“Will you be predisposed to lifelong learning?” That’s the question New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman posed on one of the network morning shows recently. While pitching his book, “Thanks for Being Late,” Friedman said that’s what we should all be asking our kids as they move toward and through college. But I wonder, are we asking it of ourselves? My professional story, and my new business, are products of my answer to this question.
The last twenty years have been, to some degree, a forced education for all of us, no matter the age. In 1997 we listened to music on CD’s, watched videos on DVD and VHS players, and were just embracing a new thing called the internet. Cell phones made phone calls, text was on the page of a book, streaming involved a canoe, and social media would likely be perceived as a cocktail party for journalists. Newspapers were, in fact, made of paper, and their advertising departments controlled better than half of the revenue in most markets.
That’s all just scratching the surface in how we have re-invented and re-learned how to communicate. We all rode this wave of high speed change in varying degrees. As an inhabitant of newsrooms during most of the period, this was career changing. Job descriptions for reporters changed markedly at least three times. Those who adapted, the lifelong learners, continued on. Others refused, and their unwillingness to learn more sent them to the exits. (Along many economic casualties of that industry in flux, but that’s another topic for another time.)
I’ve taken this rocket ride of self-education a step further in that past couple of years, broadening my media skills in directions I would have never imagined, and taking on professional responsibilities that didn’t exist at the turn of this century.
Just two years ago, I was reporting for one of the top Fox affiliates in the nation. That job had come to include shooting and editing my own stories on occasion as a “backpack journalist” or “one man band.” (Multimedia journalist has become the phrase of choice in industry HR departments.) In that position, I had also learned to run the website, using a variety of content management systems. Brushing up on AP style became vital, as writing for the website took us all back to our print writing, journalism school roots. In social media I was expected to keep a healthy presence on Facebook and Twitter, using those platforms both to provide a “peek behind the curtain” at what I did, and to report news “as it happened” in a way never before seen in journalism.
When I decided to look for a change in careers, I took the logical step many reporters have followed: Media relations. I went to work for St. Louis’ Circuit Attorney. That’s the top prosecutor. Pitching stories was something I knew well. Now I began learning how to manage them. In some cases, the word “spin” is accurate here. More often, however, the job was managing the reputation of the office and its relationship with the community. People underestimate the importance of the bond between prosecutors and the people they serve, particularly those living in high crime areas. Putting the bad guys in jail requires witnesses in court, and if your community doesn’t trust you, those witnesses won’t be coming forward.
With that reputation management also comes “crisis communication.” That’s the hip, public relations term for the scramble that ensues when something happens that you really wish wouldn’t have. In an office that deals with both crime and incidents of violent action taken by police, you can imagine how often those scrambles occurred.
What does this have to do with learning? It’s about a willingness to throw yourself into unfamiliar situations and soak in the knowledge you need to do the job well. It’s about seeking out those who can help you succeed. It’s also about accepting and learning from the criticism you receive when you hit bumps in the road. A lifelong learner is willing to walk in to a new situation and utter one of the most frightening phrases in any business setting: “I don’t know.” Saying, “I don’t know,” will often provide the most efficient road to finding out. That said, it feels like you’re letting down your guard. That’s never an easy thing to do, but it’s vital if you want to learn.
I would discover this again when the opportunity came to enter the emerging field of virtual reality and 360 video. You want to talk about jobs that didn’t exist twenty years ago? My position in charge of the news division at Los Angeles start up, MANDT VR, didn’t exist two years ago. Technology had put its foot on the gas again.
In some ways, working in the VR industry was the most freeing experience I’ve ever had. It comes from working in a field where there is no conventional wisdom. There are no rules. It becomes easier to “not know,” because no one knows. It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying to build something from scratch. It’s right up the alley of a lifelong learner.
How should a news story be shot in 360 video? How should it be written? How do you account for the fact the viewer, not the producer, has control over what is being focused on? Why should a person want to watch in VR? How does one pitch the medium to an established business? What are the best ways to disseminate the material? How best to monetize it? Are we too early? Are we too late? These aren’t the questions we asked ourselves over a lengthy period of time. This was a standard Tuesday.
We learned the answers to all of the above and more, and sometimes they weren’t what we had hoped they would be. This gets to another, more painful part of learning. Failure.
I remain utterly convinced that the storytelling tool that is VR/360 will become essential in news. The ability to put someone at the center of an event, to make them feel like they are there, is too good to pass up. But what we learned about our company at that place and moment in time was that news wasn’t going to work for us.
We lacked the resources, both human and financial, to sustain and grow an expensive operation. We didn’t have access to the platform necessary to get enough eyeballs on our work to generate quick revenue. Those two flaws took away our ability to maintain the institutional patience needed to grow news into something self-sustainable. It all added up to the news operation being folded by the company in order to focus resources on other verticals. In English: News became a money pit and the company was cutting its losses before the everyone else on the ship went down with it.
So now my path of learning would veer, somewhat unexpectedly, into a self-taught degree in business administration. I had just gotten a crash course in what it takes to scale a digital media operation and what happens if the business plan has holes. At the same time, I worked in pretty much every vertical of a VR company from top to bottom. I won an Emmy award in the process. I had deep experience in a field where few have any at all. It’s just the question of how long it will take for VR to truly become “a thing.”
If you had told me twenty years ago I would be a small business owner, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. But here I am, founder, owner, executive producer and janitor at George Sells Media. A twenty-four-year journey through television news, combined with all you just read have lead me to a challenge of combining all this into something focused and scalable.
I’m quickly discovering that being a lifelong learner can put you in a place where focus it tough to come by. Am I a media renaissance man or a sufferer of career ADD? I choose the embrace the former. After all, do you remember Leonardo da Vinci or the guy who told him he’d be better off focusing on one project?
I have already earned clients doing traditional news, production, writing, reporting, shooting, editing, media relations, social media and virtual reality/360. In some cases I’ve benefitted from overlapping these skills, and in others I’ve used them one at a time. They are among an entire spectrum of tools in a media toolbox unlike any other. My unique life experience, and longing to learn new things along the way have culminated in this.
By choosing to embrace this path of lifelong learning, I’ve also chosen a more difficult road. The “warm embrace” of financial stability provided by corporate America doesn’t live at my current address. That could always change, but, for now, we don’t mesh. My career experience doesn’t fit into neat boxes easily identified by a search firm’s algorithm. What my background does give me is the ability to find the perspective someone else might not see. It allows me the opportunity to help a wide range of businesses, large and small, with projects that might normally require the expertise of two or three people.
In the end, Friedman’s question about lifelong learning goes to professional flexibility. What can you bring to the table the next time technology turns the world on its ear? Can you handle taking on the job that doesn’t yet exist? Do you respond to adversity by learning more? A few years ago, I might have thought these were all questions for my kids. Then I went out and answered them for myself.
George Sells is the founder and owner of George Sells Media, a firm specializing in communications, TV production, VR/360, and media relations.