by David Street, project manager, Loudoun County, Virginia
From philosophy to algebra, you take a ton of classes during your time as a college undergraduate. Many of those classes may seem like they have no effect on your career goals or ambitions. Strictly speaking, you might be right. My undergraduate education focused on history and political science, which are not uncommon choices for those who go on to pursue an advanced public administration or public policy degree. I, like everyone else, had general education and elective requirements and thought of them as interesting diversions in the best cases and questionable uses of my time in the worst. Why am I in a math lab when I could be learning about medieval Europe, for goodness sake! I can safely say that I have not applied the Pythagorean Theorem to any of my work whatsoever... but I can also say that I use skills that I (reluctantly) developed in those classes every day. To prove my point, here are three actual classes I took as a general education or elective requirement and how they have impacted my career:
Let’s start with math, specifically algebra
Algebra sets the rules for manipulating mathematical symbols and equations. All of us at one point or another have “solved for x” (or at least attempted to). What does solving for x actually require you to do? Let’s use 2x = 10 as an example. To isolate x, you have to look at both sides of the equation. You also have to manipulate both sides of the equation. You can’t address 2x without also addressing 10 (for those of you following along at home, divide both sides of the equation by 2 to get x = 5). The mathematical concept at play here is what algebra is all about – balancing the equation. In fact, the direct translation of the title of the definitive on algebra, written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote in the early-mid 800s, is The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing (emphasis mine).
In local government, there are always multiple ends of the equation to address and balance. The public, elected officials, staff, other constituencies, and other jurisdictions can often be at opposite ends of a problem facing a community. Internal to your own government, departments and staff within those departments can experience the same oppositional relationship on programs, projects, and policy questions. Learning how to approach a problem from multiple angles and understanding the relationship between two ends of a problem are critically important skills. As someone who leads multi-departmental projects and processes, I always have to consider how the equation balances.
Bear with me…next up is poetry…
I have been told by two successive hiring managers that the main reason I was offered a job was the strength of my writing (I do not claim to be a good writer). I was initially going to select a different literature-based class for this example, but poetry allows us to focus in on one defining factor that I think differentiates effective writing from bad writing: clarity.
In a poem, an author eloquently communicates a thought, feeling, or action in a way that may seem a little opaque. In spite of that opacity, successful poets manage to clearly transmit their sentiments to the reader. Take Langston Hughes’ I, Too as an example. Although Hughes doesn’t come out and say it, we understand that the author is using the situation of being sent away from the dinner table as a metaphor for injustices in the country and the greater struggle for civil rights. With the line, “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes,” he articulates the anticipation of being welcomed to the table that represents American society, with both respect and regret - and being there with such force and conviction that his position cannot be denied.
I find that professionals in local government, including and especially myself, can get overly caught up on the technical aspects of their work and writing. Take a controversial land development application, for example. Instead of directly quoting regulations and interpreting them with professional jargon, the author of that staff report could say something along the lines of, “staff objects to the application not due to the high level of design offered by the applicant, but because the proposed industrial use presents significant compatibility issues with the adjacent residential neighborhood.” Being able to communicate technical or complex concepts with clarity is essential.
Finally, death: myth and reality
I have never taken a more ‘real’ class. This particular class was beautifully taught and explored humanity’s response to death and dying from both philosophical and theological perspectives. Required reading included classics like Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. These texts, combined with lectures that explored end of life issues across the world, not only allowed students a greater visibility into culture, theology, and philosophy, but demanded that students reflect on their own mortality, their place in the world, and their purpose in life. A little reflection and self-awareness goes a long way when your job directly impacts the daily lives of hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people.
One of the things I struggle with most professionally, especially as someone who has an affinity for rules, processes, and procedures (I hypothesize that many in the field of public administration share that affinity with me), is that, first and foremost, I’m a person. So are you. So is the individual sitting across the table, dais, or computer screen. The stakes we face aren’t always mortal - it’s not always life and death - but actions you take, from code enforcement to budgeting to zoning, matter in the daily lives of people.
I’m not suggesting that you MUST think like a mathematician, write like a poet, or reflect like a philosopher to be successful. Digging into seemingly unrelated experiences can provide tangible benefits to your current or future career in local government. If you are open to those experiences and can develop the awareness to apply them in creative ways, you may end up reaping unexpected benefits. If you’re still in school, don’t be afraid to explore different subjects and if you are years past your graduation, do not be afraid to revisit old lessons!