An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

Career Day: Finding Their Calling

Accomplished alumni inspire students to find their calling

Keynote speaker Derek Thompson '04 opened December’s Career Day telling Potomac's juniors and seniors something they weren’t expecting to hear. "The future is chaos," he began. " You may be entering an era of technological unemployment where computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work."

Derek is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he frequently covers economics and labor markets. This past summer, he penned a lengthy essay titled "A World Without Work," which explored the notion that machines and technology may make workers obsolete. So why was the author of such a seemingly disheartening essay addressing a bunch of optimistic students on Career Day?

Well, according to Derek, a post-work society may actually be a good thing. Throughout his speech, he stressed a hopeful message to the wide-eyed teenagers. He asked, “How nice would it be if we had machines, automations, and software take care of the most boring jobs?” This way, he said, humans would be free to find their true calling.

A future with no work is bleak, but one with less work is optimistic. Derek explained the possibility that instead of humans pursuing jobs solely for money, they can follow a calling simply for the satisfaction of the work itself—something that they truly like doing. “Instead of Career Day, we should call this ‘Calling Day,’” Derek concluded. “My hope is that you all find fulfillment doing something you enjoy.”

With that in mind, juniors and seniors set off on their day. Thanks to the participation of 21 alumni panelists who are leaders in diverse careers, students participated in two 30-minute breakout sessions to learn about a variety of fields including science and medicine; communications and media; entrepreneurship and technology; government and law; marketing and sales; arts and entertainment; and real estate.

Seniors in the Upper School Student Networking Committee moderated the seven panels. With the help of the Alumni Governing Council Networking Committee, the students learned about the backgrounds of the alumni panelists, practiced interviewing techniques, and prepared questions.

A morning spent listening to impressive alumni may have inspired some students to find their “calling.” But either way, the day left students with backpacks full of career and life advice from professionals who have found plenty of fulfillment and satisfaction from their everyday jobs.

Some advice from the experts...

Just Say, “Yes”

Associate Publisher of Washington Life magazine John Arundel '81 talked about embracing the difficult and tedious beats early in his reporting career. Showing he was willing to do the grunt work during his junior years helped him get a leg up later in life. “Try to say yes as much as possible,” he said. “This leads to more opportunity and respect from your bosses.”

Continue to Build Your Skill Set

Kevin Bennett ’99 talked with students about how he spent nearly two decades diversifying his skill set before co-founding HomeBuddy, a software platform that makes it cheaper and more profitable for homeowners to sell their houses. He got his undergrad degree in political science and became a speechwriter for Governor Warner. Then, he told students, he went back to school to get his law degree. "I always pushed myself to learn," he said. After law school, he pursued a business degree dedicated to exploring the impact of technology, even co-authoring a book about design thinking. “Figure out who you are, what you’re good at, and what you love to do,” he advised.

Be a people person

You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not enjoyable to be around people don’t want to work with you, Drew Tierney ’80 explained. Drew, who is a producer and editor for CBS News said, “Being polite in your everyday work makes a huge difference.”

Derek Thompson ’04 echoed Drew’s point about politeness. “The hard skills matter, but it’s the soft skills—like are you a nice person—that are the tiebreaker,” he said. He explained to students that you should always treat people with respect, regardless of who they are or whether you think you’ll see them again. “You never know who is going to be the person who will change your life.”

Find a Mentor

Stephanie Croghan '07, who works for Jones Lang LaSalle, one of the largest international commercial real estate firms, talked about the importance of learning from people who are older and more experienced. “It’s always good to have a mentor within your business and someone outside your business,” she said. “It’s important to get multiple opinions and perspectives.”

Be Flexible

Artist and designer John Deardourff '04 explained that it’s important to not be married to one particular idea, style, or way of doing things. “It’s important to be versatile,” he said. “Sometimes you need to change to fit your client’s needs, and other times you need to adapt to stay creatively fresh as an artist.”

Throughout a decade of work as an investment banker, Carl Fairbank '99 identified market inefficiencies and widespread industry practices that made it extremely expensive for many small business owners to secure funding. Instead of going along with the status quo, Carl talked to students about how he adapted and helped build Breakout Capital Finance, a direct funding company that changes the financial landscape for small businesses. "Look more than one day ahead," he urged students.

Failure can lead to success

Taylor Kelly ’02, a principal real estate investor at Brick Lane, talked candidly about being laid off from his investment banking job a few years after college. “Change can be amazing,” he told students. “It takes you down an uncomfortable path where you’re forced to think about what you’d really like to do.”

Accept constructive criticism

Nicole Yun Hirschmann '00, the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the indie rock trio Eternal Summers, explained how fellow band members, sound engineers, and producers are always critiquing her work. “It can be difficult,” she admitted. “But sometimes you have to place your faith in others and be open to developing a new sound.” She also explained how “fresh ears” on a song can reveal something she didn’t even notice.

Grace Guggenheim '74 has produced more than 20 documentaries for television and theater. As a storyteller, it’s important to be open to criticism because there's a lot of pressure to get the story right. "You need to be able to take suggestions," she said. "Sometimes others see things you're not able to see or predict."

Hard work pays off

It takes a lot to run your own business. Sally Steponkus Roche ’94 didn’t think she’d be running her own design firm while she was majoring in Classics at Trinity College. “I always thought I’d be a Latin teacher,” she told the students. But now, it’s her love of classical art and architecture that inspires her interior design work at Sally Steponkus Interiors. It’s hard work, long hours, and late nights, but she’s doing something that she loves. Sally’s dedication during college and in her career has led to jobs decorating homes since 2001. “Everything you do pays off in the end,” she said.

Thanks to all who helped make Career Day a shining success!

Upper School Student Networking Committee

Madeline Dubelier, Arjun Fischer, Lindsay Keane, Amelia Klitenic, Melissa Loza, Gabriel Miller, Ethan Pann, Victoria Preston, Eliza Quinn, Donny Sanders, Eliza Smallwood, and Camille Sommerfield

Alumni Governing Council Networking Committee

Bryan Bennett ’01, Erin Cleary Murtagh ’93, Abby Sullivan ’97, Sarah Duncan ’03 and Cate Rooney ’08

Government, Regulatory, and Legal

Delara Derakhshani '04, Policy Counsel, DC Office of Consumers Union

Patrick Malone ’97, Communications Director, Congressman Jim Himes

Teddy Nemeroff ’97, Senior Advisor, State Department

Jack Overstreet ’10, Junior Staffer, Senator Johnny Isakson

Marketing, Sales, and Advertising

Anne Lenrow '08, Senior Account Manager, Bloomberg Government

Mittie Rooney '78, Principal, Axion Communication Group

Robbie Shiver '06, Director of Business Development and Marketing, Shugoll Research

Arts and Entertainment

John D. Deardourff '04, Artist

Grace Guggenheim '74, Producer And Executive Producer, Guggenheim Productions

Nicole Yun Hirschmann '00, Musician

Communication and Media

John Arundel '81, Associate Publisher, Washington Life magazine

Derek Thompson '04, Senior Editor, The Atlantic

Drew Tierney '80, Producer/Editor, CBS News

Medicine and Science

Allyson Bloom ’92, M.D., M.P.H.

John Lettow ’91, President & Co-Founder, Vorbeck Materials Corporation

Megan Bartsch Willems ’84, Child/ Adolescent & Adult Psychiatrist

Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Finance: Moderator

Kevin Bennett '99, Co-Founder, Homebuddy

Carl Fairbank '99, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Breakout Capital Finance, LLC

Sally Steponkus Roche '94, Sally Steponkus Interiors

The Built Environment

Stephanie Croghan '07, Tenant Representation, Jones Lang LaSalle

Taylor Kelly '02, Principal & Co-Founder, Brick Lane Real Estate