Talking ‘Lockdown Lemonade’ with David J. Smith (Estonia, 2003/04)

May 18, 2020

Likes in the Time of Corona Pt. 1: Career Advancement Online: Talking ‘Lockdown Lemonade’ with David J. Smith (Estonia, 2003/04).

Extract: David J. Smith on bridging the generation gap

Watch the full interview

Interview transcript

w4rner: For anyone out there who is thinking that their career or their life can live without a digital aspect – do you think that is possible today and into the future?

David: It’s not possible today, and it’s less possible today than it ever was. It’s really important that we continue to connect.

We have to be socially connected. And so applications like Fulbrighter and other means are really important today in keeping people connected

It’s interesting that the term social distancing is a term we’ve been using in the United States. It’s probably an unfortunate term because the social part of it is really what’s critical – it’s more physical distancing. We have to be socially connected. And so applications like Fulbrighter and other means are really important today in keeping people connected.

w4rner: You mention Fulbrighter straight off the bat, so let’s go there. This interview’s come about because I saw you were posting on the Fulbrighter network. You posted a long-form piece recommending folk to think carefully about their careers at this time – I wonder if you want to say a little more about that piece.

David: When people think about careers and looking for work, there’s the natural inclination of thinking: I have to apply, and get my paperwork together, and I have to go through that process. And less is thought about the networking aspect of looking for work, not necessarily recognising that that is such an important part of finding work today. We find work and we get connections because of people that we know.

What I ask people to do is to pull back from the process of applying and to push forward more on the process of networking. And to spend much more time in making those connections with, not necessarily potential employers, but making those connections with people who are doing the same type of work that you’re interested in, forming communities, getting together, sharing ideas. That is laying the groundwork for going through the application process later on.

One thing just to think about is that if you go online today and find a job that you want to apply to, I tell people to make sure that job is still alive: go to the place that’s posting it and you will more often than not find out that we’re in a budget freeze, or we’re not hiring right now. So recognise that, and put your energy into connecting with people, finding commonality – that becomes really important.

w4rner: While we’re on this, before we return to the Fulbrighter platform, I think Fulbrighters watching are like everyone at the moment: they are trying to figure out how to react to this situation. The COVID19 pandemic and the lockdown that has ensued has had massive economic impact – they are talking about the biggest recession, potentially on a par with the 1930s, hopefully not in longevity, but certainly in depth. This could really impact people’s lives; I’m sure anyone who’s seen the movie ‘The Big Short’ will remember Brad Pitt’s phrase about ‘every percentage [that unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die]’. What we’ve previously seen is the impact on, for example, suicide rates and that’s a very bleak outcome. But this is a devastating economic time.

What is your advice for Fulbrighters at this time who are having a difficult time with their career?

Fulbrighters are like everyone at the moment – they’re trying to respond with their career. What is your advice for Fulbrighters at this time who are having a difficult time with their career?

David: I would say first and foremost you have to take care of yourself. That is really part of everything we are doing, recognise the psychological toll that this is taking. It can be serious and it can be devastating for people; their self-esteem and their ego is affected by all of this. Make sure you find communities, and make sure you find mentors that can help you through this process.

I think in the beginning of this situation – maybe going back 6 or 8 weeks - there was a lot of hand-wringing; we didn’t know what was going to be happening, then it started to escalate pretty quickly, and then there was a lot of despair.

Now we’re recognising that we’re in this place, and I like to use the American expression of ‘taking lemons and making lemonade out of it’. So one of the things to recognise is we can get through this, you can get through this. Look at this period as a period of opportunity that wasn’t otherwise there.

Extract: David J. Smith on finding time for reflection

Sometimes we don’t recognise in our own wealth of experience things that we should be doing that maybe we haven’t had the time to do – and now is the time to do it

Everyone has got their experience and the things that they have done. I’m surprised that the Fulbrighters that I work with sometimes haven’t been able to go through the reflection on their experience, and write about it, talk about it, share about it, and trying to build the intellectual capacity of their experience. Now is the time to do that. Sometimes we don’t recognise in our own wealth of experience things that we should be doing that maybe we haven’t had the time to do – and now is the time to do it. Maybe taking a course online, or doing something else that can be part of self-improvement going forward. There are lots of different things that can be done right now.

w4rner: It’s fantastic that you are specifically reaching out to the Fulbright community. This interview came about because you said that you are offering 20-minute Zoom calls to Fulbrighters. It just so happened that that is exactly the format we record Net:work?: A Fulbrighter Conversation in. I suspect most people don’t need to be as nervous – as there won’t be a record button on.

But I encourage other Fulbrighters to reach out to you for that resource. I also saw you are specifically offering a subsidy for current Fulbrighters who have been disrupted at this time.

David: Right. I was a Fulbrighter – I was faculty, and I was teaching overseas in Estonia in the early 2000s when technology wasn’t what it is today. But it’s interesting being in Estonia of all countries, because Estonia was way ahead technologically of the rest of the world. They had banking online. It was “e-stonia”. I remember even then having to grasp technology in Estonia that I wasn’t even using in the United States. And so now 17 years later, here we are and we’re in need of that technological ‘facile-ness’ more than anything

w4rner: I’m really happy to hear that you had a similar experience with your Fulbright. The other half of this edition will be me talking to a Fulbrighter who is going through the same experience I had: which is specifically a Fulbrighter which exposed us to new technology. Nicolas [Lovichi] is making his first podcast, he’s creating new content during this lockdown period.

I’m really happy that I’m able to pair these conversations, because Nicolas is doing what you’re recommending to – I assume – mainly younger Fulbrighters. But correct me if I’m wrong: are you speaking mainly to early career folk? And this comes back to the original question – do these questions apply to everyone?

David: They do apply to everyone, but there is a particular need. So if I think about US Fulbrighters in particular. ETAs, for example, are outbound Fulbrighters from the US who are teaching overseas that were brought back prematurely. I was speaking to a group of ETAs who had gone to Malaysia and were now back in the US. And they all tended to be younger, 20-somethings and so forth. For many of them this is their first time into the job market.

If you go from university into a Fulbright and then you come back and you’re supposed to look for work in this time, it’s different to someone like me who is later in their career. I’ve been in the market, and now there’s a downturn, I have a whole different attitude to it. Maybe I’m looking for a change – I have a little bit more confidence in my ability to get through it.

If you go from university into a Fulbright and then you come back and you’re supposed to look for work in this time, it’s different to someone like me who is later in their career

I remember the recession of 2008; a lot of Fulbrighters in their 20s don’t remember 2008 – that was 12 years ago. I’m not saying my resilience is any better, but my perspective is different. So I’m finding it’s these younger Fulbrighters who are more in need of what we would call a pep talk, and hand-reaching out, and saying you can do it.

w4rner: Too much is often made of that distinction between generations. But one area where it is pertinent is in technology. A lot of millennials like myself – before they were in the job market – were being coached in using technology, and are probably pivoting more easily to certain ways of going digital. For example, using the Fulbrighter network to promote what you’re doing. There was another UK grad from my cohort who has just landed their returning job – heading up an NGO – and she’s come on Fulbrighter saying she’s got some spare time and has gone on Fulbrighter to engage. On the other hand, I do sense that a lot of the Fulbright Chapters, and the Chapter Heads, are not necessarily making the most of the opportunities. I know that a couple of the Chapters – I believe it’s Louisiana – because they didn’t have a digital structure, they are using the platform really amazingly. They’re doing their own content series exploring what people are up to during lockdown.

I wonder if you have any thoughts about your generation and their digital transformation.

Fulbrighter is a chance for us to mix it up. Fulbrighter gives us a chance for all of us to come together – and that is what it is so valuable about it. Fulbrighter cannot be just for millennials, it can’t be just Generation Z – you’ve got to get my generation into it. And then we can have that conversation

David: This is one of the interesting things about the Fulbright community – in some ways we self-segregate ourselves. The younger generation – millennials, and even generation z – and I’m in the boomer generation. A lot of the Chapters in the United States are mostly people from the boomer generation, and it’s hard to attract young people into it. Sometimes I’m a little critical about how some of these Chapters are set-up.

Fulbrighter is a chance for us to mix it up. Fulbrighter gives us a chance for all of us to come together – and that is what it is so valuable about it. Fulbrighter cannot be just for millennials, it can’t be just Generation Z – you’ve got to get my generation into it. And then we can have that conversation.

The Fulbright program has been around since after World War II – recognise that you’ve got 70-some years of people who have been Fulbrighters, and we all have something to offer and share with each other. I think that’s the real value of a platform like this.

It doesn’t take a lot of technological savvy to get into Fulbrighter. I don’t have to be a wiz, I don’t have to have a degree in computer science. It’s very easy. If you’re struggling get your millennial grandchild to help you do it. And once you’re in, there’s so much potential for cross-generational conversation – that’s what is critical right now.

w4rner: I totally agree with that. You’re right to probe a little deeper on what is this technological barrier, and you’re also right to point out that it’s as much one of mindset as genuine technological barrier.

It’s been really interesting seeing a whole society embrace a single new product that we’re using right now to record this – Zoom went mainstream. I’ve seen 80-year olds joining my brother’s virtual church. Initially just raging at the hour-and-a-half they spent trying to get into Zoom becaue they didn’t realise what a meeting ID was. Now I see they coming back every week; I see Angela there, and I thought she said she’d never use Zoom again.

David: On Saturday I spent 45 minutes with my 86 year old mother teaching her how to use Zoom – and she mastered it and then she wanted to set up all these Zoom calls with everybody. And mum – go for it!

w4rner:  This leads me on to thinking about models for Fulbrighter. I was speaking to John Bader the head of the Fulbright Association who manages the Chapters you spoke of, and he was getting me back to the question mark in net:work?: Do we need this platform? I agree with him that’s it right to go back to those fundamentals, in order to remind yourself why we’re here.

The very success of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., means that Fulbrighter, if it’s going to go digital, needs to do social media somewhere in that model. My question to you would be which of those models do you think it should most try to resemble?

I wanted to double down on the fundamental: that social media has been proven to be the way that social groups go digital. I wanted to make the case that social media should be seen almost like democracy. It’s this super structure that we create for social interaction to happen, but in the digital age is almost like a necessary container. The very success of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., means that Fulbrighter, if it’s going to go digital, needs to do social media somewhere in that model. My question to you would be which of those models do you think it should most try to resemble?

David: There’s lots of options out there, the options become daunting for people at times. We first had Facebook and LinkedIn, now we’ve got Instagram and Snapchat – it goes on and on and on and on.

What’s happened  in the United States at least – and maybe globally – there’s been a divide in the market share between Facebook and LinkedIn: Facebook tends to be more personal, family, friends; where LinkedIn is definitely a professional means of networking.

David J. Smith on the social media models for Fulbrighter

At the end of that day, it’s certainly nice to make personal connections and to connect with your friends through Fulbrighter, I think the value from it will be in the professional connecting. Because for younger Fulbrighters coming back the perennial question is: how do I take my Fulbright experience and make it into a career, a professional life. If Fulbrighter can think about how LinkedIn does that, then Fulbrighter will be valuable to Fulbrighters who are coming back and are trying to advance that. I would think the LinkedIn model is the closer model

w4rner: I broadly agree with you on that. I think there are opportunities for sub-communities which may have their own content strands which more resemble an Instagram story, maybe more video content as time goes by.

But I agree with you that tone will be more like LinkedIn. So my question then would be which LinkedIn? There’s two LinkedIns: there’s the LinkedIn of the short, snappy, self-promoting posts and – increasingly – Instagram-like resharing of Gary Vee’s latest brag; and then there’s the more in-depth, thought leadership, and content generation. Where do you see Fulbrighter landing?

David: Think about what the future’s going to look like. The idea of a physical Fulbrighter going overseas, spending nine months or two years in some space and time doing certain work. We don’t know what that’s going to look like in the future. What I suspect is we’re going to see more and more virtual ways of doing even the Fulbright experience. As a result, people are going to be creating content, and creating ideas.

One of the things about Fulbright to recognise: at its core, it’s about creating idea, creating a vision, creating ways of doing things. The Fulbright program was established by Senator Fulbright as a way of creating mutual understanding, promoting peace, and that all comes down to ideas. And that’s better shared in a model where you have the opportunity to talk about what you’ve done.

Extract: David J. Smith on how Fulbrighter can enable collaboration

People are going to be finding ways of collaborating. If I’m a Fulbrighter in Estonia and you’re a Fulbrighter at the University of Chicago – why couldn’t we connect through Fulbrighter to create collaborative projects going forward. And that’s what’s going to be really important

People are going to be finding ways of collaborating. If I’m a Fulbrighter in Estonia and you’re a Fulbrighter at the University of Chicago – why couldn’t we connect through Fulbrighter to create collaborative projects going forward. And that’s what’s going to be really important. That’s where Fulbrighter is going to be a powerful means for bringing people together so that they can work on things going forward. I think there’s great potential in that and that’s where my hope is – we start doing that more and more

w4rner: I really hope so too. I can’t think of a better note to end on – that’s such a wonderful vision. For me that is the Fulbrighter community making lemonade out of the lemons of COVID-19. It’s actually designing a better vision of the Fulbright community.

Find out more about the Net:work? series


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