We are never done learning how to be better reporters.
I don’t care how good you think you are in college. I don’t care how strong your skills are in your first job. I don’t care how invincible you feel after you’ve made a jump to a big market. If you are not always trying to improve, you’re finished in this business.
But taking the first steps to improving your skills isn’t easy. It takes us out of our comfort zones, and sometimes we need a push.
When I was a junior in high school, I was cruising along and building myself a comfortable little rut (as Marge Simpson would say). I knew what I liked and I knew what I was good at – or at least I thought I did. I had been taking a mock trial class because I thought it was fun and easy, but I didn’t expect it to be anything more than just another class. That is, until Mr. Dyal approached me in the hallway between classes.
“Mr. Sandberg,” he began. He always called his students ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ It was a great show of mutual respect. “I understand you didn’t sign up to be on the mock trial team at the regional competition.”
I put my hands in my pockets and looked away. I didn’t expect to be confronted about it.
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t really think about it. I don’t know, I don’t think it’s for me.”
Mr. Dyal pulled me aside, and lowered his voice. “I really think you should reconsider. I think this would be great for someone like you. I see it in class; you have the ability to speak and perform in front of people. Believe it or not, Mr. Sandberg, when you speak, people listen. I hope you don’t pass up this opportunity.”
I was so uncomfortable in that moment. Here was one of the most likeable teachers in the school issuing a direct challenge to me. I hadn’t wanted to be on the mock trial team, but I didn’t want to let him down.
I agreed to join the team. And for the next two years I had an amazing time, looking up cases, questioning witnesses, and delivering closing arguments. And it helped guide my path for the next 10 years after it. No, I never became an attorney, I never prosecuted criminals or dug into thick law books. But I did learn how to tell a story with my words and actions. I learned how to think on my feet and improvise while still speaking clearly. I learned how to work in different roles as a member of a team. And I learned how to get the truth by asking tough questions.
I owe much of my career as a journalist to being on the mock trial team in high school. And I would not have done it if I had stayed in my comfortable nest.
As we begin 2015, I challenge you to find something that makes you uncomfortable and jump into it. If you’ve covered nothing but sports for your first two years of college, try writing some news articles. If you’ve only been an anchor, try directing a newscast. Maybe you’ve been a radio DJ, and can apply your skills to producing a TV show. If the thought gives you a pit in your stomach, do it!
You would be surprised how quickly you can find your true passion by trying something new. I know people who set out to be play-by-play announcers who ended up as news reporters. I know people who shot and edited short films who later got into teaching. I know newspaper reporters who became radio hosts. My point is: what you’re focusing on in your second year of college or in your first year on the job may not be what you’re meant to do.
So this year, do something new, even if it scares you. You may ask yourself why you weren’t doing it all along.