You are extraordinary enough to be a FSO!
Updated: Apr 14
Yes, you over there! There are many people who read my blog and then email me to say they want an international career but doubt their abilities—for no good reason at all.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a good education, or a decent job, or both. You’re inquisitive, proactive, and you want to serve your country. Total sum? You have a lot of potential and/or you’re doing pretty great already.
It’s a myth that you have to be gifted to become a diplomat, or get any other job in international relations. You don’t have to be the best at anything. It’s important to have some skills, yes, but there are no bonus points (nor have I seen much of) Einstein-level intelligence or show-stopping charisma.
Somehow it’s still a secret that people in leadership roles have flaws. Some leaders are average in general while others lack specific skills. For example, I have colleagues who struggle with basic arithmetic, can’t master the easiest of foreign languages, or lack basic social skills like saying good morning.
You may wonder how this is possible. Well, I think it’s how you deal with your shortcomings that matters. Are you aware of them, or do you get into trouble because of them? Are you improving? I believe anyone can be great if they know their own worth and find a good way to deal with their lesser sides.
So don’t believe this popular idea that anyone who has professional succes is an extraordinary person. That’s wrong on so many levels. It marginalizes people who haven’t “made it” and puts undeserved halos around the heads of those in power. And it discourages the less confident among us to reach for the job or position we want.
That’s not to say I didn’t believe the myth too, when I was younger. I thought real succes was unlikely in my case because I had no clue what I wanted to become. Fellow students ran societies and organized symposiums on topics I’d never even heard of. I just felt like a small girl living in a small town, certainly not destined for greatness.
I also know that the feeling of imminent failure gets stronger with time if you don’t find a nice job right after graduation. We all grow up with the idea that in our thirties you should have it figured out. If you don’t have a real career by then you probably missed the boat.
In reality, 30 is still very young in the world of international relations, and many other professions where knowledge, experience, and understanding people are often the keys to effectiveness. In other words, you’re never really too old—too young is more likely.
That’s why most Foreign Service Officers are in their thirties when they join, and many are in their forties and even fifties. The twenty-somethings that join tend to have enormous confidence that they used to convince the hiring board of their abilities. The older crowd got in less by selling themselves and more by talking about their actual achievements.
I think it’s perfectly normal to think you’re not a genius. Personally I felt like an idiot during most of my twenties. But as time went on that feeling went away. In my early thirties something changed in how I saw myself. I’m not sure why.
It’s possible I became more confident because I became smarter. After all, I’d spent many years ferociously seeking knowledge and experience. Or maybe I’d just come to the inevitable conclusion that almost everyone is average when you add up their pluses and minuses.
So if you do your best you can probably achieve a lot in this world, no matter where you’re from or how old you are. I don’t see any reason to believe otherwise.
Want to know more about working for the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
Other posts on international careers on this blog: