I owe Mark Twain the title of this week’s blog. His career makes an interesting case study and attests to the wisdom of his dictum, because the famous writer had little formal education. He never went to college but instead apprenticed as a printer. While working as a typesetter, he took up writing as an avocation, contributing humorous articles to a newspaper owned by his brother. He learned his next occupation, Mississippi riverboat pilot, again through on-the-job training, but eventually the Civil War put an end to most civilian traffic on the river. Next, taking advantage of his brother’s appointment as secretary to the governor of Nevada Territory, he spent a couple of years pushing papers in government offices.
After failing in his attempt to strike it rich as a miner (later detailed in Roughing It), he fell back on journalism in Virginia City. Then, while working as a journalist in San Francisco, he published his first big commercial success, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and over the following years he evolved from a journalist with a knack for travelogue writing to the novelist who now ranks among America’s greatest. He had a parallel career as a lecturer that grew out of his travel writing. He also pursued an avocation as an inventor, perhaps an outgrowth of the technical skills he had learned in his boyhood, but he had only mixed success. As an investor, he was particularly inept and at one point had to declare bankruptcy.
Nowadays, a career path like this would be hard to follow. Nevertheless, we can learn certain important lessons from it.
First, many skills can be learned informally, perhaps through leisure-time pursuits, and these can later be the basis of a career change. Although formal educational credentials (and the technical skills they represent) are more important now than ever before, employers often express frustration at being unable to find job candidates who have the right soft skills. Therefore, although I recognize the importance of a college degree, I urge young people to round out their college educations with activities that will cultivate soft skills. These may be part-time jobs, internships, student organizations, or volunteer activities. Probably the most important characteristic to look for in these extracurricular activities is collaborative work, because it builds people skills and communication skills that are rarely central to academic coursework. This is the core of the message in the title of this week’s blog.
Second, be ready to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Growing up in a small riverfront town, Mark Twain became aware of the opportunities that being a riverboat pilot offered for high pay and the chance to escape small-town life. But when that livelihood dried up, he was ready to use a personal connection to shift to a new occupation that led him to unanticipated career opportunities. These did not always work out, but because Twain had a fund of skills and the resilience to recover from setbacks, he eventually found his way to his main claim to fame. He was able to reinvent himself several times. In fact, he even reinvented his name from Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain.
Finally, if you change from one industry to another (whether willingly or from necessity), try to find ways to use your accumulated fund of knowledge in your new field. Mark Twain based his jumping frog story on an anecdote he heard while working as a miner in Nevada. He drew on his riverboat experience when he wrote Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn, and the mechanical knowledge he acquired as a printer’s apprentice figures in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Few can achieve the immortal fame of Mark Twain, but we all can benefit from emulating the traits that allowed him to grow and advance from his initial job as a small-town printer: a constant love of learning, alertness to opportunities, resilience, and the resourcefulness to exploit what he had already learned.