Monday, November 01, 2004

 

In Which I Get Back On Track...

So I'm back from my little trip to a little-known university to talk to a little group of students about...me.

Since my departure, I've been gratified by the number of folks who've commented (not here, but through other means) on the pleasure derived from my random anecdote last week, in which vomit is used as a weapon, and in which zeroes become heroes. Was it true? seems to be the most common question, to which I love responding in the cryptic words of my uncle, the best storyteller I know: "It was true when I thought of it." But the short answer is: Yes.

My trip was fun, mostly. My attendance at this conference was not exactly as a headliner, which was fine with me, and while I went in not really being sure what I should talk about, I came away wishing I had said more (although the professor who ferried me around would proably not say the same thing. I'm a bit of a talker, especially when I'm keyed up, which I was).

I realize I've been off-topic lately, so this is a perfect time to get back on track and briefly share some of the things that people at the conference seemed to appreciate (or at least laugh at when I said it):

To the question, "How did you get where you are today?"

I was on a panel about print journalism when this one came up. And my esteemed colleague (a well-regarded newspaper columnist) gave a long and thoughtful answer that I enjoyed...but it occurred to me that to anyone else listening (remember, we're talking a bunch of soon-to-be graduates who are starting to freak about getting a job), it might have sounded like an oral resume, with all footnotes included.

When it was my turn, I attributed my success (such as it is) to three things:

1. The ability to feed on failure

2. Blind luck

3. Shameless self-promotion


Let's take a closer look:

Feed on failure: This is not about collecting rejection letters and hanging them on your wall like trophies (they aren't). This is about being fearless in the face of constant rejection. This is about looking at your early days of not getting work--or work that truly employs your talents, whatever they might be--as an exercise in skin-thickening, something that will serve you in good stead forever, and not just in professional life.

But it's also about letting failure make you crafty. It's about learning to turn problems into solutions. Somewhere, the late Douglas Adams talks about this, and he likens it to a certain kind of martial art. Assume, he says (and I'm only quoting from memory), that you have a 180 pound guy coming at you, intent of crushing you to a pulp. The goal of the martial art is to learn to avoid or deflect or turn the attack back on the guy, so that the fact that he weighs 180 pounds quickly becomes his problem and not yours.

When you're starting out, you have no shortage of problems and challenges standing between you and the work you feel you were meant to be doing (which is not the same as gainful employment, as we'll see shortly). But if you can turn your problems to your advantage, you not only come out of the deal being clever and resourceful (and if you're lucky, gaining a rep as someone who is clever and resourceful), you might even carve a niche for yourself that turns into an amazing opportunity.

My personal example, and then we're done for today (but I'll come back to #2 and #3 later): When I graduated, there were virtually no jobs in magazines to be had, not in ones you'd want on your resume, anyway. I was coming out of deferment on my student loans, I had rent to pay, I had to eat...so I took at job at a trade magazine, one of these free niche publications they give to a specific type of person: the purchaser of cleaning materials for school systems, the people who maintain the access card readers at banks and businesses, the folks who install high-strength shelving at Home Depot. I slogged for two long years at this job, writing my odd little stories about this obscure piece of technology or that tiny piece of legislation and how it impacted the industry I covered. It was like a living death. I was meeting with my old college advisors, like I was still in school, trying to figure out how I could jump from this backwater of magazine writing into the big time. After a while, my advisors took to observing how lucky I was to have a paying magazine job and that perhaps, after two years, I had rounded a corner, that there might be no going back and jumping to consumer mags, unless I was willing to start over as an editorial assistant. It was one of the most depressing epochs of my life.

And then, in the middle of an interview, I had the most marvelous moment of clarity: I was talking to a scientist who was selling these cumbersome devices known as Global Positioning Systems, which could help inventory managers pinpoint the more or less exact location of large items, such as boxcars or a tractor-trailer full of Toyotas (assuming they were staying put for a while. Back then, it took 4 hours for the GPS to get a fix). He went on the predict that one day, everyone would use GPS: they would get small enough and fast enough that you could put them in cars, you could carry them on hiking expeditions. Why, they might one day be in mobile phones!

Suddenly, I had this quirky, ahead-of-the-curve trend piece that no consumer magazine was aware of. I pitched the idea to a popular outdoor-lifestyle magazine of the day. The editor called me a week later to tell me the idea was too far-fetched (!), but he liked my style, and would I like a different assignment?

Within 6 months, I had a rep at two national magazines for being the "weird gadget" writer, the go-to guy for future tech...which is just another term for specialized products that may ultimately have general appeal. On the strength of the clips I earned from those two venues, I eventually got regular contract work from other magazines, and a job offer that finally put me on the masthead of a real consumer magazine. I had fed off my own failure. I had turned my problem into a solution. More concretely, I made enough in freelance money to bring my student loans up to date, pay off my car, and buy an engagement ring.

Yeah, I may have neglected to mention that my future wife also worked at that trade magazine company. Talk about turning a problem into a solution.

More soon on my old drinking buddies, Blind Luck and Shameless Self-Promotion...

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Comments:
I don't know if you still read the comments generated by your blog, but this piece was devoid comments and I'm making sure it isn't so any longer :-)

Actually, somebody journeyed to my blog, from your blog, and I ended up here when I went to see from whence they traveled (after a couple of other stops along the way) and I just wanted to tell you again - Thanks for all the effort you've expended on my behalf. You have no idea what it's meant to me.
 
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