Take it Easy & Avoid Perfection
The United States is in the middle of a global pandemic, everyone is stressed, and no one knows exactly what to do. Of all the things I took from my internship from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, one of the most important things I will take away is that it is okay to “take it easy.”
There is obviously a great deal of nuance to the phrase, but it’s generally quite simple. You cannot possibly know everything, do everything, predict everything, or fix everything.
The next few years and decades carry with them a ton of uncertainty, from who will be elected come November 3, to whether we will have done enough to slow climate change, to what the job market will look like when many of us graduate in less than a year.
In academia, at least in my experience, there is a push to achieve perfection and to reach it often. In business, the demands seem to be the same. Sometimes, I agonize for days about a paper before I submit it to my professor, and sometimes that extra work is worth it.
What I learned from my summer at the Allegheny Conference is that even imperfect work is good, worthwhile work. Time spent agonizing over perfection is time that could be spent moving to the next step, improving something else, or brainstorming about an entirely unrelated problem.
I am not saying that you should turn in haphazard work. Actually, that is not what I’m saying at all. However, there is a point where good or excellent work becomes less valuable than the time you are putting into it. There is an economic principle known as “the law diminishing marginal returns,” and it basically reflects the notion that after some optimal level of capacity is reached, adding additional factors of production actually results in smaller increases in output. In an intern’s case, that factor of production is usually time, and in my case, I had 8 hours a day. Time is a scarce resource, and it should be used wisely. By avoiding perfection and instead striving for good, quality work, I was able to free myself from so much stress and devote so much more time to interesting projects that came my way at the Conference. My work was quality, and I received praise for all of it, but it was not perfect. This lack of perfection made me a better intern, and I predict it will make me a better student in the coming semester.
Other Valuable Lessons
I have a better appreciation for the role of stakeholders in public decision making, now having listened in on dozens of calls with leaders from nonprofits, Pittsburgh residents, bureaucrats, politicians, and corporate C-suite executives. People and corporations have a number of issues they want to be brought to the table and put on the agenda. Sometimes those issues overlap and they often directly oppose one another. The business community has more resources at their disposal, but I also learned that people have incredible power in numbers.
One recent example is a powerful town hall I observed led by Pittsburghers for Public Transit about COVID-19 funding for public transportation. Folks from several organizations came together to demand more funding for transit in Pennsylvania and across the country as the pandemic threatens to gut funding for mobility services and infrastructure.
It is not lost on me that some groups of people are underrepresented in public decision making, either intentionally or unintentionally. I obviously knew this was the case before this summer, but my work here allowed me to think about this problem more deeply and intentionally. No matter where I begin work following graduation, it is imperative that I find ways to give voice to people and to make significant effort to understand where people are coming from, anticipating and confirming their needs without imposing unwanted “fixes.”
My experience at the Conference this summer also made me think more deeply about my next two (and final) semesters and what comes next. Just a few weeks ago, I found out that I was selected as an Elsie Hillman Honors Scholar and will be placed with the City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). Where my internship with the Conference was very much external to the workings of local government, my new role at DOMI will be from within the local bureaucracy. My role here will also be less broad than it was at the Conference, with my specific project being DOMI’s COVID street response. Between these two experiences, the Conference and DOMI will have satisfied my internship desires: 1) to look at local governance from an outside perspective and to participate as a government employee, and 2) to look at a number of issues to better hone my interests and to work in a role that is specific to a particular issue, allowing for deeper study and appreciation of the details.
As the summer winds down and I reflect on my unanticipated internship at the Allegheny Conference, I am so appreciative of the generosity of David Frederick, the benefactor of the David C. Frederick Public Service Internship program and the dedication of Honors College staff and faculty for making this summer (in all of its unprecedented glory) possible. I will take what I have learned and apply it to good work in my field, bringing more people into the fold and creating a more livable and just community wherever I end up working or studying after my time at Pitt. This program has cemented for me that I need to pursue a career in the public or nonprofit sector, with human quality of life being paramount. Given the name of the program, I know those were Mr. Frederick’s intentions.