Perfect meditation is a pipe dream but I'll keep practicing
Meditation is free but hard. You are being asked to sit still or lie down in a quiet room and observe your thoughts for a set amount of time. It was terrifying and hard to me, so naturally, I had to try it.
Just don’t do it sitting crosslegged at first. All you’ll be thinking about for the first ten minutes is how inflexible you are, if you last ten minutes at all without itching and twitching.
Meditation, like an instrument, requires daily practice, which is why I haven’t missed a beat in over a year (it's actually more like two but where's the proof?). I have been using the meditation app Insight Timer to keep track of my progress. Here's what that looks like:
Getting to this point didn’t happen overnight and involved a series of steps. You don’t start by learning Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu on the piano. You might start with Twinkle Twinkle and progress through several stages before trying your hand at Chopin, right?
My head was such mess, I first had to sort through my thoughts by journaling which I wrote about here: This is what happens after 100 days of gratitude.
I couldn’t sit still for long stretches (certainly not crosslegged), so I then had to spend a few years releasing tension and building mental strength with the right kind of physical activity and learned how mindfulness is forged in the gym.
I’m no meditation Chopin and still feel like a novice. I can probably play the equivalent of a Mozart sonata in my meditation practice. I can sit there for 20 minutes (roughly the length of a sonata) and not twitch. My first few attempts are now nearly two years back when toilet breaks and two deep breaths counted as meditation. I'm passed that now.
There is no set formula or rules for meditation, by the way, and don’t let anyone tell you there are. Several techniques range from controlled breathing to finding other points of focus and ways to occupy your mind, but in the end, you can play Bach in its original form or jazz it up. We’re all unique.
It’s a practice steeped in cultural traditions, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable with uttering “namaste,” saying “Om" or "Kali Ma Shakti de" 100 times, but mantras work for some. To me, its silent prayer by another name, but if it feels weird or too out there, then I don’t do it. I mix and match a few techniques.
If you don’t want to sit still and meditate, you can do moving meditation, like Yoga, or spend a set amount of time writing, which, let’s face it is also a form of meditation.
I thought meditation was woo-woo, spiritual nonsense. People get into it for a variety of reasons, including enhanced performance, stress reduction, concentration, and just generally, to feel happier and more balanced. I don’t notice any of those things. I think my tennis game is better and more controlled, but I lost all my matches this season, so I’m not sure.
I can’t seem to think of a day without meditation anymore. Somewhere along the road, meditating felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I was floating in zero-G with my thoughts echoing and dissipating in a luminous cave of light. All my senses tingled, and I thought, okay, that was cool, how do I get to there every time I do this?
Not very often, apparently. That precise feeling hit me once with the same intensity, and I have not managed to get to that same place again. That sweet music, delivered to me by the meditation gods, was taste enough of the free hallucinogenic drug to get me hooked. I’m a hooked skeptic and maybe I've lost my beginner’s mind my non-existent progress has stalled.
I watch my kids play and be happy in an effortless way and actually, they’ve got it right. We age and the years of our experience and unresolved baggage encumber our spirit, and we forget that when its time to play, play. When it’s time to work, work. When it’s time to love, love. If its time to cry, cry. When its time to meditate, just let it go. The kids dance effortlessly to the natural rhythm in the present moment. They don’t need meditation.
My head is full of voices. I know, that sounds like a have a personality disorder but the truth is emotions awaken multiple versions of me. Some are from external forces, such as what you see or hear; others come from within as past experiences manifest while you sit there trying not to brood. There are layers of inbuilt phrasing, so when the orchestra of your mind starts playing, some of the passages you wrote are out of tune. You can hear them, but can you fix them? No.
Meditation allows you to amplify the ones that you identify with and tune out the unwanted ones. I want to tune in my playful self and tune out a judgemental self. Meditation has helped me do that. I used to let negative thoughts define me, but, now, they appear, and I know how to make them disappear. I take my bow and pop them in the air like a bubble then I set a new frequency. That’s why I need to do some tuning every day. I don’t care if it’s only 5 minutes in bed. I need it.
I’m a neurotic person. That is a belief I hold about myself and people have confirmed that I am manic, rash, and impulsive. Someone once called me a L.A.M. - Little Angry Man - because I always let my emotions get the better of me (also because an actual lamb is non-threatening, and so was my anger).
On the neuroticism scale, I'm still way up there even after meditating. That’s just who I am, emotional, but meditation has taken that neuroticism and channeled it into something productive. I’m neurotically grateful, neurotically relaxed, neurotically joyful instead of letting neurotic fear, worry and anxiety take over.
If there is one thing I learned from meditating, it's that happiness is not a goal but the outcome of taking action. Meditation is one of the steps I take that makes me feel happier. I don’t wake up and say to myself, hey, I’m going to be happy today. No, I meditate and feel good in that moment. I’m content and just carry that feeling into my day.
I’m still unstable as external forces weigh me down during the day and have bouts of deep self-doubt. To me, these ups and downs are part of being human, but these episodes don’t last as long, and the peaks and valleys are less pronounced. I recognize them and know to treat myself more gently and compassionately in those moments.
A lot of the posts out there will give you tips on how to start a meditation practice. I can give you the same tips on making it a habit, creating an environment conducive to the practice, starting small, and then building the meditation muscle successively but I’m not going to do that. Read this guide here; it was pretty comprehensive (and had fun little drawings).
I’m going to leave you with the simple idea that we don’t need to be spiritual to meditate. You don’t need to believe in some cosmic crap to reap the (intangible) benefits. Once you realize that your mind is like an instrument and can be played using meditation techniques, you’ll get a chance to tune and update all those classics that are playing in your head already: the good and the bad.
I come to the practice in a new state every day. It’s still five minutes of fidgeting some days, but I’ll have to accept that. Nothing ever stays the same; life happens, time moves on, and with it, so will your thoughts. No two performances will ever be quite the same, but occasionally the sweetest music plays in your mind’s eye, and it's all yours to savor.
You may find being vegan or vegetarian has nothing to do with social justice, lifestyle, or religion
You should ask a vegetarian or vegan why they choose to forgo meat or animal products because the root of their choice may uncover a simple lack of understanding on your part. I'm your case in point.
After reading George Reynold's piece Why do people hate vegans, I felt the need to explain why I think it's possible for warring food ideologies to co-exist. My hope is this piece will moderate what appears to be a planetary war raging between the plant-based tendencies of vegetarians, vegans, and the rest of the world.
I'm a vegetarian. I've been a vegetarian for four years, and it's not for social justice reasons, not for religious, not for environmental purposes, and not even for my health, although all of those might be excellent and valid reasons. No, my wife and I are both vegetarians to keep the balance between the dietary needs and restrictions imposed on us by our two kids.
One girl is a carnivore, the other has a rare metabolic condition called phenylketonuria, or PKU for short.
I'll explain, but first, here's why I am uniquely qualified to talk about diet and nutrition.
I've tried a lot of diets. Keen to understand how to live my life best and get the most out of it I did Whole30, went vegan for a while, was a Paleo convert on my initial fitness journey, toyed but never committed to Keto, was a flexitarian, ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, played with intermittent fasting, weighing macros and a enjoyed 'seefood,' that's when you see food and eat it, doesn't matter what it is. That last one is my favorite and probably the most easily understood.
I've been hooked on diet trends for years, conjuring up the latest ideas to boost muscle growth, improve my brain's performance, and get fitter. I've aggressively slimmed down for fun, drank nothing but coffee with butter in the mornings for several weeks (Bulletproof coffees remember those?), and tried fasting for a day just to see what happens (turns out you get dizzy and the world moves in slow motion). I've had a warped sense of eating too much, not enough, and sometimes all the wrong stuff, because you know, even tomatoes can be toxic.
Not everyone is on a journey of discovering which food is their medicine, but I'm glad I went through all of this. I was having fun in the process until my second daughter was born with PKU four years ago. It's a hereditary disease that doesn't allow her body to break down protein properly. It's the only metabolic condition that is treated through diet alone (as far as I know)!
Her diet is low-protein, and she requires a specialized medical dietary supplement that she drinks four times a day to meet her nutritional needs. She'll never tuck into a steak, a piece of tofu, or anything high protein. She has no choice in the matter as eating these foods leads to a toxic build-up of the amino acid phenylalanine in the brain, causing irreparable damage.
If she sticks to the diet and supplements, she'll lead a normal life, but we need to weigh her food, keep track of it daily, take her blood twice and month, and she's regularly denied certain foods while my older daughter happily tucks in.
My older daughter, well, she loves meat and living in Germany means they offer it at school. The meat counters are stocked, and there's an abundance of choice. I've already said that going vegetarian or, even, vegan is a personal choice, and to keep my integrity intact, I've told my daughter it's her choice if she wishes to eat meat or join us in becoming vegetarian. Her going vegetarian would make our life a ton easier, believe me.
The current setup means our meals can be a complex mix of PKU-friendly foods, which are highly processed, a carnivore's delight on the side, and vegetarian. I've cooked three different meals on several occasions, and we stock a variety of foods most people will never hear about from companies like Mevalia and Loprofin. We live in a mini-cosmos of our own where food ideology has no place.
We have a wonderful friend who is vegan, and he'll come over and cook for us. The kids mostly get something else, but he doesn't chastise my daughter for having her ham sandwich. He can talk to her about his choices (and I'm glad he does), but it's still ultimately her choice.
Unfortunately, food ideologies do clash, and then warring tribes can either find a way to co-exist or fight.
A few years back, before the birth of my child with PKU, a close family member was part of a Hindu clan (we're all Christians, FYI) and became a vegetarian with a twist: she didn't eat onions or garlic (I still fail to understand the reasoning for that but religion doesn't always make sense, right?), or eggs.
Initially dumbstruck, we ignored her needs or haphazardly tried to accommodate her. We eventually started making cakes without eggs, had Thanksgiving without a turkey and Christmas without meat. We were all on the same, weird page for a while. What we learned was that the meal brought us together around the table, the contents of that meal didn't matter.
Kids adjust more readily to the reality they are confronted with. We can learn so much from them in that regard, and when I do manage to dish up a meal that we can all share, it feels special, and my younger daughter's eyes light up. There are more vegetables on the table, which is good. Our mantra is to try to eat real, non-processed food, but even that is hard when your child with PKU requires calories. We have to push French fries instead of fresh veg.
If anything, we've grown to learn and accept that being tolerant of someone's food choice is more important than ideology. This was especially important during the Hindu-clan foray, as not accommodating the person would have driven them even further away. None of us wanted that. The family member in question has since left the clan and once again eats meat. Nothing is black and white, people change.
At home with my two kids, there is no room for tolerance in my youngest daughter's diet, so as parents, we have to lead by example and made a small sacrifice. Going vegetarian was was not just about accommodating her needs and feeling the pinch of a dietary restriction; it was a practical choice. There is usually at least one element on the table we can all share. On a deeper level, it allows us, as parents, to be the balancing force between planet PKU and planet omnivore.
The root of our vegetarianism is building a harmonious family. It's also about breeding openness and tolerance about dietary restrictions and personal choice. You may want to call that social justice, but it's not religious and not environmental activism, or we might require our older daughter to be vegetarian.
Sure, movies like Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy helped strengthen our resolve to stay vegetarian, but faced with the complexities of dietary restrictions in our family has given us a greater capacity for tolerating warring food-ideologies.
Quirky eaters are always welcome at our table. You know who you are.
Email subtext and system, it's all in here.
As a journalist, I've sent thousands of interview requests over the years and wasted countless hours struggling over how to structure them, what to say, and how to say it.
Fashioning these requests used to be time-consuming and frustrating because I wasn't getting any responses. I spent a lot of time writing and sending them out. If you are sending these email requests out cold, you need to start sending more.
As I've said before if you want more interviews send out more request.
I'm going to answer all of that here right after this short disclaimer.
This system is no guarantee that you'll land the interview you want. You can and should develop your approach, but my hope is this will be enough to get you started.
This type of request is suited for when you have time and need to send out a high volume of personalized requests, say, ahead of a conference. If you need a quote for a news story, you'll need to pick up the phone or hit the street.
Actually, pick up the phone and call the person or company you want to speak to first. Don't just write an email to the firstname.lastname@example.org address, and please don't use the 'contact us' form on the website unless you absolutely have to.
But you know what? I like emails, they are lazy and make you feel like you've done a lot. It also means this hermit can avoid speaking to anyone.
If you want to address the email to someone real, you need a real name. The fastest results always happen by finding a real person to message. You can research that on the web or use something like Hunter.io and figure out the person's email. Or if you really want to you can pick up the phone to find out.
Having that someone on the phone will also give you the chance to just set things up on the spot. No need to waste time fashioning that perfect email.
In some cases, because people are busy and like to have a written record of your request, they'll ask you to file something via email. Fine.
So, here's the basic format of your email. It should include these elements:
Dear / Hi [FORMAL OR CASUAL]
Thanks for taking my call earlier. [SCRATCH THIS, IF SENDING OUT COLD]
I'm a journalist writing for [PUBLICATION], [ONE LINE ABOUT PUBLICATION]. Find out more about me in the links below. [INCLUDE LINKS TO PUBLICATION / LINKEDIN / WEBSITE IN YOUR SIGNATURE]
I've been tasked with researching/writing about [SOMETHING BELIEVABLE ABOUT WHY YOU NEED TO SPEAK TO THEM] and seen that [COMPANY/ PERSONS NAME] has [RELEVANT NEWS ITEM]. I'd be interested in speaking with you about [REFER BACK TO THAT GREAT NEWS!].
[WHY THIS IS INTERESTING TO OUR READERS]
[WHY YOU SHOULD CARE]
[INTERVIEW DETAILS / WHEN / HOW MUCH TIME / DEADLINE]. I'll do my best to work around your schedule.
Let me know if that interests you.
Let me start at the end. I usually sign off with my first name. Sometimes I write "best," but I question why the heck I do that, as it doesn't mean anything.
[FORMAL OR CASUAL?]
Back to the beginning. You'll start off with 'Dear so-and-so.' Duh! No, wait. It's not that easy. If I'm writing to Americans I'll usually go for "Dear Jack," so, I'll use the first name.
I could also go for Dear Mr. Dorsey if I want to create distance to the person. Which one is it? It depends on what you want to achieve, and remember that phone call you just made? That'll give you an insight into whether you need to be formal or not. I want to achieve a relaxed atmosphere, so I'll roll on a first-name-basis, even with CEOs and other high-flyers (mostyl).
If I'm writing to someone in public relations, I'll go with first names. I consider us on the same level. I'll be formal with most Germans as its a cultural thing, but even here, things are loosening up.
Now, I'm confident enough to point you to my LinkedIn profile, MuckRack, or website to show you my work. I don't need to spell it out, they'll have the publication your writing for, and once they're done reading the email, they can do their checks. The main thing is, I'm controlling where to send them by providing the links.
In the next section, I pull one little fact about the company from a press release or from somewhere else to show that I've at least looked at the material or researched the topic. This is not some just cookie-cutter email (well, actually it is), but I've just made it far more personal. You need to mention the company name or the exact name of the person you want to talk to. Don't skip that.
[REFER BACK TO THAT GREAT NEWS!]
I also tend to take a recent news item that is positive. People remember you by how you make them feel. Make them feel good and that will put them in the right mood, you'll be non-threatening and they are more likely to respond. Don't flatter, that's a cheap trick. All we're doing here is referring to the positive news they've already communicated. No false flattery here.
Next, tell them about why your readers care to hear from them and then hammer that home by saying exactly why they should care. If you are writing to public relations people, they always want to know what's in it for them.
Public relations specialists get tons of requests and are thinking about malicious media inquiries and how to protect their clients, as PR professional Curtis Sparrer writes. (Dubious Media Inquiries: How Agencies Can Protect Clients)
Tell people in public relations, hey, you're going to reach these 10,000 specialists if your client is mentioned in an article. (If you're at a significant publication everybody knows, you probably don't need this line, but it's good to remind the email recipient how darn important it is to get their name in front of your audience).
Finally, leave them with an option to respond. I tend to use something that, again, speaks to them. "Let me know if that interests you." I'm intentional about not making them commit. A lot of people will ask a question, or be brazen and ask for a timeslot to speak. It's best to leave more detailed planning for the next exchange, that's my thought.
This is a request, not a demand, so being soft here also shows that you are not desperate. Imagine I would have written: "So when would be a great time for an interview?" Sounds like please, please, please find time for me.
Leave the door open just enough so that they feel like they have to commit. People write back to me and say this is not interesting, which then allows me to open up a conversation about what is interesting to them and find a way in.
There is no guarantee that you'll land the interview with this email formula, but taking the time to think about the purpose of each line in your email in this way, will show that you care and may undoubtedly increase your odds of an answer, even if they politely decline.
What this is, is a template. You can tweak and use this email and send out ten requests, and then you'll get a few responses to work with. That's pretty got for 30 minutes of work.
If there is no response in a week, resend the email and say: "Hey, I know things get busy, and your inbox is flooded, so I'm just pushing this email up in the queue. Have you had a chance to think about my request?"
I sometimes have running tabs on people I've been trying to speak to and will send them the same email with a similar update three or four times until someone answers. I'll take no for an answer, but I won't accept silence. Use a tool like Boomerang for Gmail to be intentional about those reminders.
Before I head to a conference or trade fair, I don't always have time to call each person or company, and then I plug in what I need into the template.
The opener and lead-in will stay the same. Al you have to do is substitute the name of the person at the top and the company or person's name in the second line once you've worked out a few other details.
The main thing is you've put a minimum amount of thought into your approach, personalized it just enough in this way and then just run with it. Don't beat yourself up if nothing comes back. If you really want a response just remember most people are just a phone call away.
Getting interviews is a numbers game, here’s how to play it
I’d never heard of the Pareto principle until about a year ago, and then, on some podcast, it came up, and then someone else in a book mentioned it, and then, I watched a talk on YouTube, and it cropped up again. Meanwhile, I’ve been to a conference and someone used it in their speech.
So many people were talking about it because it’s one of those weird principles the stacks up in fleeting ways, without all the hard and fast statistics. It has applied neatly to my brute force approach to setting up interviews too.
The Pareto principle is known as the 80/20 rule. It’s usually applied in economics and computing, but I’ve also come across it in online marketing. Basically, for every 80 people you send an email to 20 will open it.
Weirdly, I just opened up my email marketing software to check, and the average open rate on my emails is 28%. So that means that out of every 100 people, 28 people open my emails. Wait, that’s scarily close to 80/20.
I’ve been applying this same principle to the interview requests for the research on my second book and, well, you guessed right that calculation is once again emerging. Of the 40-odd applications, I got ten responses, and of from those responses, two committed. No way!
I’m not superstitious, or anything but knowing that the Pareto principle is at work gives me peace of mind. Think about it, if you put in 100 requests, you can expect 25 responses, and so you know what to work with. Of those 25 responses, in the end, you’ll probably get 6 to commit. You know what? Fine by me, that means I have to send out more interview requests and find a system to make that quick, easy and painless (maybe I’ll tackle that in another post!).
If you want to learn about an industry, something complex like blockchain, or wish to understand whether journalism can survive in a digital age, you need to talk to the people. You can, of course, read reams of articles and books on the subject but a more natural and faster way is to talk to 10 people in the industry with in-depth knowledge. So, if you want 12.5 interviews send out 50 requests and watch your success rate soar.
The better your system for getting interviews, the more you’ll learn, and the more you’ll be able to write. It is that simple.
How to stick to your best-laid plans
You might think that taking holiday snaps is an unlikely place to consider time management but its not. You've allocated time to go on holiday, and you're fully immersed in taking pictures and having fun.
That, in essence, is time management. I plan to do this at this time and then, time cometh, I do. It is that simple, but unfortunately, those daily and weekly plans often go awry.
The problem is if you're not on holiday you don't like sticking to your plans. You're not having fun. It's the daily grind, after all, but or more likely, you're not fully immersed in what you are doing.
When you're exploring the world, you're engaged in the moment. You should take that feeling into everything you do. It's a sort of calm acceptance of the task at hand.
You need to carry that feeling into all the engagements you set up and put in your calendar. That's how I manage my time. I block the time, and then I just get to work.
You wouldn't just abandon your planned vacation, would you? So why abandon all those great intentions to improve yourself, like eating right, exercising, career planning, blogging, why even time management?
You can't or don't want to stick to it. You're attention starved. You're distracted. You're phone buzzed. You're dreaming. You're thinking about dinner, but you haven't had breakfast. You're not in the moment.
Use whatever time management hacks you need, like time blocking on your calendar, a productivity planner, a bullet journal, a tomato timer to get the job done but once you've put the activity on the list, see life through the lens of the present moment.
I use big blocks of time and allocate them to major areas of my life: career, family, and personal growth. I have time built-in every week in a rough plan and then fit in (cram?) events of the week in.
The problem is not creating the templates and blocking off the time in the calendar; it's sticking to those times and then immersing myself in those activities without feeling lousy or missing a beat.
Managing the calendar is actually a task I do on Sundays. I don't worry about it much during the week, but if I don't do it on Sundays, my week gets chaotic.
There are a ton of moving parts managing several calendars including my wife's, my daughter's and my own. In doing so, I can review weekly and monthly goals and keep on task and on track.
See? Even time management is just a thing I do on Sundays and then it's done, I don't worry about it the rest of the week.
B.C. (before children) as we call it around here, I was frivolous with my time. I didn't have to be disciplined, I didn't respect my own time, and I wasn't intentional about what I did with my time.
That was fine but I want to get a lot done without burning out. So when I choose to play an hour of Xbox, what I am doing is intentionally deciding to immerse myself in that activity because I know it will help me relax.
I choose to get up at 5 am because I know I have 90min of me-time.
I choose to walk the dog several times a day because it balances out my desk-bound work.
I choose to work harder in the times that I'm at my desk because I know I only have a limited amount of time in the day to get work done.
This is not discipline. This is a choice, a choice to balance out my day. You may not want balance, but I do.
When I work, I work. I even build in social media time because I enjoy engaging but I try not to let it take over. I'm not an automon and other people's holiday snaps are enticing, after all.
Time management is about figuring out where to go on your next holiday. You're intentional about that why not take the same approach to all other aspects of your life and once you've laid out those plans, accept your place in the order of things you've created.
Sticking to self-imposed calendar items is not quite a holiday but it certainly is liberating to know where you need to be and what you should be doing.
Starting out as a freelance journalist I was forced to write one, and I'm glad I did
Business plans are useless. That's the prevailing wisdom, but then I did one, and the benefits now outweigh the time and pain it caused me.
The German government is generous in helping anyone who wants to be self-employed with financial support. It's a lot of paperwork, and an essential requirement is a business plan to convince them your undertaking will be successful. Easy, I thought.
So I sat down at my desk in my pajamas at 6 am (because that's what you expect me to do as a freelancer, true or not) and got to work. I then realized I had no idea what to do.
I'm not going to lie, it was boring, hard and took a lot of my time. I tried to take a few shortcuts (because I'm impatient) and sent the first draft to a friend (who also happens to be a business coach and knows how this works). She sent it back with the question: so what is it you want to do, exactly?
That's harsh considering my business plan was being a freelance journalist. Fine, she said, but how exactly was I planning to make money, grow and generate the income I needed to keep the lights on?
Attempt No. 2
Without going into the detail, your plan requires you to outline the service you are offering, a marketing plan, target market, and a financial plan.
I'm a journalist, not a business major.
In essence, a business plan requires you to write down your goals, test their validity, and take an educated guess about how productive you'll be.
Five-year goals are what I needed to create, but in reality, I could barely predict the first year, so I started fantasizing.
My service was pretty straight forward: I'd be writing stories for specialist news agencies. I discovered I had a niche offering in financial journalism, which set me apart.
Finding a niche is always a good place to start, but I was really in it to make money, and at this point, I was wildly guessing what my sales would look be.
To figure out the actual take-home pay, I had to start tallying up all my expenses. I had a few items that were expensive but non-essential, like a Headspace subscription for $8 a month. Gone. I had a few other similar entertainment-light subscriptions that all had to make way for LinkedIn Premium, website and other costs.
Doing this exercise forced me to strip down all expenses and get rid of my non-essentials.
There was one thing on there that was non-negotiable: my box (CrossFit lingo for fitness studio) membership. It's expensive, but I had to tally it up, and it was motivation to make sure I could cover the cost.
I did this month-by-month, then year-by-year and the most shocking thing was I could probably get by on less by being a little thrifty.
My earnings tables were detailed. aI had to check through them quite a few times but seeing my own revenue goals laid out in front of me like that was visual confirmation that I had a lot of work to do and a sense of pride in what I hoped to achieve.
I now have a reference for what I set out to do and what I was aiming at. I have a ledger to hold myself accountable. I'm now the responsible boss as I don't have one looking over my shoulder anymore.
Of course, that first version was crap, but even if you're undertaking freelance journalism, it makes sense to lay out how you're going to make ends meet each month.
Each story sold is a sale, and once you get a grip on that and visualize what you need to do it helps spur you on. I've missed and overshot on several targets, but that's okay since that initial plan a projection without knowing what would happen in reality.
Reality will hit.
In my first year, I didn't make much money in July at all. I hadn't planned for that, then panicked and having to make up the shortfall under pressure was no fun. Now, I know to prepare for a slow month and spread the work so I can enjoy some time off.
Had I not created a business plan, I wouldn't have known how or where to adjust my activities, so I'm glad I wrote one, even if the whole ordeal ate away at my self-confidence and time.
Until I figured out how to get more reading in, I only did the minimum confining myself to the reports and articles related to my work as as a journalist
Several years ago, I challenged my wife to a reading competition to get my general reading up. She's a formidable adversary, devouring roughly a book a week.
I don't remember the exact tally, but it was something like 40 to 3 in her favour. I got through The Hunger Games: an abysmal performance.
Fast forward to today, and I'm reading on average 30 books a year. How did that happen?
We all know we should do more reading, I'm not going to go into its benefits. I do it because it makes me moderately smarter, or at least, I appear to know stuff because I've been reading.
I read this book on better sleep habits once and annoyed the crap out of everyone for weeks at dinner parties with what I knew about circadian rhythms, our ancestral sleep patterns and why it's crucial to stay away from screens for 90min before bed.
I'm writing this post because I got a response to my newsletter from someone with the comment that "people don't read anymore." That scared me, so I thought I'd write this post to help anyone who feels like they should read more but doesn't have the strategies, to do just that. Here's what worked for me:
1. Start with books with no more than 200 pages
I needed a sense of accomplishment so instead of trying to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and lose all faith in my existence; I went for non-fiction biographies. Given my interest in tennis, I just started with tennis players (Agassi, Sampras, Federer, McEnroe…). Find something short you can identify with and run with it.
2. Delete all games from your phone and install the Kindle app
No one is going to like this, but the only way for me to increase my reading was to use all available time to read and make it more accessible. The games had to make way for knowledge. I still play games but on the Xbox (once in a blue moon).
3. Pick up and re-read of a book that made you feel amazing
There must be a defining book you read at some point in your life. That's Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, so, I re-read it. It was amazing to relive the wonder with the new perspective of age and added experience. The feeling of reliving that book was ecstasy (or soma?) and catapulted me forward.
4. Create a booklist
Prick your ears for books that come up in conversation among your friends, or, ask them. You can also find someone else's reading list online and start there! I met someone on a flight who said he's working his way through Jordan Peterson's reading list (ah, there's Crime and Punishment again!). Purchase the first two books on the list and then knock them off one by one, purchasing the next as motivation for getting through the last.
5. Read multiple books at a time
I rotate between themes and categories but try to have a few books on different subjects going at the same time. I get bored easily. My wife sometimes laughs at me because I'm chewing on a long read before bed and it seems like it's taking forever. I'm making steady progress every day, even if I only read 5 - 10 pages a night.
6. Designate time to read
I read for 10 minutes in the morning before the day kicks off (p.s. got that from a Hal Elrod's book The Miracle Morning). You can make it more or less. The morning book is inspirational.
I have an audiobook for when I walk the dog, that's 10 to 20minutes of reading, well, it's cheating, but I can't walk and read so this makes it easy. On short trips, I read on my mobile (especially when the WiFi is patchy),
Finally, there's a book at my bedside table which I dip into before bed, which I'm not always consistent about.
7. Read consistently
Think about it, if I have three books that I'm reading averaging only ten pages per session on each, that's 30 pages a day, or 3000 pages in 100 days. Only one of those books will be a 1000 pages, the others will have much fewer, so you'll quickly be reading two books a month and that doesn't include audiobooks. Now, all you've got to do is do that, and after a year you'll have easily read 30 books or more, gained some knowledge, feel accomplished, and have more fodder to talk about at dinner parties.
"Foster a love of reading, it's our core skill as human beings. It's the gateway to everything else. It gets you involved." - Bill Gates (taken from "If I could tell you just one thing…" by Richard Reed)
I protect peoples anonymity because otherwise, they won't talk but it severely complicates my work as a journalist
Rule number 1: try to get someone to go on the record. If a source stands by their word, it's more potent than the shadow we cast on our stories by using sources.
Having someone on record also takes the pressure off me and generally makes my work more manageable, but that's not always possible (I have made enemies).
People are paranoid. They are scared of making outrageous claims; or what they think will be perceived as controversial (sometimes it's not, they're just scared). They don't want to be in the spotlight, they're private, humble (possibly). People don't trust journalists (*big sigh*). Sometimes their position demands secrecy and, sometimes, people are simply lying and putting their name to a statement would expose them as a fraud.
These people won't talk unless the conversation is off the books, off the record, on background and remains unattributable. What does off the record mean anyway? Different things to different people, unfortunately.
A messy ordeal
Can you still use the information just not attribute it to the person? Or does it mean you can't use the information at all as the conversation was private? So, the information was just for my knowledge and understanding? To me, off-record means that I can still use the information but I can't attribute it to that person and have to find another way to confirm it. The problem is, not everyone gets all this nuance.
The biggest mistake I made early on in developing sources was not being clear about what off the record meant and how the relationship should progress. Just the other day, I confirmed and reconfirmed with a source the use, and attribution, of the information he gave me destined for a story.
As journalists, we often don't want to have a conversation about attribution because we fear they'll bolt out the door (or hang up the phone), not trust us or retaliate in some way once they find out we did publish what they fed us. I'm for transparency, so I do my best to always clear the air.
So if you're developing a source you need to ask:
* Why can't you go on the record? (Rule 1, remember?)
* How do you know what you know?
* What does off the record mean to you?
That first question will expose if they have a legitimate reason to or not to be off the record. If you dig deeper, maybe they will go on record.
In the past, I've pushed sources on these questions and found that some sources are so close to the news at hand, it would be apparent where the information came from. The source would be exposed, so, why did they tell me? God only knows but they have an agenda.
On other occasions, I've found out they know nothing of value and got what they know from a conversation with someone over lunch. Chinese whispers anyone?
Sometimes they have direct access to classified information (the definition of a real source, I might add). The reverse can also be true, you've had someone who's told you something they shouldn't, they didn't mean to but you know they could lose their job. You'll need to protect both of these sources.
Complications heat up
Taking someone off the record is a dilemma which is hard for journalists to solve. We have an important story that unearths something that's not in the public domain and feel compelled to write about it. It's critical, but we also want to value and protect the people who supply the information. We can't publish the news because the source won't confirm the information on the record. We get stuck!
In many of the business deals I've covered as a financial journalist, nearly all the parties are bound by non-disclosure agreements. So, how do I get the story our? The investigation demands a complicated mess of talking to multiple parties to corroborate the information. You'll see sometime like "according to people familiar with the moves" as in this scoop by Aaron Stevens on Deutsche Bank's management reshuffle.
That's why getting people on record makes my life tons easier. Confirming the information via multiple independent sources is both hard, takes time, and demands patience and tenacity.
Any serious publication won't take source-based reporting lightly. It will require at minimum two — but more than often - multiple independent sources to say the same thing. You need to work hard to corroborate each morsel of information with precision. There is a ton of pushback from editors and, as a reporter, you need to be crystal clear about who you sources are and why they demand to be off-record (hence the questions above).
You need an understanding of how sources know what they know and linguistic finesse to compile their comments into an accurate and true picture of the situation. Serious reporting also demands that all parties in the story get a fair chance to comment. If they haven't, our job hasn't been done right.
Using sources is tricky business, demands finesse, can undermine the credibility of a story, expose inadequacies in our reporting but sometimes it's the only way for journalists to shed light on dark spots and a tool we can't work without.
If you agree to take the conversation off the record, you have to stick to it as your integrity is on the line. If you go out and quote the person after agreeing to an off-record interview, it will damage your reputation, tarnish the publication's and expose someone who might be in serious trouble.
Protecting your source could even mean you go to jail, and journalists do.
In the end, the journalist's rule is simple: if it's not true, it's not a story. Source or not.
It won’t hurt but you can probably make it without one
Degree or no journalism degree both pathways can lead to success but many professionals I talked about their journies into the profession said the degree was secondary.
I was shocked by a recent comment from a colleague of mine who pursued a journalism masters. She said it was expensive, grew her network but she wouldn’t do it again.
TNW's tech journalist Matthew Hughes said “he’s never worked alongside someone with a journalism degree” in a recent article outlining the home truths about breaking into tech journalism.
I have a bachelors in journalism but added a master's in international studies to make my pursuit for journalism more attractive. The bachelor’s got me internships but no jobs and I felt like I needed a specialism.
I wouldn’t say specialism is the key but it certainly helped.
The days of working a local newspaper, learning the craft on the job and getting moderate pay are far and few between but not impossible. There’s a growing call for more locally-based journalism to create the necessary glue to keep democracy alive at a local level and both philanthropists and tech companies are putting money towards the cause.
The time might be right to pursue the local avenue.
Generally, I agree with Hughes that to make it in journalism (not just tech, in his case) you need:
*financial resources to keep you afloat while you build your portfolio
*a person that takes a gamble on you although you’re inexperienced
*a passion for a meta-topic like economics, culture or technology
That constellation is mostly luck - like someone taking a gamble on you and having money under the mattress - but it's also in your control. If you’re not lucky enough to have parents to help you out while you intern and build a portfolio, you’ll need a job that pays the bills while you work journalism gigs on the side. You choose the meta-topic you want to tackle, you can take steps to go out an meet people that might help you along.
If you’re still floating around and don’t know what you want to write about, find a focus. A lot of journalists I know were engineers, science majors or came out left field and put their knowledge to work writing on these topics. I picked international law, peacekeeping and the political economy.
This begs the question: do you even need a degree in journalism to be a journalist? The simple answer is, probably not, but it helps. Journalism is a vocation and a theoretical understanding of libel, defamation, ethics and media production and possibly even the dying art of rapid writing known as shorthand, will show that you are committed.
I cared enough about the field to study it as an undergrad and cemented the belief that I was serious about doing it. I failed at shorthand and didn’t write a single article for my student newspaper while studying my masters and still somehow managed to get a job as a journalist. So can you.
Supportive parents and a lucky break from a person who believed in me helped me set sail. I was deficient in many areas but journalism is a vocation and you’ll learn on the job, so don't wait 10 years like I did before before getting your second article in print!
Do you think you’re moving in the right direction? Are you unsure about your next move? Let me know as I'd be happy to help you sort through the tough decisions you face.
Merciless, hands-off or amazing editor: ultimately you'll learn
I've had tons of editors over the years and, as cliche as it sounds, some were great and others atrocious. As a journalist, you're going to have to find a way to work with your editor, and most of it boils down to your attitude.
Whether good or bad, your editor is only going to get under your skin as much as you let it. Beyond that, editors are generally a good idea as you get a fresh pair of eyes on your work. You'll think your work is outstanding and exceptional until it reaches one of these types to look over it:
This editor won't get started on anything until the spelling is bulletproof and you've followed the style-guide. You'll forget a comma in the first line, and the copy will come back in an email with a comment like "please fix all punctuation, spelling, grammar and follow house-style." Wait a minute! Isn't that your job?
Yeah, well, you thought wrong. With this editor, expect your copy to keep bouncing back like a yo-yo. So, settle in, roll with the punches, and as you address the basics, things will start moving (slowly). By the time you're done with this editor, your nerves will be frayed but if you're lucky they morph into one of the other types along the way.
Herr Laisse Faire
"Looks great." That's the response after sending the copy back. Wow, you think, I'm amazing then you realize the editor barely looked at the copy and spot several errors.
Wait a minute, my editor would let this go through as is? You run with what you have and if you're lucky there's a sub that will do a final check. Running all the checks yourself forces you to question everything, suddenly nothing makes sense, and you send a revised and fixed version back to the editor.
"Looks great" is the response. As you sit there agonizing over the copy you build up enough courage to publish what you have, rely on the sub, find a colleague or read it out loud in the bathroom in front of the mirror (p.s. reading things out loud is a great way to spot errors!). Failing that, you secretly find that other editor.
This rare breed will take your copy, make necessary fixes by using the tracking tool so you can see the changes; they will write detailed notes in a separate email explaining significant changes to the wording and give you the space to decide if their decisions are right. This editor will discuss with you, go through your copy line by line to improve clarity, make it sharper and smooth it out to make it flow like poetry.
This editor is not only talented, but they bring out the best in you and your copy; believe in your ability to improve and care about your words and craft. Either that, or their people skills are exceptional, and they've found a way to brutalize your copy but be hideously nice about it. Maybe that's their genius?
No matter which editor you get, be happy you have some to look over your work, question your judgment, find those logic gaps, or force you to take another close look at your work. Each editor teaches you valuable lessons and the copy (and you) will improve. So, revel in their wisdom and save your frustrations for after work drinks or the gym.
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