Lately, I’ve been getting emails from people who are working a corporate day job, perhaps on Wall Street, and want to break in to the TV business as a reporter.
To all you would-be career switchers, I say to you: ‘only do this, if you can’t do anything else.’ And by that, I mean, if you’re so passionate that you’ll only be happy if you‘re striving to tell a story, then by all means, go right ahead. Passion is why we are in this business. Logic is not. If we all relied on logic rather than passion, we’d never do this. And while you’re at it, have some balls. Because you’ll need them. To ask for work. To get the interview. To drive at 2 AM to work on New Year’s Eve. But if you’re looking for this career change to make sense, look elsewhere. Hence, the passion and balls speech.
It was September 11th, 2001, and I was walking to the Union Square subway station on University Place to go to work. This couple was walking next to me. I usually didn’t pay any mind to people walking near me, but this time I couldn’t help it. They pointed backwards toward downtown, their mouths dropped, and animated looks of horror transformed their faces. Compelled, I turned. I stood there, and watched the first plane hit the building that I had worked in only months before, turning the building I spent the 4 previous years calling home, amassing friends and acquaintances, into a giant fireball. I started to call my friend Linda, who worked on the 64th floor of Tower 2, but the call wouldn’t connect. I then called her husband who worked, like me, at 40 Wall Street, but we got disconnected as soon as he answered. I proceeded to go downtown and witness firsthand the most horrific act of terrorism New York City has ever known. It seems so insignificant to simply say lives changed that day. 2,996 of those lives met an untimely and no doubt gruesome end that should never have been. And, the ripple effects of that terrorist act are immeasurable. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the day I realized that it simply was not enough to work at a so-so job and just exist, that it is crucially important to live a rewarding, fulfilling life filled with passion, sprinkled with altruism, that makes a difference, and to leave your mark on this world. We have no time to waste.
After a month, I went back to my job on 40 Wall Street at American Express. The company was offering layoff packages to people who wanted to take them. I raised my hand: Ballsy move number one.
Somehow, some way, I got an unpaid internship at NY Times Television. I remember I had to actually pay for college credit to get in the door. Now, that’s passion over logic! I found my way onto a project called “Portraits of Grief,” an hour-long documentary adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times column of the same name. The ‘portraits’ told a 100-word story about the life of each victim who had died at Ground Zero. I did PA work, and worked with extremely talented producers, Nigel Noble and Sonia Slutski. One of the most rewarding parts of my job was to be the liaison between the grieving families we were going to interview and the producers. I had a connection to their grief, so I was uniquely qualified for the job. NYT hired me after my internship ran out. $10 an hour. I recall it was actually more lucrative for me to stay home and collect unemployment than come in and work a 40-hour week. But, I was passionate. My hard work paid off.
At the end of that run, I started working on a new show about Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, and moved up to Associate Producer. I was a bargain.
But, I had now caught the TV news bug.
At the same time, I was also taking classes at NYU. The dean of the school came in to talk to us about the future of TV news. He talked fondly of the one-man-band concept being used at NY1. I was electrified. The next day, I called him and asked if he knew someone I could call for an informational interview at NY1. He wasn’t too keen to give up a contact, especially since he hardly knew me. He explained the last time he trusted a student and put his reputation on the line, the student didn’t follow through. I assured him that there was no way I wouldn’t follow through, that I had left a 6-figure job to work in TV for less than sitting on my butt pays, and if that didn’t prove passion, I didn’t know what did. I managed to get a name and number from him, and quickly set up an interview. I had to use chutzpah to talk about my sacrifice, disarm him with my honesty, gain his trust, and receive his contact. He didn’t regret it, and neither did I.
I learned that having blind faith that it’ll all work out, and having the ability to bob and weave and craft your story to influence people into giving you a chance, will take you a long way. But, I learned even more than that. Passion is a great influencer. It may not get you the job, but it will get you respect, and get you remembered. What happened next? Stay tuned for part deux.