Just plodding along? Take a (metaphorical) leap

This summer, I learned one strategic, transferable lesson: Throw yourself off a bridge from time to time.

That’s right — and the higher the better. The particular bridge I found myself jumping off was 750 feet high. I had a big rubber band tied to my feet, of course, but that didn’t diminish the pre-jump jitters I experienced. As I hesitantly stretched out my arms right after stepping off the platform, I found myself contemplating how groundless — no pun intended — my decision to jump had been.

Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge was not the only leap I took, however. My other leap was what brought me to the bridge in the first place: a leap halfway around the globe to work for the U.S. State Department in Lusaka, Zambia — a country I knew absolutely nothing about.

In hindsight, both jumps were extraordinarily fruitful experiences, if only because both strengthened my capacity to venture into the unknown. This is a valuable, although much-underrated, skill. Learning involves acquiring the knowledge you need to solve future problems. The future is inherently unpredictable, however, so the most constructive type of learning teaches you skills you will be able to apply independent of context. Constructive learning is about figuring out how to solve problems rather than memorizing solutions per se; in other words, it is more about guidelines than it is about guidebooks.

This approach to learning, embodied in a liberal arts education, has unfortunately lost popularity in recent decades. This trend is illustrated by the increasing popularity of undergraduate “business” and “communications” programs in colleges across the nation. These programs, two of the most popular in American colleges these days, may indeed teach students information about the present state of a particular industry, but they do very little to prepare them to grapple with problems those very industries will encounter in the future.

Fortunately, there are still some outside the hallowed walls of the Ivy League who understand the importance of this concept. For instance, this principle is inherent in the institutional design of the State Department. The State Department deliberately shuffles Embassy personnel around every two to four years. Although this institutional design has some serious drawbacks — for example, preventing specialization, hindering long-term policy consistency, or impeding the cultivation of contacts in other embassies — this design prevents complacency and the structural intransigence that comes with stasis. In short, employees develop their capacity to grapple with change. It’s a concept the U.S. State Department, for all its faults, has actually gotten right.

Now that it is all over and my feet are firmly back on American soil, I’m confident that my two big jumps were not all that irrational. I’m confident that I learned something from the experience and developed in some way, even if I did lose a few million brain cells. Like most people, I often find myself wanting to do what I’m used to. Traveling to and working in Africa, however, was an entirely different experience, and it reminded me of that need we all have to sometimes defy the gravitational force that propels us toward convention. This means pushing ourselves to do things outside our comfort zones.

This step into the unknown — be it as small as jumping off a 750-foot bridge or flying 24 hours into the heart of Africa — exposes us to things we never thought we would enjoy, but more importantly, the experience increases our capacity to venture into the unknown. I may or may not go back to Africa (and I will probably not bungee jump again!), but I will be more apt in the future to try something new because of the confidence I gained through this experience.

As you contemplate your plans for next summer, I humbly urge you to do the same. A link to the application, which is due Nov. 1, can be found on the State Department Web site. Oh, and you can sign up for bungee jumping when you arrive.



Tiffany Clay is a junior in Saybrook College.

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