25 things I learned at Stanford the first quarter of the year I set out to change my life

About one year ago, I sat at my kitchen table, working on my application for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University.

I was looking for a new opportunity, something “big,” that would challenge me to think differently and uncover new ideas regarding the future of journalism. I also knew I needed to grow personally. I struggled with worrying how others perceived me and with balancing my work and life duties without pushing myself to exhaustion.

It was tough to see the entire application through while battling self-doubts and concerns that I actually should be working through the giant pile of laundry looming nearby.

But something that alumni said in various testimonials kept nagging at me to keep at it. This fellowship is a transformational experience. That was exactly what I needed. A transformation.

I believed the alumni. But I still couldn’t understand exactly what they meant. How did journalists come to Stanford and completely “change?”

I ending up submitting just before the deadline and to my surprise and delight, I got in.

The idea of change was so central to why I wanted to take this opportunity, that I committed to documenting the changes I experienced in myself, both subtle and large.

Here they are from the first quarter, in no particular order.

  1. I took a dance class and realized dancing, particularly salsa and hip-hop, makes me feel young and fierce.

2. I’m convinced palm trees contain mysterious, magical properties.

3. Small spaces make me anxious, but opening the windows is a simple step that provides instant relief.

4. Breakthrough ideas are polarizing.

Lisa Rossi and Dawn Garcia, director of John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships. Credit: 2017–18 JSK Fellow Phillip Smith

5. It feels damn good to defend myself when I’m being harassed. I figured out a new phrase to slow down a confusing and scary interaction and signal to a harasser that he has stepped over the line and that is: “What did you just say?”

6. Also, If I’m in a position to speak up, I’ve realized that I’m not just speaking for me, I’m speaking for those around me too.

7. I don’t need a team to manage to be a leader. I need to be curious and I need to listen. Combine those two things and it’s surprising how willing someone is to open up their mind to new ideas.

8. It’s not my job to make everyone happy. Let me repeat that. Not. My. Job. If you are having dinner out with me and you don’t like the chicken the server brought to you, that is your problem, not mine. It’s taken me 36 years, plus this quarter at Stanford to start to begin to figure this out, but it feels particularly liberating.

9. Prototypes don’t have to be perfect. They are experiments where you can learn more. Also, I’m a prototype. I don’t need to hide my ideas or my true self while I continue to evolve.

10. Turning off the TV in the home can be a powerful motivator to create. Our coffee table is a now a glorious laboratory of Legos, and the end tables are scattered with “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books.

11. I feel the most relaxed when I’m hanging around ancient trees.

Lisa Rossi with her two sons at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Credit: Mike Rossi

12. Feeling gratitude also is a great way to relax. I’m particularly grateful to my husband and two boys for believing in me in my year of transformation and to all the people who took the time this quarter to help me work through the personal questions I’m confronting right alongside the journalism questions.

13. It feels better to spend less time brainstorming and more time listening.

14. Here is some good news: When I’m in a certain mode of work, I’m actually not working. Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design founder David Kelley calls it “flow,” in his book “Creative Confidence.” It’s a sublime place for the mind to be.

15. But there is some actual work I can stop doing. If you drop your laundry on the floor, I will no longer pick it up. If you need personal coaching, we will talk on my schedule, not yours. I will not plan and execute every single holiday and birthday party, the same goes for team meetings or group social outings.

16. Shortly after I had kids, I stopped writing. Now that everyone’s out of diapers, I’ve decided to start again. I can already see a change in my confidence. If I’ve written it, I internalize it and I believe it.

17. I now know why my rural upbringing pushed me into journalism. I learned during a trip back to my hometown that people there are incredibly curious about each other and don’t hesitate to ask very direct questions.

18. “How are you doing, really?” can be an insightful way to find out how a person actually is doing, as opposed to the canned answer they give to most everyone else. Try it. It works.

19. When you are trying to sell someone an idea or a product, take the advice from Boston Celtics principal owner and Stanford Graduate School of Business adjunct professor Irv Grousbeck: Be calm. Use short sentences and ask questions. And finally, talk less. “Nobody buys when you are talking,” he said during a recent class.

20. Falling down is not failure. Just ask JSK fellow Jennifer Dargan, who is in roller derby. Participants clap for anyone who takes a tumble. I love this.

Jennifer Dargan, pictured in yellow, on a roller derby team. Credit: Photo by Douglas Otto (aka Papa-Razzi)

21. Sometimes what feels like a colossal failure is actually an incredible gift to push me to grow in ways I was blocked from doing before.

22. I’m making more time for the people who help and less for the ones who warn. That means when I have a big idea, I’m gravitating towards collaborations with the people who say, “Here’s someone who might help you on this,” as opposed to those who say, “It’s been done before. It will be really risky. Be careful about the scope.” I go back to this concept often, and I’m grateful to JSK alum Heather Bryant for sharing this wisdom during a recent visit to campus.

23. My goal is to put myself in places where I can make the biggest impact.

24. Time-blocking can be an important way to teach myself about my priorities. If I don’t manage my time, someone else will.

25. Ditching my high heels in favor of comfy flats made me instantly happier.


MASTERS OF SCALE PODCAST: A great listen on innovation, failure and charting your own path.

AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE SOCIAL MEDIA REPORT: Ripe with lots of ideas to elevate your newsroom’s social media operation.

THE DIGITAL RUINS OF A FORGOTTEN FUTURE” An empathetic look at what happened to Second Life, which also raises some interesting questions about the future of virtual reality.


“Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” by Adam Alter

“Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All,” by David Kelley and Tom Kelley

“Cannery Row,” by John Steinbeck

“The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing and Take Command of Your Life,” by Bernard Roth


John S. Knight Fellowships Class of 2019 application deadline is Dec. 4.