Thursday, May 5, 2011

Failing to try

This month's Carnival of Journalism entry is supposed to address "A failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons. It must be your failure and you must take responsibility."

Given that I sat out the past couple of month's worth of J-Carns (does that count as failure? It feels like it) because I was buried in grading (oops, that's the forbidden apologizing -- or maybe excuse-making, which is even worse), this seemed like a good time and a good topic for which I could return to the fold.

I have to say I've never failed spectacularly at anything; I don't expect to be in the running for the "fight at the end for the biggest failure of the lot," as David described it in the assignment. But a major reason for not failing at anything spectacular is not trying anything spectacular. Which is essentially the failure I'm choosing to discuss.

Early in my career, while working as a beat reporter for a small newspaper, what I wanted more than anything was to be an independent free-lance writer, supporting myself with my work outside of the context of an institutional employer. I'd spend free time combing through Writers' Market, looking for ideas of places to pitch for my work. I had some small successes at it, getting a few small contracts for trade journal pieces and such.

But where the failure came was passing up a golden moment to make the move at trying to carve out a career path along that line.

I had left that staff job to spend two years back in school, full time, earning a master's -- an MBA in fact, which gave me a certain level of knowledge and expertise about businesses that could have been leveraged into writing, perhaps, for finance magazines and the like. My wife was the primary breadwinner the whole time I was in school. I had those occasional free-lance pieces and a part-time job at the local daily, but we mostly lived on her paycheck.

Then even the part-time job ended when I finished school and the paper said they had no openings and no plans to hire me. So there I was: no steady job, lots of free time (with no classes to worry about), finances reasonably well covered. We weren't rich but we weren't starving either, and this was before the kids came along to complicate life and family expenses. Hence, the golden moment.

And I blinked.

Rather than take the opportunity that was presenting itself to really see if I had it in me to be a self-supporting independent free-lancer, I sought out (and fairly quickly found) another newspaper staff job. It was in copy editing, rather than reporting, and I found that the tasks of editing fit my skills and personality better than writing. I had a long and successful career as a copy editor that led to my current academic position, so I have no complaints or regrets really about how things did turn out. (Like I said, not a spectacular fail.)

But it's impossible not to wonder where things could have gone had I chosen the other path. The story I've told happened in the mid-1980s, when personal computer technology was just starting to explode on the scene. Dozens of technology and computer magazines appeared over the next few years; with that as a specialty I might have had more work than I could handle.

Or, one of the things I liked, and was pretty good at, as a copy editor was page design. Could I have been on the ground floor as a Web designer, and maybe founder/owner of a design shop, as the Internet took off a few years later? Who knows where I might have ended up -- if not for a failure of nerve.

1 comment:

J G said...

Nice post. One theme I'm seeing emerge among the posts I've read is better to try and fail than to fear failure (I even began my post with that sentiment).