TWSS: Advice for the Class of 2014
In her 1997 column, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young," Mary Schmich argued that the very best and most important tip she could give graduates would be to always slather on the SPF. The faux commencement speech, penned for the Chicago Tribune, became the stuff of legend.
Both the column and the Baz Luhrmann spoken word song that it inspired became ubiquitous at my high school in suburban Chicago, and yet for all the times I read or heard it, I rarely heeded Schmich's advice. In fact, only in the last few years has vanity (read: wrinkles) pushed me into regular sunscreen use.
You graduates about to enter the "real world" are no doubt getting a lot of advice right now. And as a working journalist who's achieved some degree of success, I feel qualified to jump in with some tips of my own. Some of it may not resonate with you now, but tuck it all away -- maybe it'll resurface in a useful way down the road.
So, to the aspiring journalists of the class of 2014, a few words of wisdom from someone who's old enough to have a few things figured out, but young enough to vividly remember being as clueless and terrified as you are right now. (And just in case you don't trust my advice, I enlisted the help of a few other folks, too.)
You're not too good for any job
Shortly after graduating from an Ivy League institution that cost my parents roughly a BMW a year for four years, I moved to L.A. to pursue my very realistic dream of being a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" or the host of "Talk Soup." For the first year or so I worked as a hostess at a restaurant in Century City, getting screamed at by Beverly Hills businessmen sick of waiting for a lunch table, cleaning up sat-upon food remnants and, on more than one occasion, refusing service to (and thereby angering) adult film star Ron Jeremy and his similarly employed friend, whose mesh, sleeveless shirts never met our dress code.
The odd jobs I worked to supplement my income included flipping a plastic egg in a frying pan on Hollywood Boulevard to promote "Iron Chef," dressing up as a video game character for the E3 trade show and doing a glorified "Bundy Bounce" in front of Escalades at a golf tournament.
These post-grad gigs challenged my patience much more than my brain, but they gave me humility, perspective and a few bucks for a pitcher at Barney's Beanery at the end of the night. A lot of people want to work in this industry, so most places barely have to offer minimum wage and the applicants will still come running. Take that internship in the newsroom, be a production assistant at a local news station, work the board for the overnight radio show.
Do the jobs that suck so you can get the jobs that don't.
"So you wanna be SportsCenter anchor, huh? Cool story. Start piecing together that b-roll on Final Cut, write up a shot sheet for that highlight in the C-block and post an updated list of our show guests on Twitter."
You won't sniff most jobs in this industry unless you've got a diverse set of skills. Make sure you're useful to have around. Get your foot in the door editing, then prove you've got the chops to be on-air. Maybe you'll even discover that SportsCenter anchor isn't right for you, after all. As Conan O'Brien said at Dartmouth's 2011 commencement ceremony, "Whatever you think your dream is now it will probably change, and that's OK."
Do what it takes
My first acting teacher told us on the first day of class: "If there's anything else in the world you want to do besides act, then do that instead." It was a tough reminder that the world is full of aspiring actors, but short on working actors, so don't put yourself through the rejection, the poverty and the soul-crushing restaurant jobs unless your heart tells you that acting is what you were meant to do.
A few years later I took a TV sports reporting class at UCLA Extension and the teacher assured us the sports industry was no easier. He urged everyone in the class to look into behind-the-scenes jobs, reminding us how few sportscasters ever make it on air. The best way to separate yourself from the pack is to be more talented, work harder and be willing to do what it takes to get what you want.
I was working at a start-up sports website in Chicago in 2009 and decided I was determined to go to Tampa to cover the Super Bowl. The site couldn't afford to pay for anything besides the flight, so I crashed at the empty apartment of a friend who had just moved to Charlotte, but had the place through the end of the month. I packed a pillow and a sleeping bag into a suitcase and slept on the living room floor of the lamp-less, appliance-less apartment for the week, "borrowing" Internet from the neighbors and putting up a two-buck shower curtain from Walgreens to keep from flooding her bathroom.
It wasn't glamorous (or comfortable) but I was there, getting good coverage for the website and getting in some incredible networking with athletes, journalists and industry higher-ups.
Just don't. It was a risky (no-class) move before the internet existed, now you're basically guaranteed to get caught. Don't invent quotes because you didn't have time to interview someone; sometimes that someone will read your story. Don't fib on your resume, eventually they'll find out if you never got around to getting that diploma.
Wherever you are, leave
Go somewhere. Anywhere. If you're meant to be where you are right now, you'll be back. Don't spend your whole life in one city, even if you really love that city. You'll love it even more after you've been somewhere else. Meet a new kind of people, breathe a new kind of air, learn who you are from people who haven't known you all of your life.
If you can't get out physically, get out in your thoughts and in your habits. Be uncomfortable. Take a risk.
"You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition," said Alan Alda at the Connecticut College commencement in 1980. "You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself."
You are reading my words on ESPN right now because a very important person at the Worldwide Leader starting following me on Twitter a few years ago, reading my blog posts and watching my work from afar. For months I had no idea he was following or paying any attention, and then, out of nowhere, an offer to join a new website, espnW.
You are more connected to the world than any generation before you, use your reach.
Of course, I don't have to tell you that, right? By now you've stopped reading this at least three times to check a Snapchat, reply to a Cyber Dust and swipe right on a Tinder hottie. Just be sure you're embracing the useful stuff as much as you're enjoying the fun.
Learn how to use Bcc properly, always check to be sure you didn't hit "reply all," don't look at porn on your work computer and treat all online correspondence with the same respect you would give a term paper. (No "I wud like a job at ur company. Pls msg me if u can help me. LOL. Thx.")
Nothing dies on the internet. This is something we're all learning to deal with together. Unfortunately, you're learning it while you're young and foolish and possibly drunk. I'm glad digital cameras and Facebook and Twitter came after my college years, because as ugly as this photo is, it's definitely not even top ten of awkward photos I wouldn't want on the Internet.
Just remember, when it comes to social media: Be smart, be careful and be sober.
Speaking of technology...
Stop taking so many selfies
Turn the camera around, put your phone in your pocket and just be. Be aware of the world around you. The best journalists are seers -- of things and ideas. You can't see what matters if you're always staring at your own face in the screen of your phone.
The late David Foster Wallace said, in a legendary commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, "The real value of a real education ... has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time."
Be aware. Be alive. Stop depending on digital tools to document life. All those photos and videos and Vines are just copies of moments. Write things down. Analyze them. Understand them. Years from now you'll want more than just a snapshot, you'll want an explanation, an exploration, maybe even a reminder of that person or thing that was just off-screen, not captured in the photo but as much a part of the moment as anything that was.
Don't read the comments
If you really need feedback on your work, get it from people you can look in the eyes. (This is easier said than done; I'm still working on it.)
Creativity is a choice
In college a full day is about two or three classes, tops. This ridiculously soft schedule leaves you with plenty of time to practice your guitar, read a collection of poems, write in your journal, listen to the entire three-hour Dave Matthews at Bailey Hall live show and have deep, meaningful conversations with friends.
As a working journalist, any hours not spent writing, shooting, interviewing or transcribing will be spent reading stories and watching games, press conferences, feature stories and highlight shows. No matter how dedicated you are you'll never feel like you know enough. Because of this crippling fear, you'll abandon all of the creative pursuits that used to feed your soul.
But those outside interests and influences will help your work. Fight to keep them. If you don't let new ideas in, you won't put new ideas out. You'll just end up regurgitating the work you see other writers writing and puppeting the bits you see other anchors doing. Don't become one-note.
Neil Gaiman said, at the 2012 University of the Arts in Philadelphia commencement: "Now go, and make interesting mistakes. Make amazing mistakes. Make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art."
It's simple and it's obvious but it's so important: Be kind to your subjects. Be kind to your sources. Be kind to your bosses and your coworkers and your assistants. Be kind to your competition -- in this industry they may very well be your teammates soon. Be kind to your friends and your lovers and your family. Be kind to yourself.
Even if you are bold and pushy and ambitious and confident and odd and challenging, if you let kindness lead you, you will be embraced, and not hated, for all those things.
To quote Conan O'Brien, once again: "If you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen."