Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Career Advice from Gertrude Bell

I just wrapped up what may be the first biography I’ve ever read for fun – I usually stick to literature and travel anthologies – on the life of Gertrude Bell, the lady traveler and TE Lawrence counterpart who helped form British policy during WWI and shape modern Iraq. It wasn’t perfect; the author mostly communicated Gertrude’s assessments on the Middle East of that era without a particularly critical eye or much historical analysis about how the stage was set for Iraq’s future conflicts.

But I see why people read biographies now. It was fascinating to read about her exploits and to glean some lessons for future exploits of my own. So below, my top career advice from that most daring of Victorian lady adventurers.

1. Most of what Gertrude chose to do (with the exception of some misadventures) was genuinely fun for her. Whether she was on an archaeological dig or traveling through the desert, her letters home consistently say that she’s having the time of her life, that it’s all quite a lark. She didn’t travel because she wanted awesome pictures for her blog – though she did clearly enjoy the attention it earned her at parties. Nor did she take herself too seriously – when she becomes the first female staff officer in the history of British military intelligence, she considers it quite “comic.”

Lesson: What’s fun need not correspond to what’s prestigious, just to challenging work that you get a kick out of on one level or another. There’s no point in seeking after achievements that don’t genuinely make you happy along the way.

2. The most valuable knowledge comes from people. Gertrude was able to supply relevant knowledge to the British government—and to contribute to mapping the tribes and debating whether to orchestrate an Arab revolt in the Cairo office—because of the relationships she had developed with various tribal sheikhs during her travels. And she had the ear of the British government in the first place because she had friends and society connections in the foreign ministry. She was well-read and well-educated—she read Hebrew for a fun break while studying Arabic —but her real knowledge came from her relationships.

Lesson: Ironically enough, this WWI-era story reinforced to me the importance of networking. This is something I’m definitely still working on. Book-learning suits me, and like most type-A folks, I hated group projects in school, but the working world is kind of like one giant group project.

3. She had doubts. In retrospect, her life looks perfectly designed, her mountaineering in Europe equipping her with skills to caravan through the desert, which equipped her with the knowledge to help shape British strategy in the Middle East during and after the war. During a risky trip to Hayyil, where she was held captive by the Rashid family, Gertrude frequently fretted that it was all an expensive and exhausting waste of time – but it was on that trip that she gained some of her most valuable insights into the region.

Lesson: You can be uncertain about what you’re doing with your career and your life, and it can still turn out awesome. You don’t have to know exactly where you want to end up as long as you’re moving in the direction of what fascinates you.

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