I have a confession to make. It has been 184 days since my last earnest work project with any geospatial technology. Despite having completed degrees, taught courses, published research, and conducted outreach in this field, am I geospatial enough to be “in” the field anymore?
Does anyone else deal with this question?
The geospatial self-doubt can be triggered by many things — not just your mapping frequency. You read an article, download a new data collection app, or scroll online workshop offerings and think, “I should know all of this already.” You browse online GIS portfolios, skim LinkedIn profiles, or attend a demo at work and can’t help but think, “They are way more geospatial.” You may question your geospatial enough-ness regarding particular skills (“I know cartography, but I don’t program”), knowing particular software (“I know QGIS but not ArcGIS, ENVI but not ERDAS), or having experience in particular applications (“I work in transportation logistics but haven’t done much environmental analysis”). Sometimes it’s as simple as not remembering which menu has the tool you need. Suddenly you find yourself spiraling to “I don’t know how to do anything!” Each scenario can flash that moment of doubt: Am I geospatial enough?
I don’t know you personally, but if you are reading this article, curious to explore this question with me, I say yes, you are geospatial enough.
Many paths lead to geospatial.
Let me clarify that I am talking about how we identify with our field of choice, with calling ourselves geospatial, and feeling part of the geospatial community (which differs from geospatial smartness). Specific jobs and certifications have requirements to assess yourself, but the barrier to entry to the geospatial community itself is not a barrier at all.
There is no such thing as a typical geospatial career path or a traditional geospatial education. We discover the field at different points in our educations and careers, and from different fields and sectors. (In my case, it was an intro GIS college course, with my final project being to map local mountain bike trails, designating those shared with horses to inform about potential, shall we say, “ground terrain hazards.”) Among us are formerly undeclared majors, people in their second (or third) career, the “I fell into GIS at my previous job” folks, and those who shouted navigation from the backseat during family road trips. Each of these varied paths are valid and informative for a geospatial career.
There is no singular metric to qualify as part of this community, just a shared baseline enthusiasm for, and interest in, the geospatial.
Wherever you are in this field – we need you.
From the occasional OpenStreetMap contributor to the Python-fluent programmer, you are an important part of our field, helping it to grow, thrive, and reach others. With the vast possibilities of geospatial technology, we need a diversity of people – a diversity of skills, experience, backgrounds, and creative vision — to implement it.
If you have Illustrator skills to make visually stunning, informative maps – we need you. If you thrive in mining data and making it ready to use – we need you. If you bring project results to life in writing, presentations, or StoryMaps – we need you. If you build tools and models to streamline analysis and crunch data in new ways – we need you. If you explore spatial data ethics and privacy concerns – we need you. If you bring historical documents into the digital realm – we need you. If you talk and teach about geospatial technology to engage new audiences – we need you. And the list goes on.
There is too much out there to accomplish for us to be losing so much time and confidence unnecessarily questioning our efficacy – our worthiness – in this field, when we all have something to offer.
In any technology field, you may feel that if you don’t know the newest version of X, haven’t done Y, and you’re not even familiar with Z, then you’re not legit. But having a completionist’s perspective will only set you up for constant disappointment in yourself. You simply can’t know it all or do it all, because “all” keeps growing daily. Knowing the entirety of “geospatial” is an impossible bar, a torturous standard by which to operate. So, don’t.
It’s okay, wonderful in fact, to be curious about all the tools, all the applications, all the critical discussions – just don’t place a requirement on yourself to be knowledgeable in everything in order to be geospatial enough.
The advice Austin Kleon shares for creatives and artists in his book “Show Your Work! Ten Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered” is just as applicable to geospatial professionals: “The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.” For anyone in a field where innovation and options seem endless, as in our geospatial realm, aim to stay a hungry, humble amateur. Claim your identity and place in the field while acknowledging that there is always more you can learn.
And for the record, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they have never googled a GIS question.
Anxious about your geospatial-ness?
Here are a few things to help combat that geospatial self-skepticism.
1) Talk to other geospatials.
In my experience, you don’t have to look very hard to find approachable, kind people in our field. People who will meet you wherever you are on the geospatial spectrum to talk shop about the passions we have in common. To avoid the comparison pitfall, I remind myself to learn from others’ experience and skills rather than compare to them. I’m not always great at that, but tackling geospatial anxiety takes a little work! Keep it casual and just connect. Get coffee with a colleague to talk about your geospatial career origins. Strike out to meet new people at a geospatial meetup, check out #GISChat on Twitter or LinkedIn, or join a group for networking and camaraderie like Women in GIS.
If you don’t feel like talking (or typing), “meet” new colleagues through podcast interviews like GeoInspirations, Mapscaping, or Geomob. Get inspired by their work, relate to their stories, and just hear from some nice people. You’ll find examples of those geospatial enough-ness moments, like Eva Reid, IT data manager for the D.C. Department of Health, saying, “I almost don’t make maps anymore…I don’t even like saying that…it makes me feel some way…” She reminded me that our roles and tasks may change over time, but that doesn’t make us less geospatial.
2) Learn something new or old.
Take time to have a learning moment. Read that journal article, watch that YouTube video, enroll in that webinar. Do one of those “I’d like to learn that” things that’s been bouncing around in your head or bookmarked on your browser for months (or even years). Change the fear of not knowing into the action, the first step, of getting there.
Another option? Crack open that old textbook you still have or find some introductory lessons online, including those aimed at younger audiences. No, I’m not trying to insult your skill level. I’ve found that going back to the basics and seeing the most recently created educational content accomplishes a few things. I am reminded how much I know already – how far I’ve come. I recall the memories, that initial excitement, of first encountering the field as an option of something I could do. Finally, when I see students engaging with geospatial technology at such early stages, when I think of what that means for the future of the field (and simply for the future), well, it warms my geospatial heart, and I’m excited all over again.
3) Have a laugh.
Along with our shared geospatial passion, there are the shared frustrations of technology, geo stereotypes, and well, just terrible maps. But it’s always better if you can laugh about what ails you, right? Check out some mappy humor, like Kate Berg’s #mappymeme efforts, and realize you aren’t alone and that it helps to take ourselves a little less seriously when we can. By the way, if you get the inside jokes of your geospatial colleagues that means you are on the inside and clearly more than geospatial enough! And no, you aren’t the only one who has to pause occasionally and think, “Now which is latitude and which is longitude again?”
I measure geospatial-ness by passion for the field, not skillset; the former can’t be faked, the latter can be learned. Maybe others will disagree with me and revoke my geospatial card. But that’s not the field I’ve grown to love and respect. Those aren’t the colleagues I’ve met over the years. You ARE geospatial enough. And I’m glad you’re here. Want to get coffee and talk maps? I’m in.