Alumni Feature: Peter Derby, Class of 2005

Dear Reader,

One of my former professors asked me to write to you.  She suggested, in not so many words, you might like to know how having an English major at Hope College can influence your future.  Not knowing you personally, the next best thing I can do is write a letter to “past me”—the me that was once in your shoes, sitting in an English class at Hope wondering about my future.  I want to let my former self know what he’s up to now, 15 years later.

This morning you woke up and hopped on the subway in Brooklyn, NY. (That’s where you live.) You’re practicing a pitch on the train to Manhattan for your meeting at CNN’s New York headquarters with one of their senior producers, the Director of Technology for CNN Digital. You’ve known this producer for a few years, and today is important because you want him to hire you for a project. You’re telling him about a documentary series that follows people who move to destination cities – like New York, Paris, London – without a plan, risking luck and failure. You hope CNN’s digital studio or the NY Times digital studio might be interested in collaborating or buying it. Sounds promising, right?

So how can I prepare you for this morning far off into the future? Well, you certainly had no idea you’d take a career path that led to today. What is relevant for you to know is this:  these pitch meetings will require that you deliver concise thesis statements, and the better you get at writing thesis statements, the better you get at pitching ideas.  A lot of what you do in 2017 relies on what you learned about how to structure your thinking.

There are a lot of things you don’t know and won’t be able to prepare for with your career. Yeah, you’re thinking if I don’t know what I don’t know, what is the point? You don’t know it yet, but understanding the fundamentals of narrative structure and analysis of that structure will become more important as technology transforms how people communicate and make sense of their world.

Here’s another example. Last week you met a client. It was good to see him, but he had bad news. A colleague of his, a mutual acquaintance and a director of content strategy for a well-known startup, had been fired.  When asked why, he shook his head regretfully and said: “he just didn’t know how to structure his thinking and clearly lay out what his team needed to do.”

Back in 2005, it was not useful to try and figure out what your job title would be, especially since your path to this point was by no means linear.  There’s no Senior Vice President of English Thought Process as, say, an engineering major becomes a Senior Engineer.

So here are three useful things you realize about what you learned at Hope as an English major.

  1. It is valuable to learn how to ask questions. How do you arrive at a question and what is the premise? Can you simplify complex problems to essential points? Are you listening (or reading), or are you reacting?
  2. Once you’ve developed a point of view, a thesis (a.k.a. a pitch), do you know the best way to format/structure your point and increase its potential impact? Is there a better or quicker way to do this? In developing your point of view, follow the ideas you’re fascinated in because everything is needed quickly, and professionals know a safe boring story before you even tell it. (Just a heads up.)
  3. Are you open to learning new ways of communicating and developing new perspectives?

These aren’t things you thought about as an undergrad, but after you left, they did stay with you, because you’d been practicing the discipline of structuring your own thoughts and taking them seriously. You didn’t call it this, but that’s what happened. As your advisor once told you as you sat in his office, you should be able to construct a thesis and strong argument about the chair you’re sitting in. If you haven’t yet identified the skills you’re developing and enjoy practicing as an undergrad, I know a few professors who can help you. Somewhere between the skills you learn at school and the skills of your future career, there is an overlap.

After you get off that train in Manhattan, arrive at CNN, and deliver your pitch, your contact there is going to nod and tell you your project is interesting.  He is going to ask you how you feel about learning how to film, capture light, and frame shots. This will be a bit like putting together a puzzle, where you aren’t given all the pieces, but, hey, you’re an English major.  You know what you’re doing.

 

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