The e-mail was from Bruce Benidt, an adjunct professor in the St. Thomas Journalism and Mass Communica-tion Department and former PR bigwig with Shandwick, now running his own media-training business. I had Benidt for a critical writing class when I was a junior at St. Thomas and his easygoing demeanor and fresh thoughts on journalism had a big effect on me. We’ve remained friends, and he’s long been on my short list of wise elders whom I turn to when major life decisions confront me.
And now he was asking me for a favor. I laughed out loud when I read the e-mail. Calling me one of the “most successful grads” he’s ever had, he wanted me to speak to his class of undergraduate magazine students. Me, telling a bunch of eager young writers how to succeed in the real world?
Right place, right time scenario
Well, then again, why not? I graduated from St. Thomas with honors, went on to make good money as a graphic designer, wrote my own music column, earned a master’s degree from the best program in the country, and, at age 27, I worked at Condé Nast Traveler magazine right in the heart of Times Square.
Well, that was one way of looking at it. Here’s another way: The design career was a fluke. I learned the software in high school and stumbled into a work-study job with University Relations’ creative director, who took me under her wing and spent three years tirelessly sculpting me into a designer. The music column fell into my lap from a Web site that got maybe 10,000 hits a week. And the job in New York? An internship in which I did practically nothing and made 40 cents an hour. This was after the extra $60,000 borrowed to get that master’s degree.
I told Benidt I might not be the right person for his class. Nearly everything I’d achieved professionally seemed to be the result of falling backward into the right place at the right time, and I felt like my road to success stretched a long way ahead of me.
But I agreed to talk to the class anyway. Benidt was a lot smarter than me, and if he figured it was worth the class’ time, who was I to argue? Like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Maybe the same was true about success.
Selling out and having a great time
Back when I was in Benidt’s class, I had no idea what my career path would be. Most of the time I was too busy to think about it. My major was journalism, but I was already working nearly full time as a graphic designer. I was also art directing the yearbook and the Summit Avenue Express, the university’s art and literary magazine. One foot in journalism, one in design – I didn’t know where I was going.
After graduation, I nearly took a PR job with Shandwick after Benidt got me an interview. It was a prestigious firm and I’d be writing professionally, which had always been my brass ring. I mulled over that offer for days, seeing the next 50 years of work in whatever I chose, because that’s the way you think when you’re 22. I finally decided the Shandwick pay was just too low, and a month later I accepted a better-paid position as a designer with legal publisher West Group. So that was that. I was a designer. Settle down for the next 50 years.
Not quite. My favorite part of the job was art directing the employee magazine, working closely with the editor, Steven Yaeger, brainstorming story ideas, writing headlines, editing copy and laying it out. My title read “graphic designer,” but journalism still turned my crank.
When Yaeger left West two years later for a local software company called Adaytum, he asked me to come with him. I interviewed for the job with no intention of taking it. I had done the corporate designer gig, and felt like a sellout. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to be when I grew up. But Adaytum threw a bunch of money at me and dangled the possibility of another company magazine with Yaeger, so I took the job. I was still a sellout, but I had a great time. The magazine never materialized, but Yaeger became not just a favorite co-worker but a good friend and mentor, as did my boss, Tom Keekley. I was climbing the ladder, making more than my parents, loving my job. Still, I wasn’t sated. A nagging voice kept telling me this wasn’t it.
Bored one day at work, I discovered a Web site called Ironminds.com. It was an online magazine run by a crew of bright, young New York writers. The stories were personal and creative, the type of writing I could have been doing had I decided to become a writer. I devoured it, and finally struck up an e-mail conversation with one of the editors. I mentioned sheepishly that I was once a writer and he asked me to submit something.
I was awestruck, but cautiously sent him a piece I had written years earlier about how I hated public restroom conversation. They ran it, much to my surprise, and a month later one of the other editors called it her favorite humor piece of the year. Then I got an e-mail from a guy named Dack Ragus, who ran a little Web site and wanted me to write a regular music column for it. Perhaps the world was telling me something.
On to Northwestern’s Medill
After conferring with some of my former professors at St. Thomas, I applied and was accepted to graduate journalism programs at Columbia, NYU and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. New York was always the dream, but after a visit to Medill, I knew it was the only program I wanted to do. It was hands-on, considered to be the best in the nation and included a quarter in which the students actually launch a new magazine. It made me giddy just thinking about it. This was clearly the path to whatever it was I had been looking for.
That is probably why it scared me. The program was full time, which meant quitting Adaytum. It was in Chicago, which meant giving up my beautiful one-bedroom in St. Paul’s Highland Park and moving 400 miles away from anyone I knew. It also meant borrowing huge amounts of money to work in a field where I’d be lucky to make half my current salary. It meant starting over. It meant getting what I had been asking for. But what if I had been asking for the wrong thing? I spent six months boring everyone I knew with this discussion before I finally sent Medill my response. Sign me up, I said.
My standard line before I left for school was that in a year I’d be the most educated designer in the Twin Cities. I was sure I would hate Chicago, never make a friend, and find out I wasn’t a writer at all. I even subleased my apartment to a friend just so I’d have it when I came back.
Within a month at Medill, I knew I’d never live in that apartment again. I had a surprisingly large group of new friends and I was excelling in my classes. I found a great one-bedroom on a brick-building-lined street in the quaint but hip Lakeview neighborhood, a few blocks from the lake and half a mile from Wrigley stadium. Chicago felt like home immediately. I was writing terribly boring newspaper stories about a little suburb called Morton Grove, but every tap of the keyboard was a rush. I was writing again, every day. And it appeared that I was good at it. I had arrived.
That high continued throughout my year at Medill, which included covering technology for local suburban newspapers, writing a magazine feature on the first professional female walleye fisherman and eventually being elected publisher of my group’s final quarter publishing project, launching a new food magazine called Bite. I worked harder than I’d ever worked that year and I loved every minute of it. If I had the time to think about it, I’m sure I would have said this was success. But as the end of grad school approached, all I felt was dread. The road was about to start all over again. I knew now I couldn’t go back, but I had no idea which way was forward.
From New York to Paris
That’s when Abe Peck, Medill’s director of the magazine program, pulled me aside one day and told me there was a three-month internship open at Condé Nast Traveler in New York. The pay was a joke, but with no other options on the table, it was a foot in the door and an excuse to get to New York. I stressed over it for a weekend and finally said yes.
Part of the appeal to the Condé Nast internship was that it ended in March. That’s when I had the option to participate in an extra quarter Medill offered called the Global Program. Twice a year, the school sets up three-month residencies at papers, TV stations and magazines around the world for any student who wants to do one. I had been toying with it the whole time I was at Medill and had a residency waiting for me at a business magazine called Unlimited in Auckland, New Zealand.
But the quarter was expensive: full tuition, plus all living and travel expenses. On top of it, the first two weeks of the program were spent in Paris with a dozen or so other Global students listening to speakers talk about international journalism. Not a bad way to spend a couple of weeks in the spring, but not cheap when your ultimate destination is on the other side of the planet.
The move to New York was strangely devoid of culture shock, beyond the sick rent prices – $1,400 a month for my enormous one-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town – a beautiful park-like area surrounded by dozens of identical twelve-story apartment buildings on the edge of the East Village. The winter was cold and gray, but I knew I somehow fit among the other 8 million people walking the crowded, dirty streets. Meanwhile, the internship at Traveler turned out to be a bust. The staff was already huge and they didn’t need another intern, especially not one with a master’s degree.
Facing a terrible job market and knowing from a former student that the residency in New Zealand would at least give me the chance to write, I took it. In late March of 2003, I flew to Paris, where I spent an unseasonably warm two weeks wandering the strange mix of modern but ancient, crowded but quaint streets, being ignored by the French, and living off jambon y fromage sandwiches, the French staple for poor picky eaters like me. After that it was a day in hot and sticky Kuala Lumpur and then on to Auckland, where I’m sitting right now (May 2003), seven weeks into my residency.
I haven’t thought much lately about whether or not I’m successful yet. My mom sure thinks so, as do many of my classmates. I’ve written a number of stories here already, including a cover feature for the July issue, almost unheard of for someone this fresh out of school. And last week, my boss here offered me a six-month salaried contract to stay on and help reshape the magazine. Auckland is a small, livable, if boring city, not unlike St. Paul, and the rest of New Zealand is like God’s template for natural lush outdoors. The job offer is flattering and an amazing opportunity to have in front of me.
Is it the next step on my road to success? Or is that next step back in New York, where every major magazine and a shoebox apartment on hipster Ave. B with a good friend from grad school are waiting for me?
I don’t know yet. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe success isn’t a point that you get to, maybe it’s a series of points that you pass along whatever road you choose – points I’ve been passing all along. Or maybe success is just being on the road, doing what you love.
I hope so, because it means I can’t make the wrong decision here. Maybe I’ll call Benidt and ask him. He’s a lot smarter than me.