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perils of volunteering 2

May 19, 2013

After 25 jobs and 8 volunteering experiences (over a span of 30 years), I’m only just now starting to figure out what conditions I need to thrive.

What I haven’t been able to figure out is how to obtain those conditions.


I’m in limbo at my latest volunteering spot. I went through training for a specific kind of thing that I did honestly think I would like. Then I observed 3 seasoned leaders doing that very thing. And only at that stage did I realize that there are certain logistics I don’t think I’ll be able to manage. But also, and more troublingly, what I hoped to get out of the entire process? Isn’t available, at all.

Yesterday, I was at the volunteering place as a last-minute substitution for someone who had to cancel. Someone asked me why I hadn’t taken the last step, and I started answering, truthfully (about the logistical problem). She looked at me like I’d grown another head — like what I was saying was completely unintelligible.


The things I need from a job or volunteering experience seem to be antithetical to what everyone else needs or wants.

I cannot be happy if:

  • Everyone (but me) has, more or less, exactly the same background.

If there’s no real diversity of any sort, everyone bonds over how similar they are. And, inevitably, I stick out like the lone freak. I’ve been part of a few online groups that I fit into, but face to face, it’s never happened. Yesterday, I was at my volunteering place, and 2 people who had never met bonded over living in the same general neighborhood, and eventually figured out they know each other’s families. I’m from the next county over, and no one but Spouse knows any of my relatives (not that knowing my relatives would be any comfort). In Philadelphia last week, people bonded over being teachers, but I was there because I was a writer. The one connection I made was with someone who recounted part of her harrowing childhood. And other than that, she and I had almost nothing in common — which, to me, is interesting, because I didn’t know what to expect. When everyone else seems to be following a script, I’m bored out of my gourd.

  • The job itself is well-defined, and its borders are ironclad.

My very best skill is cross pollinating, so I have to have opportunities to talk to people from all over, interact with ideas from everywhere, and then implement what seems like it could work.

  • I’m required to do things exactly the way someone else has already done them.

I have to have “wiggle room” so I can create some kind of innovative approach to the problems the job aims to solve.

  • I’m not allowed to fail.

True creativity and innovation requires trying a lot of things, and most things don’t work, so failure is inevitable. I actually learn more from failures than I do from successes, but in a culture where failure derails your career, no one really learns anything except fear.

  • I’m not valued for my unique talents.

I guess other people are fine with being just another anonymous worker in an immense ant colony — maybe that’s how they fulfill needing to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves — but I need to feel I’m doing something that no one else can do. If, instead, it becomes clear that I’m interchangeable, I will sink into despair. When I leave that job or volunteering opportunity — and it’s only a matter of time before I will leave it — my self-confidence will be crushed, and I may be suicidal. It will take me months, if not years, to recover my equilibrium.


After 30+ situations where I haven’t been valued, I’m running out of hope that things can work for me. Maybe I can’t fit anywhere.

Instead of being terrified by that idea, what if it’s an opportunity?

If I consider what I need from a positive direction, my list looks like this:

  • People of widely (wildly?)-diverse backgrounds {pluralism}
  • Ambiguous responsibilities {liminal spaces}
  • I define, and then pursue, only the design problems I want to work on
  • Failure is encouraged
  • I’m recognized and appreciated for being uniquely valuable

I think this list actually describes my life right now, with a few judicious additions. That is, I also need:

  • an aesthetically pleasing environment
  • frequent opportunities for movement and/or physical activity
  • time and space to lie fallow in between periods of inspiration and attempts
  • just enough resources that I have to get creative in making things work

Plus one thing I definitely don’t have right now (besides Spouse):

Friends who encourage me to do what I need to do (not what “normal” people would, or would feel like they should, do). Friends who are interesting because they are unpredictable — who have cool ideas that I never would’ve thought of. Friends whose own lives are sources of inspiration. Friends who evolve.


I won’t be looking for new places to volunteer anytime soon.

I need to rethink a bunch of things.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. j. Ausin Yoshino permalink
    May 29, 2013 21:43

    Had the same issue last year with volunteering. I eventually came to the conclusion that those whom I was recruited by were basically interested in their own aggrandizement. It was very disheartening to see so many interested in using charity as a fashion accessory. It isn’t quite the same as your issue but it really put me off. I even offered my professional services for free and was taken for granted and never offered any sort of thanks in some cases.

    • May 29, 2013 23:02

      That really sucks! I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with it. 😦

      I’m guessing the people who keep recommending volunteering must have different/better experiences doing it.

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