Like Alice in Wonderland

My employment history reads like a chapter from Alice in Wonderland, where everything is upside-down. And it goes back a few years, so I am going to have to skip a few passages here, for sake of brevity.

One of my first memories of work is someone telling me that you need to have one in order to get a better one. Any job is better than no job. Once in a job, it’s all about how you “sell yourself” to the next one. What matters to people is that you haven’t been idle, that you aren’t seen as sitting at home commiserating your unemployed condition, but do something with your time and skills, even if it’s voluntary work. So that’s how my employment history started, when I was still a high-school student.  Some cousins ran a travel agency and I worked there in the summer, doing the usual stuff (photocopies, post office runs, sorting out travel magazines for customers to browse through, etc.). During the winter, I gave support lessons to fellow classmates who needed them. By the time I went to university, I started giving private lessons in music to very young children, and I became a waiter and bartender. By the time I graduated, my CV was (at a stretch) 2 pages long. It was good because I became “socialised” with the work world, so different from the educational system that I had just emerged from.

My first “real” job was in the corporate ICT-recruitment sector in London. It was awful. I resisted for 4 months and then ran away. The environment, the corporate pressure, the idea that everyone had to compete with everyone else: it was the opposite of what I wanted. I remember this scene when I resigned and was called in my the scary CEO of the company (which was quite small, so no big deal) who asked me why I was leaving, and I really couldn’t face telling her the truth (“I think you are all crazy!!”) so I played the do-gooder card (“I have a calling: I want to work in the charity sector”) and this red-haired, powerful woman picked up the phone, dialled the number and passed me the phone receiver: the director of Amnesty International was one of her best friends, and he gave me some advice on how to break into the non-profit world. I always think of this scene as one of the eye-opening moments of my career, but it wasn’t. It was just the first of a series of lucky twists and turns that led me - in the good and in the bad - to where I am now. Over time, I have become a fervent believer that “stuff happens” just because it does.

Back to my career switch. I was 24 at this point, and wanted to “make a difference”. I didn’t really have a calling, I sort of knew I wanted to work somewhere where people would be nice to each other and shared a common vision which wasn’t about making more money, but I had no idea whether I cared more about the blue whale or Somalia’s future. I went to a temping agency for the charity sector, and was placed to do admin work inside a large British NGO. It was the most mind-numbing work of my life (recording donations onto a database and printing and sending thank you letters to old ladies in Kent or Scotland), but the people were indeed nice (if a little sleepy) and I made a few good friends. In fact, for someone who had moved to London and was finding it hard to build a proper social life, the office became an important source of friendship and companionship. 12 years on I still have 1 good friend from those days.

But this is where something started growing inside me. I started asking more questions, started looking at those glamorous people working on the third and fourth floor of the building (the International Department) as they went about doing their world-saving job, returning from missions to war-zones in Central Asia or the forests of Latin America. I started idolising them and their job. Being an aid worker became for me the goal. And once I had a goal, it was all about how I would get there. I started applying for jobs in the International Department, until I got one, and then I stared working my way up the ladder, applying for other jobs, working long hours, proving myself. I did a stint of field work in the Caribbean, and by the time I got back I got a decent senior position in another important NGO, a peacebuilding one.

I remember the interview for this job. I didn’t really care much about conflict. All I wanted was to be an aid worker. But unable to find the job I really wanted, I had settled for second best. When they asked me the classic question during the interview “why do you really want this job?”, I remember lying transparently, making up some story about how part of my family had been killed in the Yugoslav war and I really wanted to make a difference and stop wars around the world. I do, in fact, have Yugoslav blood, and it’s true that part of my relatives there might have died during the war, but the truth is we have had no contact with that part of the family since 1939, so for all matters and purpose, it was a lie. And of course I got the job. At the time, my goal was twofold: some financial security and some reputational security. It’s tough living in London and telling people - to the questions “what do you do” - nothing. You have to have an answer, and finally I had one.

Funnily, this full time permanent job was also the beginning of my “undoing” (some would say liberation). The deeper I descended - like Alice - into the employment world and the NGO sector, the more I became disenchanted and sceptical. The more I became good at what I did and looked around me, the more I realised I wasn’t’ the only one who had lied. In fact, I was probably one of the few who at least had stopped. This isn’t about that particular NGO. It’s simply that, like at school, I started noticing some people cutting corners, others making stuff up rather than saying “I don’t know”. Some people went as far as blatantly lying: to colleagues, funding agencies, partners. 5 years after my crash-course in corporate bullshit, I found myself in the same exact spot. Only, this time it was the NGO/non-profit sector.

So I left, and I stared doing consulting gigs. This brought in some cash, a lot of contacts and experience, but little stability and little direction. I am still wondering whether this is the right price to pay for the freedom you have when you have no boss. I still am my boss, because, a couple of years after leaving my NGO job I started a social enterprise - in Italy, my birthplace - and de facto stopped going for interviews and “looking for jobs”. These days, I tend to juggle my entrepreneurial role with my consulting experience. It’s back-breaking, but it’s very satisfying. I miss not having a team though, and the social aspects of work that I enjoyed in the past. Becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t a planned decision. It just sort-of happened, like the Amnesty phone call a few years earlier. I would like to say that I had a clear vision when I started, but the truth is: I had no idea what I was doing, like everyone else. My guts told me I was doing something right, but my head was figuring out what to do every day. Because I had never worked on my own until then, I had never really been ‘my own boss’. And - truth be told - I love it. I love working WITH people, not FOR people. I hate the hierarchies, and power-games, the acting. I love people who get stuff done, and who like to work together. And have fun on the way…

In conclusion: what do I look for in a job? Today - having gone through the rabbit hole and come out the other way - I look for meaning and purpose. I only want to do things that fit into a bigger scheme, and that make sense for our future. I want to do things that are not morally dubious. I look at the people I will be working with: I do not want to work with people I don’t respect and value. I also look at money, although I will do something really interesting with great people for less money than I would if the job wasn’t too interesting and the people not that great. Above all: I look for independence, the freedom to do things like I see fit, the freedom to compare with other people, learn from them, but also chose not to learn. Like Alice through the hole, I have learned that the world on the other side of the work-wall isn’t after all that different from the social world I inhabit.

Food for thought

Hi Alberto,

I’ve read this Mission Report before and have been thinking about it. I think we are sort of in the same place at the moment, I have fewer resources at my disposal though and have to think about short-term survival all of the time. Thank you for sharing this with us, would you mind if I posted some questions here later when I manage to formulate them? //Nadia.

Of course, please ask questions! I am heppy to be a Guinea Pig and to be poked to find out what worked and what didn’t. From a financial point of view, I have to confess that had it not been for my family’s support, all my dreams to start a social enterprise would have come crashing down. There simply isn’t an environment - in Italy at least - conducive to social innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s all working in closed networks and if you are not part of one, you are basically considered an outcast and treated as such. So you have to fund your own dreams. This is really absurd. I am fighting every days because people like me who have a great world-changing idea are given the resources and motivational credit to get thier ideas off the ground…

Family, friends and fools

I suggest Alberto writes a Spotlight: social innovation mission report on his own experience as a social innovator, that suggests that no one out there is up for seed funding this stuff. No one except family, friends and fools: people that have no idea what you are talking about, but trust you or love you enough to back you anyway. Talk about policy implications!

And actually it would be very good to push this mission out to the Hub network. So many experiences… we need to get them out.

Lie to try

Fascinating! It turns out you got two out of four breakthroughs by lying through your teeth. Unless, of course, the point of those questions was not to ascertain the truth (why do you really want this gig?) but whether you are socialized for it (do you have a plausible persona for doing this job well?). Go figure.

Anyway, white lies from your side. You seem to have been motivated primarily by curiosity, the need to bang some door open and go through it to the other side. It’s worked: you now know that there is no such thing as a glamorous, generous NGO world where everybody is a hero, and certainly there is no glamorous, pirate-esque corporate world where everybody is healthily competitive. Meaning is essential, and - from your experience - it seems that it cannot be found, only built. And you are building… courage!

Lying transparently’, houlà, I haven’t tried that trick yet!

SUPPORT. Is the word that comes to my mind, when I listen to you talk about your story.

I find very beautiful this ability of yours to surround yourself with loving, caring people. It is truly magnificient. It is not given to everyone.

Similar experience with organizations

As a student, I have also spent a few months working in a local NGO in Romania founded by an aristocratic family in London, a center for democracy preaching Plato, Aristotle, organizing summer camps for youth and trying to be visible in Romanian NGO world (which they do) and live up to the name of that family. I don’t know whether their impact is large enough or whether they could better use the large amounts of money they suck up.

What I didn’t like was the organizational culture, the inside politics, the people and their posing, similarly to your accounts. And from that moment on I am reluctant to work in a culture like that one, and I’ve begun to look down to organizational environments in general.

I also worked as a member in a young professionals association (unpaid work), and hated it because it claimed horizontality in their culture and in fact it was about who talked the most and who had the highest educational credentials. Those people climbed the internal ladder and used it to go into formal politics as well. setting up an association only to make your way up and gain status and have it written in your CV that you are (vice-)president of smth… that I can’t understand. Of course, an association is different than an NGO, membership is voluntary but the bottom line is that it can still be hierarchical and foster a culture of false team  working and common goals… and what’s the fun in that?

On career anxiety and job snobbery. “What do you do?”

Universal love

Loved this video. Damn snobs… Let’s be all mothers to each other! This world does need more universal love.

(Thanks for sharing)

Alberto, what’s happened since?

I’ve been following you on social media etc but it’s hard to tell how things are going…whether it’s any easier. Do you feel the situation has changed at all since?