My #1 advice to new prospect researchers (and writers): read the newspaper

One of my favorite professors in college was Dr. Rajaram Krishnan, who taught economics and used haircuts and candy bars as his go-to examples when demonstrating economic theories. He was funny, he was informative, he pushed us to consider different perspectives,and he said things that have stayed with me for the rest of my life.  I wish I had taken more classes with him–I didn’t take more because I was afraid of getting anything less than an A- and I knew that with my shaky math skills, I would probably get a B.  I would choose learning over grades now, but at 19 I hadn’t made that leap.  So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut says.

One of the many things Dr. Krishnan  shouted told us was “read the damn newspaper, for God’s sake!”  His point was this:  even if you don’t agree with the conclusions of economists and policy-makers, even if you don’t agree with the way major newspapers present news stories, those conclusions and decisions will affect your life, so it’s good to be familiar with the conversation.

“I find your knowledge of the Argentinian debt crisis even more attractive then your amazing tango skills, Amelia. We should definitely go out again.”

Despite my professor’s very good advice, reading the newspaper occupied the same space in my brain as flossing my teeth–yes, yes, I KNOW it is good for me, it is part of being a responsible adult human, will give me powerful bone-crushing incisors when I’m old and need to nibble my way out of the ropes my nemesis’s ninjas have bound me in (I plan on being an awesome old person) but after college and grad school I managed to put reading the newspaper off in favor instant and fleeting gratification, like Netflix.  So I flossed and read the newspaper haphazardly, usually before I wanted to impress someone during a job interview or a date.

Then I got a job as a prospect researcher, and was assigned to read the Financial Times, every day.  Not the New York Times, with its sexy font, not the Economist with its glossy pictures of world leaders–the Financial Times.  Every day.  And I needed to understand the articles enough to actually decide what was important enough to forward to the rest of the department.

The first few months were hard.  I never read business and economics news regularly before and it felt like walking into the middle of a conversation.  There were a lot of terms that I used but realized quickly that I only half-understood, like hedge fund and commodities, and many terms I didn’t understand at all, like quantitative easing and currency swaps.   In addition, reading about global economics felt like walking into someone’s beloved soap opera, or a book series, everyone else knew the cast of characters and had decades of experience with them and I kept asking questions like, “Wait, is he the central bank governor or the head of the World Bank?  I thought she was the prime minister, not the president–no, wait, she used the be the prime minister and now she’s running for president.  Okay. Who is the CEO of JP Morgan Chase again?”

Honestly, if I was doing it on my own, I probably would have given up and ran away to the New York Times.  But it was my job, so I stuck with it.

Learning to read the Financial Times reminded me of learning Spanish, I couldn’t look up every word I didn’t know in every article, but I gave myself the task of looking up a couple words every day and really digging into at least one sub-industry per week.  One week I read lots of articles on hedge funds, another week I learned about currency markets.  And like learning to read in a foreign language, the daily work started to add up and I began to understand more and more of the text.

As a prospect researcher, simply sitting down and reading the Financial Times every damn day was the best crash course in economics and industry intelligence I could have gotten. It served two purposes: it provided a never-ending stream of information about the global economy that I could use as a my own personal lesson plan, and it allowed me to listen in on a conversation happening among my organization’s prospects…which in turn helped me write and research about them more efficiently and with more insight.

Moreover, reading the FT regularly began to serve as a touchstone for other interests–I paid attention to how issues I cared about, such as income inequality, or racial discrimination in the workplace, were portrayed in a publication geared towards business professionals and policy-makers.  I noted how the Financial Times, a UK-based paper, covered US politics and events, and I compared the coverage of particular world events in FT versus US-based news sources.  As Professor Krishnan had said, knowing the way the conversation is being framed is important data in and of itself.

One of the joys and challenges of being a prospect researcher and  a writer is that you must be able to see the world from multiple vantage points and that requires the willingness and ability to leave your intellectual comfort zone.  It is not comfortable to read unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts every day; it is not comfortable to admit that you don’t know something yet–but it is such a joy to realize that you can learn and write about so much more than you think you are capable of.

Dear Lucy, I disagree with much of your career advice, but that's okay, because your over the glasses glare is on point.
Dear Lucy, I disagree with much of your career advice, but that’s okay, because your over the glasses glare is on point.

The Financial Times has now, to my great surprise, become one of my favorite things to read.  I love their breadth and depth of coverage on the emerging economies, I love their special reports on particular industries, I love their cranky job advice columnist, I even love their ridiculous nerdy puns in the headlines.  And I love the feeling of listening in on one thread of the global conversation.

So here is my #1 piece of advice to all brand-new prospect researchers:  read a business periodical every day, even if it is hard at first.  A subscription is relatively cheap and it’s the best daily professional development  you can get.  If you can read more than one newspaper, even better.  But just read.  It’s worth it.