More notes on freelance life

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By Caitlin Kelly

It happens to all of us.

This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.

Here’s a story about what happened.

But here’s the tricky part:

You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.

Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.

I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.

Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.

They just expect to be paid on time.

 

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I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.

I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.

I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.

I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.

As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.

No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!

 

Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!

 

 

 

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In other recent freelance writing news…

— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”

— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.

— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.

—  Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.

— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!

— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!

— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!

— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.

— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.

 

The usual hustle!

Back to the ballet!

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Aaaaaah, the glories of Lincoln Center!

Jose and I treated ourselves to tickets for the winter season, and what a joy it was to settle back into those red plush seats below that gorgeous floral-shaped ceiling.

The first evening offered three Balanchine pieces, the first, his first, from 1928, Apollo. It was…the work of a young choreographer. It felt very much of the period. I’m glad I saw it — what else (beyond some classical music) — of the 1920s are we still consuming culturally?

The second piece, Orpheus, which I loved, was from 1948. Like the others on the evening’s program, it’s a ballet with no sets and very simple costumes, to music by Stravinsky. The minimal set was by now legendary designer Isamu Noguchi.

Orpheus, as all you Greek myths geeks already know, is the heart-breaking story of Orpheus descending into Hades to reclaim Eurydice — only if he refuses to look at her until they are back in the earthly word. But he looks, killing her instantly, forever.

The third ballet, pure form, is from 1957, Agon. Loved it. It’s everyone’s first ballet class; the girls in black leotards with simple blacks, the boys (as adults are called throughout their ballet careers), in black tights and tight white T-shirts.

It demands the fiercest technique — no gorgeous costumes or tricky lighting or elaborate sets to distract the eye. There were some wobbly moments of partnering, which made it a bit more human.

 

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The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

 

We had terrific seats in the orchestra, ($79 each, to me an absolute bargain for the value) and had a great time people-watching; such elegance! Ladies in floor-length furs, young girls in sparkly shoes, a pair of stylish young Parisiennes in the row in front of us.

I came home so excited to be back in the world of ballet, a world I entered as a young girl, taking classes with vague and unrealizable hopes of joining more seriously; I tried out a few times for Toronto’s National Ballet School and lived a block away from it in my early 20s, watching the fortunate few enter and exit those hallowed halls, walking with the dancer’s distinctive head-erect, shoulders-back, feet-turned-out gait.

In my 20s, I was fortunate to become a regular reviewer of the National Ballet of Canada (free tickets!) and was even flown from Toronto to Newfoundland to write about their life on tour, to help me produce an essay for their 35th anniversary program. Later, thanks to their PR director, I performed as an extra in eight performances of Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center — and have even been in its rehearsal rooms.

 

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The lights on the front of each balcony look like jewels and the gold is covered with a sort of netting effect. The proscenium looks like it’s made of thin gold chains laid together

 

Here’s a fantastic series of short films I found on Youtube about NYC Ballet, from 2014. If you love ballet, you will learn a lot about what happens everywhere but on-stage.

I now have a much better sense of NYCB dancers and some of their unlikely trajectories and backstories.

Interestingly, Peter Martins — subject of one of the videos and its long-time director — is gone, having retired in January 2018 after 24 allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by former dancers and dance students.

 

 

It is a brutal world.

It is a beautiful world.

 

 

Money, money, money

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Storms can descend any time — without warning

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s an American expression I’d never heard before I moved to the U.S., a “come to Jesus” meeting, defined by one online dictionary as:

 

Any meeting in which a frank, often unpleasant, conversation is held so as to bring to light and/or resolve some issue at hand

 

Few subjects are as fraught with emotion, for many of us anyway, as money.

Here’s a great/long/helpful New York Times column on when, how and why to discuss money effectively.

My husband and I recently had yet another CTJ meeting about our finances, our budget and how — again — we might try to trim our expenses and boost our earnings. We both work full-time freelance, I as a journalist, writing coach and editor, and he as a photographer and photo editor.

And we’re both at an age when no one is likely to offer us a well-paid, full-time job in our industry and we do apply.

Survival is wholly on us.

 

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I love living on the Hudson River

 

Money is a proxy for power, influence, access, status.

It’s how many people — especially in the United States — measure success. If you aren’t flaunting your wealth, you must not have any. Loser!

It also buys food and gas and housing and medical care and clothes and shoes and school tuition and books and music and beer and trips to visit people we love.

We live (in a one bedroom apartment) in a very wealthy area, wealth-adjacent as it were — one man in our small church wrote a personal check for $250,000 to buy the new organ. The women here who stay at home full-time focusing all their Ivy educated energy on their children chirp at me: “Are you still writing?” as if my life’s work, albeit in a poorly-paid creative field, were a hobby, like macrame or raising chickens.

I grew up in a family that had a lot of money, at times. My father and his second wife worked in film and TV, the household income dictated by the whims of whoever they were trying to sell their talents to. We had, as I’ve blogged here before, cotton years and cashmere years.

My maternal grandmother, whose father was a Chicago real estate developer and investor, inherited a massive sum in the 1960s — and spent it as if it were something radioactive to be gotten rid of as fast as possible. Hence, I witnessed, with a mixture of awe and envy, an extraordinary solo life of gold-topped canes, lush furs, raw silk custom-made muumuus with matching turbans, enormous jewels and limousines everywhere. When she died, in 1975, my mother had to sell everything to pay off death duties to the Ontario government and decades of unpaid income tax to the Canadian and U.S. government.

I own only two objects that were Granny’s — a 60’s-era gold ring and an antique pocket watch. Interestingly, Jose’s only family object is also a pocket watch, and a small black native American piece of pottery.

Jose grew up the son of a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, NM, in church housing, and attended four years of state university on a church-supplied scholarship.

I was lucky enough to have a monthly income at 18, thanks to that grandmother, just enough to live alone and pay my own way through four years of university, (plus a lot of freelance work.) I’ve had decades thinking/worrying about money every day and how best to manage it.

I’ve had staff jobs, two of them well-paid,  but knew they would never last. They just don’t, in our industry, especially if you don’t schmooze or flatter those in power.

 

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A cafe table in Montreal, one of our many pleasures…

 

For me, money is a tool: when there’s enough left over, you travel and renovate and buy a decent used car for cash and buy the best clothes and shoes and household goods possible because it can, and will, disappear overnight, and often without warning.

 

So you also save and save and save and save and save!

 

I lost income in 2018 producing two (unsold) non-fiction book proposals, then six months’ dealing with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

We do have decent savings, some of which — again — we’re going to have to access to survive 2019.

Our single greatest cost?

No surprise here for any American reader: $1,700 a month for our health insurance plus another $2,000 in co-pays (out of pocket payments) for specific medical visits.

It is more than our monthly mortgage payment —- and is non-negotiable. Even if we lived in a hut in the woods, we’d still need it.

 

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Both my parents grew up rich, and each promised to eventually leave me some of their money but one lied for decades and spent every dime on herself.

 

How does money — or the lack of it — play out in your life?

 

 

 

The writing life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Just saw a great new film starring the fab Melissa McCarthy, in a serious role, as the late New York City writer Lee Israel, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

More than any film I’ve ever seen, it shows the reality of life for an ambitious-but-stymied writer in a city full of the inevitable confrontations with those who are glitteringly and gloatingly more successful. In one scene, she attends a party filled with them and her simmering rage is palpable.

I still remember the woman, (living as an adult in her parents’ townhouse), who ran into me at some NYC writing event and cooed: “Are you still with the Daily News? Haven’t seen your byline much recently.”

Like that.

Israel, who found forging literary letters her financial salvation when her career stalled, also had a prickly personality that guaranteed her few allies and alienated the few who tried to get close to her.

The scenes where she both confronts and begs her agent to get her a deal are painful to watch — and so honest. The inequities here are legion, like the Classic Six, (a huge, much coveted style of Manhattan apartment) her agent inherited; Israel lives in a dingy walk-up with her cat.

 

Writing for a living is often a deeply frustrating path to frustration, envy and low wages. Those who tell you otherwise are hoping to make some money from your idealism and naievete.

But…

 

Since I generally update you on my writing life, here’s the — cheerful! — latest:

 

— Nice reception for this essay published on The Pool, a UK website, about the odd reality of getting a cancer diagnosis and having to keep explaining it to people who know nothing and can’t be bothered to Google your condition.

 

With so many medical appointments and seven physicians, and tests and treatments that would consume more than five months, I kept trying to flee cancerland whenever possible. Where I live, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid being confronted by ads on radio, TV, buses or even a debit-card machine for a cancer hospital or drug. When healthcare is a competitive, for-profit enterprise, the word “cancer” is annoyingly inescapable, leading some who’ve yet to face it to think they understand what those facing the disease are going through.

They don’t.

One of the many lessons I learned quickly is how deeply individual breast cancer and its treatments are. At the radiation clinic, where I lay face down for 48 seconds a day for 20 days, I made two new friends – none of us with the same condition or treatment regime.

 

— Loved the chance to report and write this piece, a profile of the new coach for the New York Rangers, a hockey team that practices in my suburban town. The coach, David Quinn, was warm, down-to-earth and had his dreams of the NHL or the Olympics dashed at 20 when he discovered he is hemophiliac.

 

Ice as unyielding as concrete. Razor-sharp blades whizzing past with abandon. Slap-shot pucks flying through the air. Boards dented and dinged from bodies slammed hard into them during every game. Ice hockey and hemophilia are not a good match. But for David Quinn, an ice hockey rink is where he feels most at ease. On one hand, this is no surprise. Quinn, 52, is the new head coach of the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most storied franchises. On the other hand, it’s a bit startling, because the rookie NHL head coach and former hockey player has hemophilia B.

 

— Wrote my first piece for a new website aimed at people in their 50s and 60s, considerable.com, after meeting its editor for a long lemonade this summer. It’s so rare these days anyone makes time to meet writers face to face; I’m now working on my second piece.

 

Coached a writer who hopes to sell to The New York Times, discussing and refining her pitch.

 

— Coached a D.C. college journalism student in her final year, who found me on the Internet and hired me to work on her skills. It’s an interesting relationship and a challenge to try and transfer decades of knowledge, but fun and gratifying. We’re meeting face to face in New York for lunch this week.

 

— Started work on my first piece for an engineering magazine, which will be the fourth time (!) I’ve written about engineering education. As someone who didn’t enjoy most of my formal education, am fascinated by the skills and aptitudes required to succeed in that field.

 

– Negotiating with several new clients and editors for work in early 2019. When you’re wholly freelance, paying (soon) $1700 a month for health insurance, it’s a constant hustle to find (and ideally keep) new relationships with people who pay well, pay quickly and don’t drive you insane with demands.

 

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.

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.

 

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— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.

—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.

— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)

 

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— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.

— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.

— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.

— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)

— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.

— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York Times Magazine (twice); no answer.

 

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— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.

— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.

— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.

— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.

 

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— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.

— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)

— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!

— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.

— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

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?

 

Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

NY Daily News halves staff; an ex-reporter, some of my memories

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One of my notebooks, complete with coffee stains! That funny thing in the middle is a stylized early camera, and the News’ logo, as it was once the city’s picture paper…

By Caitlin Kelly

It was, when I worked there in 2005 and 2006, the sixth-largest newspaper in the United States, with 600,000 readers, a real source of pride. Today it’s down to 200,000.

This week its owners Tronc (ugh, what a name) fired half of the Daily News staff — including almost every photographer and sports reporter– insisting their latest gambit will be a focus on breaking news.

Oh yeah, that thing that Twitter already owns…

Some details:

 

Media conglomerate Tronc bought The Daily News in September, adding it to a stable of other newspaper and magazines that includes The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun.

The Daily News, once the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, has been among the most aggressive New York City publications in its coverage of President Donald Trump, with the newspaper’s cover often needling Trump about recent scandals or missteps.

The paper has received 11 Pulitzer Prizes including one in 2017 in conjunction with nonprofit investigative organization ProPublica for coverage of evictions based on obscure laws that pushed business owners and residents from their property.

My year at the News was the weirdest, most stressful and eye-opening of my career in journalism — and I’d already worked for the Toronto Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette, both broadsheets, a name that denotes the physical size of a newspaper as much as its more sombre approach to news.

The News is a tabloid, a whole new world.

I hadn’t worked in a newsroom in 20 years when I was hired there, thanks to a manager I’d known and worked with in Montreal who came to New York from Chicago to run the paper.

For him, and for me, it was a poor match; he’s British and Canadian and didn’t know the five boroughs of New York City intimately, tribal lore for anyone working at the News. Neither did I.

The paper used to inhabit a gorgeous Art Deco building on 42d Street; I arrived to their offices on the very western end of 33rd Street, sharing a building with the Associated Press.

The newsroom didn’t even have cubicles, just a huge bullpen stretching a full city block, sunlight straggling in through clerestory windows.

I stepped into a 1940s movie, full of guys in suspenders and gold chains who liked to yell at one another and saw two co-workers edge up to a fist-fight over a noisy cellphone.

As my manager-to-be greeted me for my job interview, he eyed my outfit, (no blazer or jacket): “You packing?” My first book was about women and guns.

Never dull!

As a reporter there, I quickly discovered a city I hadn’t known before — the News’ reader’s median household income was $44,000 — maybe a healthy salary elsewhere but not much in New York City.

I drove alone to Harlem and the Bronx and Queens, getting to know its lower-income neighborhoods and residents. (I once got into such an altercation in the Bronx over a street parking spot I had to call the cops in fear of attack.)

I did a stake-out in Midtown in sweltering summer heat and humidity, which meant sitting on the sidewalk for hours — surrounded by all the competing press — waiting to nab an interview with a Quebec tourist who’d been attacked. (I got the assignment after the city editor hollered into the newsroom: “Who speaks French?!”)

I kept sneaking into the hotel to find her, only to be caught and thrown out by a furious security guard. This, after a New York Times reporter followed me into the elevator, guessing I knew where I was going and trying to match it.

I ducked into the ladies’ restroom to ditch him.

I interviewed an African-American family who showed me a blanket with images woven into it of their slain son.

I spoke with legal aid attorneys in the Bronx.

I interviewed the father of a soldier whose helicopter had fallen off a mountaintop in Afghanistan and women soldiers suffering from PTSD.

I broke a national story about how many crimes occur on cruise ships that, for many reasons, go unreported and unaddressed.

We spent a brutal afternoon listening to 911 calls from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Digital advertising has stripped away newspapers’ primary income stream, and newsgathering — even with crappy salaries — isn’t cheap.

It’s a tough time now to be a staff newspaper reporter.

I’m glad I had the chance.