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

Each quarter, I’ve pledged to document my personal growth as part of the John S. Knight Journalism (JSK) Fellowships. Last quarter, I wrote about finding my inner superhero. For the fall, I wrote about all the little ways my mind was being blown during my first quarter at Stanford.

Today, as I’m about to finish up my academic year-long fellowship, what’s on my mind is my path to discovery of my passion. And a lot of those answers are locked within the moments when I felt deep emotions about my work, my friends and family and what brings me joy.

Here’s a summary of those moments, and what I learned during my last quarter here.

1. Potential readers of local news need higher quality conversations as a way to strengthen communities. I came to this conclusion after a day of listening to readers with journalists from The Modesto Bee, put on by myself, Regan-Porter and JulieAnn McKellogg, with design thinking coaching from Zeba Khan. I was struck by what I heard in Modesto because it was closely connected to a series of interviews I did last year in rural Iowa and interviews McKellogg did with young new residents in cities. McKellogg and I have reflected on how we heard in all three places that people are relying on friends and family for information rather than local news. My perception is the future of local journalism relies on strong communities. That’s because with a strong sense of town pride and connection, readers and viewers will care enough to learn about people and issues outside their immediate areas of interest. And to do that, we need to improve the quality of information flowing between friends and family. What can we do to bring different people of different backgrounds together to learn more about themselves and the world around them in a meaningful way — that is informed and inspired by the values and habits of journalism? People want to actively be a part of the process of learning about their communities, growing up in a generation of posting their lives for all to see. Let’s give them physical spaces and smart facilitation to do that. Local news needs to be more than just the place people Google when they see sirens. It needs to fit seamlessly in the habits of sharing that have developed in this world we now inhabit.

JSK Fellows from Team Local recently teamed up with journalists at The Modesto Bee for a day of listening to readers. Pictured: Rosalio Ahumada, Joan Barnett Lee, Mike Dunbar, Brian Clark, Lisa Rossi, Marijke Rowland, JulieAnn McKellogg, Tim Regan-Porter and Patty Guerra.

2. Do less. My old self: Cram my schedule as tight as I can so I don’t have time to think, so I can ESCAPE the hard work of thinking critically about the world around me. New self: Sprint and rest, sprint and rest. The resting period is for me to think about the connections between the knowledge I’m learning and synthesize it into new ideas and processes.

3. It’s OK to allocate tight time blocks to work. I learned this from my colleague Tim Regan-Porter, who stuffs his head with knowledge with every spare minute and then brings the force of all that knowledge to the work he produces. But … he shared with me recently that he sets aside less time for actual production, finding that when he prepares rigorously, his work falls out more naturally. I gave it a try this quarter, and discovered an informed authenticity to what I produced, which worked well for my audience. It also deepened my appreciation for the magic of creativity confined by limitations, something I first experimented with last quarter in improv.

JSK Fellow Tim Regan-Porter at a recent Stanford d.school class on designing the future.

4. “Give me three ways you’d like to be critiqued today.” I love this phrase for a writing or a speaking coach to use with the person he or she is coaching. I learned it in the classroom of a strategic communication class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I think it empowers the writer or the speaker to focus on their desired areas of improvement and results in more openness for feedback.

5. Local news is worth saving. This quarter, I told my JSK colleagues my backstory, one of our traditions where one fellow has the floor for 30 minutes to talk about their life as a journalist. I choked up throughout. The stories of the people who had to leave local journalism were what triggered my emotions. Those were the people who supported me throughout my career. People in this community rely on each other for strength and support to do the hard work that it takes to hold the powerful accountable and to bring injustice to light. The intensity of my emotions made me realize that I will keep fighting to preserve a strong local press. The way I fight post-Stanford may not look like what it did before, but my belief remains: We must seek the truth about each other to have healthy communities.

JSK Managing Director Michael Bolden with Lisa Rossi, on the night of her backstory. Credit: JSK Director Dawn Garcia

6. I want to say goodbye to a bad habit of my youth: Perfectionism. I can recall many late nights in my life as a student and professional, building presentations, perfecting words of an article, or sending emails and re-reading a draft of what I would send one too many times. This type of method no longer works for me. I’m interested now in doing my work in new ways that might be awkward at first — that might be wrong. But the “wrong” can lead to new solutions that we didn’t even expect. Here’s one exercise that can help unlock this mindset: Get together with a partner. Have a pen and paper. Draw his or her face, but don’t look at the paper and don’t lift up your pen. The result: Something completely beautiful. And imperfect. Thanks to JSK Fellow Mago Torres for teaching me this activity.

Imperfect but beautiful! JSK Fellows Zeba Khan, Don Day and Mago Torres show off the faces their partner drew of them without lifting the pen or looking at the paper.

7. I’m in search of something that brings me unadulterated joy. I’ve realized that many of my activities, even those that would be considered leisure are all somehow related to my work as a journalist. I read great writing in my “spare time,” partly for the enjoyment of it, but partly so I recognize and nurture great writing in my work as a writer and coach. What is one thing that I can do purely for joy? I’m also making an effort to credit the moments that are joyful, like those times I look up from my work to laugh with a friend, or make a conscious choice in my busy day to cross the street and walk in the sunshine. I wonder if I can learn more from my children on this point, who advocate fiercely for their interests that bring them joy, seeing it as an essential part of their daily well-being.

Find something you love as much as Jacob loves Legos. Pictured: Jacob Rossi, the author’s 5-year-old son, recently with his latest Lego creation.

8. Say “no” more. I’m inspired by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which composed a “Stop Doing” list. The list helps the team focus on “more meaningful tasks,” according to a story done by Better News. Early this quarter, I challenged a journalist I spoke to to consider what she would give up in her busy day. And then I took that challenge myself — and said no to some job opportunities in favor of forging my own path. By choosing carefully what we say no (and yes) to, we open so many doors. It means more meaningful work is coming.

9. Be bored more. One of my longtime mentors told me recently that I can make time slow down by allowing myself to be bored. I took his advice — and decided to take myself on a solo beach vacation in Santa Monica. I was bored. And I was irritated. I missed my family and my friends. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wandered aimlessly around shops but didn’t buy anything. I stared at the ocean. I took too many naps. And then … something happened. Over dinner by myself, I whipped out a notebook. And I started writing. I dreamed of being an entrepreneur, starting my own local news organization, or helping other local news organizations grow stronger, with the core tenet of building a community first and journalism second. I came home with a stronger resolve and vision to work as an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, fully devoted to creating a new way to reach readers and improve community conversations, instead of squeezing that type of work into the margins of a day filled with activities that are … not that. Yes, I needed an awkward beach vacation to get me to this point, but it felt big.

10. Phyllis Livermore is proud of me. Phyllis is my late grandmother. She died from complications from the disease multiple sclerosis when I was a kid. I had to deliver a few autobiographical speeches this quarter and her name kept coming up. I’ve thought about how much of my professional life has been embracing every opportunity. I’m training myself now to be disciplined with how I spend my time. And in that process, I’ve reflected about Phyllis and how she didn’t have as many choices as I do, as the disease robbed her of so many physical capabilities. With time to explore during a fellowship at Stanford, I’ve asked myself: With full use of my brain and my body — what a glorious privilege — how do I want to spend my time today? How can I use it to its maximum potential? It’s helped me find my internal voice again after it quieted during the grind through adulthood. This reflection gave me the courage to say no to opportunities that weren’t right for me and empowered me to keep searching for the right one. And, as result of that choice, I will have more time with my extended family, which was something that was hugely important to her.

Mary Livermore, with her mother, Phyllis Livermore. Credit: Linda Livermore

11. Best communication tip this quarter: Create contrast. Nancy Duarte writes about this in her book, “Resonate.” She says contrasts creates energy. It is the “gap between what is and what could be.” For inspiration on this, watch Oprah’s Golden Globes speech this year — an exercise I recently did in my strategic communication class. Watch for the low points, the high points, the reality and the aspiration. That emotional journey is compelling for an audience — and it’s a great technique to try for pitching a new idea or telling someone else’s story, like a journalistic profile. Here’s another article I read during a communications class at the business school that deepened my knowledge on different story forms.

12. Journalists, please speak more about yourselves. Tell the higher-ups. Tell your friends and your family. You built a career on listening, but this is a time when local newsrooms need to shout out their worth. I felt like screaming this to the world after spending a weekend with reporter friends who I interned with 15 years ago in Washington, D.C. Their dedication humbled me. They have such a depth of experience and knowledge. I begged them to talk about their craft to everyone who will listen.

Pictured: Sacramento Bee Senior Writer Adam Ashton, Globe and Mail Health News Reporter Kelly Grant, JSK Fellow Lisa Rossi and Atlanta Journal Constitution Political Reporter Greg Bluestein, recently at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

13. Stop catastrophizing. Here’s another piece of knowledge gold that I picked up in a class on Executive Presence for Women, taught by Stephanie Soler. I learned a new word — catastrophizing, and how it can hold women back. Instead of imagining all the terrible things that could happen if things aren’t perfect, Soler advised us to “bend some rules” and “Take risks and go for it.” This resonated for me, particuarly in a time when historical habits and frameworks for local news are not working. How can I push through to find new solutions? This type of thinking will help.

14. If all else fails, have a burger. So much of this year has been searching for answers to some of the biggest problems in journalism. I felt overwhelmed at times, but I found a safe spot on campus to vent my fears, ideas, insecurities and unformed views — and that was the Axe & Palm. If any future JSK fellows are reading, take my advice. Go there. Some of my favorite memories will be my long talks with JSK fellows in this place.

15. The future is open-ended, but I believe I can change it. It took a year of intense growth, self-reflection and education to get to this belief, but here I am. At the end of June, my family and I are moving back into our home in Des Moines. My plan is to continue my work that I began at Stanford to learn how to elevate conversations in service of creating more meaningful connections within geographic communities. I also plan to use what I learned at Stanford to help my colleagues in local news across the country unlock new ideas and figure out new ways to connect to their readers.

The future is unlimited. Pictured: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Want to talk? Eat burgers? Fill a wall full of sticky notes? Email me at lisarossiajr@gmail.com