Thoughts on a career so far

I tend to do a lot of thinking. And I also tend to go on occasional email inbox purges. This post the result of both of those.

So more than three years ago, I got this email from a recent Carleton grad, who was getting in touch with me in hopes of soliciting some advice about getting her career jumpstarted.

Now, I like to think I’m useful and I have something to offer people. So of course I said I would offer her some insight.

What follows is what I told her, in hopes it would be useful. It’s mostly my story of my career up to that point (September 2011), but it also includes some comments about what I found is necessary to break into the journalism world. I will also offer my commentary on my words from the past.

What is not included is the woman’s initial question, or her response to this rambling. I don’t feel I have the authority to publish her side of the conversation.

Here we go.

OK, that gives me a better idea. I think what might help, or at least give some perspective, is if I simply tell you my story.

Back in the final months of fourth year in J-School, I was pretty much panicking trying to find work for after I graduated. I had friends who already had things lined up, so I was feeling more pressure to find something. Plus, up to that point, I’d always known what I was going to be doing in the summer.

Seriously. I was really panicking and afraid. After years of having a summer job lined up, to be facing uncertainty was really unnerving.

Knowing that getting into the media in the big cities (specifically Toronto) is virtually impossible for someone fresh out of school, I knew I had to look elsewhere for work to gain the necessary experience. In that respect, I was willing to move away from home right away, even if that wasn’t my preferred course of action. Of course, it seems like my belief that breaking in fresh out of school was wrong; it is possible, you just need to be good and have the drive to do it.

Yeah. I didn’t really have to travel halfway across the country, all things considered. But for someone still somewhat uncertain what he wanted to do with his life, a cross-country trek was truly the right move, in retrospect.

Moving on. So fresh out of school, I somehow landed a reporter gig with a small-town weekly in Saskatchewan. I guess I was one the lucky ones afterall. But not really. The job absolutely bombed within four months, mostly because I just wasn’t happy where I was. I was in Meadow Lake, Sask., and being from Toronto, there aren’t too many places as dissimilar.

Oh, god. Still the worst personal decision I could have made. So many bad memories.

So after four months there, I packed up and headed back to Toronto to lick my wounds and try to sort things out. In the time I was there, I thought about what I wanted to do, and started applying for new jobs. I knew I had to get back out there, and take the lessons from Meadow Lake and apply them to whatever I did next. In the time I was home, I found a way to do two internships (those unpaid spawns of the devil), as well as play Ultimate and do dragonboat. In other words, ignoring the virtual unemployment the fact I wasn’t in school, I had a regular summer.

It was a really good summer. Although the PA camping trip in August kind of put a damper on it. Why was I such a jerk?

I kept applying to weekly papers, and actually got some interviews. Actually, the Meadow Lake job was the only interview I got at the time, so that may have played into me taking it when offered. Anyway. I did a few interviews, but none of them resulted in anything.

That point about Meadow Lake being the only interview I got is key. I was desperate for a job, and when I got that interview and it turned into an offer, how could I refuse? I mean, if I had been getting an interview a week, I likely would have held off on Meadow Lake, because, seriously, the odds would have been something ‘better’ would have come up. Then again, knowing my luck, nothing would have come up.

Then, finally, I interviewed for and was offered the reporter gig with the Westlock News, in Westlock, Alta. You would have thought I learned my lesson from Meadow Lake, but clearly that’s not the case.

There was a long talk with my parents about this. The decision was, if this fails horribly again, I can just come back to Toronto. But you can understand how apprehensive I was to move again, and so far away (farther than Meadow Lake) again.

That was early November 2010, and I’ve been out here in Alberta since then. In fact, at the start of September, I took over as the editor of the Barrhead Leader, which is a sister paper of the News. I won’t say I’m happier at the Leader than I was at the News, because I’m honestly not. I was very happy with the News. The people are great, the routine was manageable, that kind of thing. But the Leader job was offered and I decided it was worth a shot.

That happiness point is also key. Barrhead, compared to Westlock, was really not that fun. The office dynamic was much different, the town seemed less welcoming, and it was that much further from Edmonton. Now, maybe my experience was jaded by how well Westlock was going. And a happy job is the result of a lot of factors. But I never really felt like I fit in in Barrhead.

And that’s my story.

I think if there’s anything to take out of it is that you’re going to have to take chances. Part of why Meadow Lake failed was because less than a month into the job I flew back to Ottawa for the grad ceremony and saw most of the class again. We had an after-grad afterparty where one of the girls in my class “just about took my by the shoulders and told me that she’s admires what I’ve done, that it’s a courageous thing to do, and that I’ll be fine.” I am quoting something I wrote, if you were wondering. The fact she and other people had so much confidence in me made me realize more than anything that I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t have the same confidence in myself.

Yeah. That grad party was a hard, hard night for me. But it didn’t really kick in until the next day (see here for that story and more). But, that sense of everyone being more confident in me than I am remains. I still feel, especially since moving to the Edmonton Sun, that I’m only eking out a job. Like I’m barely surviving. I know, objectively, that I’m actually doing quite well. Sure, there are times when things go haywire — it happens to everyone — but I still feel like I’m only a screw up away from the unemployment line. Then again, I have to have some form of confidence. After all, I have managed to make a go of it out here for the last four-plus years.

There will be heartache. You will think to yourself that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You will wish you could do it over again. But it is all for the better. As much as Meadow Lake was a horrible experience that really did shatter a lot of my self-confidence, as a learning experience about what it takes to be a journalist, it was invaluable. I would never want to be in the same situation again in terms of the aggravation I went through, but the journalistic eye-opening is something I would not have gotten without going through that.

Bingo about Meadow Lake. Horrible personal experience. But it was the kick in the pants I needed to really launch my career.

Now, I don’t know what direct words I can offer. This is, after all, my personal experience. But it is real-world experience, jaded as it may be.

I hope that helps. It’s not easy breaking in to the working world. It takes someone taking a chance on you as well. I have nothing but high praise and immense gratitude for my former boss at the News. He took a chance on someone who had had a horrible previous work experience, and I think he would say he would do it again. And when it comes down to it, I think that’s what you want out of any work experience – that the person who hired you would do it again.

Thank you George. That’s all I have to say.

Holy crow. I really wrote a lot. Seriously, I hope there’s something in there you can use. Best of luck and let me know how it goes. If you need or want anything more, let me know. You know where to find me.

I should really contact this woman again and see what’s up since we last corresponded.