VBI Family: Interview with David McNeil

David McNeil is a Project Manager at Epic in Madison, Wisconsin and recently earned a B.A. at Carleton College, where he was team captain of the parliamentary team . He has worked as a research intern with Global Policy Group, and was a chess instructor at multiple public schools in Minnesota. He debated for four years at Edina, where he qualified twice to the TOC. He coached The Blake School in Minnesota in 2010 and 2011. He attended VBI as a student in the summers of 2006, 2007, and 2008, and returned as an instructor in the summers of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. 

Tell us about your work at Epic! What do you do?

Epic is an electronic medical record company in southern Wisconsin. I’m a project manager, so I travel a lot and work with customers to install the software for their healthcare organizations. It’s very interesting work and there’s a lot of autonomy in the role.

What was it like being a research intern with the Global Policy Group? Did debate prepare you for the kind of research you do professionally?

I interned at Global Policy Group, a small consulting group, through a Carleton program in Spring 2012 that gave students the opportunity to live and work in Washington, DC. It was an awesome experience. The folks at GPG were very much willing to throw me into the substantive issues from the word go. I researched and wrote briefs on a variety of policy and environment-related topics, and had a lot of leeway to use my skills and judgement. Debate, and especially the research skills I learned at VBI, definitely prepared me well for that work experience in particular.

In addition to being a great debater, you also have prodigious chess skills. Do you think there is any overlap between the talent necessary to succeed in both activities? 

 I don’t know if I’m actually skilled at chess, but I’ve spent a lot of time on it if that counts. The activities definitely overlap. Broadly, I believe that discipline and critical thinking are the most important skills/ assets that one can have to succeed at both. In chess as in debate, having the discipline to prepare thoroughly beforehand, and consider possible outcomes in a concrete way during competition, is key. No one is going to stand over you and make you do the extra rebuttal redo of your 2AR, or study tactical themes in chess, but those with the discipline to quietly put in that extra time are invariably the ones who succeed.

Chess and debate also both rely on critical thinking for obvious reasons — in both, you have an obligation to essentially never take your opponent at their word. In debate this translates to identifying the most effective objections and making them in the most strategic ways, especially when it means letting go of some of your original points; in chess this translates to leaving no stone unturned in calculating variations, and always trying to foresee and undermine your opponent’s plans.

What was it like being a part of the Carleton Forensics Society? How was it different from Lincoln-Douglas?

 I competed on Carleton’s Parliamentary debate team on the NPDA circuit for 2 years as a captain and coach of the team. Parli debate is very different from LD. Some examples: there are no cards (rules about how specific your introduction of external sources can get, if they are allowed at all, vary depending on what part of the circuit you’re on), there is no prep time during the round, you debate with a partner against another team of two, and the resolution changes before every round, so you have just half an hour to prepare your entire case each time. That being said, there are some similarities too: the speech structure parallels LD, theory debate on the Parli national circuit and the LD national circuit are at about the same level of technicality (or at least were in 2012), and most of the infrastructure of how arguments are made and warranted is the same.

What do you see yourself doing in five years? 

Good question. The future is full of possibilities. I have to defer to the late, great Mitch Hedberg on this one: “Celebrating the fifth year anniversary of you asking me this question.”

What is your favorite memory from VBI?

There are far too many to count. Each summer was a unique and very enjoyable experience in its own way, both from a community and learning perspective. I could list a plethora, most having to do with the really rewarding moments of seeing student progress and achievement. Lots would be random fond memories as a staff member, like watching The Three Stooges with Bietz at 3am for some reason at VBI 2012. But the one that sticks out the most has nothing to do with all that. This memory was the “camp is cancelled” meme that somehow permeated three successive years of VBI. What if you woke up one day to find that Bietz and VBI leadership had, due to some remarkable extenuating circumstance, cancelled camp? But it’s OK — not only is full pay guaranteed, but each staff member is to receive an order of piping hot animal fries from In-N-Out as well. The absurdity of this and related scenarios somehow grabbed hold of the collective imagination of the staff. In hindsight, it made very little sense.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young debater, what would it be? 

I’ve got a few:

(1) Perhaps the best piece of advice that I ever received was from Neil Conrad, one of the greatest coaches and people I worked with in the activity. He said that when he would talk to debaters about why they didn’t achieve their goals in debate, whether it was winning their state tournament or breaking at TOC or what have you, their response would among to something like “I just wasn’t sure if I had it in me” to achieve that goal.

Echoing Neil, my main advice to young debaters is that you should never think that you don’t have it in you to achieve your goals. Debate is an incredibly dense, complicated activity, with an infinity of things to learn and nearly as many opponents out there who you will probably feel like know everything while you know nothing. In those moments where you feel overwhelmed or incapable of meeting your goals, don’t sell yourself short–keep working, keep learning, keep at it.

(2) Debate provides a wonderful opportunity to connect with peers and people you would never have otherwise met, and become part of a very special community. If you enjoy the activity, take advantage of those connections; they will come back in surprising ways down the road.

(3) Everyone in debate, and I mean everyone, at some point feels like they were on the receiving end of an unfair decision. Sometimes those decisions are truly unfair, and sometimes they aren’t. In any case, it happens. Take it with class and try to learn from the experience — doing so will put you way ahead of your competition in the future.