The Goal behind this post is to motivate people to think about their career path and consider getting involved in more effective work.
- Switching career from the fashion industry to NGO
- Story from Bangladesh which helped me reach a decision
- 80,000 hours and what I should do with my life
- From a radical vegan to a pragmatic altruist
Inspired by Aaron Gertler and his post You should write about your job, I want to share my own story, because I feel it is a journey with many emotions, sacrifices and rewards. It is less about the job, more about the process and the decisions that I made. What I’m sharing is my personal perspective of changing my career 180 degrees at the age of 40.
If you would be interested, I can write more about the very work I am doing now and the recruitment process I went through in my next post.
This post might be especially informative for people who:
- are hesitating to change their career path and want to hear from someone who experienced it;
- are interested in fundraising or IT work in NGO;
- want to read my summary or ask me some questions.
Even though I asked for feedback before publishing this post, I’ve been a bit anxious about writing here. First of all, when I was young, it was common for schools close to the Eastern border of Poland to mainly teach Russian, which is why I am not very comfortable communicating in English.
Second of all, the level of most posts in this forum can be intimidating. I’m not a philosopher or data scientist, I’m new to this forum and quite fresh in the animal advocacy movement.
He told me: there is no racism
At the beginning of this story, you need to know that in the ‘80s and ‘90s Poland fought for freedom, so people weren’t involved much in issues like racism or LGBTQA+, especially that the government fought everything from the bottom up. In the ‘80s, police was investigating queer people and destroying their lives.
The country was rising from communism and many families were really poor still in the ‘90s, including mine, at least after I was born. Most of my childhood, my father worked in Russia to support the whole family, but it still wasn’t enough for a family of five. Poland in the ‘90s was a time of gang wars, justice problems, a plague of car thefts and rising unemployment. All my friends’ fathers were drinking because of unemployment, and looking at this picture gave me no hope.
I had to leave my hometown to find a job, and then I could think about going to a university. In the first two years, the whole family helped me to pay university fees. I felt I was a burden.
I moved to the big city, the capital of Poland – Warsaw. I was looking for a job that would be compatible with my interests. I was mostly interested in art and graphic design at that time.
My first studies were about advertising (poster specialization) and I was imagining myself doing big social campaigns for people, especially about racism (I had always wanted to fight injustice after living in the ‘90s in Poland). To my surprise, one day, when I presented my final poster project, my teacher told me that racism didn’t exist anymore and dismissed it as an issue that, in his opinion, did not deserve any more attention. Can you imagine?!
It was 1999 (btw. a really good Prince album :)). I realized that I would have to deal with such people in my life, probably all the time.
Reactions like that of my teacher made me feel down and I gave up on work on social issues. So I ended school soon after that and started working in stores from 9 to 5, and sometimes 12 hours a day. It was a nightmare, but I needed money. I’ve been financially independent (read: poor) almost since I was 18. I could not afford to waste time looking for my dream job.
Years later, I came back to my hometown as a non-heteronormative person and I was cancelled - when my peers learned about it, they broke off any contacts and abandoned me due to the social stigma. I think even my mother was ashamed that I came out as a lesbian, it was unthinkable back then in Poland. So I felt rejected by family and society.
Should I stay in my comfort zone?
After a few years, I found work as a fashion designer (I moved in with my girlfriend, this time to Gdańsk) and it was a well-paid job. I stayed in my comfort zone for the next 13 years, thinking that I had to stay there forever. Soon, I was also promoted to Product Manager of the whole team and it was a big deal for me.
I learned a lot. A poor girl from a small town could now buy anything she wanted and was working all day for that. You know, my parents worked in the same place for over 30 years, so they encouraged me to stay in my comfort zone because I had a well-paid job. Back then, I think I didn’t understand what actually mattered to me.
I thought making money was making me a better person, that people would start treating me right, that I was finally a worthy human being - gay or not. I proved myself by getting this job. It was great to have a lot of money that I could give to my favourite charity - the Polish branch of Anima International, buy the vinyl records that I liked, and pretty much buy most of the things that I wanted. But somehow I still didn’t feel good.
After years of working overtime in a high-stress and bullying culture, I was really exhausted. But something changed inside me after a trip (business delegation) to Bangladesh.
I saw people who were really poor. I saw poverty, slums, diseases, stray dogs with cancer, lonely four-year-old children asking for money on the main road, kids eating from the trash alongside animals, and other things that you can only imagine. For me, it was hell on Earth. I wanted to do more for the world. Again.
Bangladesh decided for me
So I started working overtime, but this time not in my company. I joined the NGO that I had been donating to. The longer I was involved, the more I felt that I couldn’t do my regular job anymore. I didn’t see any sense in producing tonnes of new clothes when the world was already so full of them.
By volunteering, I realized that money didn’t make me a valuable person, didn’t make me happy, and I was not enjoying gifts at all because I could buy them for myself. I realized that something else mattered: a helping hand, justice for animals, and self-development.
Also, going to Bangladesh made me realize that I didn’t want to be a part of this industry - overproducing clothes and discarding them as soon as they went out of style. It wasn’t because I saw something horrible in the sewing factory – on the contrary, it was seeing people who couldn’t get a job in factories that made me realize how unjust the world is. I saw hell on the streets. I also think this was the beginning of my anxiety disorder. But I knew that I needed to do something more and change the way I lived. I knew it would be painful and stressful, but I had already lived with stress and a really poor work culture, so I took my chances.
A change had come
I split my work between eight hours in a big corporation and then volunteering for the NGO as a blog coordinator. Still it wasn’t enough for me.
I wanted to work in this NGO for real. I saw a sense in the work that volunteers did, I saw injustice, animal suffering and an effective way to really help them. This looked like my dream job (helping where the help is most needed). It still is now.
So I took some career tests on the 80,000 hours website. I started reading their blog and decided to jump in at the deep end. It came to me that I didn’t want to waste my time anymore. I wanted to do all the things that mattered the most for animals, for the world. Back then, the NGO didn’t really recruit many people, so when I finally saw an opening for a position of fundraiser, I took my chances, even though I knew nothing about fundraising. I just wanted the job so much. It turned out that my blogging skills made me good at writing to people, and I got the job.
From a radical vegan to a pragmatic altruist
I was a radical vegan back then. One year in the organization was enough to turn me into a pragmatic vegan and make me start thinking about Effective Altruism more. I realized it was not about me feeling good about my choices, but about making an impact for animals.
The organization and my supervisor made me who I am today. He recommended books, articles and data to read and get familiar with. I loved “The Scout Mindset”, Paul Graham’s blog, various data about animal activism and the Effective Altruism Forum. I started meditating with Sam Harris’ Waking Up and noticing more in life, which also helped me to be more focused on my daily work.
I was switching my mindset so fast that I thought I would go crazy. I had just found a new world, the exact world I wanted to live in. I mean, not literally, but I saw a world where I could help where my help was most needed and most effective. Where people are compassionate and care about psychological safety. I learned a lot about fundraising and helping animals and read a lot about the best ways to give.
The team I worked with was amazing. I had not known such open people in my life, so sensitive and logical. Working with them felt like learning totally new things – some psychology, a lot of fundraising and a little bit about society and mindfulness. They were never judgmental and gave me a lot of support in my hardest time. Thanks to them, I also understood that being a good activist also means being a healthy activist, so I decided to take care of my anxiety.
I was a fundraiser for a year and I was really into all those tech topics connected to raising funds. I was tasked with fixing the tech issues which resulted from organic organizational growth. I enjoyed that and soon shifted to the position of IT Coordinator and later IT Project Manager in Anima International. How cool is that?
Becoming an altruist
Soon, I started supporting the Against Malaria Foundation and Give Directly, and always looked for some new opportunities to support. And of course, I could have stayed in my old job and just donated to the cause, but it just wasn’t enough.
Back then, I would never call myself an altruist. Today, I support countries where my help matters the most. I also find Longtermism interesting, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
I think it was worth taking a chance and changing my life 180 degrees. I’m a totally different person today. I developed more in one year working in an NGO than in 13 years working in the fashion industry. Even though I am over 40 years old now, I believe that I can learn many things.
This time, I won’t stop and I don’t think anybody can take me down like it had happened in the past. I’m stronger and smarter, I believe that creating a better world is possible and I want to be part of this movement. Working for animals is my dream job, why don’t you give it a try?
Thank you for sharing this beautiful and inspiring story!
I have deep respect for people who give up their established careers to live by their values and help others in need.
It was nice to see some local perspective in here. It made me nostalgic. I am from Poland as well and it makes me happy to know there are so many noble people living around me. All the best on your new path!
Thank you Ewelina H, I wish I had known at the time what questions to ask myself, and how to follow a path that would make me truly happy and show me how to help and change the world for the better.