At 8 years old, I was standing at the edge of a pasture watching the cows make their way up to the barn. It was cold for November and as the steam rose from their mouths and noses, I leaned in to get a closer look and put my hands down on the electric fence to keep my balance. It took a second to realize why my hands and arms were buzzing.
I wasn’t electrocuted that day, so perhaps it is fate that I now work for Heifer International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to ending hunger and poverty. We help families transform gifts of livestock, seeds and training into sustainable income from milk, eggs, honey, vegetables and other products. That means improved nutrition, families with better health, children in school, women running small businesses, and farmers working more productive farms.
I know a little about farming. Growing up in Nebraska, I spent more time in barns or on horseback than anywhere else. But it wasn’t my childhood experience on the farm that was useful when I joined Heifer. It was my values.
As a first-born child, I had all the classic characteristics of a hard-working, ever-reliable, over-achieving girl. I also had parents and grandparents who taught me lessons about perseverance, self-reliance, compassion, accountability, and being purpose-driven. Those values stayed with me through college, graduate school, volunteering, field research in West Africa and various other places along my career.
When I interviewed for a position at Heifer about six years ago, I was asked to talk about my personal and professional values, and how those values shape the work that I do. It was quite a question and not one you hear in many job interviews. But thanks to my upbringing, it wasn’t tough to answer.
Today, I find those values are still as important to me as ever and keep me focused on what is really important. That clarity helps me find my center of gravity when the workload is crushing, the timelines are unforgiving, the 5-year-olds must be at school, and when the 3-year-old won’t leave the house without an apple cut into the shape of a monkey.
Work-life balance is a challenge for so many. We feel pulled more in one direction than the other and sometimes it feels impossible to navigate. I advocate for blending, rather than balancing. The more that our personal and professional passions are integrated, the more in balance we become.
Values: We can define them, live by them, change them – it is work, but it's well worth it. In considering how values and passion shape our lives, think about your own list of values. What are they? Family? Recognition? Diversity? Community? Fairness? Education? Independence? Someone who values challenges may need to have the thrill of stretching herself with new assignments and bigger projects. Someone whose passion is social justice needs to see fairness in the workplace and work for greater causes like freedom and tolerance. The list is enormous and different for everyone.
When we don’t stop to figure out what our values are, what is important to us and what we want our lives to be – things can feel out of balance. There are the times when we are not sure if we know our true purpose, or we doubt our career path, or we let other people’s doubts cloud our thinking. There have been days when putting my own passion and purpose in alignment was challenging. When it felt like I was drowning and things weren’t going right at all. It was at those moments that I found I had to trust myself, fall back on that passion for what I do, and I got back on track.
In my own life, I try to be intentional about putting my passion and values to work. This is the work that I care about: women and children, healthy food and self-reliant communities. Working for Heifer lets me serve my passion as I serve their mission. As a bonus, I am both challenged and appreciated, and I have the opportunity to work with extraordinary people all over the world.
Something that was not obvious to me when I started? Embracing my values not only made me more comfortable in my own skin, but it also gave me greater confidence to advocate for myself and others.
I learned that embracing the alignment between Heifer’s values and my own would lead to success. Success for me. And success for Heifer. Because it’s a values-based organization, Heifer is effective in small communities with families all over the world: Heifer empowers people to weave their core values into Heifer’s model while learning to feed themselves and achieve complete self-reliance.
While I didn’t receive too big a shock those many years ago, it seems that moment may just have sparked something in me after all.
Vicki Clarke is a director of philanthropy for Heifer International, a global humanitarian organization that provides livestock, education, and training to improve the lives of those who struggle daily for reliable sources of food and income. Clarke leads key relationships and builds powerful partnerships with foundations, corporations, and major investors in the central and southern U.S.