Busting ass and shutting up

Took a run this afternoon, started thinking about a chat I recently had with a young journalist. He came to me seeking advice on how to make it. I’m not 100 percent sure what making it means, in a universal sense. Some people are rightly happy covering preps for the local weekly. Others have ESPN on Bust signs dangling around their necks. It’s all perspective. Happiness is the ultimate success. Contentment, too. We often forget that, in the name of high-profile gigs. As I’ve learned through the years, “high-profile” is overrated. Oftentimes I miss standing alongside a prep sideline, watching Yorktown and Panas battle it out.

I digress.

If I were to offer two bits of advice to the aspiring writing, it’d be this:

1. Bust ass. Work harder than the other person. Make the extra call. And the other extra call. And the other extra call. Also, be unconventional. Be different. Think outside the box. When I was at The Tennessean, one of my ol’ Delaware chums, Greg Orlando, applied for an internship. Instead of firing off the standard, “I’ve always aspired to be a journalist” letter, Greg listed everything he can’t do. “I can’t fight bulls. I can’t sing Debbie Gibson tunes. I can’t walk on my hands. What I can do, however, is work my rear off …” He got the job.

Back when I was in college, a bunch of us attended a young journalism conference in Philadelphia. The event was held at the Daily News/Inquirer office building, and there were professionals offering resume advice and holding seminars and the like. The editor of our college paper, Doug Donovan, hatched a plan. He and I snuck away from the conference and placed our resumes and clips atop myriad desks in the different departments. We scribbled notes on the packets that said, “This kid has some real talent …” and signed the letters in illegible handwriting.

I don’t know if it worked, but it was smart.

2. Shut up. Really, shut the fuck up. Good journalists listen 8,000 times more than they talk. You need to be curious, and if you’re not curious—truly curious—either learn to be, or find different work. When I arrived at Sports Illustrated, I was immediately impressed by how well people listened. They wanted to hear your thoughts; your experiences; your highs and lows. That’s the sign of a good one—a person more concerned with hearing your story than he is in telling his own. Personally speaking, talking about myself makes me uncomfortable. Not here, on the blog, but in person. I’d rather hear about you.

Back in the day, however, I never listened—and my stuff sucked. I thought I knew it all, and thusly assumed others would want to hear my brilliance. In hindsight, it’s pathetic. But such is how the young, self-consumed mind often works.

Anyhow, just thought I’d share.

3 thoughts on “Busting ass and shutting up”

  1. Also – read 10x more than you write. You only learn how to do it right by reading those who have gone before you.

    I, too, get asked this question a lot. “How do I do what you do.” The answer? “You can’t – and you don’t want to.” I’ve carved out a niche of travel/science/feature writing that puts my finger in a lot of pies and keeps me working as a journalist. It’s not going to work for anyone else, so I encourage them to figure out what will work for THEM.

    Oh, and set aside $$ for quarterly estimated taxes, make sure you have health insurance and get a good accountant.

  2. In my defense, my cover letter was a lot better than was described in said post. But the sentiment, of course, is absolutely correct.

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