Fords on Fridays: Defining a Career Pathway: Passion, Intellectual Engagement, & Fun

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Alumni Guest Perspective with David Wertheimer (’77, Religion), Deputy Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA

As a Haverford religion major in the 1970’s, I could never have imagined that I would end up at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focusing my work on some of the thorniest and stubborn issues facing a 21st century world.

The career I thought I was preparing for while at college, and the jobs I held and the graduate studies I pursued in the years right after college, would appear on their surface to be virtually unrelated to the directions in which my work has ultimately taken me.   While that may not provide much reassurance to current Haverford students, it was, in retrospect, my own Haverford experience that was central in shaping who I became and the career choices I have made.

Unlike my classmates who knew, from the outset, that they wanted to be bankers, doctors, or lawyers, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  (And, in a major way, that is still very much the case, thank heavens.)  I have taught in high school and graduate school, run a non-profit social service agency in New York City, worked in government, and run my own consulting business.  I even did an extended stint as an office temp.  Yet looking back from my current vantage point in the philanthropic sector, the entire unpredictable journey actually makes sense.

I have always considered that my time at Haverford was a remarkable luxury; how often does anyone get four years in an idyllic setting to develop intellectual, physical and relational capacities, largely in isolation from the stresses and demands of the larger world around them?  With that luxury came both opportunity and responsibility.  Opportunity to shape a career and life rooted in what would become, over time, most meaningful to me, and responsibility to give back to the larger community at least some of the opportunities that Haverford had given to me.

Somewhere in my early career, I made a promise to myself about my employment trajectory – that I would always seek out work about which I could feel three different things, simultaneously:  1) Deep passion for what I was seeking to accomplish; 2) ongoing, rigorous intellectual stimulation; and, 3) pure, simple joy and fun.  Every time I’ve come to a point in my career that one of these components has been missing for an extended period of time (all jobs have something about them that isn’t fun…), I leave that position and move on to define a new experience.  I haven’t always known what would come next (that stint as an office temp!), and although levels of compensation have never been a major factor in my considerations, I’ve never had a time when I didn’t have what I needed around me in my life.

I do recognize that utilizing these three criteria for my career is a continuing luxury in my life:  Across the planet, most people work at jobs they find less than ideal in order to ensure the basic needs of their families can be met.  And this is where the responsibility part of what I do returns me to my Haverford roots:  Without apologizing for them, awareness of the opportunities provided by my educational experience has left me with an insistent sense that what I do needs to try, in extremely small but deliberate ways, to give something back that leaves the world a better place than I found it.

At the Gates Foundation, all of our work is driven by the basic premise that “all lives have equal value.”  As the secular equivalent of the Quaker value of “that of god in every person,” I experience on a daily basis a visceral connection to Haverford.  As unpredictable as my career journey has been, perhaps where I find myself today isn’t terribly surprising after all.

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