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    BWS Stories - "Get a Job"...Career Choices

    "Get a Job"...Career Choices - We Make the Road by Walking: The Path to International Service

    Ann McLaughlin MSW, LICSW, a social worker by trade with a passion for world cultures and international affairs, founded and directs nGoAbroad which matches your skills to international humanitarian needs. For more information, see or email her at

    We Make the Road by Walking: The Path to International Service

    This recent chapter of my life story has been pivotal.

    In the 1990s, I was in private practice as a psychotherapist and working at a residential treatment center for troubled teens. Really troubled teens: jumping off the roof; shoe laces choking their throat; jump-kicking at the windows; chairs thrown through windows.  “What am I doing?” I thought one day as I entered the locked front door.

    I remember coming into my boss’s office, and plunkin’ down into her barrel chair. We both rolled our eyes at each other and sighed. At 60, she was struggling to hang on until retirement. My thought out loud was, “The worst thing that could happen is that I would stay here.”

    Private practice was like riding an avalanche. Work with clients continued to be amazing and inherently rewarding. Managed care took its toll. Paperwork-time began to outweigh people-time. Too many lunch hours were spent sitting on hold with corporate offices. The most outrageous: the major carrier in the county declared bankruptcy. ”Sorry, we can’t pay you…” 

    “There must be a better way to make a living,” as Dad would say.

    “So this is what a midlife crisis is about,” I realized. You optimistically sprint out of the starting blocks from college. For years, you just roll down the track. Over time, you start hitting inevitable obstacles. Like a grey whale, the number of years shows in the number of barnacles, the dinks and the dents that you have on your sides. For me, this was the Dark Night of the Soul; a reckoning with my Self. Looking back, I am grateful for such existential anguish because it forced me to look at what I really wanted in my life.

    Instinctively, I gravitated to work in another culture because I was so fed up with how things were done here. A visit to another planet would have suited me fine. “Beam me up Scotty.”

    I gravitated to international service because that was the thread in my life that I wanted to reclaim and amplify. I had been rolling down this social work track for decades, and now I saw its downside. Could I reinvent my career by infusing new life from international service?

    I was blessed to get a job in the Balkans. I say blessed because for most people it is very difficult to get an international job. It was absolutely fascinating work. We were social work advisors, assisting in the transition to a post-communist world. The communist world was at the front edge of building civil society. Prior to any social services, The State took care of things. Being away from home allowed me the latitude to explore and open up the throttle. That’s a good sign. Back home, my gears had grounded to a halt.

    I’ve always had a long fascination with Africa. When I had time off at the end of my assignment, I followed my heart and went there. It was almost miraculous that I came home when I did. Dad was more ill than I consciously knew. When I talked with him long distance, I heard him pull for air as he spoke. He got worse. By the time I got home, he was at the top of a very steep and sudden descent. My father’s death was a wake up call and pressed me to examine: “The last 20-30 years have gone quickly. The next 20-30 will too. What do you want to contribute in this life?”

    I still did not have that question clearly answered. My Mission Statement was a muddle. This was a difficult time. I still knew what I didn’t want, but was not clear about what I really wanted to do. I stammered and stumbled and shuffled my feet. I realized that I didn’t want a job, working to fulfill someone else’s mission. I wanted to step into my own shoes and fulfill what I was put on the planet to do.

    Looking back, I was trying to wrap my hands around a very big sense of purpose. I am a “big picture person”. I spent from 1992-1997 reading voluminously about world cultures, under the mentorship of three different professors. I was looking for patterns; to apply what I knew of how people change to how cultures change. So it was no surprise that when it came time to articulate the vision, it would be challenging. But I was thinking too hard. Somewhere rolling down the track, I picked up the idea that to develop these new directions you must clearly articulate the vision and mission. I could do neither, then.

    There were too many cooks in the stew. I was listening to everyone but myself. My older sister, a very theoretical Harvard MBA, would tell me why anything that I proposed would not work. Yeah, similarly Boeing engineers have determined that bumble bees should not be able to fly.

    All the important turning points in my life come when I am totally fed up. I basically threw everybody’s wise advice out the window and said, “Let me try this. Let me at least try.”

    I cooked this up the same way I cook in the kitchen: improvising without a recipe. I envisioned a service that would marry my counseling skills; my extensive knowledge of what is going on in the world; my social worker’s proclivity to know the resources; and my inherent drive and energy. I christened it NGOabroad: Custom Fit International Service. I learn as I go.

    My vision was to match peoples’ skills to international need. I am a match-maker. I also do a lot of Career Consults: helping people identify their unique contribution and strategizing how to get into international service. One woman said: “I am overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of materials you have sent me and your ability to help someone take leaps of faith and embark on a new direction. We all say the same thing: you have a gift for understanding what each of us is searching for." It’s amazing, joyful work. Why hadn’t someone simply told me: “You make the road by walking?”

    Nobody told me, but I will tell you: You don’t need to know what you are going to do; you just need to do it. Once I jettisoned all the cogitating, I was on the road. I was on the right track when I said, “Let me try this. Let me at least try.”

    “Fear not that life will come to an end, but that it shall never have a beginning.”
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