If you can’t describe what you do to a child, you don’t actually know what you do.
Sure, in an era of disruption and distraction, we are changing and evolving roles and organizations and missions rapidly enough that to kids and even other adults outside our industries, the details can get fuzzy. But the idea here is that your core purpose has almost surely been seen before.
So can you describe what you do at its simplest form?
I got this challenge when I agreed to do a Career Day this month at Adaire, a public K-8 school in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia in which I live. (The school has a fun history dating to the 1890s, including the above-depicted first building and a more conventional one used today)
— Alexander Adaire (@AdaireSchool) May 11, 2016
The morning I arrived, I learned I was charged with filling an entire class period — one with first graders and one with fifth graders. Because I had assumed I would be part of a group of adults speaking to a single classroom together, I hadn’t prepared anything. That meant I had a challenge: how do I effectively describe my job — overseeing the growth of a niche local news organization that uses events and a mix of services to fund its mission — to first graders?
Well, I cheated a bit. I decided I would have to focus on one main function of my work as Editorial Director of Technically Media (small business owner! event organizer! journalist!).
As I walked into my first grade class, brightly colored with 20 very-visibly-excited students, I saw on the walls there were materials on “topic sentences” and “question words.” Clearly this group had been learning many of the important foundational lessons that are necessary for all academic inquiry, including journalism. And since my teacher-mother had taught me that any chance to reinforce what was already instructed is a helpful technique, I went with it.
I kicked off my classroom experience with lots of questions. I asked the students, who politely raised their hands to answer, if they knew what a reporter was (someone who writes articles for a newspaper, a young girl answered). I asked if they knew why reporters were different than the authors of the books they were reading (reporters tell true stories, said a young boy).
I told them my best advice (for my work and my life) was to fight the urge to be embarrassed to ask questions when you don’t know something and try your best to tell the truest story you can.
Then I led us through an activity together, in which I had the class interview me to write a story on the chalk board (an activity I duplicated in the fifth grade class using their classroom laptop and projector). I challenged students to raise their hands to ask me a question that might help them write a story about me. In turn, they asked completely sensible and adult questions and helped me write our story on the board. What do you like about your work, how did you learn how to do it, what did you do before you did this, they asked.
So here’s how I described my work to a pack of kids: I ask lots of questions to learn and try to tell true stories for a news website I helped start.
They liked that the subject matter I am around includes video game development companies and robotics.
I can’t say enough how impressed I was with how well behaved the students were. Yes, the fifth graders got a little silly, but on the whole, I was meaningfully impressed.
On a personal note, as a recently married person in Fishtown, I am watching with great interest how many groups and parents and faculty are working to grow the reputation of Adaire. In particular, I’m wowed by the activity of the Friends of Adaire group, which is part of a citywide (and truly national) movement to build relationships within school communities and was the reason I ended up at the Career Day. I encourage you to find a similar group for your neighborhood school, even if, like me, you are many years away from sending your own kid there. If nothing else, you’ll have to figure out how to describe your work simply.