Two of my favorite bloggers have recently delved into why they do aid work. They’re both senior, established professionals in the field, so I recommend you read what they have to say:

For both of them, the “why I do this” is wrapped up with the “how I got here”. I highlight their posts because they demonstrate a level of introspection that can be very important for professional development.

Earlier in the year I wrote a guest post on the whydev blog: “Career advice (from people smarter than me)”. It’s a compilation of links to what other bloggers have written about international aid/development careers. The post included very few of my own comments. This was partly because I don’t feel like I’m far enough along to start dispensing advice, but mostly because I think there’s an inherent limitation to blogging general career advice. Career advice is most effective when it’s specific to the individual receiving it. The best advice I’ve received has always come from mentors who know me well. The second-best comes from informational interviews.

With those caveats in mind, I’ve occasionally pondered what general advice I would offer. I came up with a simple rule and two sub-rules. Shaikh’s and J.’s posts happen to illustrate these rules so well that I’m taking the opportunity to share.

Overall rule: Know thyself.

This is probably too general to be useful, so let’s cut straight to the sub-rules.

Sub-rule 1: Know what you value.

Aid and development types might think this is easy to answer. You might think you value justice, equality, education, peace, health, democracy, and more. These are important.

But in our more honest moments, we should admit that we are not as selfless as our old college friends who went into finance or engineering believe us to be. Our values also involve personal issues related to the type of life we live and the relationships we have with those around us. These values are just as important.

Both types of values determine how we evaluate choices in our lives. If you’re not clear and honest with yourself about your own values, you will be unable to clearly weigh options. The greatest danger comes from confusing someone else’s measurement for our own. You may have already learned to ignore common metrics of personal success (like income), but our industry has many of its own markers of status (such as working on the hip interventions, or in the newest hotspot) that threaten to misguide our decisions.

Sub-rule 2: Know what you’re good at.

The concept of comparative advantage suggests that you can be most effective (and therefore most valuable to an employer or to the world at large) by doing what you’re good at. I think you’ll probably also be happier.

When you think long-term about your career, go a level deeper than just skills. Your skills are built on a foundation of strengths. Using STATA to do a regression is a skill, while being analytical is a strength. Someone without analytical strength can learn to do regression, but they’ll have a much harder time with it. Similarly, you can learn the skills needed to pitch stories to journalists, or to fundraise, or to speak publicly, much more quickly if you’re already a strong communicator. Of course, we all have multiple strengths. The sweet spot lies at the intersection of your strengths.

As with values, you can’t make decisions based on your strengths unless you know what those strengths are. It’s also helpful to know what you’re not good at, but frankly I don’t think that’s as important.


You can see elements of the above in Shaikh’s and J.’s posts, though I don’t know if they were consciously thinking along these lines. For applying these rules to your own thinking, I offer one tip: you must commit time to make them work. Some of this time can be spent while doing other things – walking to work, eating lunch, or just daydreaming. Some of the time should be spent actually sitting down and writing. Think about tradeoffs you face, and what values underpin your decisions. Think about successes you’ve had, and what strengths helped you with them. List these things out. Test them over time. Come back to the list in a year and see what’s changed. Above all, make sure you really clarify for yourself why you are doing the things you do.

  1. You may be less “seasoned,” Dave, but your advice is right on. I wrote on that very overall rule – see:


    1. Okay, now I know it’s time to this blog a new name: “Find What Jennifer already wrote and re-state it.” 🙂 I should just go back and re-read everything in your archives before I write anything new!


  2. Nice post, and I think your last observation, that this process takes a bit of time, is worth highlighting. It also takes some experimentation and (probably) failing. Perhaps working out how to do this trying and failing in a fairly ‘safe’ way (for your career and in the wider “do no harm” sense) is the key. Tim Harford was getting at this in the last chapter of ‘Adapt’ but admitted that the experiment/fail/adapt idea is not always easy when it comes to careers.


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