An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the ACS Careers Blog: http://acscareers.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/career-advice-from-mark-twain/.
BY LISA M. BALBES
I recently came across the following quote from American author and humorist Mark Twain (1835–1910), explaining how he thought chemists could solve the world’s ills and bring about 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.” While I appreciate his faith in our abilities as chemists,
there might be a fatal flaw in his plan.
But what about other matters? Twain had a lot to say on a wide
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, along with modern career-based applications.
“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 just hand you a job. In fact, no one else is even going
to care about your career path as much as you do. It’s up to you to find
out what opportunities are available, what education and experience
are required, and then to go out and get it. You need to actively seek
out new experiences and responsibilities— or sometimes create
them. It’s easy to sit around and wait for the perfect opening to fall
in your lap, but much harder to overcome the activation energy to go
out and make it happen.
WRITTEN COMMUNICATION SKILLS
“The difference between the almost right
word and 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’s just as true today. We write a lot more
than we used to — journal articles, memos, proposals, 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. This is
especially complicated when communicating with others from different cultures or those whose first language is different from yours.
Some words may have other meanings, or others may not understand
your use of idioms and cultural references.
ORAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS
“Get your facts first, then you can
distort them as you please.”
“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, both to share scientific advances
with colleagues and to sell their ideas to managers and business
colleagues. In either case, giving an answer when you don’t really
know is tempting, but bluffing is seldom the best choice. Admitting that you don’t know the answer and offering to find out and
get back to the interested parties (and then doing it) is a much
“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 have too little time to have actual conversations with people? Disconnect from your electronic devices, and
make time for some in-person conversations, over coffee or lunch.
Look for common interests and other ways to help and truly connect with people, both personally and professionally. Invite others
out to attend professional or social events of mutual interest. Send
articles you think they’ll be interested in, or pass along the solution
to a problem they mentioned. This will build real relationships, not
“A person who won’t read has no
advantage over one who can’t read.”
“Be careful about reading health books.
You may die of a misprint.”
Continue to listen, read, and learn as much as possible, but always
consider the source and critically evaluate what you hear and read,
and draw your own conclusions. Not all information trending on
social media or appearing in print or on the Internet is necessarily
true or unbiased.