Lessons Learned

New York City and Washington D.C. are two of the best-known cities in the world.  One for it’s sheer size, popularity, and diversity; the other for the power that is wielded from within it’s limits.  Both cities also have lessons to teach all of their visitors.  Life lessons, practical lessons, and professional lessons abound among the blaring horns and bitter cold.  I’ve decided to synthesize these lessons so that even those who didn’t partake of the trip will be able to gain all of my wisdom.

Practical Lesson #1: Pack light.

I knew the wisdom of this lesson even before leaving for the trip, but I rarely apply it to myself.  I tend to pack in preparation for every occurrence, and generally end up not using most of the stuff I brought.  This trip was no different.  I realized this was not the wisest decision as I was traipsing through the New York subway system with a 50-pound suitcase and a God-only-knows-how-heavy duffel bag on my shoulder.  From now on, unless I have a car or a personal servant, I will be trying my hardest to bring less than 80 pounds of stuff with me, even if the trip is three weeks long.

Professional Lesson #1: Do internships.

This was one of the earliest and most drilled-into-our-heads lessons of the entire trip.  At least 75 percent of the places we visited made sure to tell us we didn’t have a chance at a job without internship experience.  Some of the places, like Ketchum Public Relations, even told us we couldn’t get an internship with them without previous internship experience, which I found a little extreme.  The point is, experience is not only valued; it’s necessary.  At one of the sights we were told bluntly that the fact we have a degree will be taken for granted.  That made me face the fact of how truly competitive the job market is now.

Practical Lesson #2: In New York City, the subway is probably safer than a car.

I’ve never heard so much honking or seen such a disregard for traffic laws as I did in New York City.  I felt nervous even during my five-minute taxi ride from Ground Zero to Battery Park.  As much as I love having a car, I would rather take my chances on an overstuffed train that zips around in tunnels underground on an electrified track than in a safety-tested vehicle that I am controlling up in open air.  Of course, when I phrase it like that, it’s not all that hard to make myself and most of the other people in New York City sound nuts.

Practical Lesson #3: The cars won’t stop, so get out of the way.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but reveals a lot about the mood of New York City.  Everyone is in a hurry.  Everyone has places to go, people to see, and money to make.  Pedestrians go when they can, including jay walking.  If you’re jay walking, you run the risk of getting hit because the cars will not stop, because the people driving the cars also have places to go, people to see, and money to make.  In fact, a lot of the cars don’t even slow down.

The same could be said of Washington D.C., but only as far as the practical lesson can be taken literally.  There is a decidedly different mood surrounding D.C.  Brian Lamb, president and CEO of C-SPAN, was our first official meeting in D.C., and in my opinion he was one of the first to treat us like actually human beings.  He had a real conversation with us that included this very subject.  His reasoning on the difference between New York and D.C. came down to one simple word: money.  In New York, people are driven to a more stressful pace because they are earning and spending their own money.  In D.C., people are spending others’ money.  There isn’t as much urgency because there isn’t as much personal connection.  The sad realization this revelation brings with it is that some aspect of everyone’s life will always be ruled by money, even if there are other things you would rather worry about.

Professional Lesson #2: Send thank you notes.

I knew this lesson before this trip, but everyone we visited confirmed it twice over.  The best way to make sure you stand out in a potential employer’s mind is to send a thank you note.  Some of the places we visited mentioned that if you don’t send a thank you note, you probably won’t be getting a job.  I find it interesting that so much courtesy has died in our society, yet this custom still lives.  We are expected to be courteous to the people that have power over us, like the person hiring us, even if that courtesy never reappears after getting hired.  In my eyes, our world has become a strange dichotomy of self-service and respect, with respect showing up in order to further self-service.  It makes me sad, but I have hope in the fact that not everyone is like this.  So maybe the real lesson is this: don’t send a thank you note to get hired; send a thank you note because it’s the respectful thing to do.  I think I like that lesson a lot better.

Professional Lesson #3: Many times, you end up in a career path you weren’t expecting.

I’m not sure how many of the people we met with said something along the lines of “My path to where I am now was strange.”  Mike Webb of ProPublica started off in the music business and is now in communications for a journalism organization.  While this lesson could be depressing, depending on how you spin it, I don’t think it has to be.  All you have to do is look at it in the right light.  Maybe the path you were intending was never right for you.  God could simply be steering you in the right direction through a lot of seemingly disastrous or devastating turns of events.  When you freak out or try to take control, things tend to go wrong.  Don’t sit back and get lazy, but don’t panic when things aren’t perfect.  If I don’t end up in radio or an ideal audio production job right away, that’s okay.  I’m not going to die, and I’m not going to disappoint anyone.  I just need to have faith.  (This particular lesson ended up being more of a pep talk for myself than anything else.  Sometimes pep talks to yourself are good things.)

Life Lesson #1: Sometimes you have to make compromises in order to take advantage of the best opportunities.

I knew after only a few days of being in New York City that I didn’t want to live there.  That same adversity wasn’t present in Washington D.C., but it’s still a city on the opposite side of the country I’ve always known.  However, as much as I would like to stay at home where I know life is safe, I can’t keep myself in a box forever.  Some of the best career opportunities in the world exist in New York City.  I should be able to handle three months living in a new place in order to do a once-in-a-lifetime internship.

Professional Lesson #4: Every company has it’s own personality.

I have to admit, I never thought about the fact each company has it’s own personality until I got into the work force.  My first job was in a privately owned store.  My current job is in a chain store owned by a massive company.  It seems to me that there are more blunt discussions and less beating around the bush in a small, private store.  The boss is present, and you take your problems directly to him or her.  In my current job, I feel like an ant.  The company has it’s own directives (primarily to make money), and I’m serving those directives without being known at all.

The same can be said about the places we visited.  Saatchi and Saatchi seemed like a very laid-back atmosphere, especially after Erin Lyons told us they have a keg every Friday.  Bloomberg News came across as the total opposite, the epitome of an anthill working environment.  We were told multiple times that everywhere you go, the mood will be different.  We need, and are expected, to have researched and know the company we are applying to.  We also need to be sure that company fits our personality.  The problem with this is that oftentimes, the personality a company projects on it’s website is not the true personality of the people that work there.  I see the value of this lesson, and I believe everyone should adhere to it as best as possible.  It could just be trickier than expected.

Practical Lesson #4: Even if you wear lots of layers, you’re still going to be cold.

I thought everyone was exaggerating about how cold it would be.  Everyone else must just be a baby; it can’t possibly be any colder than Spokane.  Well, I was wrong.  The first night, after we landed in New York, I sincerely thought it wouldn’t be bad.  It wasn’t any colder than it was in Spokane when we left.  In fact, it wasn’t that bad for the first few days.  I don’t remember when it got bad.  All I remember is not being able to feel my hands through my gloves and my ears burning when we walked into a building.  The worst day, however, was our last day in Washington D.C.  I was walking back to the hostel after dinner and realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.  Normally, my toes go numb; that’s nothing new.  This time, both of my feet were gone, all the way up to the ankle.  I learned an entirely new definition of the word cold.  I was even wearing at least two layers on every part of my body at any given time.  To think I scoffed at the wisdom of all those people who warned me.

Life Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to take chances.

When the HR woman from Ketchum Public Relations told us how competitive their fellowship program is, the underlying message seemed to be “Why even try?”  I know that seems like a depressing and incorrect message to hear, but it was still there, in a whisper.  After some things in my personal life fell through and I realized where my future was headed, I decided not to listen to that little whisper.  That whisper is the reason that some truly talented people have never recognized their calling, and I don’t want that to happen to me.  So I’m going to try, and if I don’t succeed, then I’ll move on to the next challenge.  The competition had better back off and realize what they’re dealing with.

Professional Lesson #5: Know your craft.

As we visited more and varied media outlets, it became clear that a working knowledge of the field and the specific company were necessities for even a hope of getting hired.  Going into an interview blind to these topics is like shooting yourself in the foot.  Do research, read the trades, and get as much exposure to your prospective career as possible.  Brian Lamb of C-SPAN told us to go behind the obvious.  Learn the history and research who owns which companies, because it may affect your view of the media and change who you want to work for.  It will also help you understand why some companies function the way they do and where the market is headed.  Knowing where the market is headed in your field may be the highest valued knowledge you can possess when entering the job market.

Professional Lesson #6: Know others’ crafts.

Once you understand the ins and outs of your aspired career, you need to understand the ins and outs, or at least the general gist, of the rest of the media field.  Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism knows so many facts about media that it made my head spin.  Granted, he is the head of a project that spends it’s days researching the subject of media, but every single statistic he told us affects our lives in some way, even indirectly.  He was also one of the few professionals that we met with that had some solid career advice concerning radio for me.  Even though it basically came down to “Get out now,” I still appreciated that he had some concrete knowledge about the future of radio.

Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia University was an inspiration to me for the sheer fact that he was so knowledgeable about seemingly everything.  He was relaxed when speaking to us, and gave us advice about books, movies, new media, and New York City in the span of an hour.  While he teaches journalism and social media, he is an entrepreneur of the world around him as a whole, not just the limited areas he is specifically involved with.  I realized while talking to him how limited my scope of the world is, and how much more I want to know.  He, among others, inspired me to become a better-rounded person, which I think will help both in my understanding of the world and in my future professional life.

Practical Lesson #5: No matter where you live, the shopping will always be better in New York City.

I should probably include a disclaimer with the lesson: for rich people who can afford designer clothes, the shopping is probably better in Europe.  For modest-budgeted people like myself, the shopping isn’t better anywhere.  There are illegal street vendors, specialty shops, Chinatown, and heaven in the form of a store called Century 21.  I know this isn’t the ideal place for a list containing the half of Manhattan that I dragged home with me, but let me just say that I am very content.  It almost makes me depressed to be home, where fake pashmina silk scarves cost twenty bucks a piece, instead of the five I paid in Chinatown.

Life Lesson #3: Everybody is scared.

We talked to a few recent college graduates during our meetings.  One was at Wiley and Sons, one at Saatchi and Saatchi, and one at ProPublica.  They all had similar stories.  And the biggest message I got from those stories is this: everyone is scared, but you shouldn’t let it paralyze you.  You will get a job.  I’m on the brink of graduation, career, and an uncertain future, but I was encouraged to know that I wasn’t the only one.  Many of the people on the trip with me are going through the same things.  When my plans fell through for next year, I was a wreck, but everyone was supportive of me, reminding me that I’m not the only person whose future is in flux.  I don’t have to go through this alone.  I won’t get over being scared immediately, but it will pass and I will be okay.

Professional Lesson #7: Brand yourself.

Multiple times over the course of the trip, I heard people express how important a brand was.  Naturally, this occurred at Saatchi and Saatchi advertising and Ketchum Public Relations, because both companies work with what we think of as brands all day long.  I found it surprising and interesting when Paula Kerger of PBS told us that brand is more important than anything else, including the product.  This subject also came up at the AP, where their stories have a certain expectation of quality because they are associated with the AP.  The reality is, brands are everywhere.

One of the agencies we visited (I don’t remember which one) told us to brand ourselves.  I thought this a weird concept, but when you look at PBS and the AP, it makes more sense.  Both organizations carry weight simply because of their name and the qualities associated with their names.  One of the best ways to market yourself to HR personnel in any given company is to use words and behaviors that exemplify who you are and what you will bring to their organization; i.e. branding yourself.

I find this easier said than done.  How do you narrow yourself down to a few key words?  The reality of the situation is that this skill is essential in the job market today.  It goes hand-in-hand with having a resume that is limited to a page long.  No matter what area you want to go into or what job you’re looking for, everyone has to have marketing skills.  They will help more than you can predict.

Professional Lesson #8: You can be a professional dedicated to your job and still be a real person.

PBS, C-SPAN, and the Smoking Gun were some of my favorite meetings because the people we met were at the top of their organization.  They were some of the most important people for their respective companies or publications, but they treated us like real people.  All four staff members of the Smoking Gun were in our meeting, telling stories and relaying tips in a way that told me they enjoy their job and enjoy telling people about their job.  Brian Lamb of C-SPAN not only asked us questions and carried on a real conversation, but also was blunt with us about the knowledge we should have that we didn’t.  Even though Paula Kerger was sick, she still made our meeting, and made it enjoyable.  Her passion for PBS’s mission was clear.

I also appreciated all of the people that made an effort to ask us even a little about ourselves before diving into their presentation.  I might be crazy, but I thought this happened more often in Washington D.C. than in New York.  I noticed and appreciated when the person giving the presentation answered my questions while looking me in the eye, remembering that I was the one that asked, rather than addressing the whole group and not necessarily making the answer personal.  These were good reminders to me that the more personable you are, even with inconsequential college kids, the more people will respect your position.  Don’t try to be a perfect robot, accept your mistakes and don’t be shy about them, and you will go far.

The Biggest Lesson: Love what you do.

This lesson applies to all three categories.  A few years ago, a man I’d just babysat for was driving me home.  We got on the subject of college, and he advised me that if I wanted to go for a higher degree, I should do my undergrad in something I truly enjoyed.  The good grades would help me get into a master’s program more than the subject matter, and it would be easier to get good grade if I enjoyed the subject matter.  I didn’t realize how right he was until this trip.

The job market today is more competitive than ever.  It’s true that companies are firing people left and right, but many companies are also hiring new people.  When it is obvious you love your field, it will be easier to find a job.  Employers will be eager to hire you because they will trust you to do your job well.  But beyond all the practical aspects, there is the basic fact that you’ll actually enjoy your life.  It isn’t always possible to find or get hired for your dream job, but if you aim high and show your passion and heart on your sleeve, you’ll probably have more of a leg up on the competition than you realize.

 

This might be the most profound thing I’ve ever written.  Or it could be the disjointed ramblings of a jet-lagged college student.  Either way, this organization of my thoughts, feelings, and the copious amount of notes I took in meetings has helped me realize something.  I don’t want to live in my box anymore.  There’s a lot to life that I haven’t experienced yet, and if I try to be safe all the time, I never will.  So I’m going to try my hardest to take chances, go after the impossible dream, not get hit by cars, and send my thank you notes when it’s all over.

 

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  1. #1 by sglady11 on January 26, 2011 - 12:58 am

    I loved your lesson! What a great paper idea. I agree totally with so many of your thoughts. I value my past job and internship experiences so much more after this trip.
    Additionally, I think I will try much harder to bring smaller suitcases next time and less stuff. I am so glad we got to travel together!

  2. #2 by James McPherson on February 13, 2011 - 2:09 am

    Very nice “lessons,” well written. I’d have liked to see links along with it, of course.

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