Career Advice from Mark Twain


I recently came across the following quote from Mark Twain (1835-1910), explaining how he thought chemists could solve the problem of world peace. “I am going to get a chemist–a real genius–and get him to extract all the oxygen out of the atmosphere for eight minutes. Then we will have universal peace, and it will be permanent”  (1905 Nov 05).  While I appreciate his faith in our abilities, this may not be the ideal solution in this case.

But what about other matters?  Twain actually had a lot to say on a variety of topics, and much of it still applies today.  In fact, many of his quotes provide excellent career advice.  Below are some of them, with modern career-based applications.

Career Development

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

No one is going to hand you a job, or look out for your career.  In fact, no one else is even going to care about it as much as you do.  It’s up to you to find out what opportunities are available, what education and experience is required, and then to go out and get it.  It’s easy to sit around and wait for the perfect opening to fall in your lap, but harder to get up the activation energy to go out and make it happen.

Written Communication Skills

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Twain said this in 1888, but it is just as true today.  We write much more than we used to – reports, emails, tweets, LinkedIn and Facebook status updates…and don’t  always take the time to make sure we’re using exactly the right words.   In this world of remote work, some people may only know you by what you write, so it’s important to take the time to find the right words, with exactly the meaning and connotation you intend to convey.

Oral Communication Skills

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

We all know that in meetings, you often learn more by listening than by talking.  However, scientists are often asked to give oral presentations on their work, either to share scientific advances with colleagues, or to sell their ideas to managers and business colleagues.  In either case, giving an answer when you don’t have all the data is tempting, but bluffing is almost never the best choice.  Admitting that you don’t know, and offering to find out and get back to the interested parties, is a much better solution.

Networking

“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”

How Twain managed to address social media before it existed is pretty amazing.  Do you spend too much time updating your online status and profiles, and too little time having actual conversations with people and building professional relationships?  Get away from the keyboard, and make time for some in-person conversations, over coffee or lunch.  Your network will be much stronger for the change.

On Continuous Learning

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned”.

Don’t think you’re finished learning just because you earned a degree.  You need to continue to learn new things throughout your career, in both formal and informal settings.  Formal education in a classroom setting is not the only way to learn new skills.  Volunteer to be treasurer of an organization to learn how to set a budget and mange expenditures.  Start a blog with a regular posting schedule to improve your writing and deadline-meeting skills.  Don’t be afraid to try new ways of doing things, and learning what works for you – and what does not.

Adapting

“A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.”

If you do find yourself in a job that does not quit fit, give yourself some time to adjust your expectations, attitude and actions.  There may be some small changes you can make, to yourself or the job responsibilities, that will allow you to fit much better.

“I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

The only thing worse than letting your career path be determined by random chance is having it determined by regrets.  Be alert for opportunities that arise, but also go out and make them happen.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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One Response to Career Advice from Mark Twain

  1. Thank you for this post. The networking and career development quotes are great!

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