*editorial note: these are personal reflections based purely on my own life experience and do not reflect any systematic research nor do they reflect the views of any organization I am associated with.
Movies sometimes seem to act like you either think about Africa, or you don’t. Like, it’s possible to be completely self-centered and yuppy and concerned only about what yoga clothes to buy, and then one day, you find yourself in Africa, realize that people are poor, and completely pivot your life to now care about poor people. I realize only now that I used to think this way. I’ll blame it on the movies. I thought, for so long, that I was stuck in the former – the self-centered life -and just looking for a way to move into the latter, this I-care-about-Africa-and-now-I’m-good-and-interesting life. And I made it. In a way. I work for a not-for-profit and travel to Africa. A lot. Alas, I realize now that it’s not that easy. Not even close. And no one ever really talks about what it’s like to be stuck somewhere in between these two non-existent extremes.
Many people in the world, it turns out, like expensive yoga cloths (*or any other non-essential luxury item) and are interested in understanding how to help people who are less fortunate. It also turns out that you can, like me, decide to devote your life and career to helping people, and find that you end up spending lots of time buying expensive clothes and going to expensive dinners…just in the very countries you are visiting to help people. So then where are you? If you’re worry about silly things and spending disposable income on non-necessities, but doing so in Tanzania where your day job is to prevent babies from getting malaria, which side of the equation are you on? Were you actually better off being yuppy in New York City, making a lot of money, and then giving it to Tanzanians later on in life? Maybe. Maybe you didn’t need to go to Africa in order to help people, but you should have stayed home and made more money in order to help people. Yikes. So now the line between the two extremes is not only blurred, but it’s switched. Somewhere along the line, all of the decisions you made to be that person that has an I-care-about-Africa-and-now-I’m-good-and-interesting life, now those decisions make you feel like you have a self-centered life, just one where you go to Africa a lot (which still makes you interesting, so that’s good.)
There is a good chance I’m one of the few that really struggle with this tension. There is also a good chance that this tension is the drive behind so many hybrid careers and industries that are on the rise: impact investing, social entrepreneurship, Corporate Social Responsibility, etc. Many people are realizing it’s hard to be just good, and that to be truly unselfish is a task accomplished by a select few, namely Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. We are products of our environment, and as much as I want to help Africa, I also really like yoga. Yes, these new, hybrid industries are also driven by a real understanding that charity has limits in terms of achieving long-run change (I’m not trying to diminish that point, it is just the scope of this blog post.) But they are also driven by all of the individuals that want to stop pretending that there’s any way to live completely on the I-care-about-Africa side, and that hybrid careers fit our hybrid lives. And make us feel a little less torn between two worlds.
Or again, maybe it’s just me.