A few months ago, Betsy Gill recounted the career lessons she learned from one her favorite stories as a child – Aesop’s Fables’ The Tortoise and the Hare. If you recall your favorite childhood book, the moral of the story can often be related to many aspects of your life, including your career. One of my favorites is The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White — the same author who penned the well-loved Charlotte’s Web.
The protagonist in Trumpet is — as you may have guessed — a Trumpeter Swan named Louis, who is unable to do the one thing expected of all Trumpeters: Trumpet. The gist of the story is this: Louis’ father steals a trumpet from a music store to give his son a voice. Louis learns to play the trumpet beautifully, but vows to right his father’s well-intentioned wrong, taking a variety of jobs as a trumpet player to earn the money to repay the music store.
What career lessons can Louis the swan teach us? To name a few:
He is a lifelong learner. Without a voice of his own, Louis commits to finding an alternate way to communicate. He goes to school to learn to read and write using a slate and chalk. And when that fails (much to his dismay, he can only use this method of communication with others who read), he masters the trumpet, which opens the door to a variety of jobs as a musician. Is there a job or internship you are working toward? Make a list of what it will take for you to get there — whether it’s practicing your interviewing skills, learning a new skill or gaining experience through volunteer work — and go for it.
He is honest and hardworking. Louis sets off — leaving his family — to take a series of jobs for the sole purpose of paying for his trumpet. His hard work earns him much more: He becomes a renowned trumpet player, woos his swan companion, and begins a new family of his own. Talent gets Louis far, but it’s his honesty, work ethic and follow-through that carry him the rest of the way.
He networks. Louis doesn’t go it alone. He makes connections through his human friend — a young boy named Sam — who recommends Louis for his first job as a camp bugler. Once summer ends, Sam directs him to Boston for his next job. Who do you know that can mentor you and help connect you with others in your industry? Reach out to former Northwestern alumni, attend networking events and ask family and friends to introduce you to professionals who would be willing to speak with you about your career interests.
He takes risks. Saying goodbye to his family and flying across country — from his home in Montana to the East Coast — is a big step for a small swan. But Louis believes in his abilities and doesn’t let fear get the best of him. His new experiences only bring him closer to his goal. Similarly, you may find that taking a risk will bring you closer to your career goal. It may require you to start life in a new state or country, adapt to a new office culture and learn to work alongside others with different personalities. Don’t let fear prevent you from embarking on an experience that will further your career development.
He carries his “toolkit” with him. Throughout his travels, Louis acquires a bevy of belongings that hold important meaning to him. First, his chalk and slate; next, his trumpet. He later carries with him his moneybag and a lifesaving medal he earned by saving a boy from drowning at camp — his first place of employment. Do you have a job search toolkit? This could include tangible items, like a polished resume and cover letter, and proper business attire, or it could include business etiquette, like a firm handshake and appropriate questions to ask someone you meet at a networking event.
In case you’re wondering, Louis does earn the money (all $4,420.78 of it) to repay the music store for both the trumpet and the damage done to the store when his father snatched the instrument. And I think we can all learn a thing or two from this fictional swan.
What career wisdom can you find in your favorite childhood book?