A series of fortunate events resulted in my being where I am today. I speak to so many of my fellow young professionals about careers, and am always shocked to hear that people don’t know what they want to do.
I was in the opposite position of knowing all too well what I wanted to do since about Year 9 of High School. I remember declaring in a speech during a school assembly that I would one day be the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I knew very little of the UN, and had absolutely no idea how I would come to end up there, but knew with a degree of certainty that that was exactly what I wanted to do.
I had trouble considering other career options, no matter how appealing they seemed, because I was so certain that I wanted to be at the UN that everything else seemed to pale in comparison.
I studied my undergraduate degree in Political, Economic and Social Science at the University of Sydney with a Major in Anthropology. It wasn’t a popular major – out of a cohort of about 200 there were just 3 of us that chose it as our Major. But I loved Anthropology. I loved learning about how people relate to people and how deeply social relationships constitute our existence.
I was offered an internship in the local electoral office of the then NSW Treasurer Mike Baird. It was what many of my friends considered the dream internship, and it was truly an amazing opportunity for learning. It opened my eyes to a very small portion of the world of state politics.
I didn’t seek out the internship, but rather I had made a point of getting to know Treasurer Baird whilst I was at school, because he was our local member. And when it came time for his office to look for an intern, he kindly put me forward. That was my first lesson in the power of networking.
I loved working amongst the community and I especially loved listening to peoples stories and understanding the complexities and intricacies of their lives. Listening to and analysing people and their communities had long been my favourite pastime, and there was no doubt in my mind that I chose the right Major when I choose anthropology.
I started volunteering at various places in Sydney where I got to work directly with people who were having a hard time in their lives, and I thrived off getting to know their stories and finding my small way to help them.
But all that time I was still desperate to start working in a UN agency, and talked about it endlessly to my family and friends. Then, I met a woman who happened to be married to a Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank. She kindly offered to pass my CV onto her husband and a few weeks later I had my first day as an intern at the World Bank offices in Sydney.
My manager was incredibly generous with his time and offered me the most exciting opportunities – I had very few skills but what I lacked in technical knowledge I made up for in enthusiasm and positivity, and as it turned out, those were highly valued skills in our team. I tried to say yes to every opportunity that was put in front of me, and accepted that I would get used to constantly being busy and soon forgot what free time felt like.
Eventually, I began travelling for work. I thought it would be glamorous, and in many ways it was. I loved the feeling of landing in a new city, all by myself; it create a feeling of self-reliance and independence that was the catalyst for my becoming immensely more resilient and confident in myself. But it was also challenging – I would work long days in the office, then leave around 4pm, and eat dinner at 5pm so I could be back in my hotel room by 6pm before it got dark.
I quickly realised that sitting alone in hotel rooms battling poor wifi connections and swatting mosquitos was not my element, and I often felt quite lonely. I’ve always experienced anxiety, particularly around travel, so I often questioned why I’d so fiercely chosen a career that required me to spend a lot of time travelling, and to spend a lot of time alone. But there was never a point where the negatives outweighed the positives.
I was given the advice that I’d be more valuable to the UN if I went and got experience with another organisation, and learnt more about the grassroots side of development. I was ready for a change after two years and so jumped at the opportunity to become the Head of International Engagement at Oaktree.
In this role, I’ve had the privilege of managing a team of 26 phenomenal young people, and rather than becoming aware of everything that I do know, this experience has made me aware of all of the areas of professional development I need to work in. It’s been illuminating and has forced me to be far more self-reflexive than I’ve been in the past, and for that I’m extremely grateful.
And today marks the end of my second last week at Oaktree, before I return to Sydney, without a clear idea of what exactly I’ll do when I get there. What I do know is that I’ll finish my Masters over the next 12 months, I’ll begin my thesis early next year, and I’ll be focusing on innovative approaches to community led healthcare, most likely in Papua New Guinea, a country that I’ve had the privilege of working quite extensively in and it has been extremely close to my heart.
I’ve learnt a few key things which may be of use to you all. Firstly, it’s great to have a dream job in mind, and I’d argue that it’s better to choose something specific to set your sights on than to not have anything at all in mind. In saying this, there is something exciting about not making up your mind too soon – when nothing is certain, anything is possible, and lately I’ve been relishing this feeling of possibility that I haven’t felt in a long time. I’ve been saying yes to things that 12 months ago I would have written off because I didn’t see how they would help me get to my dream job.
Secondly, networking is hard when you’re not quite sure what you have to offer. But trust that older people who are mid-way through their careers want to speak to you and what you have to say is important and valuable. The trick with networking is to be up front. My former boss at the World Bank told me that in his twenty year career, I was the first person who just straight up asked him for a job. And he valued that honesty and openness that I’ve always strived to maintain.
When people offer you help, take it. Don’t miss opportunities to send people your CV, and when you meet a great person whose career you admire, work hard to keep them in your network – stay in touch, update them on what you’re doing, and remind yourself of what is uniquely you and realise that people will value you for that.
Thirdly, be humble. Don’t fall under the impression that you need to be running large scale development projects and making all the big decisions. The best people I’ve met in this sector are the ones that recognise that life goes on without them. We are not in the business of saving lives, people in developing countries are not passively waiting for our assistance, and you’ll get furthest when you listen more than you speak, and do your little part of the puzzle well, however seemingly mundane or inconsequential it may appear.
Get comfortable with being a small part of a much bigger picture. I feel strongly that in this sector, we should always be building the capacity of the people we strive to help, and should never see ourselves as central to the wellbeing and livelihood of another person. Ultimately, people must be self-determined and must be able to exercise their own form of agency and empowerment. We should never try to make people reliant on us – this statement came to me as quite a startling realisation, but ever since I’ve reconsidered the way I approach my job.
Lastly, however difficult it may seem, try not to compete. A mantra I often remind myself is ‘there is enough room for everyone to succeed.’ Trust that whilst jobs in this sector may seem scarce, and the grass may always appear greener on the side of full time employment, any form of experience gets you a step closer to where you want to be, and the people that stand out are the ones that are gracious, humble and supportive of their peers.
Ultimately, we want to work in this sector because we like seeing others succeed, and so it always appears concerning to me when I meet people who put their own success above the success of everyone around them, and claim to do whatever it takes to get where they want to be. You can be both determined and humble, motivated and gracious, and independent, self-reliant, and supportive of those around you. One of my favourite questions to ask myself is, is this the sort of behaviour I want to be remembered for at the end of my career?
I’d like to close by saying what a privilege it is to speak to you all today and to be considered an expert in this field. I’m immensely grateful for each day I get to spend in this sector and I have no doubt I’ll work alongside some of you in the coming years.
By Rachel Nunn