Ecologist to… Happiness Engineer? The evolution of one career in support.

Growing up, I did well in math and science — areas I was told repeatedly I was special to do well in. I felt a sense of rarity, and thought, “If I’m good in these, when others struggle, then this is where I should direct my life.”

By the time I arrived in college, it did not occur to me to study anything other than science. I loved nature, was heartsick about habitat destruction and the seeming disregard and disrespect humans had for our own habitat, and I wanted to pursue a path that would apply my science aptitude to helping the environment.

Many times, the first step to helping is understanding. You must know how a system works, what it needs, and how its needs are not being met in order to help make the system healthy again. So I pursued a degree in ecology, the study of the interactions among living things and their environment.

When I graduated, my first job was out in the woods, as a research assistant on a soils project for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Mostly I just carried 50 lb carboys of water, and I did a little bit of microbial DNA extraction from the soil. I liked being in the forest, but I didn’t find the work rewarding. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything.

From there, I moved to an entomology lab at the University of Maryland in College Park where I crushed Colorado Potato Beetles and extracted their DNA for population genetics research. The more interesting part of my job was that as a research assistant, I fell into the role of mentoring and training undergraduate students, then graduate students, then visiting scientists who wanted to learn the research methods we used in the laboratory. After a year or two, I became the lab manager, shepherding folks through the lab, guiding lab meetings, helping anyone in the lab with any questions they had, and helping them succeed at whatever they were working on.

During that time, I also became an avid cyclist. I participated in the Washington D.C. AIDS Ride, a 3.5-day fundraising ride of 350 miles from North Carolina to D.C. After my first time, I knew how scary it was to be a newbie in the event. It is a huge challenge, and in the months leading up to the event in subsequent years, I volunteered to lead training rides in the D.C. metro area, helping other riders like me get together and support each other in this crazy scary thing we were doing.

Those training rides led me to my next job: Campaign Coordinator for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program. I recruited volunteers to raise money and train for athletic endurance events, I recruited mentors to guide them, I recruited coaches to coach them, and I supported the athletes, mentors, and coaches — all volunteers — in performing the amazing feats they had taken on. Now this, this was my kind of work! My entire job was dedicated to helping people: helping coaches coach, mentors mentor, and volunteer athletes raise money and train so that they could help Leukemia & Lymphoma patients.

Do you see a pattern here? Help the environment. Help people in the lab. Help AIDS Ride cyclists. Help volunteers. Help cancer patients.

I did not yet see this pattern in my life, but as I reflect on the evolution of my career, it seems so obvious: I am a Helper.

When I moved out of the workplace to raise our children, I ran an Etsy business for a few years. For that business, I started a blog. It wasn’t long after I started blogging that I became aware my lifelong love for words. I had always loved reading — my favorite courses in college had been literature courses, and I read every night before bed — but I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed writing.

I soon realized I loved blogging way more than I loved making soap for my business, and I closed my Etsy shop. I got a part-time job at Barnes & Noble doing — guess what? Helping people.

Meanwhile, I started a new blog. This blog. After running my own website previously for my soap business, which I found to be a hassle, I was enamored with how easy it was to just pick a theme and publish on I adored the Reader where I could follow and find other bloggers. I followed The Daily Post for writing challenges and blogging tips. Soon after I began blogging, the editorial team selected one of my blog posts as an editorial pick.

I became a groupie devotee and a blogging evangelist, especially as rejections for writing submissions piled up on my desk. I wanted to spread the amazing feeling of expressing yourself without having to be approved by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. I wanted to help everyone who wants to write write. I wanted to help everyone who wants to blog publish. 

When helping someone, the first step to helping is understanding. You must know how they work, what they need, and how their needs are not being met in order to help them accomplish what they’d like to do. As a power user, I knew the needs of writers, I knew the system of traditional publishing they were working in, I knew the struggles bloggers faced when they just want to write, when they just want to publish.

So I applied for a job as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, the makers of And now, I’m helping writers write, I’m helping bloggers blog. I’m helping democratize publishing. I am tapping into my greatest strength, which is not science or math.

My greatest strength is that I am a Helper. And I’m thrilled that my weird, nature-loving, literature-loving, non-tech, totally unplanned path led me to the career I belong in: Support.

I lead a live chat and email support team at Automattic, and this is my entry for the Week 1 SupportDriven writing challenge: “History: Our history shapes us — what path led you to Support? Was it a planned career? Or did you happen upon it?”

Originally published on Butterfly Mind, November 2016.

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