Follow your frustrations and forge your own path
When I first joined the Financial Times ten years ago, there were well-defined career milestones for young reporters like me: progress in a series of reporting jobs covering ever-more important issues, become a bureau chief or editor along the way, and you may one day be granted your own column to write.
In the decade since, I’ve discovered that not the path I wanted to take. But also, given all the changes and upheavals in the news industry, that path is increasingly unavailable to many other young journalists as well.
The changes in journalism over the last ten years have been massive. At the Financial Times, we no longer have the same business model, use the same distribution channels, or compete with the same rivals as ten years ago. These changes have had a big effect internally as well: voluntary redundancies, restructuring, changing demands etc.
In these circumstances, it’s easy to feel frustrated and trapped in out-dated, pre-defined roles, especially if you were counting on following a well-trodden career path. But it’s important to remember that changes also offer opportunity. In my case, it was a chance make an impact beyond the official confines of my existing role. I’m now on my second newly-created-just-for-me job title, and am helping others do the same.
It all starts with frustration
Many people think forging your own path means following your dreams or finding what you love doing, but for me it started with frustration, and a fairly trivial one at that.
This was five years ago; I was the technology, media and telecoms editor at the time, and grew increasingly annoyed with how stories often contained a few paragraphs of text that essentially described a chart. “Why couldn’t we just have a chart there instead?” I asked myself as I edited these stories. “How hard can it be to create a chart and insert it?” was the next question.
Trying to answer those questions led me into entire new fields I had no idea even existed: Data journalism, programming, content management systems, information design, etc. I started taking online courses. I made some very ugly and uninformative charts that I would be ashamed to even look at today.
Take the leap
Learning new knowledge and acquiring new skills are important, but at some point you have to take the leap and commit yourself to a new path. I did so when I applied to leave my job as tech editor and instead work on our interactive news team as a data journalist. That was very much not among the well-defined career milestones I had been following.
The decision was made easier by signs that the media and journalism industries were undergoing pretty big changes, but it was still a scary leap into the unknown. I had basically no technical skills, and was deliberately removing myself from the heart of the newsroom to a very different environment.
But there are also tremendous advantages to being willing to take the leap. I leapt early enough that the market wasn’t already flooded with journalists who could code, and so my lack of technical skills wasn’t a barrier to me getting the job. Committing meant I had to learn, and learn quickly, because I could no longer hide behind calling it ‘a side project’ or ‘just something I’m learning in my free time’.
Solve one frustration, see another one
There’s a management technique called the ‘Five Whys’, which basically says that, when trying to find the cause for something, don’t take the first answer you’re given — keep asking why for at least five times. I had assumed that weren’t telling stories in a visual and digital way because of a lack of technical skills and knowledge (which I had to go learn), but soon discovered that it was more a question of workflow, resource allocation, and team management.
I had a new frustration to tackle. That’s good, but the problem this time is that there isn’t already an existing team I could plug into. Solving this frustration would require creating organisational change. I didn’t yet know what the answers to those workflow and organisational problems would be, so I wanted to create a space where I could experiment and learn through doing. So I wrote a job pitch for a new role to be created called the Special Projects Editor (there was a section inside that pitch called ‘Why I’m the best candidate’). Here’s what I learnt from that process:
Highlight problems…but then offer solutions
Get feedback in a systematic way. First ask allies and potential supporters and then neutrals, before going to the doubters and those who might have cause to oppose your plan
In having these conversations, you’re trying to find out how they can turn what you are planning to do into a win for them. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes and lend you their support
We underestimate what we can do in ten years
My current frustration is that, while I found creative ways to digitally and visually tell good stories, and while I’ve found some best practices and solutions for the workflow issues holding us back, to really apply them in a way that makes an impact would require massive structural change. My role works towards that, but I would have to learn new things: hire people and run a team for the first time, for example.
But some things are the same: I have to find allies, I have to clarify the problem I’m trying to tackle, and offer workable solutions if I’m to convince others to give me a shot. I have to listen to feedback and help figure out what I can do can be turned into a win — even for those who might oppose me. I need to ask for help, and give help generously in my day-to-day work. And to think all of this came out of a simple question:
“How hard can it be to just make a chart, here?”
What to read next: On language, articulation, and organisational change