Something happened to me last Friday that made me reflect on where I am now in my career, versus where I thought I might be when graduating with a college degree in 2007.
OK, the fact I turn 30 this Sunday might have had an influence, too.
I was being interviewed by a local high school student about why I sought to be a journalist for a living, and among her questions was this: “In the past, have you had jobs where you were unhappy or dissatisfied? If so, what did you do about it?”
Before we get to my answer, let’s flash back to 2007. I was, I suppose like most college grads, full of myself. I had just finished a five-year career at Central Michigan University, four of them working for the state’s best college newspaper, Central Michigan Life.
I worked my way all the way to editor in chief. I was good enough to cover the 2006 CMU football team (at the time coached by now-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly). I even covered a second-degree murder trial of former football players involved in a brutal night-club beating.
I had all the tools. I was the best journalist around. New York Times, ESPN — here I come.
My job search quickly taught me some lessons in dreams vs. reality, and it was those first few months and years at the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun that eventually taught me great humility.
I did not make it a full 72 hours that summer in 2007 as a newbie reporter for the Bonanza before I was harshly corrected by a reader that, “WE DON’T LIVE IN THE SIERRAS — it’s ‘Sierra.’ Learn your surroundings before you report the news!”
In the coming months and years, I made errors — some small, some large enough to require corrections (a few massive enough to require A1 corrections) — and readers, gadflies, public officials, involved citizens, colleagues and fellow editors (and, of course, my bosses) made sure I knew when I screwed up.
As I reflected Friday on that question, I remembered I used to get pretty angry when being called out on an error. The ego in me would mutter something defiant, along the immature whine-and-cheese lines of, “well YOU don’t know what you’re talking about,” before begrudgingly filing a correction.
In those times I probably most disliked my job. I mean, who likes to be told they’re wrong? And then have to correct themselves in front of the class?
But my, how times have changed. All those errors and corrections have grown my understanding of the importance of our role as journalists and getting things right — it’s not about me, it’s about informing all of you.
A perfect example happened not too long ago, when covering the tragic death of Truckee’s Brian Andrew Collins. We reported his memorial would feature a “21-gun salute.” Literally minutes after that story went online, I got an email from the California Highway Patrol suggesting I had it wrong.
Moments later, an old college friend of mine, Dominic Adams (who does great work covering city hall and schools for The Flint Journal in Michigan), took to Twitter: “Is it really a 21-gun salute? Or is it a seven gun, three-shot volley? It’s rare for a 21-gun salute. Like generals & stuff,” he told me.
Quick research proved I was wrong, and we corrected it ASAP. I told Dominic he was right, who said no worries, that he learned the same way, “by getting it wrong. And subsequently getting chewed out by an editor…”
Translation: No matter how “proficient” we are at our jobs, we all need editors from time to time. In your world, they might be bosses who coach you on poor performance. They might be coworkers who offer constructive criticism. Or, perhaps those editors could be “having a case of the Mondays,” and they gave them to you, too.
So, with that at top of mind, I fired off an answer last Friday that young 2007 Kevin (or 2008-2012 me, for that matter) never would have dreamed of giving. I wanted to share my response here because I think there is value for many to absorb — particularly for those who don’t like their jobs, however low- or high-level they are:
“Whether it’s a feeling you should be paid more, dissatisfaction with the productivity of coworkers, dealing with decisions made above my head — or countless other frustrations that can arise — there are times with each job where I was unhappy, and that is likely the case with most jobs out there. I know I’m not alone when it comes to that. But the big thing I’ve learned over the years in an effort to overcome those feelings (because the whole goal here is to put in your best day of work possible, which cannot happen if you’re bummed out about something) is to understand there are things you can change and things you cannot, to appreciate you’re intelligent enough to identify those differences so you’re not wasting energy on something that cannot be changed — and the most important thing is to come to work each day with a positive attitude. Positivity is key to a successful job, and the key to a fulfilling life.”
If there is anything humility has taught me, it’s that there’s always tomorrow. In the end, that knowledge is the best birthday gift I could ever ask for.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.