Career Choices as Building Blocks

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I always encourage people to adopt a building block approach to their careers. This is the simple idea that early choices—interning with your member of Congress or serving as a resident adviser in your college dorm—are the foundation for later choices. Those early choices should be solid learning experiences that will not only appeal to a wide range of potential employers but will also serve you well as your career takes shape. There are certain building blocks—serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar, or an Experiment in International Living group leader, for example—that I like to see on résumés of job applicants. Experiences such as these, as well as others that are comparable, convey to a potential employer that you have survived a vigorous vetting process. They also suggest that you can handle a challenging assignment overseas and have well-developed cross-cultural communication skills and a willingness to accept responsibility. Consequently, I always remind job seekers to highlight the fundamental building blocks on their résumés. In interviews they should be prepared to articulate the lessons they learned from these basic experiences and be able to illustrate those lessons with concrete examples.

Taking Risks

"Why not go out on a limb? That's where the fruit is."

—Mark Twain

This quotation reminds us that risk-taking is an essential part of any successful career. Several of the professionals profiled in part II have made a point to emphasize this fundamental fact. Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education (IIE), expressed concern in his profile interview that today's youth are too fearful—less inclined to embrace the unknown than their predecessors. He urges young colleagues to experiment. Mark talks about the need for young professionals to take risks at the end of chapter 1. Careers in international affairs can, at times, put people into dangerous situations. Physical risks come in many guises. Other types of risks abound as well. Some might choose to accept a lower-paying job in tough conditions because they are truly impressed with those who will be their colleagues. Others may risk comfort because the chance to serve their cause is so compelling. Life is inherently risky. As those who opt for challenging assignments know so well, however, we humans are remarkably adaptable. We can get along quite well without many of the things we view as necessities in our home environment. In fact, the process of getting along without them and functioning well in a different country or cultural context builds our self-confidence, our capacity to make considered judgments, and our ability to get things done.

Lessons Learned

"That which hurts, instructs."

—Benjamin Franklin

Despite careful thought about the trade-offs involved in various career choices and decisions, we inevitably make mistakes, both large and small. I always told my staff to try and avoid mistakes, but when they happen—as they will despite the best of intentions—own up to them immediately. Together, we can work out a way to rectify promptly whatever problem was inadvertently caused. The key is to learn from mistakes of all types and realize that you are even more valuable as an employee because you can analyze your mistakes and apply that learning to the next comparable situation.

It is sobering to realize that I have learned the most—grown the most—from the job situations that seemed particularly problematic at the time. When things move along smoothly, we tend to take them for granted. Often it is only when we are coping with major difficulties that we consciously summon our problem-solving skills, engage in deep analysis, and use or combine our assets in new ways.

I remember one time when, as a relatively new manager, I hired a consultant to organize a seminar. I didn't know much then about monitoring a project and supervising a consultant. Thinking that she would handle her work the way I did mine, I blithely assumed she would be at the hotel to troubleshoot any problems that arose as the seminar participants checked in. It was only when I was called at home by irate participants threatening to return to their universities that I realized my mistake. Fortunately, before rushing to the hotel to salvage as much of the situation as I could, I had the presence of mind to notify the sponsor of the seminar and explain what had happened and what I was doing to remedy the situation. While I was on the edge of panic and envisioned being fired the next day, I certainly learned a lot from that episode. Never make assumptions. Double-check everything. To this day, a manager— in fact, any employee—without a prioritized checklist makes me nervous. This is just one example from my own career where a tough situation was inarguably instructive. The lessons live indelibly in my memory.

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