Growing fast and slow: What have I learned after a year at Stanford?

Photos by Jennifer Dargan

I was struck by this side-by-side photo of my JSK colleague Jennifer Dargan’s two kids Margo and Liam. They’ve grown up. A lot!

I first met the Dargans in early September, right before the start of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship for the year. Jennifer and her husband, Sean Michael had clearly raised bright, energetic, articulate youngsters. Now, in what seems like a blink of an eye, the kids are a year older, bigger and even smarter than before.

It prompted me to think about the experience at Stanford and how transformational it has been in such a short amount of time.

I’ve been exposed to world-class speakers, been given time to think and write, sat across a table from thought leaders and sat in classes with future Fortune 100 CEOs.

With a nod to fellow JSK Team Local member Lisa Rossi’s lists of learnings, here are the top things I’ve learned at Stanford:

  • Local news is deeply troubled. But it’s not all bad. When you spend every day pondering how to fix local journalism, you can get a bit depressed about the situation. Talk of Facebook shenanigans, hedge funds ruining newspapers, clueless corporate media moves and more can be a drag on your belief in the future viability of journalism. There are some green chutes out there, and even one Big Crazy Idea, which I write about here.
  • Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. In business (and in journalism), it is easy to race to an idea that solves a particular dilemma. In design thinking, students are instead encouraged to spend more time thinking about the contours of a problem — what makes it tick. By spending more time deeply thinking about what you are trying to solve instead of how you plan to solve it, the thinking goes you will be able to produce a better outcome. For me, I spent nearly two-thirds of the academic year wallowing in the problems local journalism face, before landing on that aforementioned idea.
  • Values and culture eat strategy for breakfast. This is a popular business maxim, and is felt strongly at the Graduate School of Business. The culture an organization works to foster — actively — matters more than just about anything in driving results. Setting forth a set of cultural values for a company or enterprise can be powerful drivers of success. More than words on a wall, the values have to be acted upon by leadership and part of the expectations set for each employee and manager in that organization.
L-R: Zeba Khan, Joel Peterson, Kara Jackson, Don Day
  • Alignment matters. In Joel Peterson’s excellent course Managing Growing Enterprises, he emphasizes the principle of aligning your values with other people’s interests whenever possible. In journalism, alignment is a major issue: in many cases corporate media is aligned with the interests of advertisers over their readers. Reporters are incentivized on the volume of pageviews they can generate so that advertising dollars can be gleaned from the digital sites. Instead of writing stories that audiences value deeply, they search for stories that readers will click on at scale. Until we fix this, we won’t be able to move forward as an industry.
  • If it’s not meaningful to you, it’s not sustainable. Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective and new owner of The Atlantic, talked about her passions and what she decides to work on during a spring discussion at the Graduate School of Business. She puts her time and energy toward a number of diverse projects in both the for- and non-profit sectors. The common thread to each of her endeavors is simple: finding something that provides personal meaning to her and putting her energy toward it.
  • Reasons are bullshit. My partner, Kara Jackson took a course from d.school co-founder Bernie Roth called Designer in Society. Each week she and her small group of classmates were challenged to take the design thinking approach to solving a problem in their lives. Each week after class, Kara and I would discuss the week’s activities and learnings — which gave me the benefit of picking up on her experience. Roth talks about how we often don’t make progress on solving problems (in life or in our work) because we have decided on a long list of reasons (aka: excuses) why we can’t accomplish what we want. Roth notes, that these reasons are bullshit. He is right. I think of the often-said excuse “I was too busy…” More often than not, what someone really means is “it wasn’t a priority for me.” The reason you make up is simply a device we use to justify our lack of progress.
Photo courtesy JSK Journalism Fellowship
  • Diversity is better. The JSK cohort is diverse by design. My group includes nine women and nine men, with fellows who hail from nine countries outside the U.S. Growing up in Boise did not offer a great deal of diversity, but that is starting to change. The diverse perspectives I’ve been exposed to in this program have opened my eyes to a wider set of beliefs and understanding. Being here as the #MeToo movement has unfolded and listening to folks like Gretchen Carlson speak has helped me better understand the gender imbalance that the U.S. corporate world suffers from, and makes me want to be part of the solution. I’m inspired by the work my colleagues Jennifer Dargan, Mike Grant and Seema Yasmin are doing around race and journalism.
  • Hard things are good for you. You know what’s complicated? Packing up your life and moving to another state in mid-career without a full plan for what comes after it. In late spring 2016, I quit KTVB. In late spring 2017, I was accepted to JSK. In late spring 2018, JSK ends and I head back to Boise. This is all for a guy who worked for the same employer for 17 years! This year has been great, amazing, expanding — and tough. You learn about yourself and your relationships when you attempt hard things. But without challenges, life can be pretty boring and you don’t accomplish much.
  • Starting over provides opportunity. Former Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is working on launching WndrCo — a mobile video startup. He also famously left the Walt Disney Company before co-founding Dreamworks. “Starting over has been fantastic for me,” Katzenberg said earlier this year. The chance to take a risk, step out and do something new gives you endless possibilities, and without risk we can’t have reward.
  • Serendipity sometimes trumps planning. At the beginning of the winter quarter, I accidentally wound up in the wrong classroom. I thought I was in the spot for GSBGEN 353 but found myself in GSBGEN 354. That one little number meant a very different curriculum. It took me about five minutes to realize I was in the wrong spot — and the subject matter wasn’t up my alley. However, the co-teacher of the class was former Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. This was very much an only at Stanford moment. Needless to say I stuck around for that first class to hear Schmidt’s candid thoughts on the tech industry. If I hadn’t made this mistake I would have missed out on one of the highlights of the year.
  • Build a board of advisers. Find a group of people who will be your cheerleader and sounding board going forward. As I work on my next steps, I’ve already asked a few individuals to help me. It’s a technique that can help you build a strong foundation of support.
  • Learning comes in many forms. I entered Stanford without a prior college degree. I was not a fan of the typical system of learning: lecture, group project, paper, test, repeat. Being an auditor in high-level classes with amazing professors has been very fulfilling. A fellowship isn’t like attending college, even though it is at a university and has academic components. Attending speaker series, working on project prototypes, conducting user interviews and collaborating with other fellows has produced a stronger experience. I’m energized about continuing the learning process through the next phase of my career and mixing together the things that I’ve learned in journalism, in management and in entrepreneurship with the elements gleaned from the fellowship.
The Leland Stanford University Junior Marching Band performs behind Memorial Church in May.
  • Stanford is a strange and magical place. About a month ago, my partner Kara and I were walking through the Stanford campus when we heard a random trumpet. We walked a bit farther and saw the world-famous Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band walking along. As they joined our route, they began playing — and jumped in a fountain along the way. It was strange. And it was magical. Being on a college campus and feeling this unique energy of undergraduates, grad students, fellows, researchers and others has been astounding. (Maybe someday I’ll write an “overheard at Stanford” Medium post 😊)!
  • Even at mid-career approaches, you can find new people you love. The bond that has developed between JSK Fellows is quite unexpected. There are several members of this group of people who I will stay in touch with for the rest of my life - people from backgrounds and areas far different from my own. I’m tremendously lucky to have been able to share in this journey with them, and look forward to watching them grow and supporting them in years to come.

Just like Liam and Margo, I’ve grown by leaps and bounds over this past year — and will continue that growth in the years to come. The time at Stanford has been valuable in ways that I couldn’t see before, and can’t yet see going forward.

I keep chasing tomorrow, but whenever I catch it, it says its name is today.
-Liam Dargan