Lessons From My 3-Year Volunteer Project

Molly McKinney
Jun 28 · 5 min read
Photo by Rabie Madaci on Unsplash

In the summer of 2016, I started volunteering at my local LGBT center. My initial awkwardness evaporated into fascination when I found they had their own library. Over 3,000 books worth of queer-focused literature. They were just waiting on an effort to organize it into a lending library.

The start of this project involved staring at a big unorganized mess and despite having no idea how to start, I agreed to lead the whole project.

Why? Because it interested me. It had nothing to do with my qualifications. I was interested, I was there, and I was willing.

The idea of a completely queer-focused library for my community intrigued me. Everyone could explore the classics of gay literature that documented the AIDS crisis or the first books that introduced non-binary gender identity to the world. Or they could explore 1950s trashy romance or paint-by-number mysteries. Every part of queer life from the tragic to the trivial, from the comical to the profound could be examined.

But actually, creating this? Not as glamorous as all that.

Mostly it was monotonous. It involved many unresolved discussions on book genres, and painful decisions about what to cut out due to space restrictions. Holed up in the library we occasionally wondered if what we were doing mattered.

It’s been the hardest job I’ve ever taken on and I wasn’t paid a single dime.

Here are a few things I learned building a lending library for 3 years.

Curiosity Preserves, Not Passion

I’ve always had multiple interests. I can talk about politics, philosophy, sociology, history, pop music, cartoons, psychology, etc. I have an opinion about everything.

But I’ve never been 100% passionate about anything. I used to be sad about this, but I’ve realized it means I’m open to all that life has to offer. I don’t shut out everything else to follow one track.

Passion, to me, takes a lot of energy. Author Elizabeth Gilbert has talked about curiosity as an alternative to passion, on the path to being more creative. To her, curiosity is gentler. It’s more ordinary.

I wasn’t excited everyday to work in the library.

I kept going because I was never not curious about the collection. Curiosity is what pushed me through adversity.

Get Feedback Early and Often

There are many mistakes I made in this project.

In retrospect, I would’ve conducted a survey.

Because, in any huge undertaking, feedback is crucial.

I went into this project blind.

I knew what I wanted this library to be, but I simply guessed what the community wanted.

This was a huge mistake.

I studied some design thinking and one of the important features was quickly creating prototypes to test, get feedback, adjust and prototype again. It’s important so that designers don’t spend valuable time working on a project that’s not suiting users’ needs.

There was also a more self-serving reason to get feedback.

I spent many days alone in the library slowly sorting, labeling and cataloging books. Many days I wondered if what I was doing mattered.

Getting feedback from visitors about how excited they were about the library kept me going.

It reminded me I was doing something important. My interest in this was strong, but it’s difficult to stay motivated toiling away completely isolated.

The idea of the shut-in creator is an interesting story, but not a great life.

The Danger of Acting Without Thinking

I’m typically not in danger of this. Analysis paralysis is more my weakness (though I’ve made great progress). I get terrified of imperfection and fear starting.

But this project also showed me its opposite.

I was given no objections, no mission statement, no protocols and no deadlines. They told me about their vague dream to have a lending library and that was the extent of the discussions.

I had to make it up as I went along. Out of necessity, I did just that.

It’s true that you can’t wait for the perfect moment because it will never come. But it’s also foolish to undertake a massive project without establishing purpose, mission and overall strategy.

You don’t have to have every step planned out, those are bound to change due to unforeseen events, but you need to have an overarching goal that doesn’t change.

Don’t Be a Superhero, Be a Team Member

Superheroes stories sometimes bother me for one reason.

Stories about a lone person with all the burden and responsibility of saving something doesn’t resonate with me.

The harder truth is that the responsibility is on all of us. The harder truth is that we must work together to answer the world’s most pressing problems. It involves difficult, unglamarous, unsexy work and it never ends.

But to accomplish anything impressive…we must do it.

I didn’t accomplish any of this alone. I could learn as much as I could, but I couldn’t have gotten as far as I did without help. The success or failure of this project wasn’t completely on me.

I wasn’t a superhero the world depended on.

There were obstacles outside of my control I had to reconcile with. I had to focus on what I could control.

I was a team member with a small sphere of influence. I had a few strengths and then had to rely on the strengths of others.

Don’t Get Attached, Your “Baby” Will Change

Like I said, many days I felt I was the only one that cared about this project. And sometimes that meant I got attached.

All these lessons are intertwined.

To accept changes to my “passion” project I had to not take all the responsibility for its results and I had to be willing to hear feedback.

These are all things creators must do.

No matter what you create, it’s subject to the world’s criticisms and adjustments. It will eventually create a life of its own outside of you.

Conclusions

I am proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

I wrote this to explore what I’ve learned from the first project I’ve had significant control over.

Like anybody in their 20s, I want to know who I am. This project has helped me understand my interests, what motivates me and what I’m capable of.

Most surprising is how humbling it’s been.

In our culture, we’re taught it’s imperative to be special. To stand out, to be noticed.

But this project has taught me the deep satisfaction in being rooted in the community doing work.

It’s so simple, it seems almost laughably naive.

But I’m okay with this.

I don’t want to sacrifice my curiosity or what I believe in, but I’m willing to be flexible and learn and be satisfied with leaving a tiny mark on the world.

It’s not a grand ambition, but it’s one I’m happy to say I’ve developed in those difficult and interesting 3 years.

Molly McKinney

Written by

Being alive is weird and all the other things I’m interested in (storytelling, digital marketing, LGBTQ issues, etc)

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