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Thread: Disillusion inevitable?

  1. #1

    Disillusion inevitable?

    I have become somewhat concerned by the number of people who, upon hearing that I am heading to grad school for urban planning, warn me that "it's great until you burn out", or something along those lines. These are people in related fields, and I am disappointed in their frame of mind, particularly given the nature of our profession. A couple concerns:
    1. Are the majority of people I will be working with so faithless? To what extent will their positions (and dispositions) affect what and how much I will be able to accomplish?
    2. Is the politics game impossible? I'm not sure I want to "keep my head down" (advice from someone) and trudge along--isn't that a bit futile?
    3. My biggest concern is how can planners be a force for change with such negative sentiments/outlooks?
    (Hope I don't sound overly naive. Just feel excitement about what you do is extremely important.There is a difference between being realistic and just dismal)

  2. #2
    Cyburbian solarstar's avatar
    Aug 2002
    Here's a thread with (mostly) happy planners:

    I can't imagine telling anyone to keep their head down - wow. The politics happen in most jobs, even though in planning it's often literally political rather than just office-type stuff. It's not impossible to maneuver - it can be used for good (and often is). My job doesn't mean that I'm changing the world, but I am having an impact on the future in this particular part of the world and that's cool. I guess you could get bogged down in zoning regs and never see the forest for the trees, but I would expect that sane people would recognize that and get another job asap.

    Hang in there - we aren't all gloom and doom about planning (really!) And you'll always have Cyburbia to gripe to on those days when things get tough.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian nerudite's avatar
    Aug 2001
    I have found that the disillusionment factor has a parabolic-like bell curve to it in a career. When you go to university to study, you will get a lot of great ideas and not all of them translate to where you may end up working. If you go into the public sector, the first 3 to 5 years are difficult, as you really want to do big things but need to learn how to wade through politics and NIMBYism. Then once you start getting the system down, you start to feel much better about your career and the impact you are making on your world. Then as you get close to retirement, you start to become more cynical as you start going through the same NIMBYism and political junk you've been dealing with for 30 or more years. So if you are talking to someone who has been in the career a LONG time or a very short time, you may get the feeling that planners are unhappy or unmotivated. But I would say the vast majority are happy with planning as a career and really love it.

    I started planning when I was 19, and I've been doing it for almost half my life now. When I first started, I was sure I wasn't going to last more than 10 years in the profession because it really is hard to learn how to deal with politics, the neighbours and getting the majority of a community on the same page about planning. But if you stick it out for a few years, you start to enjoy it much more and then it really becomes 'fun'.

    Every career has people that are cynical and burnt out. No matter what career path you go for, you are likely going to hear similar stories. So if planning is what you are interested in, then by all means... don't let these stories get you down. Just also be realistic when you leave university (and I would give the same advice to anyone, not just planners).

  4. #4
    Jan 2004
    I think Nerudite said it well...

    My two cents is simply that your career is what you make of it. You'll go to grad school and learn a lot, then you'll get out and do a lot of site permitting and get a little frustrated, but then you'll get a handle on it and you'll start getting excited about helping new development create better places, then you'll move on to, hopefull, bigger and better parts of your career. It isn't perfect and it isn't awful.

    I think Lee Nellis, in these forums, said once that you need to develop some type of professional detachment from the work in order to save your sanity. You need to find that fine line between detachment and burnout, idealism and naivete. Those are fine lines, but they'll keep you happy and keep you effective.

    Personally, I love my job and feel excited about the positive impacts I'm having. So don't despair!

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
    Jul 2003
    SW-Coastal WA
    Short answer (yes, I do those sometimes): In anything in life, I suspect becoming disillusioned is a good thing. Once you give up your illusions and have a firm footing in reality, you have more power to effect change. But being disillusioned is not the same thing as becoming pessimistic, depressed, defeatist...etc. Advice like "keep your head down and trudge on" is not simply disillusioned. It is beaten down. Worse yet, it is living with a different set of illusions and calling those grim illusions "reality".

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
    Mar 2006
    I'm about 4 years into my planning career- almost 3 years doing economic development though historic preservation, and the last year in local govt. I think I enjoy regional planning more because you can go where people want the help and work with them to get their desired result. There are more opportunities to accomplish something. I've been fortunate to have been offered a regional planning job, which I am starting next week. I found that site plans and tracking permits definitely wasn't for me. I enjoyed helping write new ordinances and trying to implement all of the comprehensive type plans in order to help the area's natural resources. I also really liked working with our Open Space Committee. Fortunately, my new position will be working with resident groups and doing educational workshops. These are the two things I like the most. And, since I'll be working on a 3 county scale, I can go where there help is wanted.
    Sometimes I joke that I'm just giving myself the opportunity to accomplish nothing on a larger scale. But, I feel that the challenges that await me are better suited than my previous positions. The last few years have gotten me ready for this, and I can say that this is the kind of work I like doing, and that I feel that I am making a difference. If all I accomplish is getting one person to put in a riparian buffer, then I did something worthy.
    One thing to remember that I feel is critically important is that you must take the time to make sure you recharge yourself and keep yourself healthy, both physically and emotionally. If all you do is go to night meetings, have no personal time, eat like crap and get no exercise, etc. you will become pessimistic and burnt out. You have to keep yourself whole and healthy in order to do this job well and long term.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Tobinn's avatar
    Aug 2005
    Clearwater, FL

    Know when to do what

    Know which battles to fight and when. Politics are inevitable - pick your battles carefully. If you fight them all you'll end up bitter and disallusioned.

    Also, in the immortal words of "The Gambler", you've got to know when to walk away.

    Quiting and walking away for the right reasons isn't necessarily a bad thing. Look, if at some point you find yourself stuck with a community that's content to decompose on itself maybe you need to find a community that's ready and raring to go and can really use your help.

    Keep your chin up.

    I'll check in for my pep talk from you next week.

  8. #8
    Dec 2006
    Los Angeles, California
    Though not a planner I am a Landscape Architiect who has been practicing for 21 years and I have found that I have gone through periods of burnout but utilized those points as opportunities to move in different directions with in the profession.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian vagaplanner's avatar
    Jan 2006
    Yo momma's house!
    The fact that you're voicing your concerns means that you're in the right frame of mind. "Keeping your head down" will not provide a rewarding career for you, but that doesn't mean go crazy and alienate everybody around you. The nature of our profession is very political. Pick your battles and remember you can't make everybody happy. I'm in my fourth planning job in ten years and I was fired from my last job, largely due to politics, but I don't regret anything I ever did. It happens, and it may happen to you. But the bright side in my case is that the job I have right now is better than I ever imagined.

  10. #10
    You need to have balance in your life. If planning is your life, then you will burn out. The job is very stressfull and political. Further, the citizens don't always appreciate what you are trying to do for them. However, I think stress is a part of most jobs, no matter what you do.

    As for how much you will be able to accomplish. Dream big, but be willing to compromise. Planning, at its heart, is seeking consensus and finding balance points. Further, keep in mind that you are there to help the citizens. Don't think you necessarily have the right answer for the community. A little humility goes a long way.

    Again, I would find balance in your life as much as possible. Get involved in the community and religion. Have a good circle of friends and family. Have people in the profession that you can complain to. Exercise, learn to step back and keep your prespective. You know I outta right a Chicken Soup for the Planners Soul book.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  11. #11
    I don't disagree with what's been posted, not by a long shot. But, there will be times when you will feel like you've *been ridden hard and put up wet*. Without the support system Whose Yur Planner and others mention, it would be very easy to flame out and never recover.

    I think the other key element is to not take the criticism personally -- it's the job they are angry with, not you the person in the job. (Well, unless you make it personal, then all bets are off...)

    Good luck!
    Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
    Abraham Lincoln

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
    Mar 2006
    Regular cruises to the Carribean help too (just got back from one).
    Although re-entry can be deadly...

  13. #13
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
    Apr 1996
    New Hampshire
    You'll find some info on burnout at the APA website (authored by Cyburbian Earl Finker):


    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Richard Carson's avatar
    Sep 1997
    Vancouver, Washington

    Oh ye of little faith!

    Some context to my comments. I am turning 60 years old this year and have been in the planning business for over 30 years. I think a few burnout naysayers are the result of sour grapes. Life isnít turning out the way they thought it would.

    To be frank, I manage a large agency (150+) people, like being the director and get paid well. If you want to succeed in planning, then you have to deal with politics. There is politics in all professions Ė private and public. You think there is no politics in science? Try global warming. You donít think Nike is political? The sales people wear tattoos that spell ďEKINĒ (or Nike spelled backwards).

    In planning there are two types of politics. First, you have to deal with elected officials and government organizations. Second, you have to deal with internal professional politics. If you donít like your job because of the internal or external politics, then move on to somewhere else. Also consider your education. I got a Masters in Public Administration precisely to learn how to better play the political game. It paid off.

    If you do well professionally, then you will have your fair share of detractors. But you need a thick skin and believe what you believe. Not what others want you to believe. You can't let your peers convince you to believe in what you can't believe in your heart.

    So what does a 60 old planner do? For one thing, he still goes to work as the director everyday. I have also applied to enter the Ph.D. program at Washington State University in Environmental Science. When I was in my 50s, all of my three grown kids moved out and went to college. So what did my wife and I do? Buy a retirement property? No, we adopted two little girls from China and started a second family. What I am saying here is that you can do whatever you want and feel good about it.

    If some planners burn out, then that's not my problem or yours. Truth is that some people reach a point where they are not happy with their lives -- no matter what they are doing.

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