Francois Sicart: A Letter to My Grandson – About Entering the Working Life by Tocqueville


fter spending three weeks with my 21-year-old grandson this summer, I decided to summarize some of our discussions about entering working life in a letter. I then realized that some of this advice might also come in handy to several of my younger clients – those who belong to the third generation of the families whose fortunes I manage on three continents.

I have no illusion that they will all follow my advice.  Charles Caleb Colton, a 19th-century cleric, remarked that we ask for advice but we mean approbation.  Still, it is worth a try, since a “close stranger” such as I usually finds it easier to communicate with children than do their parents.
So, since writing is still the best way to speak without being interrupted…

Young men, hear an old man to whom old men hearkened when he was young (Caesar Augustus).

* * *

Dear Gio,

As you start your last year of college, I realize that we have spent many good times together but that we never really have had a serious conversation about your future.  Of course, I sense that your plans and tastes are not yet definite; but this is not so unusual at 21, when (it is fair to say) parents (and grandparents) often have more dreams about your future than you have yourself.

Nevertheless, this is the time to start living a little more for the future rather than just for the present.  So I thought I would gather some pieces of advice that might prove useful to you as you enter this new stage of your life.  These are more practical tips than profound comments about “the meaning of life,” a subject that I am willing to discuss at a future date, when you have the time and inclination.

As you may have noticed, I love citations and I will use a lot of them.  Very often they simply state what I think in a more articulate or more concise manner than I could.  Other times, the fame or achievements of the author lend more weight to the ideas expressed than if they just came from me.  I am not always certain of the sources, and some quotes may be apocryphal; but in the end, it is the thought that counts, and I feel no guilt.

If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research (Wilson Mizner).

Francois Sicart: First, About Your Resume

This used to be called a curriculum vitae (CV), but more practical, business-oriented countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia preferred résumé, which implies that it should be kept short and concise.  I lack citations on the subject of effective résumé-writing, but I would like to make a couple of points.

I cannot tell you what human-resources departments at big corporations are looking for.  But if your résumé ever makes it to the person who might actually become your boss and/or mentor, in a smaller firm for example, I can guarantee you that he or she probably will feel like me.

All résumés look depressingly alike and, for people who read them, the boredom threshold is very low.  If you have done anything at all that might look out of the ordinary, by all means put it well in sight.  Otherwise, concentrate on the so-called cover, or motivation, letter, which also needs attention.

The worst possible thing for a cover letter is for it to read as if it were written by a career consultant – which is often the case.  So let me tell you what I would like to read in a cover letter.

First, get rid of all the reasons why your skills would make a valuable contribution to my firm.  We all know that, for a year or two, a new recruit will mostly be wasting everybody’s time.  We only hope that, if we choose well, we will get a great return on this time investment in the long run.

What we want to see for now is motivation – hence, the motivation letter.  However, it is difficult to communicate that through the text.

There are two aspects to the motivation we look for; these should form the basis of the letter that you will write:

  • Your willingness to learn as much as you can and to work hard to do so, without an attitude about tasks, entitlements, etc.
  • The reason why you want to learn specifically at my firm.

Many motivation letters are sales pitches, but show massive ignorance about the firm to which the candidate applies and what he or she hopes to learn there.  You can mention your skills and how you hope to use or hone them, and there is also nothing wrong with showing ambition; but above all, you must appear eager to work and learn.  And again, if there is anything different in your history or background, by all means mention it.

Most résumés I receive either are not answered or are answered by a form letter that, thanks to word processors, will look as if I had written or dictated it.  However, if anything catches my attention as different or attractive, I cannot guarantee that I will offer a job to the candidate but I usually will make the effort to see him or her in person.

Francois Sicart: Finding the Right Balance Between Hubris and Humility

Some of the qualities that will be put to use in your résumé and motivation letter will also come handy in your early career.

In the United States, where you now live, people are taught very early that, to succeed in life, they have to sell themselves.  Hubris thus shocks less here than it does in Europe, for example.  However, even General Electric’s iconic former CEO Jack Welch pointed out that there’s only a razor’s edge between self-confidence and hubris.

In France, at least in my time, we were taught something called fausse modestie – “false modesty” in the States, though usually with a negative connotation that it doesn’t have in France.  It means that you are deservedly sure of yourself, but strive to appear humble out of politeness.

Of course, not everyone can be tricked.  Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, once admonished a young diplomat: Don’t be so humble – you are not that great.

It is certainly true that hubris – especially among the young – can be unbearable.  Eighteenth-century French journalist/satirist Rivarol advised: It’s a terrible advantage to have done nothing, but you should not abuse it.

So, as for many things in real life, virtue lies in finding the right balance between two extremes.

I understand from sources unnamed that you are intimidated at the prospect of meeting some of my friends.  Of course, I chose them to meet you because they are very successful in their fields, but you are afraid of appearing ignorant to them.  Here, I can give you an infallible piece of advice.

In general, it is a great quality in life to speak only when you have something important to say.

Plato put it well:  Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.  And Calvin Coolidge later wrote that he had never been hurt

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