It’s officially been ten years since I graduated with my PhD in Economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I had already been teaching for a semester at Gettysburg College, having defended my doctoral thesis after sending it to my committee five months earlier from a friend’s apartment while he packed our rafts in the parking lot for a week-long trip on the Green River.
But honestly, that’s a story for another time. As I think about the ten years I have spent working in education and international development since earning those letters, and especially the last two years of upheaval/new normal/uncertainty that has marked our professional and personal lives, and what it means to be a leader in all of that.
I led a team at a very young age, likely before I was ready for it, and definitely before I had any skills to do it. I don’t mean the Head Lifeguard and Pool Manager job, though that was certainly formative in other ways. I mean when I inadvertently ran a newsroom at 23.
I left my job from straight out of college for Venezuela after a year. I had learned a ton about about econometrics and pricing and data and as the phone books started to roll around again, I said I was bored with the repetition. I was really just heartbroken and too agitated to see what else I could have learned, but nonetheless, Caracas was where my friends were. It was where I had turned 21, where I could go out dancing all night, where I could write, where I could go to the beach every weekend, where I could not constantly run into the ghosts of my ex-boyfriend.
I was running away.
So I stumbled into a newsroom on the recommendation of my former editor with the confidence of a new college grad who’d been told she could write and whose journalism experience you could count on one hand–in months. I was expecting a job as a cub reporter with mentoring, and a new boss, and a chance to write about crumbling roads and oil prices and to watch Alo, Presidente all day on Sundays waiting for the President to say something of note that we could splash across the front page. The writing was in store for me. The mentoring, not so much.
On my first day, the Nation Editor announced she was leaving. And I would be taking over, as the other native English speaker on staff was only interested in writing the crime reports–a sad, macabre necessity in Caracas that he truly excelled at. As the seasoned reporter scanned crime news for inclusion in his colorful daily column, a woman whose journalism experience exceeded the years I had been alive was leaving me in charge of a newsroom, layout, story choices, leafing through press releases, and more. I wasn’t the final word, at least in theory, but the relative absence of the editor until the late hours of the night meant I was to make a lot of decisions.
I have been thinking this week about how many mistakes I made in that role, about how truly awful I was at it, I’m sure. I trusted people I shouldn’t have. I didn’t trust others I should have, others with far more experience than I had. I thought I was responsible for every little decision, overextended myself, and overstepped. I hired folks out of desperation, only to have them fall severely short of expectations. I did not ask enough questions. I did not pay enough attention to detail. I mixed up Spanish cognates and definitely printed at least one story that where the main figure should have been billions and I said it was millions. Or was it vice versa? I didn’t get to do all the fun cub reporter things I had imagined doing.
I also learned where my ethics and morality lay when it came to my writing and politics. Turning a story about International Women’s Day into a story about how women were turning out for Chavez proved to be the straw; I am sure no reader is surprised there.
I also put out a paper, every day, for six months or so, with the help of a lot of talented journalists and layout folks and copy editors and editors and sources who answered my phone calls and provided press releases.
And I learned a ton about leading a team, about managing expectations, about people, about my limitations, about managing up, about keeping folks motivated, about problem-solving when expectations fall short, about pivoting at the last minute, about taking in new information and reacting to it, about planning and camaraderie, about taking care of each other, about listening.
When I left Caracas, I knew that working in a newsroom was not for me. I tried moonlighting as a freelancer, did some fixing for visiting journalists, even started researching a book. I don’t know if I would have been better at those things had I had a more typical cub reporter experience. Would I still be a journalist? Would I write more? I don’t know. But I do know that the responsibility made me into a better leader and a better listener. Those six months shaped my post-PhD years, offering skills to take outside academia, and perspective to lead new teams.
As we head into our second coronavirus winter here in the northern hemisphere with the looming threat of climate change and the indefinite change in how we work, I’m grateful for that experience, and am keeping it close at hand as navigate these weird waters.