At one point in my life, my semi-tongue-in-cheek career ambition was wandering mendicant. Never achieved that goal, but who knows what life has in store.
Anyway, I think maybe I was inspired by fellow wanderer Paul Theroux, the prolific travel writer who gave us so many books, some of which you may know as movies: The Mosquito Coast, The Old Patagonia Express, The Great Railway Bazaar, and my personal favorite, Dark Star Safari. Among about 15 other excellent foreign culture immersion novels.
But it was in a book of short stories, The Consul’s File, where Theroux described his 2-year stint in the foreign service, working as a consul at various US embassies and consulates across Asia. (Consuls – if you’ve ever lost your passport in a foreign country, you’ve met one of these lovely people).
But how did a nomadic travel writer get into the foreign service, normally a place for straight and narrow people? By taking a merit-based exam. For many decades, in fact, the sole requirement for admission to the foreign service was a lengthy, far-ranging, impossible-to-study-for examination of general knowledge about almost everything, including of course politics and history.
And that was it. There was no cover letter, no CV, no recommendations, no references, no university grade point average.
It was a curiosity test.
And by the most cogent accounts, it worked well.
Enter McKinsey & Company, stage left. McKinsey & Company, consulting firm to businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations, non-profits, and organized crime. Hehe, just threw that last one in there to see if you were paying attention.
In the early 2000’s, the State Department’s then-boss, Condaleeza Rice, hires her former employer McKinsey to … help the State department achieve its goals. Result: abolishment of the US government’s only merit-based hiring process. Now it matters where you went to school, who you know, what your last name is, and how academically productive you were from roughly 14 to 22. Thank you, Bush administration.
Now, I know this isn’t the end of the world. Nor is McKinsey or institutional management consulting inherently bad. After all, McKinsey’s stated mission is to help their clients achieve their goals. Maybe it was the State department’s goal to re-introduce nepotism into its hiring. Or – more likely – screen for harder workers (which they can do, now that they can look at grade point averages).
There’s nothing wrong with hard work – especially when you’re an adult. Bouts of very hard work in marketing are essential. It is almost impossible to refine the three most important implementation skills in marketing – writing, visual/spatial design, and market research – without the mind busting bouts of effort that propel skill-breakthroughs. It’s one of the ways you level up.
But hard work is table stakes for a thousand and one professions. And quite frankly hard work tolerance is not important for State department employees. I’d say levelheaded-ness, an open mind, and yes, curiosity, matter more – you must understand intimate problems arising from multiple alien cultures well enough to take actions that have a big impact on the lives of strangers.
Same in my profession. When I hire a copywriter to work on a campaign for my own business, the quality that matters is curiosity about people.
In a sense being curious is a professional skill because you have to be judicious or you’ll end up wasting time. You don’t get to ask those same 40,000 questions you asked from ages to 2 -5, let alone repeat yourself.
It’s easy to dismiss marketing curiosity as stalker-ish. That’s what terms like demographic and psychographic evoke. And yes, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook do dirty deals that leverage private information to create fortunes and – it appears – let one government interfere in the elections of another.
But demographic curiosity is powerful tool in marketing, especially when infused with empathy.
Here’s how a recent exchange went with my client:
Questions: “So you’re sending this product orientation deck to people who work at universities? Which exact universities and what do they have in common? What departments or units? What are these people’s titles and how long in that role? How do you get a job like that – and why? What would make them feel good about their work at job? How do they want to feel? If you want to help them feel that way – how will your product do that?”
Conclusion: “Now we write down those answers, except frame them in a way that equips these people with arguments – for trying your solution – that they can take to their colleagues on your behalf“.
There’s more to it than that – it’s even better to examine each question in detail, in content than to briefly address them deck.
But the point is that empathetic curiosity has business value.
And I hope the foreign service continues to cultivate that quality, despite the abolition of the great curiosity test.
Footnotes & Errata
- Good arguments were made for and against… or good spin, at least https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/weekinreview/17lewin.html. But the title of the report, “Rarely Win at Trivial Pursuit? A Door Opens” is way off. The foreign service exam did not test for “trivial” knowledge; it tested for the kind of knowledge acquired by a curious, well-rounded, well-read person
- Want to take a mini pre-2006 foreign service exam? https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/education/pop-quiz-foreign-service-exam-politically-correct.html