Written by Stella Diamant
I guess the intent behind this (first) blog is to guide fellow conservationists about getting your mission out there in a balanced way.
I was lucky to seize a unique opportunity, to build a project from scratch on an emblematic species, the whale shark, without any experience in either project management or whale sharks. I subsequently founded an NGO before I turned 30. In all honesty, I never thought I would ever get there, nor that it would ever challenge me so much. By now I also feel exhausted, and my to-do list is never-ending.
Here I describe my experience, and why we conservationists also need to look after ourselves, before we can save the world.
The conservation world
To me, the conservation world always felt like the one place where I belonged, where my random skills in data collection and human bonding, coupled to my love for remote places and my desire to save the world, would be matched. It is also always where I met my tribe of like-minded people, and most of my friends. In this world, no one questioned my salary, where I lived, and all the things that are routinely asked, and often disturb, our breed of conservationists. Most of us seem to live vicariously through our field experiences, either ignoring needs such as an income, a health insurance, a hobby, a stable address, a relationship…or giving it all up eventually to meet those very needs. At any time, you are expected to be ready to work, defend your cause, pitch your project, because, who knows, you might be convincing someone to save the earth, or unlock access to funds.
However, there is a dark side to the field of conservation that is often overlooked, or plainly ignored. Jobs, in particular, usually include multiple job qualifications in their description, which are usually simply unattainable for a mere mortal, requiring you to have had various previous lives in marketing/PR/management/HR/social media/software development/statistics/teaching/fundraising/survival. For most of these, the only way through to obtain those skills is by volunteering or working for free, even later on in your career. Not to mention the other 700 other applicants you have to face when applying for a job. For these reasons I decided to start my own project, it actually felt easier than try to land a job in conservation.
Yet conservation grabs me by the throat, it makes me feel useful, responsible, accountable even…even if I have to risk my life on a daily basis or not earn an income. There is a glow to it, an enormous “I am making an impact” aura that makes me feel like I need to sacrifice everything. It doesn’t help that it unfolds in tropical locations either, or with animals that come straight out of a book.
But I realised this needed to stop so I could take care of myself first, then then world.
It started with me moving back home with my parents, so I didn’t have to pay rent when I was busy working on setting up the project. That initially temporary situation lasted 5 years. I could, and should have decided to change that years ago, but each time I thought “first let me get this project going” instead of “I should prioritise my mental health and space before anything else”. Soon enough but in a very subtle way, the project became my life. I ran a season in the tropics for 6 months, without any days off, then spent the rest of the year running the project on my own, with the occasional help of friends/volunteers, while trying, but failing, to recover from a field season, and have a balanced life in Europe.
I was working all the time because hell, I was so lucky I made it this far and at any moment, it could all stop or someone could steal my project (dormant impostor syndrome, hello?). The hyperactive brain in my introverted self-decided I had to keep going. I was working evenings, and working weekends, because I took time off in the week, which, really, I spent doing more work. I remember vividly feeling like this was the life, because I was in control of my work hours and could work from anywhere, from a friend’s house far away, to a café in any city of the world. In reality I was craving for my own space, and time, and drowning under more work I created for myself as I decided to pick-up a plethora of skills (communications, fundraising…these are actual real jobs!) that I should have just delegated. But how do you delegate without the funds to pay someone? I still believe, to this day, that the only way through was to do it all myself, because it costed nothing. I am still learning about where my beliefs about “needing to do it all” come from, as well as practical ways of delegating.
My work-life balance and my health slowly failed on me, yet I didn’t see any of it, because I was living the dream, running my own conservation project. Having developed health issues in the field (those lovely parasites), I battled with a poor health for years, without finding the cause to my issue despite many doctor appointments and analyses confirming I was healthy. Usually a sporty person, I stopped exercising regularly because I was never in one place long enough to adhere to a routine, and mainly because I felt exhausted.
Meanwhile, amongst my friends and family, I had “made” it and somehow, I got into the habit of helping them with their projects too. Many of my close friendships became mentoring relationships, where I exchanged support and friendship, or so I thought, against my experience in project set-up, skills and advice in conservation. The few relationships I began, all ended sooner or later, as inevitably I was looking for stability and unlimited support for the important work I was doing, which is not an ideal starting point for love. Inevitably I started feeling very lonely, and desperate for a “normal” life.
Yet I still pushed on. The rare moments of absolute happiness and recognition (if you have swum with whale sharks, you will understand) made it worthwhile, and while I was out in the field I felt at home amongst my team of equally passionate friends and colleagues.
An unexpected break
The Covid-19 pandemic forced me to stop just in time, and to slow down. Because I couldn’t return to the field, I had less work ahead and could focus on things I had not finished in a while, such as scientific papers. Having time to focus on these tasks made me realise just how much work they involved, and how realistically my to-do list was immense. I could also sleep and take weekends off, and to my astonishment my health issues have stopped. Fully stopped. While no doctor could really say what I had, and some pointed out a potential burnout, I can only say I was so passionately involved in my work and purpose that I forgot to look after myself.
Combining a paid job with a passion project, or making your passion project your job, will remain difficult and tricky to achieve, and sadly I doubt there is much to do about it. I still do pull the all-nighter for a grant application, or have bursts of productivity on weekends that might be unhealthy.
But I finally took time to go to start to see a therapist, and started to realise I genuinely cherished the thought of being rooted, to have a safe nest to anchor myself to during the in-between times. I also see now I felt pressured to “sort my life”, especially watching fellow-female friends settle one by one, which led me to ignore my issues all at once (how do I pick where I want to live? Do I just settle on my own? How can I settle without a stable income?).
I took the time to explore these questions and I am happy to say I will be moving this week!
I also learned to set boundaries with some people, which has been a big step for me, and actually a huge relief. I realise I genuinely need my friends to be supportive friends above all and not seek my advice on their work all the time We are human after all, and like all humans, I need support and stable ground to root on in order to flourish.
While there is still a lot ahead for me to reach that balanced life, I have learned I need to look after myself first and stick to my boundaries. Conservation is, and will always be, my big passion, but it is sad that I, like many others, had to edge burnout to realise this.
My best advice to someone who is exploring their human needs, is to take the time to listen to your needs, to really focus what you need, not what people tell you. What would make YOUR life and work easier? What can you let go to streamline your work-life balance? By addressing these questions you might realise there are small steps that can go a long way.
I also wish for more compassion across our field, and more support groups, so it is wonderful to discover Jessie’s efforts and LC.
Sending much courage and love to all of you out there fighting the good fight!
For more of Stella, check out @_stelladiamant on Instagram