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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

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I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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Gung Hay Fat Choy!

That’s how they taught us to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese back in elementary school. I remember we made and decorated little red scrolls, writing the Chinese characters for “happy new year” with calligraphy pens. We learned about the Lunar New Year and the elaborate parades the Chinese held to celebrate it.

I’m pretty sure those who celebrate Lunar New Year don’t make resolutions as we do in Western culture. But why not start a new tradition?

I know we’re all supposed to make resolutions in the first few days of the calendar year because it allows us to start with a clean slate, to promise ourselves we’ll change before we get a chance to slip back into old habits.

Too bad I had no time for a 2010 reflection those first few days of January. I went to Santa Cruz, Calif., for a family “Christmas” celebration on New Year’s Eve, spent a few whirlwind days by the beach and promptly returned to the usual 80-hour work week on Jan. 4. The breaks I’ve caught since then generally last no longer than 36 hours, and you’d better believe I spent the majority of that downtime catching up on sleep!

So…better late than never! Here are the things I hope to accomplish in the next Lunar New Year:

Find a job–ONE job. While I truly enjoy examining the balance on my bank receipt these days, my hectic schedule makes me miss the days when I had time for tasks such as grocery shopping, laundry folding and breathing. As mundane as it sounds, someday I want to live a life in which the phrases “commuter traffic” and “happy hour” actually mean something.

Sleep. This is among the everyday tasks I haven’t carried out properly since October. The fact that I’m calling it a “task” is itself an indicator that I want for more snooze time.

Get a life. I pretend to be bohemian sometimes, but I’m really a homebody. I lived in the same house almost all my life before college, and I like the idea of planting roots in one place for a while and making a life for myself. True happiness is running into multiple acquaintances at the neighborhood grocery store. Whether work keeps me here in Seattle or takes me to another city–Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Abu Dhabi–I’ve pledged to get more involved in my local community by volunteering, performing more music and attending local events.

Exercise and eat healthier. Such a resolution was difficult to make throughout college, when I was juggling multiple classes, work and extracurricular activities. (Let’s just say I grabbed a lot of bagels and cups of coffee between classes.) But when my first resolution is carried out, I have no more excuses. I’ll have a lot of time to sweat it out in the gym–conveniently located just downstairs in my building–and to carefully pick out healthier ingredients to incorporate in meals. This is the year!

Blog more. Obviously.

Entrepreneurship

I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship recently–its inherent financial risks, the unique “type A” drive required for it, the amount of time and commitment involved. I’ve also been trying to figure out why the heck anyone would be idiotic enough to try his hand at entrepreneurship in these trying economic times.

I just read an article in The New York Times about the increasing number of twentysomethings who decided to create their own jobs rather than endure the grueling process of searching for a job as the country climbs out of the recession. I can’t believe what these young people, some my age or scarcely older, have accomplished. Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Berger founded Intern Queen, an internship database for motivated young people looking for experience–people not unlike herself. Josh Weinstein, 24, got a PayPal founder to back his social-networking site CollegeOnly. Two 22-year-olds started an online magazine for college women called HerCampus. They’re my age–and they’re turning a profit!

These are a few success stories among, as you might guess, many stories of failure. It’s always difficult and risky to start a business, especially when you’re young and broke. But right now, it’s even more difficult. So are these kids crazy…or are they onto something?

I’m a highly logical person and haven’t been known to take huge risks, but I’m starting to believe in recession-era entrepreneurship. It’s not just happening among young people; the number of startups founded in the last couple of years is much larger than the number of startups founded before the recession began–and there’s an explanation for the madness.

Say you’ve been working at a big company in Silicon Valley for a number of years. You’re happy for now, but you have vague thoughts of taking that idea you’ve been mulling in the back of your mind and making it into something on your own in the far-off future. Then, suddenly, your company’s earnings are way down and you’re laid off out of necessity. What now? All the other tech companies are doing the same thing, so finding another job with equal pay and benefits might not be a possibility. Suddenly, that vague idea you’d been mulling is at the forefront of your mind. You’ve got intelligent colleagues, also recently laid off, all around you. You’ve got some money. You don’t need a whole lot of office space, so rent won’t be too high–and neither will the cost of marketing, thanks to social networking and the access you have to big tech companies’ clouds.

Suddenly, you’ve got yourself a startup.

It’s called accidental entrepreneurship, or necessity entrepreneurship–when people take the gigantic step to become their own boss after they’ve exhausted all other options. With lots of spare time to think–you can only spend so many hours scouring CraigslistMonster and CareerBuilder, something I know all too well–the unemployed start to get creative, and big ideas often start to blossom into little companies.

As it turns out, founding startups in recessions isn’t unheard of–in fact it’s common. The Kauffman Foundation found last year that more than half the companies on 2009’s Fortune 500 list were founded during a recession or a downward market trend. Among the recession-born companies: Starbucks, Intuit, PetSmart.

How do we re-energize the economy? Maybe the startups that come from the big ideas people get during unemployment are the answer to that question. Maybe it’s startups that propel us up and out of economic woe.

If that’s the case, could the creative news ventures people are building now be the saving grace we need to get us out of this “newspapers are dying” funk? Interesting, promising things are happening in journalism despite continued financial hardship at traditional news organizations. One of my favorite ideas is Spot.us, where people can bid on investigative story pitches from journalists all over the country and can later read the stories that get enough financial backing. Voice of San Diego, a small news organization of former editors and investigative reporters founded in 2005, resulted from a frustration its founders felt in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s lack of hard-hitting local news coverage. In the last few years, it has been lauded for its excellent investigative reporting and original financial model.

Journalism, like this state’s government, needs to make some drastic changes, financially and logistically, if it wants to stay afloat. Let’s hope these creative new ventures, many started post-layoff, point journalism (and the economy!) in the right direction.

Election night

Yesterday, The Seattle Times was humming with even more purpose and productivity than usual. Reporters argued over fractions of percentages. Editors posted dozens of news updates every hour until midnight. Fifteen boxes of pizza vanished in an hour.

That’s right, it was election day–only the most simultaneously stressful and exciting day of the year for the news media.

In the summer, I was around for the primaries and was thrilled to see the entire staff working well into the night to gather statistics, opinions, feedback and fallout from all around the state. I stayed five hours past my regular shift and dreamed of being on the team that helped produce the content on the real election day in November.

Amazingly, that dream came true. After two months away, I returned to The Times Monday to temporarily cover the nighttime police beat.

As I predicted, the “welcome back”s and “we missed you”s lasted mere minutes before I was whisked away and enlisted to help cover breaking news. Since Monday, my waking hours haven’t been boring for even a minute. The entirety of Tuesday was defined by pure euphoria and sleep deprivation.

Being part of election night at a newspaper–the hustle, the bustle, the political jokes running rampant–reminds me why I want so badly to land a career in print journalism. The things that happen here don’t happen in any other workplace, no matter how much more sophistocated or technologically advanced those workplaces may be. There’s a kind of casual give-and-take here, a special brand of slightly rude banter that actually strengthens the quality of the work, that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else. Though I still believe there are multiple possible career paths out there for me, this particular path–insanely demanding and underpaid though it may be–is still my number one choice.

What football taught me about post-grad life

College football season is in full swing, and when your alma mater is ranked number one in the country, it’s pretty hard to ignore the hype. Evidence of lively rivalry is all around. It’s at the Seattle bars, where our Duck gear gets scowls from Husky fans. It’s on television, where my roommates cheer for the underdogs and boo the top-ranked teams Oregon might later face in a bowl game. It’s in the University District every Saturday, when the entire neighborhood dons purple and white.

The exhilarating fact that Oregon is still undefeated has made me far more invested in football than I’ve ever been before. I now spout facts and figures that last year were a foreign language to me. And even though I still don’t take football too seriously, I think there are a few (slightly cheesy) things I can learn about persistence and success from watching the games.

1. Don’t let your guard down when you’re ahead. Since graduation, it’s been tempting to stop thinking about the future when I’m content in the present. During my internship at The Seattle Times, I didn’t apply for any jobs until my last week there; I’d been so happy with the job that I forgot to think about how discontent (and jobless) I’d be in a matter of days. I’ve learned my lesson: even though I have a job now, I haven’t stopped thinking about where I might want to be a year or two from now. I still scour job sites regularly and look for future “dream jobs” or freelance writing jobs I can do on the side.
2. Things are better when you keep your cool. At the beginning of last football season, Jeremiah Masoli had everything going for him. He was among the best players on the University of Oregon team, people were already murmuring his name in the same sentence as “Heisman,” and students at games worshipped him. Then he was linked to the theft of a laptop at an off-campus fraternity, he was cited twice for marijuana possession, and police arrested him on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol. Finally, Masoli left the team–and Oregon–for good. I don’t have a tendency toward violence or illegal acts, but Masoli’s unproductive outburst taught me to stay calm and reasonable even when things aren’t going my way. Things turn out better.
3. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork doesn’t just work in sports and in business–it works in job hunting. When I’m nervous about missing typos in my resume or cover letter, I have a friend read over it. When I’m at a major job-related crossroads, I get a second opinion from someone I trust. And when I land an interview, especially at a publication, I’m more likely to stand out if I prove I know how to work with editors, photographers, designers and bloggers to produce the best content possible.
4. Winning isn’t easy. I know–I should have learned this by now. But to be honest, I’ve lived a privileged life–one with endlessly supportive parents, intelligent friends and a tolerant local community. All this made it easy to do well in school, to dabble in multiple subjects, to choose whether to get a side job–all without financial or social pressure. Up until now I’ve never had to pull out all the stops to succeed. Now I know that the real world demands more of us than school ever did.

The “dream job” revisited

I wasn’t one of those kids who from an absurdly early age knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was convinced at 10 that I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved my cat Marmalade. Then, after performing in a dozen or so plays in middle school, I changed my mind: I wanted to be a Broadway actress. After choir took over my life in high school, I decided I’d probably become a professional choral singer.

Then, finally, college started, and after two terms I arrived at what I thought was my final career destination: newspaper journalism.

It’s a commonly held belief that college is the place where people discover their true selves and find the things they’re passionate about. I believed that to be true, and so I believed my discovery of journalism was the be-all end-all: that was it. I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Now, after a month of Seattle-area job searching in the midst of an economy that’s forced millions of laid-off workers to reinvent themselves, I see clearly that my “dream job” could appear in a myriad of different forms.

There are very few reporter vacancies at Puget Sound newspapers, and among the hundreds of applications for each and every vacancy are likely a few former Post-Intelligencer reporters. That fact forced me to expand my job-searching horizons beyond JournalismJobs.com, and I’m glad it did. I found an open position for a study abroad advisor at the University of Washington, a call for marketing workers at the Seattle Art Museum and a vacant spot for a government grant writer at the Seattle Symphony. All these jobs eased the frustration I’d felt applying for job after job in the reporting field and renewed my excitement for the unknown future. They may not have been journalism jobs, but they all involved writing and incorporated other passions I have–passions for travel, art, academia and music.

The fact that there are so many potential “dream jobs” out there makes me feel better about my uncertain future in this unforgiving economy. It expands the possibilities, increasing my chances of finding a job I actually enjoy. I’ve realized that in the end, it’s not about finding a journalism job–it’s about finding a job that makes me feel inspired, content and valuable to society.

Networking

Our last brown bag session of the summer was a full two weeks ago, but some of us are still talking about it.

It was all about “networking,” a word I confess I detest. Even in high school, the idea that I could get a job over someone equally qualified by simply knowing the right people horrified me. Unlike everyone else I knew, I didn’t get my first job through someone who knew someone else. I literally flipped through the white pages and dialed local restaurants, shops and cafes until I found one that was hiring.

But since the economy has worsened, browsing companies and cold-calling, especially when you have a specific career in mind, won’t get you anywhere nowadays. Newspapers that publicly announce job openings on journalismjobs.com are so flooded with applicants that we recent grads hardly stand a chance. It seems increasingly apparent that the way to get a job isn’t just through hard work–it’s so much about being in the right place at the right time.

Since almost all of us interns are recent grads struggling to find post-internship work, we were on the edge of our seats to hear what the three reporters leading the brown bag had to say about how we could get gigs. They had us sell ourselves effectively in quick introductory speeches where they encouraged us to use enthusiasm and the word “I” often. They put us in a faux-mixer situation and had us interrupting each other to get a word in edgewise when standing in groups with a prominent person. They stressed that if we wanted something from someone, we had to ask them for it sooner rather than later–usually with some form of the words, “Do you know anyone who is looking for a reporter?”

I’m sure that works for lots of people. People in public relations or advertising, people in modeling auditions. Lobbyists. And maybe even some journalists. I know a lot of publishers or editors who might appreciate such a blunt and forward approach, who might reward an aggressive attitude.

However, I don’t naturally have a personality that hits you in the face the minute I walk in the door, nor do I really want one. I’m going to put my best foot forward and be assertive, sure, but I’m not going to stray too far from my personality. If I do, I’ll mislead a future employer.

Though all of us felt we wouldn’t follow the brown bag leaders’ advice to a tee, we learned valuable lessons on how to pitch ourselves to important people and how to  make sure to ask for help rather than assume someone knows you want their help. But we also learned that one approach doesn’t work for everyone. We vowed to tailor the advice to our specific personalities and tone down the aggressive maneuvers.

Jill Kimball, uncensored

An article that will appear in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine takes a look at exactly how much information about us is available online. According to this lengthy story, if we don’t bother to tinker with privacy settings or protect our information in some way, especially on social networking sites, any Google-savvy searcher has a large, clear window into our work, social and personal lives.

The article includes several anecdotes of people whose digital trails have gotten them into trouble. A 25-year-old woman working as a teacher’s aide was denied her teaching certificate after she uploaded a picture of herself dressed as a pirate and drinking out of a plastic cup, labeled it “Drunken Pirate,” and set it as her profile picture on Facebook. She sued, citing first amendment rights, but lost. A 16-year-0ld Brit was fired from her job after announcing she was “so totally bored” on Facebook at work. A Canadian who tried to visit the U.S. was barred from entry after a border guard Googled him and found an academic paper he had written in which he admitted to using LSD 30 years ago.

Whether people consider this ethical or not, it’s a conundrum we’ll all have to face soon,  if we haven’t already: should we just be honest on the Internet and attempt to live our lives uncensored by our own privacy settings, or should we clean ourselves up for a more impressive presentation that will potentially save us from getting in trouble or facing rejection?

It’s especially important for recent college graduates like me to decide what to do with all the photos, video clips and written words associated with our names that aren’t employer-friendly. Should we think twice before posting that hilarious picture from last night? Should we avoid relaying last night’s events to our friends on the Internet, even metaphorically? Should we take down the blogs we kept in high school where there exist badly-written ten-paragraph diatribes on horrible teachers, cute boys and backstabbing friends?

For me, the answer is “no”–mostly because I’m not a rebellious, wild, scandalous person. None of the pictures of me on Facebook involve illegal drinking, drugs or anything that could be construed as  lewd behavior. Half my family and most of my family friends are granted full access to all those pictures and my entire Facebook profile. I don’t talk about my personal life online, but I also don’t talk about it outside the Internet to anyone I don’t trust or know well.

I believe in presenting myself honestly to any possible future employers. I think they deserve to know from a Google search exactly what they’d be getting themselves into by hiring me (which, considering my personality, is really nothing bad anyway). After all, if they do take me on, they’ll get to know the real me soon enough anyway.