The Rocky Beginnings of a Frustrated Reporter


I wrote before about what you might expect to get from this site, as a way to help me focus. The right focus can bring together some amazing conversations, as Venessa Miemis has been able to do.

Maybe a little personal backstory is in order.

I was/am a science and math nerd. In a big way.

I likely disappointed a number of my teachers by not pursuing a Ph.D of some sort, where I could make a real contribution to society. But there were two realizations I had about myself that played into that decision:

  1. I have a wide variety of interests among the sciences, and
  2. I have a distinct knack for explaining things.

Put those together, and you have a nice starter kit for a budding Science Journalist. (Lord knows there aren’t enough people making science interesting, exciting or tangible.)

The Path Denied

By the time I was to the point in college where you have to declare a major, I figured the best way to pursue this dream was to go through Geology. It has a little bit of physics, a little bit of chemistry, and a little bit of biology. It makes for a nice nexus across the disciplines.

In my year as a Geology Major, I was asked by professors and graduate assistants where I would specialize. After all, you can’t just get a degree in Geology. That’s useless! You must get a Ph.D, and that means focusing on either vulcanology, paleontology or petro-chemical geology. In other words, put myself in one of those silos. I had two professors in one semester who had neighboring offices, yet couldn’t even hold a conversation with one another because they were too deep in their own little worlds.

Very Important Science happens deep in those silos – but for me, the interesting science happens at the intersections of disciplines. Which meant even more school. And no guarantee I’d be able to exercise those whims of interest.

So — already working at a television station — I ditched the whole effort and got my degree in Broadcast Journalism, with a minor in Political Theory. Also graduated with 40 hours in hard sciences and calculus, which didn’t come very handy in a profession that is repulsed by math.

I am who I am

My very nerdy bookshelf

In the murky depths of my soul, though, lurks the unfulfilled destiny of the frustrated science reporter. One who keeps abreast of the new and interesting and exciting — which also might just be too complex for instant understanding. My bookshelf is proof.

My impetus to write and to share comes from a need to help others understand. And maybe I’m drawn to the things others are not explaining very well, because if others are doing the job on certain topics then I don’t need to.

Maybe I am in the right place at the right time. Journalism as a whole is imploding under the weight of outdated distribution models that aren’t cost-effective. “Specialty” writers are even more rare on staff, and are almost exclusively found in the freelance market. Maybe the service I provide here is a model for… well, something. I don’t know what.

But I do know that I enjoy writing. And explaining. It’s the bedrock of who I am, no matter what I am paid to do.

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The Crowdsourced Looking Glass

We don’t really need a Reason to Be, but it certainly helps to occasionally step back and look at a larger picture.

What is Occam’s RazR?

What do I want it to be?

It’s not what we saw from the first incarnation of the “personal weblog.” I don’t share everything here. I have Facebook, and a Twitter account that I use for short thoughts. (I even started a “My Quotes” category to archive the witty pieces that shouldn’t be so ephemeral.)

I have a Posterous site, “Ike’s Online Scraptacular,” for the pieces that don’t fit in other places.

I occasionally contribute at Media Bullseye and Calling John Galt, so as not to litter this space with thoughts in niches.

So if I am segmenting my online output, what goes here?

Bucket needs a label

I suppose I need to refocus and answer that.

Or I can take the lazy way out and say “It’s whatever the heck I want it to be about, on any given day.” But that doesn’t help the reader develop a consistent expectation. And even if I don’t have a purpose for this audience, it doesn’t mean I ought to waste its time with scattered meanderings.

So, this is what I will try to live up to:

  • Occam’s RazR will be a site about exploration and explanation.
  • Occam’s RazR will be a site about communication and cognition.
  • I want to write about thinking, and how we can strip away assumptions to arrive at truth.
  • I want to write about writing, and how we can more clearly enunciate what we mean.
  • I want to write about process, and how we delineate what we can understand from what we can’t.
  • I may write about football, or politics, or economics, or television, or any of a host of topics that might seem to emerge from nowhere. But I will always aim for the spirit of revealing the hidden truth, the missing link or the unsupported assumption.
  • I will do my best to bridge from knowns to unknowns.

What am I missing?

I know I am missing elements, but I want them to be explicit and not implicit.

I worked for a news manager once who got a lot of mileage out of sending me to places where news was happening, with the gameplan of “Send Ike there, and let Ike be Ike.”

That’s not enough. I want the outsiders’ perspective of what that means.

So tell me…

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What the Hell kind of Apocalypse was this, anyway?

The weirdest people in Waco were not the ones at the top of the hill.

(More from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)

Greetings from Satellite City, TX

What do they call those noisemakers Tibetan monks swing around their heads… the ones that make that hroowwwwnnngggggg hrooowwwnnngggggg noise?

We all have our unanswered questions about Waco… and that’s mine.

I have nothing to say about black helicopters, or the second amendment, or whether David Koresh was a kook or a prophet. I have nothing to say about how it ended. I wasn’t there, as it turned out, on the final day.

But one evening in late March, 1993, stuck in Waco, and stuck for a way to advance the Branch Davidian standoff story for my own station, I picked up the Gideon Bible out of my room at the Days Inn, and took it with me down to Satellite City, the media encampment at the perimeter of the standoff.

I sat in a Chevy Astro van with that Bible in one hand, and a Pearl longneck in the other, and, with the van’s dome light for illumination, began reading the Book of the Revelation — specifically, the passages about the Seven Seals which were so crucial to the Davidians’ understanding of their leader, David Koresh.

“And when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals I saw it, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as if in a voice of thunder, ‘Come.'”

Up on the hill, the Davidians’ Mt. Carmel compound stood illuminated against the night sky. An FBI helicopter swooped overhead, sailing down the hillside, sweeping the fields with a spotlight.

“And when the Lamb broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come.’ And another horse came out — a fiery-red one; and power was given to its rider to take peace from the earth, and to cause men to kill one another; and a great sword was given to him.”

Across the road, a television news crew from Houston had turned their satellite truck into a landbound party barge, complete with barbecue, lanterns, and boom box. Gloria Estefan sang from the stereo.

Meanwhile, from the hilltop, the occasional rumbling of tanks, and the sound effects of the FBI’s ‘psychological warfare’ campaign drifted down to mingle with the dance music and constant chugging of satellite truck generators.

“When the Lamb broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come.’ I looked, and a black horse appeared, its rider carrying a balance in his hand.”

In fact, crews who had been parked at Satellite City more than a month had turned it into a ‘home away from home’. The media pool had searched for tents that could serve as temporary shelter, and had come up with a row of candy-striped county fair pavilions, that were lined up along the side of the road. Talk about your media circus.

Lines in the sand

CNN crews had surrounded its installation with a foot-high picket fence, and had stuck a pink flamingo lawn ornament in the ground outside its trailer door.

There were other reporters who found so many amenities of resort living available in Satellite City, they never left the place. You’d see them following around other, working reporters who’d come in from town, trying to beg, borrow, or steal snippets of information. Or, they’d sit in their own trailers and watch Charles Jaco’s CNN reports, and plagiarize that material for the folks back home.

It occurred to me that night — with beer in one hand and Bible in the other — that, as surreal as this scene looked from my vantage point, it must look even stranger from the bullet-riddled house on the hill. Inside, the followers of David Koresh had convinced themselves the world was coming to an end. For them, in fact, it was.

“When the Lamb broke the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come.’ I looked and a pale-colored horse appeared. Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades came close behind him; and authority was given to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword or with famine or pestilence or by means of the wild beasts of the earth.”

There they were, surrounded, on a hilltop in rural Texas, by helicopters and tanks and spotlights and loudspeakers blasting the hroowwwwnnngggggg hrooowwwnnngggggg of Tibetan soundmakers — whatever they’re called.

“When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw at the foot of the altar the souls of those whose lives had been sacrificed because of the word of God and of the testimony which they had given.”

But what, amidst the tanks and helicopters and bizarre sound effects and bodies that surrounded them, did they make of that little camp down at the foot of the hill? The row of brightly-lit satellite trucks and festival tents, and the strains of Miami Sound Machine faintly drifting up the hill?

What the hell kind of apocalypse was this, anyway?

Nobody at the foot of the hill seemed to care.

“When the Lamb broke the sixth seal I looked, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun became as dark as sackcloth, and the whole disc of the moon became like blood.”

Crossing the line, never to return

Unable to focus on Revelation, I walked across the road to the Houston satellite truck. Someone noticed I seemed a little distracted. He asked why, and I told him. “Who cares?” he replied, pausing to swallow a mouthful of barbecue. “They’re all nuts up there, anyway.”

“When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who are in the presence of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.”

On that spring evening in 1993, the axis of my reality shifted just a little bit. Nothing looked quite the same for years afterward. And TV news never looked the same again.

(originally published by Michael Carpenter, republished with permission.)

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Attention Deficit Misnomer

TWEET smear 2

Sometime this week, I will go over 5,000 followers on Twitter. If it’s a typical day, I’ll snag a handful of people, but later than day I will lose a few who are either spammers who got their accounts busted or people who got offended that I didn’t follow them back, and revoked their interest in me. So I will probably break the 5,000 mark about six or seven times before it locks in permanently.

5,000 used to mean something, but now not so much.

The dynamic at play here has to do with attention. While I “follow” more than 1,400 people on the service, I really only follow a handful. I don’t go back and read every single message from each person. That kind of attention doesn’t scale. Many days, I am lucky to dip my hand into the stream and take a sip. Don’t be offended if I didn’t see the announcement of your tremendous accomplishment, there’s only so much attention to go around.

I know there are some who think I’m being pretentious for saying “5,000 doesn’t mean anything,” but it’s the truth. Because the people who follow me also follow many, many more than they used to.

Your Followers Aren’t Following, you follow?

Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson played with this idea recently, starting his account then dreaming about how far his “followers” would go to do his bidding. They became his Robot Skeleton Army, and for a celebrity with a huge following you can get some interesting crowdsourced humor. It’s also interesting to note that a lot of Ferguson’s audience isn’t following very many, so his Tweets aren’t diluted by noise and volume.

Back when I had only 500 followers or so, I might share a link to a post on this site. By watching my traffic counter, I could tell that I had generated enough interest to translate into a couple of dozen hits to my site. Those people were highly engaged and were likely to leave comments, too.

Not to say that the followers that came after are not as engaged, but they are looking at busy streams too. Having 10 times the audience, but an audience 10 times as dispersed in their attention is a net zero. You’re competing for tiny slices of time. 140 characters, and often it’s the first 40 that get scanned for content. That’s right – the first 30% of a Tweet determines whether the other 70% gets read (or if the link gets clicked.)

These days, with close to 5,000 followers, when I share a link to this site it might generate a couple of dozen clicks, and maybe another half-dozen for each time it is re-Tweeted.

Simply put – Twitter does not scale without changes to how you use it. The only way you can make the same formula work is by scaling up your number of overall followers.

A Race for Rats

I gave up on that race a long time ago, because it threatened to become an end unto itself. “It’s great you built an audience, now what is it you were planning to say to them again?”

There is a deficit of attention, but it’s not an issue of other people being too busy to “follow” me. It’s my failure to provide them with relevant or interesting information they can’t do without. If you want to be heard in the thunderstorm, you have to be either louder, more voluminous, or talk in a frequency that’s easy to tune.

And that goes for any channel, no matter how ephemeral.

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Color Me Invisible

red and blue

In many issues of communication, color does matter. Some colors evoke strength, some safety, some progress, and some security. Some project cowardice, and others royalty.

The mistake is in assuming too much – that a spectrum of colors will cover every flavor of difference and distinction.

American politics has divided down Red and Blue lines, so chosen because the media of the time needed simple charts with easily-distinguishable colors to project the presidential races. Red equals Republican, Blue equals Democrat, and that’s probably the way it is going to be for the parties moving forward. It wasn’t really standardized in any way until 2000, and it just fell that way. If you tried to change it now, you’d likely get a lot of resistance from people who have freely chosen to identify as a Red-State voter, or that Proud Blue Dot in a Very Red State. The colors have come to represent more than just the parties, and cut to the very core of a conservative/liberal division.

While we’re on politics, it’s fairly-well understood that a Green is one who pushes an agenda with a strong environmental focus. In fact, the environment and sustainability drive just about every policy issue for one who is Green.

Beneath, Behind, Between

So where does that leave the rest of us?

I am a lowercase-L libertarian. I have at times been accused of being a brainless lefty, and at others of being a heartless conservative. You might paint me as a little bit red and a little bit blue. Which adds up to purple?

My problem is that my views don’t wash out that way. I have a strong axis toward fiscal conservatism, anchored by a belief that people in the aggregate spend their money more wisely and efficiently than when their money is pooled together and spent by someone who didn’t earn it. I also don’t trust “government” as an institution to stay out of the individual’s way, and leave people alone to their peculiarities.

There is nothing muddled about my thinking. Just ask me my position on just about anything, and I’m certain you won’t get a wishy-washy magenta out of it. Yet the current framework of color doesn’t have a place for people like me.

It’s entrenched in the notion that our two-party system is the best way to proceed – and both of our predominant American political parties have a vested interest in seeing that continue. (Don’t pretend the Democrats were happy with Ralph Nader’s Green Party siphoning off enough votes to turn the 2000 election on its ear.)

Essentially, this is rah-rah bumper-sticker boosterism. I steal from Rush’s “Territories”

They shoot without shame in the name of a piece of dirt
or a change of accent, or the color of your shirt

Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world
than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.

Reject the Premise

The Red Blue divide does more than polarize, it freezes the thinking. What color would you use to describe someone like me? Orange? Yellow? (Because cowardice is so politically appealing.) Pink? Brown?

How about just taking me off the map. I reject the notion there is a single prism through which to view issues, and I reject the premise that such a continuum can even exist. The Great Divide has become so much about different core values to the extent that “common ground” is difficult to navigate in the increasingly rare instances where the overlap remains.

We need a multi-dimensional approach to dissecting the issues that divide us. Viewed through one lens, the course of action is clear. Viewed through another, a diametrically-opposed strategy is apparent. But the language for seeing the differences from an angle that makes sense becomes impossible when the sides are conducting purity tests for their Red or Blue.

Color me invisible, color me blind. Better yet, challenge yourself to remove the goggles others are using to obscure your vision, so you only see the world in a way where the colors matter.

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The Greatest Pickup Line Ever

This is from the archive at my old blog. But it’s still relevant.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Boy, we all sweat over that one, don’t we? To know that a potential lifetime relationship, be it personal or business, swings in the balance of a single encounter. It’s enough to make you sick. Some people do get sick, as a matter of fact. It’s not necessary, though, if you understand the science of first impressions, and the most important part: Some might call it “The Icebreaker,” but essentially we’re talking about a pick-up line.

Whatever your application — phone scripts — sales pitches — some are designed to win another over, some to get your foot in the door. Some are milked to death, and some are cheesy. You’ve probably seen a list or two of the worst ones in your e-mail. We all know what makes them bad, but don’t always recognize what makes them good.

With that in mind, let me tell you about “the best pick-up line ever“:

Rail Genius

It was the summer of 1984, and I had just turned 15 years old. We’d been in Alabama for a year, and I was still making adjustments. I guess that’s why my parents let me take the trip back to Idaho to see my old friends. I couldn’t drive, but I snagged enough money doing odd jobs that I could pay for the trip: Amtrak, all the way. (Remember, this was 1984, and I had shown signs of being responsible.)

The trip would take three-and-a-half days each way, and I was to spend two weeks visiting in between. As eager as I was to get there, I was just as eager to relax and enjoy the countryside.

Till it all got flat.

Then I went back to my books.

Along the way, though, I started admiring some of the sights inside the train. You meet all kinds of people in coach — All kinds: Overburdened moms, with screaming kids. Grandparents, with nothing but time. Wedding guests, funeral parties, and angels.

Angel’s Among Us

Oh yeah — Angel. That was her name (although I didn’t know it yet.) She was a glorious sight to behold inside that train. She looked to be about 19, with medium-length blonde hair, a healthy tan, and a smile that could melt titanium. It was all I could do to keep from drooling. And it was all she could do to keep this other guy from drooling on her!!!

If Angel truly was an angel, then this guy was be-deviling her. Or at least trying to tempt her. He was in his early-to-mid thirties, rather unkempt, and had the kind of body that was just an NFL season or two away from landing him in the Bud Bowl Hall of Fame. Not quite a beer gut, but a promising start. She really wasn’t interested in “Bud.” But he sure was interested in getting her to follow him back to the bar car. She was in the window seat, and he was in the aisle seat, boxing her in.

I would have given anything just to talk to this girl, but I didn’t stand a chance with “Bud” in the way. I needed the perfect line.

I marched up to the seat in front of his, squared my shoulders, took a deep breath — and stomped like Rumplestiltskin while uttering the greatest icebreaker in the history of interpersonal relationships:

“Dad wants to see you in the sleeper car right now!!!”

(You would think there should have been trumpets or something, maybe a cascade of balloons and confetti, or a trip to Disney World — but I digress.)

Angel looked up at me, and her perfect eyes flashed a perfect mix of some perfectly raw emotions. Shock. Confusion. Abject Terror. She looked at me like I had been smoking crack (another stunning accomplishment, considering that crack was another five years away from being patented.)

She stared at me for an eternity, or one second, whichever one was shorter.

She turned and looked at Bud.

She shot a quick glance at me, turned back to Bud, and said “I gotta go.”

We walked the length of the train before sitting down next to each other in coach. I shook her hand and said “My name’s Isaac.”

Angel turned out to be a sweet person. We sat on that train and talked for hours. As far as I was concerned, I SCORED! (What did you expect? I was fifteen, she was nineteen, and we were sitting in coach!)

Lessons Learned

Little did I know it, but I had stumbled on a formula that replaces the guesswork of “breaking the ice” with pure science.

1) Recognize a need
This was clearly a damsel in distress. She wanted a way out of the situation.

2) Propose a solution
I gave her an alternative (me) that was better than the one she had (Bud)

3) Make it relevant to your shared reality
“Wow, look at those cows whiz by!” “Have you been to the caboose?” or even “Can I get you anything?” would have been completely useless. Only one thing mattered to her at that point. My hopes and needs weren’t going to get satisfied until hers were.

4) Make it timely
If a line works more than once, then it is just a line. If it only works on that one occasion, then the other person will know that you are truly communicating with them, and not seeing them as a means to an end.

Not every pick-up line or icebreaker will follow these rules, but it has been my experience that the most effective ones do. They don’t have to be offbeat, and they don’t even have to be memorable. They must, however, open a channel to the other person by sending an important signal: We can interact in a way that will benefit us both.

The best icebreakers are developed in an instant. The attitudes of recognizing another’s needs, being open-minded, and losing your fear of embarrassment are developed over a long period of time. Work on those things, and the memorable icebreakers will flow right from you.

(Angel — if you’re out there somewhere — you’re welcome. Just wanted to let you know I got something out of it too.)

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My Audience, My Enemy

(Another classic from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)

The ordinary viewer is just so… ordinary.

“You know what your problem is?” My news director was putting the question to me — not in an accusatory or critical tone, but with the demeanor of a doctor telling his patient he has a terminal illness. “You have no style and no class.”

That was actually part of an employee evaluation I was given. (And here’s a bit of free career advice: if, during your first evaluation, you’re given an assessment like that, don’t think things will get better if you just hang around another 17 years.)

When I was recruited for my first TV news job, just five years earlier, I had gone to work in a newsroom full of people from working class families just like mine. Some were liberal and some were conservative, some Protestant, some Catholic, some Jewish.

But no one was there with the sense that the circumstances of their birth, or the fact that they were on TV, entitled them to some special place in the social order.

But five years later, Ronald Reagan was president, and the Ewings of Dallas were America’s TV family. And the term “working class,” at least in my profession, had become pejorative.

And although it is no longer my profession, the profession’s attitude seems the same.

Before Joe the Plumber

Have you ever heard of “Joe Sixpack?” He’s the ‘typical viewer’ for whom television news managers program their product. He is, by most accounts, an overweight, undershirt-wearing, lowlife who plops down in his ratty, squeaky, vinyl-upholstered easy chair at six pm, rips a Bud out of the plastic six-pack ring, and props his feet up for the news. Every morning, in newsrooms across the nation, executives and producers meet and talk about what Joe Sixpack will want to see on the news that evening.

Want to see a picture of him? Go look in the mirror. Because, unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, stock broker, or someone similarly situated, you are Joe Sixpack.

TV news personalities, in their need to separate those with “style and class” from those without it, have informally divided their public into two groups. The first group consists of the aforementioned doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, plus a few charismatic politicians — and, of course, TV news personalities.

The other group is ‘trailer park trash,’ consisting of everyone else.

But the grim reality for these provincial news celebrities is this: the affluent, fashionable folk with whom they want to associate, and be associated, don’t watch television news.They’re all tuned to the Discovery Channel, or Crossfire. The local TV news constituency is the very mechanics, convenience store clerks, letter carriers, plumbers, insurance salesmen, and the like whom one of my coworkers once dismissed with a single word, or rather, sound effect: “Ew.”

Dual Citizenship?

For the TV news reporter, the quandary is this: how to produce a news product for the mass of citizens who actually watch the newscast, and buy the products advertised — while simultaneously nudging the rich and trendy with a wink and a smile, as if to say, “Don’t pay any attention to that. Really, we’re just like you.”

One afternoon at an upscale shopping mall in the city where I lived, two gang members got into some kind of friendly scuffle outside the Swiss Army shop, and one of them accidentally shot the other in the butt with a small handgun.

We didn’t make any bones about it in our live coverage: the story was not that a black teenager had been shot. The story was that a lot of upscale white bystanders, whom our anchor described as being from the city’s ‘select neighborhoods,’ could have been shot.

Years later, we interrupted programming to report on a shooting in a similarly exclusive mall — 250 miles away. One indignant caller demanded to know why we thought anyone in our audience cared what happened in the Dallas Galleria. One news executive shrugged and said, “Everyone I know shops there.”

You Might Be Surprised…

A pipe bomb exploded one evening in a suburban, semi-rural community east of the city. The teenager who had assembled it was seriously hurt. Our reporter on the scene — born and raised in one of those ‘select neighborhoods’ — began her live report by saying, “You know, you might be surprised. There are actually some pretty nice homes out here.”

In fact, though, TV reporters generally aren’t like the affluent upper classes from whom they seek acceptance. They may have been raised in those kinds of homes, but in the competitive, cost-conscious world of modern TV news, they’re paid far less than they would be making if they’d actually become doctors, lawyers, or stock brokers.

So, they try to make up for it by just toadying and name-dropping (“Omigawd! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a Rolex repaired in this city?”), and leveraging their tenuous status as celebrities for the chance to stand on the fringe of sophisticated society. They’d rather be the lapdog of the establishment than the watchdog.

But frankly, the glamour of exclaiming “Just take a look!” in front of a nightly procession of car wrecks, house fires, and drive-by shootings is often lost on people who have spent ten hours performing open heart surgery, or made new case law, or gotten in on the ground floor of an IPO that tripled in value in eight hours.

Life Without Apology

The guy who first tagged me with the ‘no style and no class’ criticism eventually got fired. His boss — chief enforcer of what the company described as the ‘aura of affluence’ — was escorted from the building under armed guard one day, along with most of his family, while auditors pored over the fat leaseback deals and inflated expense reports he’d written for himself at the owner’s expense. That’s how he’d gotten his ‘aura of affluence.’

I’m more than two years out of the business myself, now. I decided to go do something else for a living — something that didn’t require me to start every day by apologizing for having ‘no style and no class.’

I’m not dramatically wealthier than I was, but getting off the ‘best car/best restaurants/best neighborhoods’ merry-go-round left me financially more independent than I ever was as a reporter.

But there’s another kind of independence that’s even more valuable. That’s the freedom to be your own person, choose your own friends, form your own values, and not portray a semifictional character created by a boss, or a consultant, or your coworkers — or even by yourself — to please someone else.

(originally published by Michael Carpenter, republished with permission.)

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