Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

journalism

It's All About the Work

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates.

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. 

I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates. A few have stuck with it, but most are working in decidedly non-journalism jobs these days.

My favourite part of working in a newsroom was the opportunity to solicit feedback from fellow journalists, photographers, editors, and the paper’s readership. You get feedback on your writing, whether you want it or not. At best, you hear reasoned arguments and opinions. At worst, you get a valuable opportunity to develop a thicker skin.

But these days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anyone can publish their work and receive feedback. It wasn’t all that long ago you had to wait for someone to write a letter or call the newsroom. Now, feedback hits your inbox almost daily.

With sites like Reddit & Hacker News, it’s possible for thousands — or millions — of people to read what you write. If your post ranks highly enough, your traffic goes through the roof, newsletter signups skyrocket, and your inbox gets slammed.

I was on the receiving end of it, once, when I wrote Be Kind.

I posted it to Hacker News one Friday, on a whim. Much to my surprise, it quickly climbed to the #1 spot. For many of you, this was your introduction to the Monday Mailer.

For a few days, I felt great. I saw the number of people visiting the site, signing up for the newsletter, and emailing me and thought I’d finally “made it.” Whatever that means.

But, eventually, it all came to an end. My website traffic went back down to pre-Hacker News levels. The rate of newsletter signups dropped off. The majority of the emails stopped coming.

In the end, I had the same thing I’d started with: the work.

I’ve been lucky to meet and chat with a few people who are prominent online. Despite their Internet fame, they’re all regular folks like you and I. They’re busy working at a job, or running a business. They’re raising a family. They’re working hard to build an audience for their work. They’re putting their voices out into the world, despite their fears.

The one thing they all obsess over? How best to do their work.

They want to get better, work fucking hard, get to know their audiences, and find ways to help them. To build products that improve people’s lives or jobs. To have real conversations about doing good work.

The work never really goes away. It’s always there. You can accomplish audacious goals, becoming well-known in your community, and earn a lot of money. But, in the end, none of it matters. The work will still be there, waiting for you.

Temporary “fame” will change your brain if you let it. You create something new, it gains a following, and suddenly all you care about is numbers. And once those numbers start to decline — and they will — you’ll do anything to keep them growing. It’s why scam artists find financial success selling “50 Ways to Turbocharge Your Newsletter” courses.

You stop caring about the people consuming your work and start caring about how many unique visitors your site had last month. Or how many Twitter followers you have. Or how your podcast’s downloads are faring.

It’s the wrong path.

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

“Find something you love and let it kill you.”

You can read every blog post about marketing, shell out thousands of dollars for online courses, and tweak your social media presence until the cows come home. But, in the end, all that’s left is you, a laptop, and the work. So you’d damn well better love it.

Love the work. Love the process. Love the act of working. Protect that love and put it into everything you do. It’s all you have.

You aren’t guaranteed anything in this life, except the opportunity to work hard.

Embrace it.

Until next week,

-Brian


Journalism School

I always tell people I used to be a journalist. That’s what they told us on the first day. From this point forward, we were all journalists. It was the first day of college and it felt empowering. They also told us to say goodbye to our friends and family. Long hours laying out pages. Constant interviews, both in person and on the phone. Lots of small towns with names like Colborne and Picton.

I always tell people I used to be a journalist.

That’s what they told us on the first day. From this point forward, we were all journalists. It was the first day of college and it felt empowering.

They also told us to say goodbye to our friends and family.

Long hours laying out pages. Constant interviews, both in person and on the phone. Lots of small towns with names like Colborne and Picton. I loved it. It was the first thing I remember being really good at.

My Mom framed the first article I was paid to write. It hangs on the wall in my home office.

Want to be a better programmer?

Talk to strangers. Learn how to be an expert on something in 15 minutes. Cold call. Be adaptable. Care about the micro and the macro, simultaneously. Be a jack of all trades. Ask good questions. Know when to let silence do the work for you. Own up to your mistakes and do better tomorrow.

I gave up on journalism when I realized paid jobs were scarce. But the lessons I learned made me who I am today.