I am reading Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, and it’s truly been changing the way I see the professional world. If you’re not familiar with his work (Blink and Tipping Point are his other big hits) I highly suggest you give them a try. They’re psychological roller coasters that try to explain away situations we often chalk up to “coincidences” in society. It’s positively riveting. (In other words, I’m a giant nerd.)
Did you ever experience the overwhelming feeling that you’ve uncovered a secret to the universe? Did you ever find that a series of unexpected events in your life just so happened to steer you in the right direction? Many people loathe looking in hindsight, but I find the view compelling. You meet the right people at the right time in the right place, and suddenly everything changes. Is it Fate? Or is it something else, like – I don’t know – coincidence?
If you ask Gladwell, he’d likely tell you the coincidences aren’t the full picture; successful people have to place themselves in these situations in order for these events to occur.
Now let’s backtrack to Fall of 2014, when I decided that my college experience was getting a little bland. As a communications major with a minor in English, I was getting really sick of things like communication theory and themes of 19th century literature in America. My schedule was one half psychoanalysis training and one half read-a-thon. Which is all fine and good… except that every course seemed to be repeating itself. I needed something applicable, something structured that demanded I produce a vast amount of work in a short amount of time.
And then I signed up for journalism with Robbie Freaking Woliver.
I cringe even using his name on the Internet, because the number of people who know him is vast and the people who know him feel compelled to Google him. I know I did. But I’ll get to that later.
I sat in Journalism 101 in Fall 2014 with one mission in mind: find out if reporting was something I would ever want to do. I wasn’t confident I knew what reporting entailed, but I knew I had to find out, if only to cross another potential job off my list. (Communications should really be called “Writer’s Trial and Error” – you try out writing-intensive occupations and determine the love-to-hate ratio. Some go on to be PR representatives and make tons of money. Others – like me – choose to be poor, and not sell their souls. I’m half-kidding.)
When I saw the wild-haired, bespectacled instructor, I was skeptical. I wasn’t the only one – my peers and I gathered in front of the building at the end of the night to forecast how the semester would pan-out.
“The guy’s a square,” one chainsmoking twenty-something said (he and I would end up becoming friends later in the semester.) A couple heads nodded, but I shrugged my shoulders.
“Well, yeah, he’s definitely… reporter-ey. But you can’t judge a guy like him at first glance, either. I think reporters can be very… secretive,” I speculated, trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Other heads nodded. Most people were just concerned with deducing the minimum effort they would have to give to earn a passing grade.
My future friend and I were more worried about wasting our time.
As it turns out, “secretive” in this circumstance was “low-key famous” in the journalism world. Woliver is not only a New York Times bestseller, but also a successful reporter, editor of the Long Island Press and has a colorful background in the New York music scene that I still don’t completely understand the origin of. You might also recall a story about Newsday dumping papers at 7 Elevens and garbage bins across the region.
Yeah, the reporter who broke that story was his protégé.
I didn’t learn this until much later in the semester.
I poured over his assignments for hours. I showed up early. I participated in class (even though it killed me – I was an insufferably shy sophomore.) In sum, I gave his class my all. If I was being truthful, I was doing it for him – this strange, wild-haired man whose careful gaze suggested that he knew a lot about the professional world I strived to be a part of. I hoped that some how, some way, he’d see me as more than just a young red-headed wannabe writer. Maybe, I thought, he’d see I was genuine.
By the end of the semester, I was thoroughly hooked. Maybe not on reporting, but certainly on his classes.
“I’m going to follow you until I find out where I’m supposed to be,” I told him at the end of the Fall semester. He laughed.
“You’re not the only one.”
The chainsmoker and I were one of many to follow him to his next course – Media in Pop Culture, something I didn’t think I had any real interest in save for the listed instructor.
It was in this course that I wrote some of my most outlandish pieces. For example, “Fifty Shades too Light: Why boobs and butts don’t cut it in a female-friendly erotica movie.” It was also where I first attempted event coverage, and how to write a review without sounding like a self-righteous fool.
It was also the course that literally led me by-hand to my current job in news reporting.
“Do you need an internship?” Woliver asked me one day, quite out of the blue.
“Uh, yeah, my program requires it… why?”
“I’m going to get you into Newsday,” he announced.
It’s really a long story, and I won’t bore you with it – but I didn’t get into Newsday for many reasons, most of them not having to do with me. I’d lost a little bit of hope.
A few weeks later, once I’d finally convinced myself to move on and find an internship elsewhere, Woliver accosted me once more.
“Come with me. We have to meet someone.”
“Come on, let’s go!” He shooed me out of the room. We nearly ran down the halls while he explained: a new professor at the college was a colleague of his, and the paper she’d just started working for was looking for interns.
“How do you feel about niche writing?” he inquired on our way.
“Uh… sounds like an internship?” I offered, not sure what “niche writing” entailed.
That day, I shook hands with a woman who would one day be not just Robbie Woliver’s colleague, but mine.
Actually, I’m sitting beside her right now.
I interned for my current employer (not saying who – remember, secretive!) in Spring 2015. I became a published author with them. I even wrote a cover story for the publication. It was the wildest summer of my life, and I spent it mostly in a dark, dusty cubicle in a newsroom that just so happened to be a mile away from my boyfriend’s business. It felt like Fate.
I still wasn’t convinced journalism was for me at the end of my internship. I felt incompetent compared to the other interns, who were plowing through J-School at a fancy state school as if they were taught by Woodward and Bernstein. I didn’t know AP Style. I didn’t know what a lede was. I Googled “nut graf” so often it probably soared to the top 10 most researched terms in my county, at least.
But that summer, I felt alive.
I stayed in touch with the editor, who was working on the final version of his first epic novel. I checked the news outlet’s website regularly, marveling at my byline on crummy 300-word web articles. I even did some freelance work for the outlet (and received a hefty paycheck. Woohoo!) For the most part I thought reporting was behind me, but I looked fondly upon my time there.
Until I got an email from the editor.
Have time for lunch? I’d like to meet up.
In December 2016, I made the trek out East for what I thought was a meeting about the editor’s novel.
“Wehad a reporter leave the paper,” he said immediately after I’d sat down at the table. And then shortly after that, “We want you to fill a position.”
It happened that fast.
I didn’t get a reporter’s position. But I’m a web producer, and edit web stories, and read news all day long and develop my skills a little more each day. In Spring 2016, I walked out of college with zero debt and already six months into a full-time job in my desired field.
I love it.
Last week I was contacted by my college. They were interviewing successful alumni to see how they got where they were. When they asked me what the most important thing a college student can do is, I said: connect, connect, connect. Even if the efforts seem futile, it never hurts to have someone know your name and face.
And even if your job is not “the job,” there’s always a chance it will lead to “the job.” For instance, today I just finished editing this week’s cover story, which I volunteered to write it in addition to all my other wildly time-consuming duties. I’ve been pulling my hair out for a week straight. I didn’t sleep for a couple days – because I was a nervous wreck, to be honest with you. Even now, I doubt my competence. But I held my nose, took a deep breath, and dove in.
It’s inexplicably painful to take the next step. But it’s worth it.
The point is this…
Have a little faith in hard work, and in following a string that might seem like just a loose end. Have faith in yourself.
Oh yeah! And don’t forget to have faith in connection.