Lessons in Brevity from Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson held multiple positions during his life. He was a U.S. Minister to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President to John Adams, and was U.S. President for eight years. His tombstone, however, mentions none of these roles: Thomas Jefferson "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” TJ_Wyeth

Jefferson wrote his own tombstone inscription in advance of his death. "Not a word more," he advised. These were the three things for which he wanted to be remembered. And if you've ever visited the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, you'll see that there's no chance he will ever be forgotten there.

Spend even 30 minutes on the UVA campus (known as "On Grounds"), and you'll see signs of “TJ's” influence and opinions–everywhere–especially at the heart of the grounds, Jefferson's Academical Village.

From the serpentine walls he designed to the reminder near the ceiling of the Aquatic and Fitness Center

Give about two hours every day to exercise,

for health must not be sacrificed to learning.” 

Thomas Jefferson, 1789

As a graduate student at UVA, I felt Jefferson was everywhere. I wondered why Jefferson decided not to mention his Presidency on his tombstone. Clearly, he was proud of the country he Tj_tombstone helped to create and then later governed. Why not mention his eight year tenure as President? Was it an attempt to downplay his experience? Was it because he knew there would be many other U.S. Presidents, but that the scope of his work on the school so close to his home would be more evident many years later? 

I spent today in Charlottesville, and found myself thinking of TJ's tombstone from a different perspective–that of a writer who focuses on helping others get hired. Now, the tombstone inscription appears to me as the result of what my colleagues, co-authors and friends Deb Dib and Susan Whitcomb call “ruthless editing.” Editing down to only the essential points of differentiation—even when it means eliminating mention of experiences that are impressive but irrelevant.

TJ's tombstone inscription is142 characters. Two more than a tweet, and 18 characters less than is allotted for a standard text message. This is significant when you consider that TJ wrote over 20,000 letters in his lifetime–all in long hand (or cursive as we call it today). Visit TJ’s home, Monticello, and you’ll see the duplicating polygraph, a device he refined the design of and used to make copies of letters as he wrote. (Note: It's not the same as a lie detector.)

Jefferson chose to be remembered for his ideals, contributions to an emerging country and state, passion for architecture and education–not his job titles. The prolific writer was–in the end–a ruthless editor when it came to his own epitaph. He made it clear what he wanted for us to remember.

At first glance it may be hard to see the relevance of TJ's brevity for today's job seeker. After all, many elementary schools don’t even teach cursive. As a society, we prefer text messages of 160 characters even to post it notes. Letter writing is almost a forgotten art. The U.S. Postal Service has proposed to eliminate Saturday delivery; I haven't noticed a large public outcry.

But buried in the efficiency of TJ's tombstone inscription lies an essential ingredient for career success today–make it clear what you want to be known for and how you can contribute. As my colleague Deb says, "Say it fast, say it clear, and make me care."

As a majority of employers scan resumes with applicant tracking systems before reading them and those don't frequently look at candidates via Smartphones, it is essential to approach your job search by making a strong case for why you should be hired over someone else. After all, if you don't–chances are good that no one else will.

How can I help you move forward?


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1 Response to Lessons in Brevity from Thomas Jefferson

  1. Janice Bera says:

    Great blog I will have to share this with my mates.
    Search 1000’s of jobs worldwide covering 38 industries. Upload your cv/resume and get found.

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