I had the good fortune to speak with two of this year’s honorees — two individuals who could not be more different on so many levels, but who share a common passion for the well-being of others, and a tireless confidence to do something about it.
You can read their complete profiles and backgrounds on the Encore.org website, but I thought I would share some of the personal insights that stood out in my conversations with each of them.
Cecelia Nadal, a Purpose Prize Fellow, has a striking and confident presence about her that belies her abundant warmth and openness. I immediately got the sense that participating in our chat was certainly an opportunity to talk about and to promote her work, but it was just as much driven by her curiosity to meet with, and engage with, another concerned human being, and to share a moment of heartfelt connection. For the past 18 years, Cecelia has been working across the St. Louis community through her organization, Gitana Productions, to bring together youth from different local, ethnic communities through art and performance projects. Her goal is to use arts education as a vehicle for personal and professional discovery, and she has touched thousands of lives in the process.
David Campbell, a Purpose Prize winner whose prize is sponsored by Symetra, could not come from a more different background. An engineer by training, he worked steadily in the technology sector for his entire career — at IBM for many years, and then getting involved in the advent of the internet sector as President of BBN Technologies. But for the past ten years, David has done a complete pivot as the Founder and Chairman of All Hands Volunteers, a non-profit disaster relief organization that has been able to deftly jump into crises as they are happening, and in many cases, handle key infrastructure and reconstruction projects quickly and effectively, while larger NGOs and governmental organizations are struggling to align and deploy their resources.
A key lesson for me in speaking with each of them was that these kinds of pursuits have to stem from a core personal inspiration. It can be a particular “ah-ha” moment where everything comes into focus, or it can be a particular philosophy or sense of identity and purpose that emerges and solidifies over time. For David, retired and living in the Boston area in 2004, it was a friend luckily escaping the Thai island of Phuket just days before the disastrous Tsunami hit, whose story triggered him into action. In speaking with David, it felt as if he himself wasn’t completely clear about what drove him to jump on a plane and travel to Phuket by himself with no real plan and no real connections — just some conviction that with his engineering and managerial background, he could find some way to make a difference. But once on the ground in Thailand, it sounds like his purpose was there waiting for him – but he had to be open enough to discern what it was that he was actually meant to do. Although he had brought a wireless router with him, and walkie talkies (and duct tape, for some obscure reason…), what he wound up doing was helping to build fishing boats, and organizing the financing and production process so that Thai fisherman could get back out and resume working to feed their families.
Cecelia carries our collective ethnicity in her genes: she’s Black, Puerto Rican, African, Cherokee, French, and Irish. Her father was in the military and she grew up in military bases around the country and overseas — a true “army brat.” So it is no wonder that early on, starting in high school, she became fascinated by Gypsies — the Roma people whose diaspora has taken them all over the world. That ethnic and sociological fascination continued through college at St. Louis University, and on into her first career working in human resources. But finally, it was her life-long dedication to the arts that spurred her to devote herself full time to marrying all of her interests into one very personal and authentic pursuit, and, as she says, “eventually getting ornery enough to do what i wanted to do! Once I embraced what Gypsy culture meant, and allowed it to influence what I was doing, then things started to come together.”
For Encore careers to really work, they need to bypass the logical or the conventional, and emerge from our hearts. We have to ignore our minds, which may be listing all the reasons why-not, or trying to reconcile the new avocation with the old/outdated rules or established routines from our about-to-be previous life. For David, the calling was a thunderclap that revolutionized his life pretty much overnight. For Cecelia, it was a slow, progressive emergence that took years. But in the end, each of them was willing to let go, to surrender to what was apparent to them, and present for them in these revelatory moments. Each of them seized an opportunity, and each of them today embodies a palpable enthusiasm for what they are doing, and for sharing it with everyone around them. As we wrapped up our conversation, David spontaneously invited me to join him on a trip next week to visit a project that All Hands is doing in Colorado. I replied “David, so you are always recruiting!” [for your projects]. He just laughed…
Perhaps the most exciting (or scariest depending on your POV) aspect of Encore Careers is a certain sense of the unknown that we are facing for our generation. We are just beginning to explore this extended period of opportunity that has somehow been grafted unexpectedly onto our lives. Sure, as we’ve been growing to this point, we had some general ideas about what our later life would be like. However, now that we’re actually facing these next 20, 30, maybe 40 years, we recognize that it is not going to be all golf and cruises and grand kids. Instead, it is going to be an entirely new phase, or life stage, or… whatever. Imagine combining the wisdom and equanimity of our best grandparents with the best mentorship and resourcefulness of our parents, and with our own rock ‘n roll sensibilities and activism.
It sounds like a party I want to attend.