Never Be Scared to "Dabble"

By: Kara Swanson, Environmental Manager - David Evans and Associates, Inc.

At a small party recently, I found myself in the following discussion:

Me: “What do you do for a living?”
Other person: “I’m a pediatrician. What do you do?”
Me: “Oh that’s great! I’m an environmental planner”.
Other person: “What does that mean?”

I don’t know about you, but conversations like this are pretty frequent for me when the topic of careers arises. I find myself having to explain in detail what “environmental planning” is… or my version of it. I started to realize that this was kind of a unique opportunity though; what does my job mean to me? What does it actually entail? And the bigger question, how did I even get here? I work as a consultant in the world of engineering. Most people (engineers) have had a pretty straight career trajectory. When they tell someone their profession, it doesn’t leave much to question.

It turns out for me, being an environmental planner means I’m a dabbler. My career is never one I expected to have; the 22-year old version of me with an environmental science degree thought I’d be in overalls and tromping around wetlands all day, every day. Turns out my extroverted self didn’t really enjoy being alone (save for angry red-wing blackbirds). Politics spurred me into getting a master’s degree in environmental policy; I was determined to move to D.C. and fight the good fight at a non-profit. Somehow I ended up in Colorado, working for a corporation navigating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on transportation projects. It was yet another 90 degree turn in my career trajectory. I knew nothing about transportation, and had taken one class on NEPA, but was given the “sink or swim” indoctrination into roadway and transit projects. It was at this point I started to realize that while technical skills are great, the ability to communicate and see the bigger picture can help you immensely in the world of transportation engineering (or any industry).

The relationships I built at that company lead me to drag my family kicking and screaming (ha) to Hawaii for two years to take on a new role - environmental compliance during construction. Again, something totally new and somewhat uncomfortable. The best advice I’ve heard is that you should always be pushed a little outside your comfort zone- always be a little scared. It’s pushed me to take risks and to step up and try and learn more. Now that I’m back in Colorado and at a new company, I’ve finally become comfortable in my role as a “dabbler”. Knowing who to ask for technical expertise is part of the job; I will never know everything that fits under the massive umbrella of environmental, nor do I want to. So many other environmental planners I’ve talked to have similar stories- they started in hazardous materials or wildlife or some other specialty and found themselves in an industry they never expected to be in, let alone be passionate about. For me, that is transportation and the environmental work that accompanies it. For others, it’s working for a regulatory agency, oil and gas, or mining. Unlike some professions that can define you, I think to think of environmental planning as one that you define and make your own.


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