The Carnival of Journalism Assignment: “For December I would like you all to write a letter to your younger self. You can write about anything, no rules, no apologies. You may like to share with yourself advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned, about your life, choices… or just about anything that is on your mind. Ideally these are deeply personal to you and I hope it’ll be enlightening to others in its universality to the human condition.”
All of the other bloggers are writing incredibly profound and insightful comments to their younger selves. Today, you feel somewhat humbled in their company. Every time you go to craft a worthy advice column that will be enlightening to the human condition, everything seems preachy and cliche. The truth is, young Self, I could tell you all sorts of things to watch out for (editors with personal agendas, that liar you trusted on the beat, lima beans) or to pay more attention to (that HTML class you took, that stats class you took, those cookies in the oven). But you won’t really listen. In your 20s, you thought you knew everything already. (Heck, at 12 you thought you knew everything). You had travelled the world. Lived in France. Your work had been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. You knew how to do your homework before an interview already. You knew not to make stuff up. You knew how to pretend you knew what was going on even when you didn’t. You pretended so well you even convinced yourself. Youth, you thought, was not wasted on THIS youth. What could an older Self possibly have to share with you?
Self, now you’re in your 40s. I’m here to tell you: you do not matter so much. That’s pretty blasphemous both in the culture you grew up in and in today’s sticker world where your kids get claps and hugs just for not playing a video game. I’ll say it a different way: everything around you – everyONE around you – matters more.
So yes, yes, you were very prescient to be learning HTML in your 20s when most people around you thought “online” meant the wait at the movies and email was a novel phase. Yes yes, you are very brilliant. But um… Self? Why didn’t you stick with it? Keep building web pages? So that you had to relearn it again when you turned 40 so you could talk about it with these other young Selves you are now teaching so they don’t miss out on opportunities? Think of how much more helpful you could have been in your subsequent newsrooms as you watched them struggle with digital transitions.
And true, true, you and your fellow reporters thought yourselves fighting the good fight afflicting the comfortable and all that. But you shied away from chances to really probe inequities — class, racial, gender — that you saw all around you. You really spent way too much time writing about annual reports and company perspective than you had to. At some point you will finally do all the reading you should be doing in your 20s and conduct the interviews that you should have done along the way to help you really grasp what disparity looks like. You thought you knew and you did understand in an abstract way, but not really in a nitty-gritty-reality-check way. What if you had opened your eyes sooner while you were regularly reaching so many people?
And yes, yes, perhaps you were right not to take the web reporting job and stick with the safe gig at a print newspaper in Vermont; after all that .com company folded within a couple years and you thrived on the business beat with the help of that incredible staff of mentors at the Burlington Free Press. You thought yourself quite the smartie. But what if you had taken the less safe path for once? What if you had taken yourself just a little less seriously, given yourself over to chance just a little bit more, and opened yourself up much more to mistake and failure than you did?
I guess we don’t know, Self.
Somewhere along the way, Self, you finally figured out in your 40s how little you really know. And that lesson — the knowledge that many, many, many more lessons await — is probably the most important one you’ve had so far.