Man with violin on city street

So You Want to Save the World…

Or How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

There’s an old joke most people know that goes like this: A visitor gets lost in New York City and is late for a concert. He sees a man on the street carrying a violin case. Assuming he is a musician, the visitor stops him and asks, “Excuse me, how does one get to Carnegie Hall?” 

The musician looks up and replies without missing a beat, ”Practice.”

It’s not really that different in the environmental business. 

I’m often asked by college students “How do I get an environmental job?” 

My answer is more than just “practice,” but it is just as practical. Since I’m asked for this advice very frequently and by so many, I thought I would share my thoughts with all of you. And if you think it’s helpful, please do pass it along to young people you know embarking on a job search. I remember wanting all the advice I could get.

So here’s my 2 cents. 

First, you’re in luck. 

The outlook for you has never been better.  

  • This is a great time to be in the market for an environmental job.  Opportunities are booming as players in most sectors – business, NGOs, government, you-name-it – seek to catch up and build the many capabilities they need to pursue all of the environmental opportunities and challenges they face. Most organizations are understaffed and they know it.
  • All skill sets are needed – science, finance, policy, tech, communications, and more. Wherever you’re focused, it likely lines up with the needs.
  • And young people are especially welcome. The environmental world needs new perspectives, fresh ideas, and bold innovation. The old guard doesn’t have much of a head start – we’re reinventing how we do everything.

If not practice, then what?

Back when I was in college, big companies like GE and IBM sent recruiters to campus to find new recruits. Today, leading consulting and investment banking firms do the same. 

But that’s not typically how one finds an environmental job. You need to hustle and find your own opportunities. Don’t be intimidated – this is not only very doable; it’s fun too. As soon as you get started and have some practice, you’ll become more confident and skilled at this.

Here’s what I recommend doing:

  1. Climb the ladder from the first rung.  

I know you’re excited to jump right in and meet decision makers. But it’s too soon to push for meetings with the executives who lead organizations. Start at the bottom. Meet with young people. They’ll generally be eager to meet with you too. 

And don’t start by telling them that you’re looking for a job, because you’re not yet. You’re in the information gathering stage. Ask for advice. Find out what people actually do every day, whether they like their jobs. Listen carefully. Develop a sense of where you might fit in. 

A great way to do this is to reach out to recent grads from your college who work at places that look interesting to you. Shoot them an email and tell them you’d like to ask for some advice. People like that.

  1. Seize the opportunity no one else seems to notice.   

Volunteer. You need experience. You need things to talk about in job interviews.  Some people make the mistake of being too picky on this front. They only want to volunteer at the places they think are the very best. It’s great if you can pull that off. But it’s not necessary.  

You can learn a lot anywhere if you really dig in. Maybe you can’t afford to spend an entire summer or semester without a paid part-time job. Beginning can be as simple as volunteering occasionally at local parks supported by small NGOs. You’ll learn a lot just by hanging out with the team. How do they set goals, organize their projects, and recruit supporters? How do you think they might do better? Where do folks on the team think there might be opportunities for you? And so on.

  1. Read all about it, and everything else. 

There’s just no substitute for being well informed. Challenge yourself. Read as broadly as possible: about the environment, the industry, the organizations to which you are applying. Seek out new sources and read in a variety of formats – news articles, magazines, blogs, interviews, books. It will signal that your interest is genuine, give you a deeper understanding of the issues, and prove that you are willing to do your homework.  

  1. Don’t stop at reading; start writing.  

You know the best way to be able to converse fluently on a topic? Write about it. There’s almost no better way to hone your expertise – and prove it to a would-be employer – than by writing about environmental issues. And today virtually all the publishing barriers have come down. Write for your college newspaper, write a newsletter, write a regular Twitter thread. 

Personally, writing this newsletter – The Instigator – has helped me to become much more articulate on the issues I want to discuss. When I get started on a new issue, I often think “this one will be easy.” Not so fast. I usually end up doing lots of research, bouncing ideas off friends, even rethinking my original point of view. Working on this newsletter has been fun, but more importantly, it has really helped me develop ideas.

For another and better example, check out Climate Tech VC, a great newsletter started by some really high energy and smart entrepreneurs while they were still in college.