How can a loser like me change, and get more involved in the world around me?
November 6, 2008 1:06 PM   Subscribe

How can a loser like me change, and get more involved in the world around me?

With the recent election of Barack Obama to the presidency, I've finally come to realize that there is a certain path to greatness that people seem to follow. Obviously, people have to be at the right place at the right time in a lot of cases, but still, there are people who shape their destinies, and I want to be one of those people.

First, a little background about me. I'm a loser, and by that, I mean that I have lived a very sheltered life. I was given most things that I wanted in my life because my parents are fairly well off, and that was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in that I had access to a lot of benefits in my life, but it was also a curse in that I never learned how to do a lot of things for myself or how to get involved in the greater society around myself.

So, I'd like to improve myself, starting now. I'd like to find activities or openings in the community around me where I can apply myself, helping both the community around me, as well as helping myself in the process.

But, in what capacities can I do this? Volunteering immediately comes to mind, but I've done volunteering before, and I don't want to be basically someone's glorified servant (if I'm going to be stuck in that position). Are there any places I can call in order to ask about this? Are there any websites I can look at? I have no idea where to start; all I have is a drive to make this happen.

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan by the way. Thanks in advance.
posted by Ephilation to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a loser, and by that, I mean that I have lived a very sheltered life. I was given most things that I wanted in my life because my parents are fairly well off...

That's not how I define loser. Maybe think of yourself as "fortune" and therefore "obligated" to help those less fortunate than yourself. It is a bummer that your parents didn't instill this in you, but whatchagonnadoaboutitnow?

Why is volunteering being someone glorified servant? Try VolunteerMatch and see what sounds interesting to you.
posted by k8t at 1:09 PM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: Well it's not, but it can be. I guess what I meant was that I wanted a little more responsibility and freedom, than just hanging out with old people or something. I want to do something that has a little more meaning and purpose.
posted by Ephilation at 1:11 PM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: To be even more exact, when I think of doing something worthwhile, I think of doing something like what Mr. Obama did in his early years. Not that I could in any way compare to his life story, but I'd like to find some capacity to work in that's important and meaningful, as he did.
posted by Ephilation at 1:14 PM on November 6, 2008

Do you have skills that lend themselves to a particular type of volunteering?
posted by k8t at 1:19 PM on November 6, 2008

If you have the time and resources available (which it sounds like you do) you may want to consider hiring a life coach. It sounds like you've been drifting. Asking a bunch of anonymous people on the internet for websites you can visit to help your motivational issues isn't going to yield the best results. If you're serious about change, real change, then you have to begin a taking action, etc. etc.
posted by quadog at 1:21 PM on November 6, 2008

1. Stop calling yourself a loser.
2. Volunteer.
3. Win.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:23 PM on November 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Other people will have more detailed and useful answers than this - but you really have to stop calling yourself a loser or it will become true.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 1:27 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: Volunteering immediately comes to mind, but I've done volunteering before, and I don't want to be basically someone's glorified servant (if I'm going to be stuck in that position).

Well, that's basically where you start, by realizing that serving the community really literally means serving the community. If you start out as a volunteer and do things regularly and do them well, you might end up as a volunteer organizer. From there, where you go depends on your level of motivation and whether other people can count on you.

I say this as someone with an occasional deficit of character, but you really build character by doing the work that needs to be done, getting your hands dirty, and seeing where things go from there.
posted by mikeh at 1:28 PM on November 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What do you actually care about? I think people who are "winners" (or whatever you want to call what you want to be) are people who invest themselves in solving a problem that bothers them on a personal level or get involved in a community with a particular set of issues or values they want to promote. You can volunteer to be of community service, but if you want to organize you need to identify the issues that you want to organize around. Once you do that I'm sure there are plenty of grassroots ways to get involved where you live.
posted by marylynn at 1:28 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Haha, it's kind of amusing that you want to shape your own destiny, but ask other people how to! You'll probably get more out of your future action if you go and discover it yourself. Have fun!
posted by Submiqent at 1:30 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

What are you passionate about - what causes, issues, groups?

What skills can you bring to organizations involved with your passions?

What skills would you like to learn along the way?

How much time do you have, and how much are you willing to commit?

Start with those questions, and then type your city name + volunteer into Google. It is highly likely you will come up with a website or sites that list volunteer opportunities in your community. Go through it until you find one that matches with your answers.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:34 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: I guess what I meant was that I wanted a little more responsibility and freedom, than just hanging out with old people or something.

I hang out with old people. They are great. Old people like me and it's mutual. If you do not like old people then by all means don't do that but do something, really anything, that has these conditions

1. it gets you out of the house - no websites for a better tomorrow, go be in real life with people/pets/things
2. it helps people
3. it uses things you're good at and maybe helps stretch the things you're not good at
4. you make some sort of commitment that means that you'll keep at it even if it's not fun or even if your mood improves.

So in Ann Arbor you're lucky there is a TON of stuff going on. There's a cool public library that has an amazing website but that still always needs help. There's a great food coop. There's a craigslist for looking for other ideas. Really the difference between you and someone working at the co-op isn't the degree of loserdom, or ability, or even any amount of "goodness" the difference is that they left the house and did something that benefited others (and themselves, let's be honest, good works can also be satisfying). That's it. So, sit yourself down, think about the things you like to do, think about which of them might be a good fit for a place to help out. Example "I like to sit around and pet my cat" could turn into going to the local sheter to help them socialize animals one day every other week.

It's good that you feel this way and I think one of the things you stand to gain besides the obvious is the good feeling you get after coming home to do your same old stuff, only it feels better because you left it behind for a while to go be useful. Enjoy and good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 1:35 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: You might want to take a second look at some of the phrasing you've used in your question and your responses so far. You call yourself a "loser". That's not just a really harsh self-judgement, that could mean that you tend to classify not just yourself but other people as winners and losers. That's setting yourself up for a lot of emotional peaks and valleys, at best, and, at worst, may limit how much really effective and important work you can do. You don't want to be a "glorified servant". You want "a little more responsibility and freedom, [rather] than just hanging out with old people or something. " You "want to do something that has a little more meaning and purpose."

Right now, it sounds as if you're looking for a way to help others in a way that makes you feel a lot more meaningful and important. That's not necessarily a bad thing: many altruists do their work with a pile of mixed motives. But the way you bash yourself and call yourself a loser, then ask only for really important and meaningful volunteer work right away, suggests you need a better balance of confidence, self-respect and humility to be someone who really makes a difference. The good news is that if you do get out and start something that you find satisfying, even if it's small scale, you will probably get to that better balance.

Finally, if you don't feel comfortable working with the elderly, you shouldn't have to work with them. I know you probably threw out that example just as a way of illustrating your point, and I'm not suggesting you're some kind of seniorphobe, but I think that lonely elderly people who get support and company from volunteers DO find that very meaningful and very important.

Look for some volunteer work now that you think you can commit to, that holds some interest for you and that you can handle. A concrete suggestion: Habitat for Humanity. They need people with all kinds of skills. There may even be opportunities overseas if you can travel. A single small house may not be earthshaking, but it's a huge deal to the people who finally get to live in it.
posted by maudlin at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: First of all, let me tell everyone THANKS! for responding. All your advice has been great, and definitely a step in the right direction. Let me clarify a few things, just so we're on the same page, and also let me pose a few questions to some of you who offered me advice (since I could use a little more guidance about the actual mechanics about putting your advice into practice).

Ok, as for the word "loser": I just picked that word to describe my current state of being. I was brought up to believe I should work hard, do well in school, get a good job, and make something of my life. Right now, when I look at myself, I see someone who wants to use his time and energy in a productive fashion, but hasn't been doing so. I want to remedy that, but I don't know HOW. That was the reason I asked my question in the first place - I have a drive to do something productive with my life, but I don't know how to get involved with the world around me. I don't know where to do or who to ask in order to make these things happen. So, I turn to Ask.Metafilter. :-)

Jessamyn: Thanks for the suggestions. I have a few questions for you though. First of all, how did you find these activities? Did you do a google search or something? Second, I've been to the public library and food co-op, but I never seemed to be aware of any volunteer opportunities there. Generally speaking, let's say I wanted to get involved with RandomOrganizationX - how would you suggest going about and doing that? Just calling them up and seeing what they had available?

quadog: I see a therapist every week. Is that not the same as a life coach? What's the difference?

allkindsoftime: Your suggestion made me smile, because it reminded me of the South Park gnomes!

k8t: I'm a medical student (currently taking a year-long leave of absence). Other than that ... not really, unfortunately. I'm fairly bland, and part of this desire to do more with my life is to remedy that issue.
posted by Ephilation at 1:50 PM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: maudlin: I dont have time right at this moment to explain all the reasons why your post was so good, but suffice it to say that you read me very well. No, I don't hate old people - I've just had some bad experiences with some really, really sick ones. Your psychoanalysis in the first 2 paragraphs was also really good, and if you could expand a little more on the last two sentences, perhaps you could 1) help me find that better balance that you were speaking of, and 2) explain how just getting out there and doing something will get to that better balance.

("But the way you bash yourself and call yourself a loser, then ask only for really important and meaningful volunteer work right away, suggests you need a better balance of confidence, self-respect and humility to be someone who really makes a difference. The good news is that if you do get out and start something that you find satisfying, even if it's small scale, you will probably get to that better balance.")
posted by Ephilation at 1:58 PM on November 6, 2008

Generally speaking, let's say I wanted to get involved with RandomOrganizationX - how would you suggest going about and doing that? Just calling them up and seeing what they had available?

Yeah, that's basically all you need to do. The worst thing that'd happen is that they'd tell you "thanks, but we're not set up to work with volunteers right now," and then you can ask "can you suggest somewhere else I could go, then," and they give you the phone number to SimilarOrganizationY and there you go. (Or, if they're total dicks, they'd say, "no, we don't work with volunteers, are you nuts?" in which case they deserve scorn for piddling on your good intentions, and they know this, so this is unlikely.) But most likely they'd either give you another phone number for their volunteer department, or they'll suggest an event you can volunteer at, or they'll give you a link to a web page where you can find out more, and you take it from there.

Some local magazines or newspapers do post announcements for random volunteer opportunities as well. But most non-profit organizations, if you showed up saying, "Hi, I'd like to volunteer, do you need any help?" would probably respond by grabbing you and pulling you in the door.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:13 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Psychoanalysis? With a mere M.Sc. in Psych? I RULE! Woo! Go me!!

Seriously, just getting out and doing something outside of your 4 walls helps a hell of a lot. Jessamyn already made that point very well in her post. But what concerned me about the bits I quoted is that you risked falling into the trap that the only way to feel better is to do well at big things.

As a first time volunteer, you aren't likely to be given major responsibilities right away. You will be a small cog when you start, and maybe for a while longer. You will see yourself as less of a loser as you see how your efforts in service of a larger goal helps you all get there. You will gain self-respect as you see tangible results, like a new house. You might have only helped organize the lunch table on your first job, for example, but all the people with construction skills who built the house will know they couldn't have done it without you.

And by taking small jobs -- not nasty jobs, not jobs that you fear, just small jobs to get your foot in the door -- you balance the part of you that may need to see yourself as a showy hero. You want to do good, and you want to make yourself a better person. That's terrific. But you have to prove to yourself and the people you work with that you can handle yourself, that your drive is now associated with focus, vision and concrete goals, and that you can recover well from the inevitable newbie errors before you take on more responsibility.

Have fun finding something great to do, even if you have to start small!
posted by maudlin at 3:09 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: I think something that might help both with your own sense of meaningfulness and with your actual usefulness is to make a longer-term commitment. Either officially or unofficially. If you keep coming back to something, and keep getting better at it, you can start organizing other people to do it. Usually, the problem with volunteers is that they want to come in and do something that doesn't take any preparation, just spend an afternoon stuffing envelopes or serving food or hammering nails. And a lot of organizations have to restructure themselves pretty seriously to benefit from that. It takes a lot of thought and time to put together a situation where (to use Habitat for Humanity as an example) a bunch of inexperienced people can build a house. So if you can put in the time/committment to become a supervisor for them, or a team leader at your food bank, or an organizer for the shelter, you can do a lot of good and also feel like you're doing something meaningful (because, well, you will be).

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me was, "You base your sense of self-worth on your actual worth". It sounds like you might be the same way. Good luck!
posted by Lady Li at 3:10 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: I know what's up in Ann Arbor because I know a few people there and I've been there once or twice. I'm a librarian and their library website is a model for good interactive websites -- the library itself is a little more normal with good parts and bad parts. MeFi member ulotrichous works there you might want to ping him. When I first moved to seattle and didn't know anyone, I volunteered in order to get to know people and keep myself busy while I got my bearings and it was a great idea. I did pretty sleepy stuff -- data entry for NARAL -- but I got to know the locations, got to help out, and just got to do something while I sorted out the rest of my life.

Also there are a lot of organizations that many people feel they'd like to help out with. You might want to do some self-assessment and think about what you'd like to do. So like

- hey library, I can lift heavy boxes of books, can I help set up the booksale?
- hey food co-op, I'm really good at computers, can I help you set up your invoicing system?
- hey ride-giving organization, I'm incredibly punctual, can I help you with your shopping day at the mall program?

You have to sort of be prepared to be a little selfless, once you offer yourself in some ways you're offered. Overeducated people (and I count myself among them) can have a hard time dealing with organizations that seem poorly organized, tech negative or just not appreciative enough that you've dropped in their lap. Try to ignore and avoid that stuff, and just do it because it's the right thing to do not because you're hoping to get something from it. It's a tough thing to do, but it's good practice.
posted by jessamyn at 3:49 PM on November 6, 2008

Nthing the advice to stop calling yourself a loser. In and of itself, that will change your worldview.

Words have power. When we say them, or read them, or write them, they have the strange ability to become Truth. It sounds like Dr. Phil/Oprah-esque new-agey advice - and maybe it is - but don't premise the beginning of your day with the thought of being a loser. Think you are a winner. It may feel silly, but it's a really good habit to get into.

The answers to your other questions will fall into place later. Stop identifying as a loser first.
posted by zardoz at 4:38 PM on November 6, 2008

Check out the volunteering opportunities listed on Arborweb. Or try the database of volunteering opportunities run by the University of Michigan's Ginsberg Center.

The Delonis Center on Huron St. is always looking for volunteers. Within the Ann Arbor library system, check out if the Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled needs volunteers, in particular people to give rides to and from library programs and events.

As to how I know about volunteering opportunities mentioned, it's through paying attention to local media (the Ann Arbor News, the Ann Arbor Observer) and just paying attention to what other people are talking about. U-M students especially get bombarded with calls to volunteer for various causes and organizations.
posted by needled at 5:58 PM on November 6, 2008

I'd like to focus on the term "someone's glorified servant". Just adding that from my perspective, most work in the world, if not growing your own food and knitting clothing for yourself, revolves around serving someone else - whether you do it for free or for pay. So please do watch how poorly you think of being someone's servant - we basically all serve each other all the time.
posted by lorrer at 6:02 PM on November 6, 2008

I'm a medical student (currently taking a year-long leave of absence).

From the bottom of my heart: go volunteer at a hospice or with people who need chronic care but have no money -- if only for a few months. I mean people with serious, never-going-to-get-better conditions, including untreatable mental illness.

If you spend some significant time in a nursing home or care facility specifically serving low income people, your bland days will be forever behind you. You will see and hear and smell things that will never leave you. Even if all you do is hold hands and listen, you will be giving real comfort to people almost entirely lacking in it.

If you are going to be a doctor you have got to hammer that glorified servant/loser attitude out of yourself by any means necessary. I have seen the harm that doctors with that attitude do, both to their patients as well as the families and staff that have to do the daily work of caring for them. I genuinely think it's great that you want something different for your life. This is where you could make a lot difference for deeply suffering people.
posted by melissa may at 6:23 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: someone's glorified servant

That's pretty much the definition of a great person. I mean, there are infamous people who could be called great in some sense--people like Hitler and Stalin--but generally, when we accord someone the status of greatness, it's because of the magnitude of their service to humanity. Is Obama really great, or is he just driven? We don't really know yet, but we will decide on the basis of how well he serves us and not merely his own drive. A roundabout way of saying that if your drive is to serve greatly, you may become great, but if your drive is merely to be great, at best you will fail and at worst you will be a curse.

How do you learn to serve humanity? Apparently, by serving people. It requires setting aside your own pride for the good of another. I've tried it and I suck at it; hence, my own gift to humanity will consist mainly of refraining from any effort to be "great." If you are actually driven to do it, you may actually become a great person. Best of luck to you. Follow the excellent advice upthread.
posted by bricoleur at 6:39 PM on November 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

How do you learn to serve humanity? Apparently, by serving people.

The "glorified servant" language also made me stop short.

Clarifying question: Are you seeking to make a difference in the world? Or are you seeking broad recognition?

That's a real question. I'm really curious about your answer having read your initial post.
posted by jeanmari at 8:49 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: I would just like to really second what Lady Li said. It takes a lot of time to organize volunteers. And what volunteers can do right off the bat is either something they come in knowing how to do that the organization doesn't (eg, build a simple website), or something super-basic (eg, spoon soup into bowls). So, those super-satisfying volunteer experiences you occasionally catch wind of (we went to Ecuador and counted sea turtles for three weeks and then we helped rebuild a family's house) are ones people usually paid or raised a lot of money to be involved with. If you're not doing that, you have basically two options: be the glorified servant ("here, spoon this soup into bowls" or "here, greet people when they come in and give them a nametag") or you have to be around long enough to be part of the group figuring out what needs done ("let's see, if we want to feed soup to homeless people in the park, we're going to need... a big pot, I guess..." "let's see, if we're going to have a fundraiser, we'll need... nametags, I guess..."), or you need to offer a skill to them and basically lead the entire project. From your post, I'm guessing the last one is out (if there were something obvious that you had lots of professional experience in, you'd've mentioned it). Anyway, that's about volunteering: have low expectations, and be grateful for them finding a way to involve you (as they'll be grateful for your help).

But since you're taking a year off, why not apply for a job? As a community organizer, say; here are two organizer jobs in Ann Arbor. Here's another nonprofit job.
posted by salvia at 9:34 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: What melissa may said and then some!!!

As a med student, I would hope that you would realize that your future job, if you practice medicine, will most likely make you a servant of others (though, you could work as a plastic surgeon or a medspa, in a strictly for-profit sense, i guess) Every level of life has its "servant" moments, occasionally, so remember to evaluate everything as a whole. For instance, if you're in a rotation or residency, and you have to do something 'routine', like stitches, sure you could groan a bunch about how you are a glorified skin-sewer, but that's not the truth! Not every moment of your life will be accompanied by people applauding your efforts, so you definitely need balance in how you evaluate your career and volunteer efforts, and to dramatically shift your way of thinking. If you're doing a menial task, that doesn't make what you're doing less important. You're giving freely of yourself through volunteer work, and that's more than many do. Not sure how big your med school is, but if you have any mentors or professors who you can talk to, it might be worthwhile to explore opportunities there, because you can combine your career ambitions with volunteerism. If you like babies, why not be a volunteer cuddler in a neonatal unit. Or play with kids at a children's hospital, or teach or assist at a health clinic for low income communities? Or you don't like people contact, you can help design, say, reading material or educational websites to teach people about health! Or, you could of course use your volunteerism as a *break* from our ambition. I've walked dogs at the humane society for the sheer pleasure that dogs give me. :)

Now, and I may be reading between the lines too much, but the flip side of this I realise (in part b/c of the "loser" ref/all-or-nothing language of your post) that you honestly might be too busy or stressed out to take on changing the world right now, hence taking the break from school, and that's ok too! Just do a little bit, and hopefully it will energise you, and make you feel happy... but remember: don't trivialize your volunteer efforts! Start out slow, try different activities, and see what moves you. (cross ref: that sidebarred post of "finding passion", too)

Good luck!
posted by NikitaNikita at 9:55 PM on November 6, 2008

Try working on some political campaigns, for candidates or causes. Some are great places to work or volunteer (like, um, that one's); others are more of a grind, but you meet people in the office and you're forced to go door to door or phone bank and talk to lots of people, which for me anyways is very emotionally healthy, even it just means that I learn that rejection, even getting the door slammed in your face, won't kill you.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:01 PM on November 7, 2008

Response by poster: Jeanmari, lorrer, bricoleur, and others: I think it's pretty clear from my posts that I am not the most eloquent of speakers; I seem to be choosing words that many of you are taking issue to, so I'll try to explain what I meant. When I said something to the effect of "I don't want to be someone's glorified servant," I meant literally that. We're getting into my intentions and all that now, which is a little more personal than I intended this posting to be, but what I meant was: I want to find something where I feel like I'm making a difference. I've worked in volunteer positions where I felt like I wasn't doing anything to help anyone. This was back when I was much younger (think early teens) and a lot less introspective than I am now, so maybe I would get more out of those positions now than when I was in them back then. But my statement still stands: I want to do something with my life which I find to be meaningful. It doesn't have to be big; it doesn't have to be recognized. But it has to be something I can look back on and say to myself - I'm proud that I did that.

So no, I am not looking for recognition in the world; I've always believed that the people who should be in positions of power should be the people who deserve those positions the most and who can handle those positions well, not people who want power for the sake of their own egos. I can understand your question about what my motivation is, and I appreciate the question. I'm not trying to say that I want to be the next Barack Obama or anything of the sort; but I recognize certain characteristics of greatness within him (and others like him) and I'm looking to instill similar characteristics within myself because I see a deficiency of those characteristics in myself as I am right now. (If you know anything of Maslow's hierarchy, I'm trying to self-actualize, as best I know how.)

I hope this answers your question.
posted by Ephilation at 11:07 PM on November 7, 2008

Response by poster: By the way, I'm marking a lot of "best answers" here because a lot of you have 1) given me practical solutions, or 2) helped me re-think my own motivations and prejudices about certain kinds of volunteer positions.
posted by Ephilation at 11:17 PM on November 7, 2008

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