Speaking the Right Dialect of a Lingua Franca

I’ve always had a fascination with “lingua francas.” Simply put, a lingua franca is a common language that enables communication between people or groups whose native tongues differ.

“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Babel story in the Bible explains why human beings speak different tongues.

For example, if businesspeople from England, India, the UAE, and Brazil wanted to negotiate a deal, the lingua franca would most likely be English. Indeed, English is perhaps the most used lingua franca in the world. Of course, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish are also quite commonly used.

I recently came to the realization that “lingua francas” exist outside of the domain of language, as well. For example, if you wanted one of the coolest, most interesting, well-paid jobs of the 1980s, you might have wanted to be doing derivatives on Wall Street, right as the market for derivatives was emerging. To get that job, you probably would have needed to speak the right language (i.e. finance or economics).

Today, if you want some of the most interesting jobs out there, you’d probably want to know computer science. Being able to talk knowledgeably about CS increases the chances that you can get into the right room. And, ultimately, getting into the right room is what it’s all about.

When trying to reach a goal or advance himself in his career, Chris Sacca, Shark Tank regular and billionaire venture capitalist, used to say:“how do I get in the room with five people that are world class at this?” For him, the answer was getting a law degree and immersing himself in technology mergers and acquisitions law. Eventually, Sacca found himself a legal role at Google and often crashed meetings that the founders were in (i.e. the right room). If anyone asked, he would say he was there to take notes.

So, if being in the right room leads to opportunity, the question is “how can one get through the door?” And the answer takes us back to the notion of lingua francas. For Sacca, getting into the room at Google was predicated on knowing something about tech. And since he was not a coder himself and couldn’t learn programming, he learned a “dialect” of the lingua franca: technology law.

If your goal is to get into the room at the coolest companies today, figure out what dialect of the lingua franca you need to know. Finance, computer science, etc. are broad categories that don’t tell you specifically what you need to do. Instead, hunt for the specific subcategory (i.e. dialect) that you are uniquely capable of succeeding at.

If I were to make a prediction on the record, I’d say finance was the lingua franca for two decades after 1980, computer science after 2000, and biology after 2020. Guessing beyond that is a fool’s errand, but I might make an argument for some combination of neurology and psychology (because those give an informed view of human emotion in a world run by robots).

Tl;dr: figure out what the lingua franca of your industry and time period is and determine the dialect you need to know to get in the right room.

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