20 (more) things I learned at Stanford the year I set out to change my life

A few months ago, I wrote about everything I learned my first quarter as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. This fellowship provides world-class professional growth opportunities. But personal growth is a huge part of the experience too.

Here are some of the most important things I learned during my second quarter, plus other insights from my winter at Stanford.

1. I found my inner superhero.

I had shown up to the Sunday of my weekend class on leadership and performance feeling tired and missing my family at home.

One of my instructors asked me and members of my team to write a script and then perform it in front of a television camera, with the intent of teaching us how to stay focused in the spotlight.

I quickly scrawled something on a notecard about the importance of local news and waited my turn. I watched my colleagues. There was a director, coaching them to perform the lines as if they were giving them to an investor, an employee and other scenarios.

I expected that this would be easy.

My turn came, and I walked up to the camera and started … fidgeting. And then laughing through my lines. I rolled my eyes as my embarrassment built. I could feel my teammates watching me, urging me to keep trying. And then my stomach started churning.

Oh no. I’m tanking, I thought.

The director said that my voice sounded like I was talking to young children as opposed to a potential investor.

It was like he could see right through me. I had come to the class feeling more like a busy mom and less like a leader of a movement to reinvigorate passion for local news.

I admitted to him that I showed up to class physically, but not mentally.

He told me, in that moment in front of the camera, to access and visualize a different part of myself. Think of it like a superhero. Or an alter ego. He said I could use that tool every time I needed to lead, but my body wasn’t cooperating.

I got through the on-camera exercise. And then I rushed to the bathroom and burst into tears, feeling all the emotions about failing in public with the most personal of backdrops: my identity as a working parent.

And yet, I’ve used his advice repeatedly. It’s one of the most important things I’ve learned. There is a fierce superhero now inside me, waiting to be tapped in the game when I feel frazzled. I’ve called her in when my work-life “balance” is fraying at the edges, those times when I need to be completely present with my kids and not thinking about work, and completely present with my colleagues and not thinking of everything that needs to be done at home.

It doesn’t work EVERY time, but it’s the closest I’ve come to conquering a conflict that’s chased me much of my professional life as a parent. There is always SO. MUCH. TO. DO. But each moment deserves a superhero’s dose of focus.

2. There is so much I don’t know.

3. Yellow banana slugs are slimy and mystical. In fact, their slime is one of their superpowers. Searching (and finding) them with my husband, Mike, and kids may be one of my happiest memories from this place.

Gabe Rossi, with a banana slug, recently at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Credit: Lisa Rossi

4. I’ve realized the value of my attention, with thanks to the law professor and author Tim Wu. He writes in “The Attention Merchants”: “Over the coming century, the most vital human resource in need of conservation and protection is likely to be our own consciousness and mental space.” With that in mind, I deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone. I’m taking a hard look at my Twitter use for my last quarter at Stanford.

5. I learned that I can fill my time with activities that hold so much more meaning, now that I’m not scrolling on these apps as much. I’ve read more books, listened to more podcasts, played more with my kids and had more long talks with my husband and friends.

Lisa Rossi and Mike Rossi, recently trying on their new JSK vests.

6. The concept of investing more time in building meaningful communities over scrolling on social media is influencing how I see myself leading innovation in local news. How can journalists facilitate building and informing passionate communities? (More on that in future posts.)

7. Inviting people over for dinner on Sundays has been a great way for me to make new friends and build my own community.

8. I’ve abandoned any goals towards “work-life balance.” Instead, I’m going for “work-life synthesis.” This quarter, my children have seen me perform in an improv show, attended a live storytelling performance organized by JSK Fellow Seema Yasmin, shared their books and toys with my colleagues, joined fellows for laser tag games as well as for countless happy hours, enjoying ice cream and french fries alongside journalists from around the country and the world. My life as a journalist and a leader will always be busy and unpredictable, but they will be a part of it, whether it’s eating takeout with me during late nights in a newsroom or sitting by my side at a community event.

Jennifer Dargan, Manafoh Moiwa, Michael Grant and Jacob Rossi recently at MacArthur Park in Palo Alto during a JSK happy hour. Credit: Lisa Rossi

9. I’m learning how to talk myself through insecurities. I carefully write down every worry I have, no matter how ridiculous. And then I write a retort next to each one, a suggestion I first heard at a class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). Seems simple, but it works surprisingly well. I can be pretty snarky to my negative thoughts when I want to be!

10. “No” is a powerful word because it opens up the path to say yes to something else.

11. There are few things in life as fun and exhilerating as reconnecting with longtime newsroom friends.

1) Lisa Rossi with Ashley Woods, founder of the local news startup Detour, recently in Palo Alto, California. 2) Lisa Rossi with Sacramento Bee senior writer Adam Ashton recently in Livermore, California.

12. Time is a finite resource. If you add one thing to your schedule, you have to subtract another.

13. Space is also finite. That means when I’m in a meeting with lots of people, I’m self-aware of how much airtime I take up compared to others in the room.

14. I am white. It’s on me and other white folks to call out and address racism, since it’s a system we created. I have so much gratitude to my friend Jennifer Dargan for organizing a book club to understand these serious problems and how they relate to our own identities as white people, journalists and community members.

15. When I have two competing interests, I now go through a simple exercise, where I write out my desired outcomes and the nuances and subtle factors. I brainstorm different ways each scenario could go based on how I act. I ask myself what “success” looks like. And then I make a decision and move on. I used to spin my wheels with worry after making a decision. Did I do the right thing? I still do that sometimes, but a lot less now that I have a process to guide me through difficult scenarios. (Hat tip to “Managing Growing Enterprises,” a Stanford GSB class that teaches this method.)

16. Half of conquering life’s challenges involves simply showing up. I’m proud to say I showed up for most of my hip-hop dance classes this quarter, even though for many classes, I struggled. But I did it! So there’s that.

17. I really like improv. It helped me find my voice and leap out of my comfort zone and act in JSK Fellow Michael Grant’s video explaining a personalized news product called ContentCube that he is developing with another fellow, Titus Plattner, and team members Janel Lee, Michelle Park and Kaveh Danesh.

An outtake from JSK Fellow Michael Grant’s promotional video for his news personalization product. Credit: Michael Grant

18. Having a vision means some people will agree with it and others will not. Not having a vision means I will be working completely under someone else’s framework.

19. I listen to my own voice. That means I avoid looking at my phone during walks. I journal. And I strive to come to meetings with intention and a point of view that I’m willing to share — as well as expand by hearing other perspectives.

20. I am stronger than I think. Thanks to my friends for reminding me of this often. I aim to return the favor to others when they seek to do something hard, but doubt themselves sometimes. Being surrounded by kind, empowering people makes a huge difference.

A sticky note written to me during a team-building exercise from JSK Fellow Don Day.

WHAT I’M READING

Taming Your Gremlin,” by Rick Carson

An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones

“Witnessing Whiteness: First Steps Toward an Antiracist Practice and Culture,” by Shelly Tochluk

WHAT I’M READING NEXT

The Culture Code,” by Daniel Coyle

The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Brontë

CONTACT ME IF … you want to talk about how to build communities that are passionate about a topic or a movement, and how to serve those communities with fact-based journalism. lrossi18@stanford.edu