The distinguished journalist Edward R. Murrow,1 right, director of the U.S. Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy. At left, Murrow’s wife and son.
In last week’s post, I began the story of how in a critical job interview, after I was asked the question I most feared, my luck turned around and I completed the interview successfully!
As you’ll recall, I was hoping not to be asked about American literature. Yet, sure enough, that topic came up almost at the beginning of the interview.
Since I had no intelligent, well-informed thoughts to offer, I confessed my ignorance and felt sure the interview was already over.
Much to my surprise, however, I wasn’t thanked for coming and asked to leave the room right then and there. Instead, the conversation continued, moving in a variety of other directions. And, knowing I’d already blown the interview, I was no longer feeling nervous. I thought that in continuing the discussion, the members of the interviewing panel were just being polite. So, in retrospect, I suppose I must have sounded reasonably well-informed about a number of the other topics that came up.
One of those topics was music — something I’ve always loved, and which gave me an opportunity to say something about a late-19th-century American composer, Edward MacDowell, a contemporary of many of the European romantic composers, but not remotely as well known as the greats (e.g., Brahms, Dvorak, Liszt, Tchaikovsky). I was familiar with one of MacDowell’s most beautiful pieces, the Second Piano Concerto. This may have helped me recover some of the ground lost on the literature question.
I recall the panel also being impressed with the fact that I was leaving the very next day for Peace Corps2 training in California.3
What I learned from this experience is that in a high-stress interview, it pays to be relaxed — to avoid worrying about what you don’t know and let yourself be yourself when talking about what you do know.
It’s also helpful to be able to bring up knowledge or experience a little out of the ordinary that somehow relates to the job you’re applying for.
These tips might not work every time, but they certainly paid off for me.
I cleared the final Foreign Service exam hurdle and was placed on the list of people who, in order of their ranking among those who’d passed the exam, would be called on to fill positions as they came open. I was further given two years — to allow me to complete my Peace Corps service — before I might be asked to fill a Foreign Service slot. Then, just as I returned home from India, I was asked to join a group of new Foreign Service trainees. It couldn’t have worked out better for me.
- Edward R. Murrow’s service as USIA director was one of the two reasons I chose USIA as the place I’d want to serve if I passed the Foreign Service exam. This was just a few years after JFK’s presidency, so I remembered it well. My second reason for choosing USIA was that I had spent most of the summer of 1967 in a program at Leningrad State University, working to build fluency in Russian. One of the things you couldn’t help noticing that summer in Leningrad was that it seemed every third or fourth person you’d see on the street was wearing a lapel pin indicating they’d been to see a USIA exhibit about life in the United States. The exhibit was there that summer thanks to the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchange Agreement. My conversations with the many Russians I met made it clear that people in that tightly closed society were hungry for knowledge about the outside world, and particularly about the United States. So when I took the Foreign Service exam and had to indicate whether, if I passed, I would prefer to work in the State Department or USIA, the answer was obvious.
Murrow was no longer USIA director when I joined the Foreign Service in 1971. Ill with lung cancer — he’d been a three-pack-a-day cigarette smoker for years — he left the agency in 1964 and died the next year. The director of USIA when I joined was an appointee of President Richard Nixon, a fellow by the name of Frank Shakespeare. (Well, at least he wasn’t Bill.) And, oh yes, since Foreign Service officers are, like commissioned military officers, formally nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I have — somewhere — a fancy piece of paper, my commission, signed by Nixon.
- The Peace Corps is 59 years old today. President Kennedy established it on March 1, 1961, just six weeks after his inauguration. I remember the announcement very well. I was still in high school, and I watched it on the TV news that evening with my parents. As I wrote last week, I had long been interested in the economic development of Third World countries. As I watched JFK’s announcement, I recall thinking — perhaps even telling my parents — that I’d like to join the Peace Corps and help alleviate poverty in one of those nations.
Memorable reading while in the Peace Corps
- In fact, at the conclusion of the interview, when the three panelists congratulated me on having passed the exam, one of them suggested I use whatever free time I might have while serving in the Peace Corps to read more American literature. Fortunately, the Peace Corps office in India made sure that volunteers had access to a great many paperback books, and I read my share. However, all these years later I remember only one book, The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth’s satirical tale about a series of misadventures in late 17th-century Maryland. All I recall of it now is that I laughed my way through the entire book, which involved, in part, a quest for an “aubergine” (eggplant) recipe.