28 before 29, #13: Amy Sample Ward

An ongoing series in which I ask people what their lives were like at my age – even if they’re not very far from my age.

Amy Sample Ward

I first met Amy Sample Ward in person about a year ago when we spoke on a panel about social media at the Foundation Center in New York. I’d been exposed to her work earlier, though; she has a popular blog about how nonprofit organizations can use technology to do better work, I’d seen her speak, and we’d been in touch online a bit. Amy is one of the many, many people I wish I’d spent more time with while living in NYC.  

Julia: Does the term “Saturn returns” mean anything to you?

Amy: Yes – I didn’t know what it meant until I was 28, almost 29, and people would mention it when we were talking about life, work, etc. So I looked it up then, and, as with anything that you’ve recently looked up, I feel like I see/hear it all of the time. I’m 29, so am technically still in my Saturn returns phase!

J: Where were you when you turned 28?

A: I was in Portland, Oregon – my birthday is right after Christmas so there’s always a bit of built-in vacation time from work. We had moved back to the US from London just a few months prior, but had moved to NYC instead of back to Portland. As such, we were home for the holidays and still feeling a bit of the psychological jetlag that comes from uprooting life and resettling in a new place, a new/old country, etc. In retrospect, it is a bit fitting I still felt that way as it was the start of many new chapters in life, to be written concurrently: new city, soon to be new job, and all that Saturn returns stuff, too.

J: What are one or two or several things you remember from the year or so surrounding that birthday?

A: Well, it wasn’t very long ago so I certainly hope I remember several things! As I said, we had moved to NYC two and a half months prior to my birthday. My favorite season has always been autumn and I’m pretty good with the kind of change that you can see coming: changing jobs or moving or a new hair cut. I remember feeling like change was coming but maybe not the kind you can plan for in the same way. So my plan was to assume I couldn’t plan and would just be ready for whatever! I’m very glad that was my plan, because there was a new job (I’m now the Membership Director at NTEN) and six months later a contract to write a book (this time for Wiley/Jossey-Bass, co-authored with a friend and colleague, Allyson Kapin). I’m 29 now, so am still in the year or two surrounding that birthday, but am starting to feel like there’s less change. No, scratch that. I’m feeling like there is more consistency and stability in the plan of being ready blindly for change.

J: What was happening in the world that year? Do you remember newsworthy events, books you read, movies or shows or art you experiences?

A: Living in London from 2008 (right after Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate) until the autumn of 2010 meant that the way we consumed news about or from America was different, and so too was the way it was put in context against news about or from the rest of the world. Moving back to the US, and to a place like NYC, we felt like we were (and often still are) in a whirlwind of possible facts, allegations, hype, and a 24 hour clock of often context-less information. Living in Manhattan with millions of people listening and reading all of it, made it all the more dizzying. As such, I remember the first few months of our time in NYC especially as a time where anything that happened in the news seemed either underemphasized or overinflated: talks about the economic situation, the impact of Obamacare, etc. This was also the time that I started reading about and not understanding why more people were not concerned by the numbers of suicides of military service people, both actively abroad and on US soil. So many telling signs of people in need, at all elevations of our society, and so much helplessness as a result. Especially as someone, at that time and now, working in the nonprofit sector, that was really the feeling that seemed to permeate conversations: “I know, I know; but what can we really do about it?”

J: Do you feel close to those memories, or far from them?

A: Very close, naturally (back to the “I’m 29 now” part). I think the memories, at least the feelings and some of the moving pieces from this time, will stay pretty vivid in the long-term. This time of emotional and psychological transition marked by “Saturn returning” took place when we physically moved from one country to another, lived in a new city, had new jobs, and so on. Anytime we think back to “the time we moved to New York” or “when I started at NTEN” or whatever, it will be synonymous with this age, these things happening politically, and all these feelings of change. Being in the memories now, it feels mostly like an ellipsis. But that may also be the way life feels, always.

J: Do you have any advice for someone going through this (supposedly) astrologically tumultuous time?

A: One thing I have had to work on and get better at in my personal life is the idea that it’s okay to give advice. I am very comfortable professionally sharing an opinion or recommendation. But that is based, at least usually, on experience and investigation of a piece of technology or ways to use a specific application. Things that seem a bit more removed from me. Personally, I’ve always felt like I was a “who am I blow to against the wind” kind of person. And for much of my life, I defined that as letting things go the way they will. But, in this time of transition, I’ve really found that sharing advice to someone moving in the same direction doesn’t require blowing against the wind, but simply calling the wind out for what it is. And sometimes, that’s enough.

So, in that way, my advice is:
  • plan to be moved. Maybe physically, maybe emotionally, maybe in every way. Don’t try to identify the landing point ahead of time, but plan to learn to dance.
  • take no prisoners. Not in the true war sense, of course. I’ve found that the more you can be explicit, honest, and direct about, the better. When people create or try to avoid drama, whether personally or professionally, it most often makes him or her the prisoner instead of someone else.
  • concentrate on what you have. I feel like most of our lives up until this point as Americans are spent focusing on what we don’t yet have: we need to get the education, the grades, the job, the connections, the clothes, the friends, the whatever. Let this be a time when you can focus on all that you do have; and enjoy it, be good at it, and do more of it.
  • be here now. Really. Wear sunscreen because you want to go to the beach ALL day and not because you are scared of cancer (though it is real, and it is scary). Set a reoccurring alarm clock so that you can stay out way too late knowing underneath you are a responsible, good employee that will show up on time. Make a big dinner from scratch so that you have left overs to eat for lunch because it is cheaper and better for you, but let’s you learn to cook for a date. Do things so that you can enjoy every second, while still being very good to yourself and not just playing safe.
  • take responsibility for your change. This is the most uncomfortable for me to say, but maybe the most important. I’m still struggling with this one myself, too. But it is the most rewarding. Asking for help, guidance, and reassurance, and being purposeful about where to go next (both this afternoon and in a course for life) seems awkward, strange, and maybe outdated. But it also feels really good.

Thank you, Amy! For more of Amy’s take on things, you can follow her on Twitter at @amyrsward

Photo: Amy provided the one of herself in NYC soon after her move last year. 

The whole series so far: Intro; Hannah, #1Kara, #2Saya, #3Cathy (aka Mom), #4Rachel, #5Jen, #6Cathy W., #7Celeste, #8Deanna, #9Kyra, #10Aditi, #11; Russ, #12.


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