Five not-so-easy lessons for becoming a real human again

When I first applied to the JSK Journalism Fellowship, “becoming a better person” wasn’t one of my goals. I saw the fellowship as a gift of time to focus on improving my professional skills, making new contacts in the industry and getting away from the news to figure out what comes next. I also looked forward to my research on what the news industry can learn from consumers of disinformation.

So far, the fellowship has been all of that, but it’s also been difficult in ways I didn’t even want to admit to all of my friends still toiling away in their day jobs.

Being at Stanford these past few months has been humbling in so many ways — being surrounded by young geniuses will do that — but nothing has hit me harder than realizing I didn’t know myself.

In the first week of my Transformative Design class, I was asked to write my own eulogy. This eulogy reflected everything I’d like for someone to say about me after I die, a sort of glimpse into how I see myself and what I value. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t on track to have that sort of legacy as a friend, as a mentor, or as a partner. I’d lost my way. I’ve spent the weeks since then figuring out how to get back.

Everyone I met going into this program — including the formidable alumni network — told me my classes were most likely going to be the least rewarding part of the experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth in my case.

I’ve been amazed by Stanford’s built-in focus on empathy across its academic offerings. The business school, especially, is far more focused on emotional connection than I would have ever imagined from the outside. I’ve spent more time than I ever thought possible learning how to communicate and be present, to let go of ego and be as open as I always imagined myself to be. It’s from these classes — and the people I’ve met in them — that I’ve already learned some truths I plan to carry into my post-JSK life.

  1. Reasons are Bullshit

One of my d.school professors, the venerable Bernie Roth, told us this in one of our first classes and I have really taken it to heart. “Reasons” are often excuses dressed up as something more noble. If we are being honest with ourselves and those around us, we should be able to leave reasons at the door.

We make excuses for our actions and behaviors to others — when we should be willing to take ownership of them (and apologize if necessary). Worst of all are the “reasons” we give to ourselves. When I started to peel back the “why” behind some of my own actions, I realized I had more control over my life than I thought.

For instance, I have been telling myself for YEARS that I fill my schedule with work, activities and favors because that’s what the people in my life demand of me. That may be partially true, but in actuality, I do that because it makes me feel useful. I chose that life — and knowing that now, I can now choose a (slightly saner) one. It’s liberating to let go of reasons.

2. Grant permission to be creative

I’m taking a leadership class from improv master Dan Klein that is focused on leading creative teams. Most of our first few classes were spent playing improv games, with the aim of turning off our egos and reacting without fear of judgment. It’s giving ourselves permission to be a bit wild — and doing the same for others around us.

We could all stand to embrace this idea to be better colleagues, collaborators and managers. How many newsroom “brainstorming sessions” have we all been in that largely resulted in more of the same (if anything)? To inspire creativity in others, we have to give permission to be wild. That means not shooting ideas down, not homing in on the easiest or most conventional idea and celebrating truly “out there” leaps. It also means giving everyone a platform to participate — and not just letting the loudest voices take over.

3. Find strength in vulnerability

Like many women who have risen to a management level, somewhere along the way, I got the idea that I had to be more like the men around me.

For years, I had been training myself to hide any signs of vulnerability. I saw my persistent sensitivity and empathy as an anchor preventing me from becoming a better leader. Stanford’s management classes have taught me that we should embrace our empathy and hone our vulnerability as a tool. In business and in life, people are far more willing to give us benefit of a doubt if we don’t present ourselves as infallible.

4. Know your values, and call on them often

When I was younger, I had no trouble stirring the pot if something went against my values (just ask my bosses from back then). In my more recent years, I’d gotten tired of being the squeaky wheel. I was tired. I’d have these managerial out-of-body experiences where I’d see myself espouse some company line I didn’t even believe in and say to myself, “Who ARE you?”

In holding fast to our values in our work, it creates a semblance of control (something I know I crave). We can’t always control what happens, nor can we control the behavior of the people around us, but we can control how we react to them. Speaking of that…

5. Create a culture worth fighting for

In my management classes, we speak often about our role as leaders in setting the tone and culture of the groups we move in and oversee. I’ve been a part of some great cultures over the course of my career, but also some incredibly toxic environments.

I find myself now thinking back to the occasions I could have stopped a bad culture in its tracks — or promoted a better one — by being willing to be the roadblock. Being that roadblock may have meant lower productivity, harder conversations, hurt feelings, potentially less money coming in…but it would have been worth it in the long run.

As Irv Grousbeck, a truly inspiring business professor, said in our management class, “Communicate your values and live the example openly. Work hard, be nice, say yes.”

Luckily, it’s easy to say yes when you are part of a group like JSK.

So even aside from the hands-on training I’m receiving in innovation, problem-solving, management and business strategy — I’m also learning how to be a better leader, a better journalist and a better person. I’m rediscovering what I value in myself and in others, and focusing on what I really want to do with the rest of my life. Try fitting that into a brochure.