What I’m doing: Prepping for my fantasy football draft
What I’m watching: Mindhunter Season 2
What I am reading: Blogs about preschool (daughter is 2.5)
“Be not conformed to this world.” Do not join the throng. Don’t get lost in the crowd. Don’t be a part of the cookie-manufactured college generation, but stake out for yourselves some extraordinary, maybe even eccentric, piece and place of the world, and make it your own,” Rev. Peter G. Gomes
Prior to my senior year of college in 2007, I worked as an intern for then Senator Barack Obama. When his new book came out The Audacity of Hope, staff looked at each other and knew that this was the “I’m going to run for president book.” It was at this time that we had to decide whether we would go on the campaign trail with hopes of a job in the White House or take another path. While I knew I wanted a career in public service, I didn’t want to become just another government bureaucrat.
My graduate school essay captures my mindset at the time:
“As far as I can remember, I have always had a strong desire to improve the world. When I graduated from Augustana College in 2007, I was interviewed by a local journalist who asked me what graduation meant to me. I responded that I see a large amount of pain and suffering outside of Augustana and I would like to change it. I knew an ordinary career would not fulfill me.”
My graduation speaker, Rev. Peter Gomes, gave a message that resonated with me at the time (see above). I wanted a career that was “eccentric”, “extraordinary” and above all not “cookie-cutter.” So one day when my public administration professor decided to abandon his lesson plan and speak about city management, I listened attentively. While he explained the responsiblities of city management were to keep the water running, I heard something different. I envisioned city management being not just a job but a calling to change the world. There is no higher level of ambition than changing the world. It’s the siren that calls us all to public service. Solve one problem, change a community, change a community and change the world. Why did I choose a career in local government management? There is no professional that could fulfil my great expectations for a career.
When I graduated from Augustana College, I chose to go to University of Kansas (KU) to receive my Masters in Public Administration. One of the reasons I went to Kansas was because I didn’t want my ambition tied down to Chicago (where I’m from). KU offered an unlimited amount of doors with its massive alumni network of KUCIMAST (an acronym that more or less means KU MPAs) all over the country. In choosing KU, however, I left my close friends and family, my support structure, to quench my thirst for ambition. My thought was family will always be there but a meaningful career, well, that’s something worth searching for.
My journey took me from the budget office in Olathe, KS to the desert in Yuma, AZ. I learned how to engage students with the budget process, how to address feral cats (animal enforcement is a rite of passage for interns), and build a sustainability plan. I was on the path I desired for myself.
However, in 2008, the recession hit and I, along with many public servants at the time, were out of a job. I returned home in defeat. You can’t change the world in your parent’s basement. It was at this time I realized that all that matters in life is your relationships. Despite the hopeless job market, my friends and family motivated me to find purpose outside of local government. I served on my home town’s art board and started working a sales job for temporary industrial staffing. Local government management wasn’t the only place to change the world.
Eventually, a position with the Alliance for Innovation, a community association of innovative local governments trying to change the world, opened up. A perfect fit! The CEO expressed that I could live anywhere I wanted. Unlike 5 years ago, I was happy to stay in Chicago. During this time I met my future wife and rebuilt the relationships with my sisters and friends that I took for granted during my quest for ambition. My priorities shifted from being just about my ambition to also growing and maintaining my relationships. Today, I’m lucky to have four generations of Stopkas living near each other (see feature image).
Why do I tell you my early career story? I think we can often make great sacrifices to fulfill our ambition and that finding balance not just with your time but your life direction is important. During a recent conference, a colleague and I talked about “what’s next” for each of us. I told him my story and belief in balancing career direction with family and relationships. He expressed a similar sentiment saying how much he loves his job and doesn’t necessarily want to leave just to climb to a higher position. I think we often feel pressure to climb the local government ladder, but I encourage you to make your career decisions by considering what’s best for you overall.