Everyone has a wild story or two. A couple months ago, I retold a Jeff Waters’ classic adventure to some new friends. I hadn’t told it in years, and this time a new observation about our current economic situation jumped to mind. I think there’s a real lesson here regarding how you should choose to think about the scary business climate we’re all entering.
In May 1991, I found myself in the freshmen orientation class at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. Rose-Hulman is known for its heavy workload and extreme focus on Engineering. Given the deep math and science curriculum, the instructor recommended that we “take a liberal arts class or two” to ensure a well rounded education.
“Maybe try a foreign language class.”
I was faced with Japanese, German, and Russian. To me, Japanese seemed impossible. German was the obvious choice. But Russian… that sounded a bit more exotic and might be fun for a quarter or two. That was it. Just a flippant decision that would later reshape me and my outlook on the world.
Though I have no ancestral ties to Eastern Europe, something about Russian just clicked with me. Most people take one look at the Cyrillic alphabet and think “Wow, that looks hard.” It’s more phonetic than English, though. So once you learn the sounds of each letter, it’s actually quite easy. There is only one way to pronounce a written word. Also, Russian has a spare, to-the-point feeling about it. I think some of this comes from the lack of articles, “a, an, and the.” Anyway, I enjoyed diverting my attention from Differential Equations, Dynamics, Chemistry, and Mechanics of Materials for a few hours each week. I ended up sticking with it for all 4 years of college, and spending two life-changing summers in Russia.
Near the middle of my freshman year at Rose, our eccentric Russian professor, Peter Priest, was organizing his annual student trip abroad. I just had to go. As the school year came to an end, our Russian lectures took on a new focus. They were almost exclusively role-play sessions devoted to declining vodka shots after you’ve reached your drinking limit. As I was to learn, nobody is more persuasive than a new Russian friend with several bottles of vodka in the freezer.
I soon found myself on only the 2nd transatlantic flight of my life. We were flying Aeroflot, and I was prepared to see chickens running down the aisles and luggage being loaded into converted bomber doors. That might have been true for domestic flights, but the international Aeroflot flights were just fine by my standards. We played endless hands of Euchre and Hearts until arriving in Shannon Ireland. I, of course, sucked down a Guinness regardless of my body clock.
From there we flew to Moscow. I stepped into the terminal and was assaulted with the biggest culture shock I’d ever experienced. There were very few signs in English, and I quickly learned that sounding out Russian words at the speed of life wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought.