Letting go of the wall — a retrospect

(Re-posted from the Spring ’13 Advanced Reporting blog.)

(Since Tom liked my metaphor during lecture, I ran with it for this week’s post. Also, since this is my last official blog for the semester, I just wrote what’s on my mind. So be patient — it’s long.)

When I was a kid, I took forever to learn to swim.

My dad would take me to the local pool for lessons, and I’d climb into the shallow end with a lifeguard nearby. But every time the instructor would step away, I’d panic and and reach for the wall.

After several summers of clinging to the edge of the pool, things started to click. Unfortunately, I don’t have some beautiful, insightful memory of the first time I believed I’d stay afloat when the lifeguard let me go. (I mean, I was like eight years old. You can only expect so much from my memory.) But I do remember, one year, jumping into the pool for pre-lesson evaluation and deciding I was just going to gather my courage and swim.

That was around the time I realized I could swim without sinking. I just had to let go of the wall.

***

A week and a half before the semester started, I was pacing through my house. Ever since I’d flown to Houston for winter break, I’d been questioning my decision to spend a second semester on the education beat.

I’d loved being an education reporter, and I would’ve loved it if I’d gone back. But I was beginning to realize that part of the reason I wanted to return was because I was afraid to do anything else. It was a safe, familiar option. I worried that if I switched, I’d sink.

After talking with family and friends and over thinking the situation, I’d emailed the newsroom in a rush of emotion and clarity to request a beat swap.

The advice flooded in. Have you thought about going to John? Consider switching to Jeanne. We’ve got a lot of advanced reporters on public life, but if that’s what you want, we’ll make it happen.

Hence, the pacing.

To keep myself from getting stuck between decisions, I gave myself a deadline. And a week before the start of the semester, I emailed Scott and asked to switch to community.

I decided to let go of the wall.

***

I have a week left of advanced reporting. I’ve published several long profiles, a couple of quick-turns and a massive, 100+ inch project that ate almost four pages of the Sunday paper. Before my last day, I’ll have finished two more stories, one of which includes multimedia

My goals for the semester, summed up, were these: write better, report for detail, bring my own ideas to the table. My last goal was confidence — the linchpin to make the other three happen and my potential Achilles heel.

To varying degrees, I’ve accomplished all of them. I pitched most of my stories, I pay attention to every word, I try to ask the extra question.

But I’m most proud of how completely I accomplished my last goal.

When I decided to switch beats, I was a little terrified I’d doomed myself to failure. (This is how my mind works, OK? I swear it’s becoming more manageable.)

But once I let go of the wall, I found that I could stay afloat. My ideas weren’t awful and my writing didn’t suck. I could juggle several stories at once. I took constructive criticism from my editor and grew from it. I discovered that I have a strong will and an immense capacity for determination that I can use to push through my fear.

I started taking risks — digging for ideas, pitching stories, writing for precision rather than safety, asking questions I was afraid would be uncomfortable, getting advice when I needed it, not getting advice when I realized I already knew the answer, trusting myself to know what I was doing.

Pushing myself to have confidence transformed the way I write and report. It made my goals manageable and helped me take on everything this semester threw at me.

At the end of class, Tom talked about using our last posts to offer wisdom to future advanced reporters. I could write about prioritizing my time and seeing sources as people and making my writing come to life, and those would be great pieces of advice.

But in advanced reporting, my key to surviving and thriving was just letting go of the wall. By taking risks, bringing my ideas to the table, learning from my editor and pushing through my fear, I found that I enjoy journalism, that I’m capable of doing it well, that I could see myself spending my career in a newsroom.

I just had to trust myself enough to learn that.

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