Government Work: Still The Best Way To Make A Positive Impact?

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Career coach and blogger Marty Nemko has been writing about the biggest career myths, from "Do what you love," "Networking is the only way to get a job," to "Job seekers must sell themselves." This post is final one in the series and takes aim at the notion that if you want to make a positive impact on the world, you should work in government or for a non-profit.

For a long time, I believed that the way to make a positive impact was to work in government or for a non-profit. But I've had a few eye-opening experiences that are making me question that belief.
For example, I recall visiting the Federal Buildings in Oakland, CA-- twin skyscrapers--and walking through the hall and seeing clean desk after clean desk with employee after employee literally polishing their nails or reading a magazine.

Then there was the caller to my radio program asking what he should do about the fact that when he wanted to get his City of San Francisco crew of carpenters to work faster, they slit his tires. In that same call, he said the workers often have so little work to do that, to look busy, they, for example, build a fence--slowly--then knock it down and build it again.

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For my clients who want to prioritize making a difference, I can no longer as enthusiastically recommend a career in government.

As for non-profits, a number of clients have told me that their non-profit is run so inefficiently that they feel guilty asking people to donate to it.

In contrast, when I think about companies, while there's certainly much to criticize, I wonder if, net, companies bring at least as much benefit to humankind:

I think about the companies that make TVs at a price anyone can afford--Well maybe not a 90-incher, but a 32-inch high-definition TV that's much bigger than what I grew up with now costs less than $200.

Then I think about Google, which makes much of the world's information available to everyone for free.

I think about Toyota, which makes my 45 mpg, completely reliable Prius.

I think about Bayer, which makes aspirin we can buy for pennies a dose.

I think about Whirlpool that made my refrigerator that cost me $900 15 years ago and still runs perfectly.

I think about the corporate homebuilder that built my home at a price I couldn't build it for if I hired a bunch of handypeople to do it.

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I think even about the so-called corporate food: I can buy a pound of on-the-vine tomatoes grown at a corporate farm at a pleasant, corporate supermarket for $2. At the farmer's market, they want $2.50 per tomato. Even if I thought that were worth it, I can afford it but can poor people?

Then there are the people whose lives benefit from owning shares in companies, including anyone invested in a mutual fund or in most retirement plans. My wife and I, over the years, have slowly accumulated shares of such companies as Genentech, Amazon, and Procter & Gamble so we could afford a home, send our daughter to college, and build a nest egg for a rainy day. We're grateful to the people of those corporations whose efforts have led their company's stock to rise in value.

So while, of course, some government and nonprofit work is worthy--I'm grateful, for example, for the existence of 911 and for professional associations--might you want to take a more nuanced view: Is it possible you can make at least as much of a difference working in the private sector?


The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko, "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" for his work with individuals and organizations. He was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News where he now also blogs. His most recent books, his 6th and 7th: How to Do Life: What they didn't teach you in school and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here weekly.

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