“Definitely a Type A personality.”
“Every minute on my Blackberry is accounted for.”
“I’m the kind of person who always chooses the same route for my daily run in any given city, rather than explore a new course.”
This, in part, was how Soledad O’Brien described herself when we spoke on the phone.
“I like to know exactly what’s ahead,” she explains.
That’s impossible, of course, as someone in the news business understands all too well. But wringing efficiency out of every moment is a critical job skill when you’re a CNN anchor, a special correspondent for CNN’s Special Investigations Unit, and the mother of four kids under the age of ten. Soledad also covers political news as part of CNN’s “best political team on television,” and in 2009, completed CNN Presents: Black in America, six hours of stereotype-busting documentary and reports.
Bringing complexity and fresh nuance to stale topics is a talent that stems from Soledad’s background. Her full name is María de la Soledad Teresa O’Brien. She is the fifth child of six born to an Afro-Cuban mother and an Australian-Irish father, both of whom were educators and immigrants. All six children went to Harvard. From an early age, Soledad mapped out a career in medicine, as had her brother and sister. But during her senior year in college, she realized that she wanted to go into journalism, rather than be a doctor.
“I might as well have sprouted another head,” she says, remembering how alien this new career choice seemed to her and her family. “I had no idea how to become a writer. It was unknown territory.”
She figured it out, eventually covering some of the globe’s most urgent stories, such as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand. She also won awards, such as the 2007 Gracie Allen Award and, in 2008, the first annual Soledad O’Brien Freedom’s Voice Award, which was created by Community Voices at the Morehouse School of Medicine to honor catalysts for social change.
Now forty-four, Soledad chose to write to herself in her mid-twenties, which was a key period in her career. At then-NBC affiliate WBZ-TV in Boston, she had been an associate producer and news writer. Then, in 1989, she moved to NBC affiliate KRON in San Francisco, where she had to master a new skill as a local reporter.
There is opportunity—and sometimes joy—in chaos and the unknown. I suspect you’ll find this extremely hard to believe. For someone like you, who is most deeply secure when your path, and every step on it, are completely mapped out, “the unknown” sounds like being lost. And not just lost in the sense of having momentarily veered off course. Lost, as in completely adrift. Without understanding why, you’ve always felt that if you take one or two steps off the golden, preordained path, you might never be able to get back on.
Being highly organized with concrete goals has helped you be productive, without a doubt. But Soledad—open up the door to a little more uncertainty! Honestly, it’s not a weakness to live this way. Moving forward without knowing where it will lead will be excellent for your career and your personal life.
It’s liberating. If you stop obsessing about getting your ticket punched at all the “right” stations, you’ll be able to take opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. Don’t worry about losing control. Accepting ambiguity will free you to think about what’s right for you.
At the start of your career, you’re worried you’re not a great reporter. You have two choices about that. You can agonize over the proven, correct process for becoming better, and try to hurry it up. You can constantly compare yourself unfavorably to other reporters. Or you can accept that there is no single right path, and let yourself grow at the best possible pace for you.
In TV news it’s very easy to compete with everyone else. What you have to do, though, is compete with yourself. Rather than just sprint to a title, focus on the integrity of doing work you like. Value the projects you get to be a part of. Those things are far more important than racing against the clock, trying to beat the people around you.
To remind you, here’s something J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Your slightly more chaotic future self,