A Letter to My Grandson About Entering the Working Life

After spending three weeks with my 21-year-old grandson this summer, I decided to summarize some of our discussions about entering working life in a letter. I then realized that some of this advice might also come in handy to several of my younger clients – those who belong to the third generation of the families whose fortunes I manage on three continents.

I have no illusion that they will all follow my advice.  Charles Caleb Colton, a 19th-century cleric, remarked that we ask for advice but we mean approbation.  Still, it is worth a try, since a “close stranger” such as I usually finds it easier to communicate with children than do their parents.

So, since writing is still the best way to speak without being interrupted …

Young men, hear an old man to whom old men hearkened when he was young (Caesar Augustus).

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Dear Gio,

As you start your last year of college, I realize that we have spent many good times together but that we never really have had a serious conversation about your future.  Of course, I sense that your plans and tastes are not yet definite; but this is not so unusual at 21, when (it is fair to say) parents (and grandparents) often have more dreams about your future than you have yourself.

Nevertheless, this is the time to start living a little more for the future rather than just for the present.  So I thought I would gather some pieces of advice that might prove useful to you as you enter this new stage of your life.  These are more practical tips than profound comments about “the meaning of life,” a subject that I am willing to discuss at a future date, when you have the time and inclination.

As you may have noticed, I love citations and I will use a lot of them.  Very often they simply state what I think in a more articulate or more concise manner than I could.  Other times, the fame or achievements of the author lend more weight to the ideas expressed than if they just came from me.  I am not always certain of the sources, and some quotes may be apocryphal; but in the end, it is the thought that counts, and I feel no guilt.

If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research (Wilson Mizner).

First, About Your Résumé

This used to be called a curriculum vitae (CV), but more practical, business-oriented countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia preferred résumé, which implies that it should be kept short and concise.  I lack citations on the subject of effective résumé-writing, but I would like to make a couple of points.

I cannot tell you what human-resources departments at big corporations are looking for.  But if your résumé ever makes it to the person who might actually become your boss and/or mentor, in a smaller firm for example, I can guarantee you that he or she probably will feel like me.

All résumés look depressingly alike and, for people who read them, the boredom threshold is very low.  If you have done anything at all that might look out of the ordinary, by all means put it well in sight.  Otherwise, concentrate on the so-called cover, or motivation, letter, which also needs attention.

The worst possible thing for a cover letter is for it to read as if it were written by a career consultant – which is often the case.  So let me tell you what I would like to read in a cover letter.

First, get rid of all the reasons why your skills would make a valuable contribution to my firm.  We all know that, for a year or two, a new recruit will mostly be wasting everybody’s time.  We only hope that, if we choose well, we will get a great return on this time investment in the long run.

What we want to see for now is motivation – hence, the motivation letter.  However, it is difficult to communicate that through the text.

There are two aspects to the motivation we look for; these should form the basis of the letter that you will write:

  • Your willingness to learn as much as you can and to work hard to do so, without an attitude about tasks, entitlements, etc.
  • The reason why you want to learn specifically at my firm.

Many motivation letters are sales pitches, but show massive ignorance about the firm to which the candidate applies and what he or she hopes to learn there.  You can mention your skills and how you hope to use or hone them, and there is also nothing wrong with showing ambition; but above all, you must appear eager to work and learn.  And again, if there is anything different in your history or background, by all means mention it.

Most résumés I receive either are not answered or are answered by a form letter that, thanks to word processors, will look as if I had written or dictated it.  However, if anything catches my attention as different or attractive, I cannot guarantee that I will offer a job to the candidate but I usually will make the effort to see him or her in person.

Finding the Right Balance Between Hubris and Humility

Some of the qualities that will be put to use in your résumé and motivation letter will also come handy in your early career.

In the United States, where you now live, people are taught very early that, to succeed in life, they have to sell themselves.  Hubris thus shocks less here than it does in Europe, for example.  However, even General Electric’s iconic former CEO Jack Welch pointed out that there’s only a razor’s edge between self-confidence and hubris.

In France, at least in my time, we were taught something called fausse modestie – “false modesty” in the States, though usually with a negative connotation that it doesn’t have in France.  It means that you are deservedly sure of yourself, but strive to appear humble out of politeness.

Of course, not everyone can be tricked.  Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, once admonished a young diplomat: Don't be so humble – you are not that great.

It is certainly true that hubris – especially among the young – can be unbearable.  Eighteenth-century French journalist/satirist Rivarol advised: It’s a terrible advantage to have done nothing, but you should not abuse it.

So, as for many things in real life, virtue lies in finding the right balance between two extremes.

I understand from sources unnamed that you are intimidated at the prospect of meeting some of my friends.  Of course, I chose them to meet you because they are very successful in their fields, but you are afraid of appearing ignorant to them.  Here, I can give you an infallible piece of advice.

In general, it is a great quality in life to speak only when you have something important to say.

Plato put it well:  Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.  And Calvin Coolidge later wrote that he had never been hurt by something he did not say.  But in the situations that we are discussing, the answer is not to remain silent.  It is to ask questions.

No experts in anything expect you to impress them in their fields of expertise.  In fact, they fully expect you to be ignorant about their professions.  Occasionally they may be curious about things that are popular with you and/or your generation (social networks and the like).  If they are, they’ll ask.  If not, remember that all people like to talk about themselves or what they know.  My advice is to ask those you meet questions about what they are doing or have done.  Not only will they happily expound on the subject; they’ll probably think you smart and attractive for asking.  No one finds stupid a person who shows interest in him or her.  And you’ll most likely learn things in the process.

If you want to look even smarter, do some homework beforehand and prepare your questions.  I guarantee that you will come out looking very smart.


I have long advocated and practiced daydreaming, and some of my best ideas have originated in that practice.  Until recently, however, I had only my own observations to go on.  More recently, some extensive research seems to have elevated daydreaming to a preferred method for boosting one’s creativity.

According to “The Virtues of Daydreaming,” by Jonah Lehrer (The New Yorker, June 5, 2012), a recent study led by Harvard psychologists shows that “a daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness.  And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful.”

Business Insider reported on May 2, 2014,

A University of California, Santa Barbara, study found that people who let their minds wander did 41 percent better on creative thinking tests than others.  Creativity requires finding non-obvious ways to address a problem.  Often, there is no direct link between the problem and the other knowledge you have that will help you to solve it.  To find these indirect connections, it is valuable to let your mind wander without thinking directly about the problem.

Finally, Fast Company wrote on May 16, 2014,

There is a growing body of research on unconscious thought.  Unconscious thought involves having some goal you are trying to achieve, but not working toward that goal explicitly.  Over time, some of the details of the problem begin to fade, and that leads to chains of associations in memory that may link the goal to other situations you have encountered.  When you return to thinking about the problem explicitly later, you may now discover connections you would not have found otherwise.

You, Gio, have a real talent for rational reasoning, but I believe that you also need to learn how to daydream, especially about what you might become or achieve if there were no constraints or obligations.  There are now “how to” manuals for daydreaming, but I am sure that with a little effort, you can develop the habit on your own.

Cultivate, Don’t Curb, Your Enthusiasm

Vince Lombardi, famous head coach of the Green Bay Packers, used to say that if you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.  Except for people who constantly seem overexcited about everything and anything, everyone likes an enthusiast.  Enthusiasm is not only an attractive trait of character, it is also communicative.  As such, it is helpful in selling, in teamwork, and in becoming and staying a leader.

Enthusiasm is contagious – and so is the lack of it (Dale Carnegie).
Enthusiasm is contagious.  You can start an epidemic (Mary Kay).
There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment (Harry S. Truman).

Gio, everyone finds you “cool”; but, in a way, coolness comes across as the opposite of enthusiasm.  Maybe you just assume that we are unlikely to be aroused by the same things as you, but I would still suggest Dale Carnegie’s recipe:  Act enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic.  And once you start on the road to enthusiasm, a chain reaction is likely to follow.  Try it!

At the other extreme, I would not go as far as high-wire artist Karl Wallenda in arguing that being on a tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.  Nor would I agree with automobile racer Mario Andretti that if everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.  But a corollary of enthusiasm is that you will more easily dare to take the chances necessary to progress.  Usually, this starts with daring to be different.

One of my favorite investment writers (and successful manager), Howard Marks, makes the point strikingly:  If you want your portfolio’s performance to be above average, the portfolio will need to be different from the average portfolio – by definition!  In other words, to avoid a mediocre performance, you need to take a chance that your portfolio’s performance will turn out to be below average.  The same applies to life in general: if you don’t dare to be different, you have zero chance of being better.

J. Paul Getty thought so as well:  No one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success, or get rich in business, by being a conformist.

A World of Opportunity...for the Ready

For many people, opportunity is largely a matter of chance.  But it only looks like chance from the outside.  In real life, opportunities come to those ready to seize them.  Here, I cannot resist recounting a story you’ve probably heard a few times before.

In early 1969 I had taken my last two-week leave from the French military service to go to a series of job interviews in New York.  Unfortunately, the snowstorm of the decade caused all my appointments to be either canceled or postponed.  I could have gone back to France and left the interviews for a later trip.  But I had a name casually given to me by a one-time restaurant neighbor – without recommendation, address, or phone number.

Chesty Puller, one of the most decorated Marine officers, once said: We're surrounded...that simplifies our problem.  When things get desperate, solutions become clearer.  I found the name of the total stranger mentioned by my restaurant neighbor in the phone book, called, and introduced myself.  The man was leaving that evening for Europe, but he took the time to introduce me to a colleague who would become the boss and mentor to whom I owe my whole career.  The opportunity was there, but I would not have uncovered it unless I called that stranger.

Besides “being there” to seize opportunities when they pass by, it is good to be prepared for them in case they pass by.  On this, a long list of world and business leaders agree.  Among others:

Benjamin Franklin:  By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Thomas A. Edison:  Good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation.
Benjamin Disraeli:  The secret of success in life is…to be ready for opportunity when it comes.

And how do you prepare?  I’ll study and get ready, and then the chance will come, said Abraham Lincoln.

Leadership and Discernment

Even if you don’t aim to be the boss, you will need leadership qualities to succeed at what you do.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, future leaders should spend less time finding out how valuable they are to their organizations, and more deciding how they can be valuable.  And to be valuable, it is helpful to take some mental distance from routine tasks.

In any organization, there are people who are most comfortable performing, often well, routine and precisely defined tasks.  The words “why,” and especially “why not,” as pointed out by Jeff Bezos, do not seem to belong to their vocabulary.  They prefer phrases like, “we don’t do it like this here,” or “this does not concern my job.”  That is why management guru Peter Drucker repeatedly warned that there is no worse waste than to do well something that should not have been done in the first place.

In general, we are today submerged by information and data, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the detail and the accessory, as Talleyrand urged.  This is why the advice attributed to Albert Einstein has become so timely:  Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.

In my view, one way to simplify problems and at the same time discover original solutions to them is to follow the advice of the great algebraist, Carl G. J. Jacobi, who was known for his constant repetition of one phrase:  Invert, always invert.  Instead of just thinking about how to solve a problem, it is often useful to consider as well how to make it worse.

Warren Buffet’s partner Charlie Munger, who likes to cite that phrase as well, adds: It is in the nature of things, as Jacobi knew, that many hard problems are best solved only when they are addressed backward.

And finally, before you try to solve a problem, make sure you understand all its parameters.  Most students have had at last one experience of writing an excellent essay on a subject that they had misunderstood.  In professional life, this can be an expensive error.  I submit that it is worth reflecting on what we know for sure and what we do not.  Mark Twain famously summarized this:

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.  It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

I think I have already made this letter longer than planned.  I am not sure that it will help you face the world more intelligently, but I do hope that it will help you avoid looking like a fool…

Your Grandfather,

* * *

François Sicart
August 31, 2014

This article reflects the views of the author as of the date or dates cited and may change at any time. The information should not be construed as investment advice. No representation is made concerning the accuracy of cited data, nor is there any guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion will be realized.  

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