How to give a great presentation: 10 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Attention is now probably the scantest resource on the planet. We’re all overwhelmed and distracted, so how can you get a room filled with (mostly) strangers to sit still and really listen to your speech or talk?

It’s do-able, but it’s also work.

I’ve given  many public presentations over the years: to retail students at the University of Minnesota, to retail executives at the annual Retail Customer Experience conference, and many times at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Do I get nervous beforehand?

Of course!

Unlike most speakers, I never use slides or any other visuals like PowerPoint. If I’m not compelling, slides aren’t going to help. (I get that, with lots of specific scientific or numeric data, these can be essential. They also make taking a cellphone image of them easy and quick for the audience.)

 

 

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Some people in my audience had done conflict zone work, humanitarian work, newspaper work…

 

Know your audience and what they need most from your remarks

The single most important element. Until you know who’s going to be listening (or potentially, because at any conference — unless you’re the keynote — your session is competing head-to-head with others in the same time slot) you can’t begin to prepare your remarks.

At my recent presentation at the Northern Short Course, an annual meeting of photojournalists, I was told the audience would be mostly mid-career — yet a high school student and a college senior came up afterward. The ages ranged from 17 to 60s.

 

Prepare and practice

Never ever ever try to “wing it.” The best presentations may feel spontaneous and casual to the audience — but they are absolutely not. Write out your speech or your talking points, in order, and make sure there’s a logical flow to them. The more you practice, the more you’ll edit and refine. The voice can be casual and conversational but there’s a lot of structure behind it.

 

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Time your remarks

 

To the minute! Nothing is worse than a speaker who rushes and talks waytoofast or loses track of their allotted time. Listening is tiring!

 

How do you want your audience to feel when you’re done?

I always want people to leave the room inspired, not tired. I’m not perky or saccharine, but our work is difficult and, even when I acknowledge that, I want to offer practical help.

 

Breathe deeply, slooooow down and bring a glass of water (no ice)

 

Take a few deep breaths before you begin, to calm down. Always have a glass of water handy for dry mouth — and no ice! Nothing’s more embarrassing than a pile of ice suddenly shooting down your face and neck in front of everyone. I also think swigging from a plastic bottle is inelegant. It is a performance.

 

Share some personal stuff

 

Not confessional, of course, but choose carefully a few anecdotes fully relevant to the theme of your speech that the audience will be able to relate to. Being stiff and pompous is a huge turn-off.

 

 

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Make sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments

 

My most recent presentation was (whew!) 75 minutes…so I timed my remarks for 45 (which is long!) and allowed a full 30 for questions. I still had a dozen people lined up afterward to ask more. If you’ve been engaging, people will want to contribute their thoughts as well.

 

Don’t rush off afterward

 

If people want to chat with you one-on-one (a compliment, I think) listen to each one carefully (although keep it moving if the line is long!) and be sure to get their business card; offer yours to them as well if you want to follow up. I think being asked to address an audience is a real honor, so I always looks forward to the new connections we can forge as a result.

 

Watch other speakers to see how they hold and capture attention

 

There’s no shortage of inspiring material out there! Celebrities giving commencement speeches, people on YouTube and sooooo many TED talks. Watch how others do it well and get some good ideas for yourself. At the last conference, I watched other solo presenters to see how they engaged their audiences.

 

It’s called growing up

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Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:

Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.

As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.

 

I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.

Here’s my college experience:

— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.

— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.

— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.

— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.

— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding  and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.

— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.

 

So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.

 

The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.

The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.

I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.

Neither parent attended my graduation.

 

What do you think of this relentless parenting?

 

Do you do it?

 

Have you experienced it?

Finding a new tribe

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By Caitlin Kelly

The email arrived about two weeks before a major annual conference of news photographers. Someone had dropped out — would I come and speak?

Um, sure.

I began my career in journalism as a photographer, selling images to Time, the Globe & Mail and others. I had three magazine covers while still in high school. But being asked to speak to others seeking wisdom and advice, while a terrific honor, is always scary. What if I had little or not enough?

So I did what I always do, I wrote out notes — never a formal speech — and started practicing and timing it to the minute. I had 75 minutes, and decided to fill 45 of it with my advice, and 30 minutes for questions. What if there weren’t any? What if no one came? I’m semi-known as a writer —- but not a known quantity in this world.

It was great to have Jose there (collecting an award and giving feedback on portfolios) to introduce me and smile from the back of the room.

 

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Tables full of Canon and Sony and Nikon equipment for sale…

 

About 50 people attended my presentation — a wide range of ages, men and women at all levels of their craft — even some sitting on the floor. So that felt good.

We talked about how to pitch — the scary and inevitable process every creative person must face if they are to sell their work into a highly competitive marketplace. We talked about rejection. About how to find ideas.

Afterward, to my delighted surprise, a line of a dozen people waited patiently to say hello and ask more personal advice. One was a college student and one even a high school student — both young women.

It’s such a privilege and joy, certainly when I have no children, nephews or nieces, to feel my insights are valued and can help the next few generations.

I came away with fistfuls of business cards and, I hope, some new friendships. I was deeply moved by the  talent I saw and met, like Moriah Ratner, a talented 23-year-old (!) who had already attracted major industry attention for her images. So inspiring! Of course, she’d already worked alongside one of our New York Times friends and colleagues.

Here’s her work in (!) National Geographic.

The industry of journalism — whether words or photos — really is small, so creating and maintaining a good reputation from the start is essential.

I met a Canadian from Montreal, Andrea Pritchard, who made a documentary about three of the industry’s female legends.

 

 

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New York Times photographer Michelle Agins (left) and Lisa Krantz, a staff photographer for the San Antonio, (Texas) Express-News, describe their work and offer insights into  how and why and when they shot some of these images. Both are 2019 winners of the Sprague Award, the highest award offered by the National Press Photographers Association. The image above is by Agins.

 

Like all conferences, some of the best conversations happened in the hallways and the bar and the bathroom as we dug deeper into why we were there and what we each grapple with — whether health issues or money or lack of support or sexism or where to find ideas. The medium matters less than how we can excel in it.

To get ready to do my talk (and I’ve done lots of them), I read this great new book by client/friend Viv Groskop, a UK-based stand-up comedian, author and executive coach. The book is Own The Room and it’s full of helpful, smart advice for women who can feel terrified of public speaking — even as it can hugely boost our careers.

I’ll also be speaking May 5 in Manhattan at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as I have many times.

Conferences can be exhausting and we did retreat to our hotel room for naps.

 

Do you do any public speaking?

 

Do you enjoy it?

 

2 Broadway shows: The Ferryman, Choirboy

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of the many reasons I enjoy living near New York City is having quick and easy access to its culture, whether music, dance, art, books, theater.

We’re fortunate my husband works for The New York Times, which is unionized, and as a result gives us access to TDF, which offers low-cost tickets to a range of entertainment; as I left the matinee of Choirboy, having paid $45 for a fantastic orchestra seat, I saw that the lowest price at the TKTS booth in Times Squares was $73.

It’s a real privilege to see a show for these prices — full price for an orchestra Broadway seat can be $300 or more.

The Ferryman

First, if you don’t know much recent Irish history — specifically “The Troubles”, then acronyms mentioned in it like GPO and RUC won’t mean much. Plus thick Northern Irish accents to cut through.

Go anyway! It’s an amazing play, even if the ending is abrupt and confusing. It has more than 20 cast members — seven children, plus (!) a live rabbit, a live goose and a very calm live baby. It’s almost three hours, with two intermissions.

It opened in New York on Broadway in October 2018.

It’s set in an Irish farmhouse at harvest time, in 1981, and includes everyone from Aunt Maggie Far Away, fading in and out of dementia, to the foul-mouthed patriarch Patrick and his wife, Patricia. There’s a very bad guy named Mr. Muldoon, a betrayed and betraying priest, a bunch of rowdy cousins and plenty of whisky. The plot is too complicated to detail here, but here’s a review of it; the themes of loyalty, belonging, lost opportunity and betrayal playing throughout.

Choirboy

Hard to imagine a more different sort of play, but so terrific. It closes March 10, so if you have a chance, run!

Set in an all-male prep school bristling with secrets and shame, it stars six African-American actors — in itself unusual. The set is simple but versatile, morphing from a steamy locker room to a classroom to a dorm room shared by two room-mates, the wall above each bed plastered with posters.

As someone who spent five years at prep school, and four of those in boarding sharing space with strangers, much of this was familiar.

In addition to the plot, there’s fantastic a capella singing, of course.

It was also great to see an audience filled with African-Americans, less visible in some Broadway houses.

Jose and I have tagged 2019 the year to Try New Things!

Theater is one form of culture I tend to overlook and neglect, so this is a good start.

When does ambition fade?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I recently had lunch with a friend my age — a former executive at National Public Radio — who now travels the country with his very cool project, getting people into working for public radio, called NextGenRadio. I love his ambition and passion, at an age when many are thinking about retirement.

One of my spin teachers, in her early 40s, is doing the work for pre-med, and is 18 months away from taking the MCAT, the med school admission test. Another friend, a former New York Times editor, is now enrolled in a program to re-train doing yoga therapy in medical settings.

Here’s a very long piece about re-inventing your life after 50, from a new website I’m writing for, considerable.com.

I’m slowly working on two new ways to earn an income, with no expectation that either will fully sustain me financially, but each of which makes me happier than journalism does at this point. I started writing for a living at the age of 19, while also attending university full-time. I enjoyed it, but it was also really stressful. Now the industry is in such a mess — and with pay rates, literally, back to 1970s and ’80s lows, (then a very good rate!), I’m ready to flee.

 

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The two things I hope to do a lot more of are coaching — both writing and PR strategy (details are on my website) and selling my images to interior designers. I’ve been coaching now for several years and really enjoy it; my students get instant ROI and lots of practical advice, not the generic “You go, girl!” bullshit I so often see being touted by “experts” on social media.

My husband is a professional photo editor, who worked for The New York Times for 31 years and helped them win a Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 images, so we’re also culling thousands of my images to select the initial few hundred and set up a website. I began my career as a photographer, selling three magazine cover images while still in high school and later, to Time, The Washington Post, Toronto Star, The New York Times and others.

I do, still, hope to publish a few more books.

 

What ambitions do you still hold?

 

Do you have a timeline for achieving them?

Exposing oneself to millions

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.

Here’s the link, and an excerpt:

It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.

Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.

I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.

 

It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment,  a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.

 

I hope you’ll share it widely!

 

 

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Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently

Fireside’s secret? Connecting, quickly

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been home from Fireside now for only four days…but like many of my fellow attendees, here in NY, in Toronto and beyond, I’ve been chatting with many of them via our Slack channel, Twitter, FB, LinkedIn and email.

 

Talk about connection!

 

I’m still processing so much of what I saw, heard, felt and shared, both emotionally and intellectually.

 

Here’s a great piece about it by one of my cabin-mates, Michelle Manafy, for Inc.com:

being away from the safe and familiar surroundings of home helps campers build new strengths that empower them in whatever they do.

At Fireside, attendees not only have to live without the reassuring buzz of their phones, they also have to forgo conference hotels to share cabins with strangers, sleep on bunks made for kids, without heat in weather that dips into the teens at night. Despite excellent food and well-stocked campfires it is, without doubt, both physically and technologically, uncomfortable.

Yet what occurs is nothing short of magic, warmed by campfire light and reflected in the kind of star-filled sky you only see far from the pervasive light of so-called civilization. People make eye contact. They introduce themselves. They watch speakers without the distraction of tweets or email. They walk and talk in twos and groups, reflecting on what they’ve seen and heard.

 

So why did this brief stay in the woods create such quick, powerful connections?

Egos checked

 

Without the usual conference trappings of badges and lanyards proclaiming your cool/hip/prestigious affiliation(s), without the status-signifiers of the right clothes/shoes/handbag, we were all just..people.

You couldn’t pull the usual thing (so rude!) of looking over someone’s shoulder for the more important contact because the person talking to you might, in fact, be it.

As one man said — “Everyone here is an onion.”

 

 

Long face to face conversations

 

So much of our lives are now relentlessly tech-intermediated — whether emojis, texts, Snapchat, Instagram, Slack, FB, FaceTime, Skype. It’s now radical indeed to just sit, maybe for an entire hour — as I did several times there, and others did as well — and speak at length face to face with someone you’d never met before.

 

Truth-telling

 

It’s also a radical act — in an era of relentless, isolating and demoralizingly competitive social media preening — to just speak openly and honestly about your real struggles, whether emotional, financial, physical or professional, maybe all of these!

During the conference, even the most successful among us spoke bravely and boldly about their frequent battles with anxiety and depression, their need to appear 10000 percent strong and in charge of it all, for fear of losing employees, investors, sales and street cred.

Few things are as powerful as truth and trust.

 

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Being outdoors night and day

 

Dusty shoes, mosquito bites, sunburned noses. (You should see the bruise on my left calf from ungracefully exiting the canoe!)

Just being outside, not staring into damn screens all the time, in fresh air, smelling wood-smoke and pine needles and watching a sunset and hearing a loon’s haunting call…so restorative!

 

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Campfires, literal and physical

 

It’s pretty primal stuff to sit around a fire, blazing or glowing, and stare into its embers. We’ve been doing it as a species for millennia, yet how often do we do it with strangers? It’s harder to bullshit and posture when the smoke is in your eyes and someone just handed you a gooey marshmallow on a stick.

One of the ways the conference organized us was into “campfires” where a group of experts would gather in a public spot and just…extemporize.  We were all there to be resources for one another.

That takes expertise and confidence in your skills and social poise (I did one, with several other journalists) but it’s also down-to-earth and freeing — no mic, no video, no lectern, no notes.

Willingness to brave something completely unfamiliar

 

I was really nervous!

This was not my usual crowd (all journalists and writers of non-fiction) but a wild mix of ages — 20s to 60s — and included start-ups, a few billionaires, tech bro’s and people I had to talk to (giving presentations) and with. What if they were cold or dismissive? (not!)

It was a long long drive from my home an hour north of NYC to the camp, about four hours’ drive north of Toronto. What if the food was lousy? (it wasn’t!)

I think many of us first-timers had to be a little brave. You couldn’t just flee and go catch a movie or flick through your Insta account for distracting comfort.

 

Props to the two young Toronto lawyers, Daniel Levine and Steve Pulver, who invented this thing.

 

 

4 days’ inspiration: the Fireside Conference

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine the smartest and most interesting people you’ve ever met.

Four hundred of them.

In the woods, sleeping for three nights in unheated cabins at a summer camp more than three hours’ drive north of Toronto, on a huge private lake.

I just spent the most tiring, intense, exhausting, interesting four days of my life — and, maybe like you, I’ve been to many conferences over the years.

None remotely like this one.

This is invitation only, and I was invited (free), waiving the $2,500 (Canadian) standard fee; I spoke twice during the event on how to tell stories, as many of the attendees run their own companies, many of them start-ups and many have no idea how to find and work with the media to promote their products and services.

 

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The age range was 20s to 60s, about 70 per cent male and probably 60 to 70 percent Canadian, from all across the country. One man came from Cyprus and others from far away in the U.S. , even Spain.

It was a wildly eclectic mix of talents and skills — from a male performance artist to a young female cryptocurrency business owner, from the female Alabama owner of a pet-sitting company to about eight other journalists.

Of the 400, about 150 were returning from prior Fireside Conferences.

Because it’s held at a camp, the remote wooded 750-acre setting is simply gorgeous and the amenities fairly basic — the cabins have no heat and it was cold (like 40 degrees F) at night.

We all ate breakfast and dinner in the dining hall; unlike camp, there was plenty of free alcohol provided by sponsors. We were woken up at 8:15 by music broadcast through speakers and at night many of us congregated around small stone-ringed campfires and made s’mores.

And the stars! I hadn’t seen the Milky Way in years.

 

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Our cabin — I shared it with three other women, all of them strangers (now good friends!) — no heat!!! Bunk beds.

 

No one wore a badge or lanyard. Almost no speakers used or needed a mic — instead we sat on a bench or on the grass to listen, creating an intimacy that was immediate, unusual and powerful as we often engaged in long, private, sometimes very personal conversations.

Unless you’d been there before, you probably arrived, as I did, a little nervous — and didn’t know who anyone was, meaning you just had to engage in conversation and you could be speaking to a self-made millionaire or a grad student, a musician or a photographer or a mother of four.

Egos checked!

The other secret?

No wifi!

There was a cabin where you could access it but this meant tremendous personal interaction without the absurd constant distraction of cell phones and notifications.

We could also — in addition to dozens of speakers and panels — enjoy classic camp activities: sailing, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, archery, tetherball. I canoed solo for a bit.

My brain is swirling — I was invited to, also did, a podcast there, and may be invited to speak at some other conferences thanks to some contacts I made.

And so many new friends.

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?

 

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)