It sucks to be in the federal gov't right now, at least on paper. Furloughs and pay freezes, lousy public attitudes towards people who've dedicated themselves to helping others, helplessly watching as political battles rage, etc. As for the public (as a whole, not individual people), they'll never fully appreciate us or how hard we work for them; they never have in the 20 years I've been at EPA. And you know what? They shouldn't. If we do our jobs right, they'll just enjoy safety and security (physical, educational, health, financial, etc.) and be able to focus on other stuff. We're like the captain of the airline flight: the passengers should have a perfectly boring flight and never for a minute wonder whether anything bad will happen.
So why am I here? I could've done lots of things that probably would've netted me more money.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I'm helping save the frickin' world. It's not so much about external validation, although that's very nice to have. In my first EPA job, the world-saving was a little more direct, as I worked to save the ozone layer. But even now, in communications, I help people understand why all of this matters and help inspire them to take care of the planet.
Two years ago, I helped people on our Facebook page understand that the radiation from Japan wasn't going to hurt them, and got directly thanked for it. Two days ago, I found that my daughter's economics textbook praised programs where I'd worked. Millions of people just celebrated Earth Day because they care very, very much about having clean air, water, and land.
I frequently think of a mental model I came up with in grad school: everyone in gov't has a pile of idealism and a pile of ... well, let's call it garbage ... they have to deal with. If you can keep your idealism higher than the garbage, you stay. Admittedly, the garbage pile has surged lately, but I'm relieved to find that my idealism's still intact.
So - separate out the garbage and tell me: how's your idealism? From me to you as a fellow public servant, I hope it's still strong.