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Responsibility: The Double-Edged Sword that Won't Kill Anyone

By Christopher Schonberger

Apparently, love isn’t the only thing that can be lost in translation—the word nuclear, which is difficult enough to pronounce in English, mistakenly snuck its way into a report from a UN interpreter this week, exacerbating tensions between Syria and Israel. As the AP reports,

The United Nations on Wednesday blamed an interpreter’s error for an erroneous report that Syria claimed an Israeli air strike hit a Syrian nuclear facility, a mistake that made headlines in the Middle East and heightened concerns over Damascus’ nuclear ambitions.

According to the English translation from Arabic, the address—delivered to the UN General Council by a Syrian representative—would have seemed like a diplomatic slip-of-the-tongue admitting the presence of nuclear facilities in Syria. Upon an investigation ordered by Syria, however, the UN’s translation was amended, but not without some tense moments.

I have been to the UN on a field trip, and I know that those weird earpieces that they have on each desk are sometimes hard to operate. You have to wonder how often this type of thing happens…

But analysis like this does not fly in the realm of foreign affairs punditry, so let me stick to what I know: being a recent grad. Rather than consuming me with fear about the state of the Middle East and the imprecision of diplomacy, this story reminded me of the rule of thumb that I used to carry with me during my days as an intern: nothing you do as an intern is that important.

That may sound like a sad realization, but on the contrary, it is a very liberating truth. Moreover, it applies to the vast majority of first-year jobs. It does not mean that your work is meaningless, and you don’t have to stop saying you like your job because you get a lot of “responsibility” (though it does amuse me that kids who previously treated the word responsibility as if it was nuclear now claim to relish it). What is means is that, when push comes to shove, someone higher up—a partner, a senior editor, or managing director—would be irresponsible to hold someone of far less experience accountable for a crucial decision or procedure.

Granted, sometimes you are going to be the scapegoat as a newbie, and you just have to accept that. But the point is that you are not going to jeopardize world peace, so don’t be paralyzed by fear of making a mistake on your first job. I’ve seen too many co-‘terns tiptoe around the office, afraid to flush the toilet for fear of flooding the building. Who am I kidding—I didn’t flush the toilet for two weeks!?

Ultimately, if you take risks and seek responsibility, you will stand out and be respected. If things go well you’ll be lauded, and if they go wrong you’ll learn from your mistakes. But nothing comes from nothing, so don’t let “fear itself” be your greatest fear in the office environment. Your greatest fear in any office environment should be germs, the elevator, and the IT department.

This is a magical time when responsibility is waiting to be seized, but your career does not depend on it. Don’t let it pass you by.

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