Commitment: How to succeed despite seemingly impossible odds

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With virtually no functioning social skills, I travelled through Africa, including the Sahara and Congo after graduating from university in 1976.

I remember the end of the six-year journey much better than the beginning, but the key element during that time was an undefeatable desire to see the story through to its conclusion.

The beginning: Walking through the doors of the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper office, The Ubyssey. I had seen the newspaper many times during my first two years at the university, and there were periodic invitations to join the organization.

“Why not?” I thought, because I had always been interested in journalism. What I didn’t know at the start — but quickly learned — was that the student newspaper offered an informal apprenticeship program. Students deemed suitably qualified would receive invitations to join one of the city’s two daily newspapers for lucrative summer and part-time jobs.

So I set out to write, and be rewritten, and carried on, day after day. I had really poor social functioning skills, and while I tried and tried, I didn’t really connect with the power brokers who defined success in the student newspaper group. I certainly wasn’t on the fast track to a journalism career.

But life has fateful turns, and when I visited the student employment office near the term end, I discovered a job opportunity for a part-time “city desk clerk” at the Vancouver Province. I applied. The minute I mentioned to the administrative supervisor making the hiring decisions that I participated on the student newspaper, I received a job offer.

My peers were stunned. How could I have gotten in without “belonging?” I had — much to their surprise — won a coveted real journalism job, though at the start my primary responsibilities were to answer the switchboard phone on Sunday nights, and ensure that the Ships in Port agate listings were correct. (However, it didn’t take long for the newspaper to offer a part-time reporting job, and because I already worked in the organization, I was hired.)

So I was off to a start in journalism, and I remember the joy at the student newspaper year-end party that year.

But no journey is simple. The flaws and weaknesses that plagued my work continued, and I neither connected well with my peers, or in the early stages, failed to handle my journalism responsibilities with terribly great skill. I made mistakes and it seemed that I was going to wash out. I fought back, and solved the underlying weaknesses, but the daily newspaper made it clear to me that I would not be offered permanent employment upon graduation.

What to do? Travel. Many peers were travelling to Europe and Asia. I chose my own route — Africa, overland, in an organized tour initially, and then on my own for the last three months of an eight month experience. I certainly saw many places and enjoyed many experiences, but in the end, the word was clear: There would be no job at the newspaper when I returned, and no clear path to a journalism career for me.

Again, opportunity emerged in a surprising place. A small newspaper in Medicine Hat, Alberta posted ads looking for “trainee reporters”. I applied. It seems one of the paper’s young writers (successful) had also been through Africa, and that cinched the opportunity for me.

But it almost turned into another failure. Initially I expected to work like on the city daily, where the editor would assign stories, and I would write them. This isn’t how things are done on a small publication, where you are expected to constantly churn out material, and generate your own content. I learned I was on probation and about to be fired.

I set to work, again, solving the problems, turning into a prolific writer. When the paper’s single sub-editor decided to move on, I sought and won the job — moving from writing stories to headlines.

There, I saw plenty of news material from Africa, and probably gave the local small town residents more African news than they could care to read. And I came up with the idea that would change my life. Could I return to Africa and arrange to be a “stringer” (part-time freelance correspondent) for the newspaper chain that owned the small daily?

I had saved up enough money for a few months travel. My goal: To see the end of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe civil war and discover what it means to live through a war, and its conclusion.

I headed off to Africa, visiting a few obscure places including Rwanda and Burundi on my way to Rhodesia. By the time I arrived in southern Africa in November 1978, I realized that the story would end long after my travel money had been exhausted. I needed to find work. And it turns out the sub-editing skills learned in Alberta would be useful in getting work in Bulawayo, at The Chronicle.

This led to the 18 months experience as a journalist/sub-editor at the conclusion of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war, and the epiphany just before Zimbabwe independence that I had pulled off the seemingly impossible dream — from being a person who somehow wanted to be a journalist to experiencing a moment in history as a foreign correspondent, all without any particular connections and with plenty of setbacks, failures and near-misses along the way.

The lessons I learned from this experience/journey have defined my life, and to me define the keys to success in any endeavor, including construction marketing.

  • You need some natural talent. I could write reasonably well, and type very fast, and had always had an interest in the world and current history — in other words, I had the makings of a journalist.
  • You need to persevere, intelligently. By this, I mean there is a difference in blindly pushing forward and listening to the signs of problems, solving them, and then figuring out your direction. Several times along the way I was almost marked as a failure, but I could see and capture the lessons to change what needed to be changed.
  • You should always be ready to follow an unconventional path. It can open doors that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Without peer support, I needed to figure out what worked best for me. So I got my original job through an unconventional channel. And I travelled where others in my group didn’t think of going — to the middle of Africa.
  • Finally, and related to the perseverance theme, big achievements don’t come through quick and easy experiences though the moment when you celebrate your achievement may be short and sweet. Think of the Olympic athletes winning their competition and standing on the podium in just a few weeks; and then the amount of time, effort, sweat and pain they experienced to get there.

I’m thankful that I didn’t take shortcuts and carried on, carried on, to my dream as a young adult. Now, consider your own dreams, goals, ideals and ambitions, and realize that the path may not always be clear at the start, and the journey may require many years, but if you can find the combination of passion, talent, will and perseverance, you can indeed enjoy the moment of mastery and success.

Dream big and live well, and you’ll always have joy in your life.

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