The Best of Bahrain

What they DON'T teach in A-100

As I near the end of my first Foreign Service tour overseas, I've been reflecting on what I learned, and what I wished I had learned in A-100.  The A-100 Orientation Course, as the name implies, is only an introduction to life in the Foreing Service.  A-100 teaches you the fundamentals, but not the practical, everyday life lessons that maybe you missed (or forgot) from high school, college, parents and life.

  • Learn to use a Computer & Digital Media:  Every FSO should know how to use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Sorry fellow Apple fans, but 90% of Embassy work is done on PCs.  All FSOs, especially PD-coned officers, should also be familiar with social media including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.  Even if you are vehemently against Facebook -- and many of my colleagues are -- you need to accept the fact that most youth in your host nation use social media to communicate. Just look at the Arab Spring. You must know how to connect to the people we are serving. 
  • There Are No Secrets in an Embassy: People talk, especially at smaller embassies where its practically impossible to remain anonymous and keep your personal life personal. Anything you say may and will be used against you. Which leads me to:
  • Maintain Your Corridor Reputation: This is something drilled into every A-100 student, but it can't be stressed enough. If you thought people talked in high school or college, it's not much different in the FS where you are often living in a fishbowl, especially in developing country posts where it's not as easy to maintain a separation of work/life. Believe you me, you do NOT want to be known as the Town (insert negative adjective/noun here). 
  • Learn to write. Well.  Not everyone is born a great writer. But a career in the FS involves writing everything from cables and reports to speeches, press releases and e-mails. If writing isn't your strong suit, consider taking some brush-up classes or reading a lot of news magazines. 
  • Learn to Type. Fast:  It's a shame that typing classes are no longer taught in most high schools. There's where I learned to type (about 90 words a minute). If your idea of typing is hunting & pecking, or thumb texting, it's time to update your skills. 
  • Dress for diplomacy: If you've never worn a suit before joining the Foreign Service, it's time to update your wardrobe. Don't be afraid to ask for help from your shopaholic friends/mom/dad/significant other/GQ/etc. Confidential to young (under 28) FSOs: If you're not sure what is and is not acceptable work attire, ask one of your older colleagues. I've seen far too many young (female) FSOs who dress as if they are hitting the clubs. Ladies, remember where you are. And if you're in certain parts of the world, you'll need to dress even more conservative than you would on the 7th floor of Main State. 
  • Respect the Myers-Briggs differences: One of your first exercises in A-100 will be to take the Myers-Briggs personality test.  The most visible differences are Extroverts vs. Introverts. The Foreign Service is disproportionally made up of Type-A workaholic personalities whose No. 1 goal in life is to become an Ambassador or higher. Those folks need to respect the fact that many of their colleagues are introverts who are prefectly content with serving a long & successful career that may or may not include the Senior Foreign Service.  Likewise, introverts need to learn to occasionally "come out of their shell" because a career in the FS involves a lot of mandatory "Representational Events," schmoozing, public speaking, and so forth. Whether we are Thinking vs. Feeling, Sensing vs. Intuition, etc., we all have something to contribute to the FS. 
  • Learn to work with difficult people: The Foreign Service is a dream job for many people, but it's still a job. And like any job, you will often be forced to work with people who are, well, "difficult". Find a way to get past it.  You don't have to like someone personally to work well together with mutual respect. Remember we are a team working for the same organization and toward the same goals.
  • Learn financial/money skills: If your spouse/parents/SO have always done your banking and taxes, it's time to brush up on your financial skills. In addition to all your regular work duties, you'll need to take responsibility for various personal "admin" tasks such as filing expense reports, balancing your personal checkbook, managing a section's finances, managing your TSP retirement accounts, changing currencies, etc. Nobody will watch out for you. Take control of your finances. 
  • Know your place:  If you have prior military experience, you're well familiar with the Chain of Command. The Foreign Service is no different. But for many folks in the Google Generation, the lines are very blurred between supervisors and subordinates. Most likely, your supervisor will want everything for the Front Office to go through them. Don't skip over people in your chain of command. 
  • Grow some Street Smarts: You'd be surprised by how many book-smart, geniuses there are in the Foreign Service who have no sense of street smarts. Author Scott Berkun defines: "To be street smart means you have situational awareness. You can assess the environment you are in, who is in it, and what the available angles are. Being on the street, or in the trenches, or whatever low to the ground metaphor you prefer, requires you learn to trust your own judgment about people and what matters."
  • Learn to Drive. Yes, drive a car. You'd be surprised how many city-dwelling folks who join the FS have never driven a car, or are nervous/scared/inexperienced drivers.  Unless you get posted to a country with a great public transportation system, or a country where you are not allowed to drive for security reasons, chances are you will need to drive to get to and from work and meetings. Start taking lessons.
  • Learn to Drive a Stick-Shift (manual/standard) Car:  This is optional but a great skill to have, and it could save your life. Apart from North America, Australia and the Arabian Peninsula, most of the world drives manual transmission cars. Elsewhere, automatic transmission cars and rentals are difficult to find, or cost-prohibitive to rent/own. In those cases, you'll either have to bring your own car to post, or hope you can buy an automatic at post. Manual transmissions are more gas efficient and cheaper to repair. Most importantly, In an emergency situation, you could get away in any available car. Plus, you'll have less people trying to borrow your car! 
  • Learn to balance work & life: Whatever your career goals, you must find a work/life balance that is acceptable to both you and your family (if you have one). If you enjoy working 16-hour days and your family doesn't mind, that's fine and dandy, but don't expect your colleagues to feel the same way. Likewise, remember you are not Superman or Wonder Woman; you cannot work 24/7. You will burn-out. Take time out for yourself and enjoy your host nation, your region, your friends and family, the little things in life. 
  • Learn to say "no" and "help": These may be two of the hardest words for an Entry Level Officer to verbalize. If you honestly are too swamped to take on another task, admit to your supervisor that you do not have time to do a project and do it well; never say "yes" only to turn in a half-assed assignment. If you need help, say so. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance from your colleagues at post, your A-100 colleagues, or even consult your counterparts at regional posts.
  • When all else fails, Suck It Up: Life isn't fair. The Foreign Service is not fair. Differentials are not fair. The ELO bidding process is DEFINATELY not fair. I'm not a religious person but I'm reminded of the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."

 Disclaimer: These are my own personal bits of advice. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on suggested FSO skills. Please share!