creating narratives to underpin a new reality.
Besides my environmental work, I also teach (a semester at Yale in 2017, workshops, short courses) and give motivational speeches. And write – two books published, possibly more to come, or I may focus more on blogs and articles.
- What do you enjoy most about it? Least?
Enjoy most: I can’t think of anything more important for me to spend my time, talents, and energy on. I find it fulfilling and energising.
Least: it’s hard to find metrics that create any strong sense of progress. I have to maintain a belief in tipping points, and remind myself that I’m very unlikely to be the one to actually tip the balance, but I am helping add straws onto one side of the scales in the faith that one day they will tip in favour of sustainability.
- What aspects of this work energize you the most? The least?
Energise the most:
- Meeting kindred spirits
- Finding a way of articulating a problem or a solution in a way that resonates with people and inspires action
- Occasionally getting daunted by the scale and intractability of the issues
- Occasional disillusionment with human psychology, and its resistance to change
- How many of the people in this field seem to be passionate about their work?
Lots of passion and energy, especially in NGOs, but in the past there has been a lack of coordination with other kindred organisations – but I see that improving a lot now.
- Is there a typical salary range for your career or does it all depend on sponsors and grants?
Personally, I have no regular salary. My main source of income is speaking fees.
- What should I expect starting new in conservation for salary/compensation?
- What experience or skills help you advance in your career?
Tenacity and determination
Self-care to avoid burnout
- What do you think it take to be considered a leader in conservation?
Clarity of vision
Articulate communication of ideas
Contribution to Society
- How do people in your field measure or assess that impact?
With awareness raising, it is very difficult to measure, as there are so many variables, and effects are cumulative rather than easy to attribute to one organisation, person, or initiative. So at the moment I would say that the sense of contribution has to come from an intrinsic faith that I am doing my best, rather than from extrinsic impact measures – with occasional emails of appreciation that can really make my day!
- What are typical work hours for you?
Really hard to say, as there is no clear delineation between work and non-work. So I more or less work all the time or none of the time, depending on how you define “work”!
- What is the most challenging aspects of your career?
I used to find the lack of a regular salary challenging, but now I’ve developed a fair degree of confidence that resources show up when needed.
- Any practical advice you can give me as I look into changing my career?
Stay optimistic AND realistic.
Networks will be important, both as you seek a new position, and once you get there. Show up to as many events and conferences as feels comfortable, get business cards, connect on LinkedIn, build your address book. Webs of connection are how the world works.
IMPORTANT: get clear about your personal vision for what success looks like for you in this new arena. Use that vision to guide your decisions and keep you on track.
- How would you describe the type of people who work in your field?
Some stellar minds. Some very passionate. Some a combination of both. Mostly guided by genuinely wanting to make the world a better place, but some egos too – as there are everywhere.
- How would you describe the people you meet by working in your field?
Probably the same as above! But we all have something to bring to the party, regardless of individual talents etc. I hope I always treat everybody with respect.
- What experience is needed to be successful at what you do?
For me personally, I definitely draw on the metaphorical value of my ocean rowing adventures – accumulation of many tiny actions, keeping an eye on the goal while doing what needs to be done in the day, etc.
But more generally, I think that energy, intellect, and clarity are more important than past experience. Likeability and willingness to genuinely collaborate – and give credit where credit is due – are good too!
If anybody is thinking about a career in conservation, or indeed in any other realm that is motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, I would say, please go for it! We may not do it for the financial rewards, but there are many things in life more important than money, and many riches that don’t have to be submitted to the taxman.