Thursday, October 1, 2009

...And Now For Something Truly Practical

I'm no fan of most high school or college commencement speeches.

At best, they can just be very saccharine, cliche-ridden, and virtually useless for their audience. "Following your dream," is not only undefined and hard to translate into a fridge full of food, it seems so intuitive as to not merit a mention (Oh really? I was thinking about following the nightmare where I keep getting smaller and the wrecking ball flies towards me...thanks for setting me straight!)

Even worse, commencement speeches can be kind of smarmy and skewed, given the types of people usually asked to give them. "Trust me, it all works out in the end," or "Everything in your life will make perfect sense in the retrospect of your rearview mirror," works great if you're standing up there as the Secretary of State or as an Internet gazillionaire, but it rings sort of hollow in a broader sense, given the statistical certainty that even most graduates of elite colleges and business schools will end up toiling away in some sort of compromise world that doesn't involve Super Bowl championships and Fortune covers.

All that said, I get asked for advice sometimes from friends who are thinking about military careers, or lateral transfers (i.e. changing their job to something more interesting) within the military.

Once we're willing to get past trying your best, playing each down like it's your last, thinking of the team first, etc., here's the single-best, most practical advice I could possibly give any of them: Learn a boutique language.

I'm not sure if that's a proper term, but if you want to make your resume jump off the page for something in the security realm, your past performance may not be enough. There are tons of people out there with stellar academic and work backgrounds; to an employer, many just blend together.

That said, there are VERY, VERY (did I mention very?) few people in the Defense Department or State Department who: a) hold the highest, most-sensitive clearances; and b) speak key languages like Somali, Indonesian, Hausa, Farsi, Dari, Pashtu, Urdu, etc.

To someone willing to take the advice, I would add that you don't have to necessarily scale Everest here to succeed. Remember that old joke about the two friends who go camping and get chased by a bear? Some variant of the joke involves the more bookish one busting out a calculator and figuring out the speed he'd need to run over the right distance to safely make it back to civilization. Meanwhile, the "street-smart" friend just yells, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU!" and takes off to safety.

If you're willing to invest the time to learn some Javanese, or Amharic, or whatever the case may be, you don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to *outrun* the hordes of other job- or billet-seekers who wouldn't take the time to do it. In other words, a 500-word vocabulary in Somali is enough to get onto a resume, and a 5000-word vocabulary is enough to actually place on the Defense Language Placement Test. The only thing between here and there is some time and diligence. Mastery is not required -- we're not talking about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours here.

With 20 minutes a day on the BBC site reading translated articles, and nothing but a single grammar and an English-[Insert Language] dictionary, you could gain a basic proficiency after a couple months of steady review.

For anyone still willing to listen, I'd emphasize that you don't have to go out and find the hardest thing possible, like Chinese or Arabic. There are already tons of Chinese and Arabic speakers in the United States, so from a Return on Investment perspective, you'd need to put in a heckuva lot more hours in your library carrel to actually stand out for having the skill. It's just a matter of supply and demand. See what's hot, burn some midnight oil, and you will have a practical skill that will break you out from many of your peers.

This is all especially true if you don't have a hard science background. My employment situation is sort of complicated right now (the Guard is keeping me busy enough to get by, and I'll augment with substitute teaching, but that's not sustainable indefinitely), but I was sort of rudely awakened by some initial resume- and cover letter-sending forays when I realized that not having a Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, or Mechanical Engineering background really limited my overall range of immediate options.

The ONE thing that did get me some direct contacts from my Monster posting, however, was my background in Indonesian. Because I'm not willing to relocate, it didn't translate directly into a job, but it really showed me that any ability you might have in a sort of off-the-beaten-path language can go a long way in terms of your employability.

Besides that immediate practicality, any unique skill set is going to stand out to ANY employer or graduate school, regardless of its applicability thereto.

And on top of that, it's just kind of cool.

After all, how many Punjabi linguists do you know...really? If you don't know any, you're proving my point -- my advice is to get on Amazon, order a couple books, find some good websites, and become one.

And I hope that serves you and your bank account better than empty platitudes about exploring passions or breaking down barriers.

Or, if it's not too late, switch to a double major in Applied Math and Comp Sci.


Jon and Kate said...

LOL at "follow your nightmare." I actually find the college speeches way grossers than high school -- Christine Amanpour was the speaker at my sister's graduation, and her entire speech was about how SHE overcame all these obstacles to be the most successful female newswoman in the world, and if you work really hard, one day you can grow up to be just like her. It was self-serving and gross. Though not as bad as mine, when George Pataki decided to give a "position" speech on 9/11

The New Englander said...


Glad you liked that line, and I'll remember to use it again when the subject of cliches or general banality comes up.

Also, nice real-life examples. I feel like I have a few good entries in me on the subject of "bad talk." Mostly, it seems, bad talkers do what Ms. Amanpour did in that case -- they talk about THEMSELVES.

To wit: Talking is not necessarily bad. Even talking a lot is not necessarily bad, depending on who the listener is and whether they enjoy that.

HOWEVER, the quickest way for me to tune someone out is when they prattle on and on about themself, whether it's at a commencement speech (hey, I thought this was about the grads) or when someone you know catches you and *corners* you with stories about their crazy new diet or their mother-in-law's new cholesterol medication.


C R Krieger said...

The boutique language thing works if you can learn languages.  I am still working on English and was a terrible student of French.  Some eight years after I left high school my French teacher noted sadly to one of my younger brothers "He never went to college, did he?"

Obviously, I was not seen as a good academic investment.

But, to those who can learn a foreign language it is a great idea.

Regards  —  Cliff