‘Making it up as I go along.’
15 things I’ve learned careering through the media.
This is a story about my career, the story of how I ended up where I am today, and the fifteen lessons I learned along the way.
[This is an edited version of a talk I gave to media students at the University of East London on February 10th, 2015.]
#1 Having a goal is more important than having a plan
Some things in life you can plan.
You can probably plan your journey from home to the office every day: which tube you need to catch, how many stops until your destination, how long the journey will last.
But I don’t think you can plan a career. Most careers tend to involve taking random left turns, following opportunities as you stumble across them (mine has anyway). You can’t plot that on a plan.
Let’s also remember what the word ‘career’ means. If we hear about a car careering down a hill, we don’t think of it following a carefully planned route. We think of it being out of control, all over the place. That’s what my career feels like.
So okay I didn't need a plan, but I did need a goal.
#2 Ignore anyone who says no to your goal
I had a goal from about the age of twelve or thirteen. I wanted to work in broadcasting. That was my dream job.
I think this stemmed from growing up without a TV in the house: when we got our first television when I was eight, I was so fascinated by it that I wanted to work in TV. I had a similar fascination with radio. From when I first listened to Radio Luxembourg on my pocket transistor radio under the bed covers, I knew I wanted to work in radio too.
I decided to apply to college to do a media degree, I figured this was the best way to get a job in broadcasting.
But my headmaster at school wasn't very supportive. He said it would be too competitive getting on a media course. He advised me to do something completely different — a course in company secretaryship. To this day I have no idea why he suggested that, he just passed me a prospectus and said do this instead.
I ignored him.
If I listened to his advice I would have had a completely different career trajectory. But I decided to ignore it.
#3 The best time to join an organisation is when it’s starting up
When you’re looking for a job, you might approach big companies and small ones. My experience is that the smaller ones — whilst not paying the most money — tend to have small teams where newcomers get to do lots of different things.
That’s especially true if you join an organisation when it’s starting out.
When I was still at school I discovered that a new BBC radio station was launching locally. I managed to get a volunteer role on the Saturday night youth programme. The radio station wasn’t on air yet and they needed to train people up. I was there, I was cheap and I was willing. So they trained me to drive the studio desk, they trained me to operate the outside broadcast radio car. It meant I got a stack of experience in radio while I was still at school — interviewing musicians & MPs, co-presenting a show, working behind the scenes.
I walked away with lots of experience at a really young age.
#4 Get good at the photocopying
When you walk into your first job you may get asked to do some crappy tasks.
You might get asked to make the tea and do the photocopying. And you’ll think this isn't what I spent three years doing a degree for.
But don’t despair — it’s just a test. So you need to hang on in there.
After university I started working as a runner in a TV production company. What that meant was I answered the phones, I made the tea and I did the photocopying. If you can do that without an attitude problem, you pass the test.
Do the photocopying properly and you’ll get a reputation for being a safe pair of hands. And that kind of reputation will get you a long way in your career. I soon got promoted from being a runner because people saw that Ian was a safe pair of hands.
#5 ‘Creative’ Vs ‘Non Creative’ is a myth
Some people say that jobs in the media are split into ‘creative’ and ‘non creative’ roles. That’s still true in many environments.
But I think those traditional divisions are becoming irrelevant. We all need to bring creativity into our jobs, and I don’t mean our ability to draw pretty pictures.
When I was working for a media group my boss once told me I had to make a choice. Did I want to become a radio producer ( a creative), or did I want to become a production manager (non creative). He described it as a fork in the road: I had to make an either/or choice that I couldn’t back on.
I actually chose the management role but that didn’t mean I couldn't continue to be creative. After all I was managing creative people, in a creative company, performing creative roles. Of course I needed to be creative!
So don’t think creativity is an elite club where only the hipsters get in; we can all bring our creativity to work.
#6 Generalists are under-rated
I had a choice in my career. Did I want to be a specialist working just in radio or television or did I want to work across multiple disciplines?
I chose to be a generalist. I've spent my career across multiple disciplines — TV, radio, live events, broadcast services, creative services, online, journalism.
You can you bring your skills to multiple areas, or you can stay in a single discipline. It’s up to you, but being able to ‘cross borders’ between disciplines gives you more opportunities in your career.
Sometimes breadth beats depth.
#7 ‘Work’ is a mindset, not a place you go
In 2000 I made a big decision — I quit my job as a managing director to go freelance as a project manager and consultant.
I learned a lot taking the leap to go freelance. One of the biggest lessons was that it changed my relationship with that four letter word: work.
‘Work’ was no longer a building I went to, it was something that went on inside my head.
With smart phones and wifi we know that now. We know that we can work on the tube, from Starbucks, wherever.
But it was quite a pioneering thought in 2000, that you could work from anywhere, that you didn’t need an office. Back in the mid 1990s I remember a friend of mine, a talented radio producer, asking his boss if he could go and sit by a lake to come up with some ideas for a new radio show. His boss told him not to be so stupid and to get back to his desk. I hope things have changed twenty years on.
So the future of work is not about punching the timecard, it’s not about working 9–5; it’s about how and where we are most productive.
#8 What’s your ‘sawdust’?
In your career you might do one thing but find you have an unintended by-product.
It’s what Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe in their book REWORK as ‘sawdust’. “When you make something, you always make something else,” they say.
If you swept up all the sawdust on the floor, what would it make? About eight years ago I learned what my sawdust was.
My sawdust was what I’d learned going freelance, what I learned in business.
I’d always enjoyed writing but until then never written for a living. Once my books were published I had added another string to my bow — I was now a writer (and that would come in handy a few years later).
#9 Why I love Twitter
People use Twitter in different ways. Some like to follow sports stars, others use it as a source of news or to talk to their friends. I’ve used Twitter to open doors.
The woman in this photograph is Melissa Pierce. In December 2008 I was sitting at my kitchen table in Leigh-on-Sea when I sent out a tweet, wondering whether I should attend next year’s South By South West festival in Austin, Texas. I got a tweet back from Melissa in Chicago. She was presenting a talk at SXSW, did I want to join her as co-presenter?
That random tweet was how I came to be at SXSW in 2009.
But it’s opened more doors than that. It’s thanks to Twitter that I’ve had books published, had articles commissioned and been introduced to new clients.
So think before you Tweet…!
#10 You don’t need to go on a course for everything
From 2012–14 I had a regular gig writing for the Financial Times. My editor (yes, I met him via Twitter) hired me to write stories about people and trends that sparked my own curiosity. That was an awesome brief.
But I have a confession to make. I haven’t been trained in journalism, I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life.
Writing that first article for the FT was a very steep learning curve. I had written a 40,000 word book, but I had no idea how to write a 1,100 newspaper article. But I learned fast. My editor sent me his feedback on my first article on a Monday night, I had just over twelve hours to get it fit-for-publication.
So don’t think you need to go on a course for everything new you might do in your career. You might just need hard graft and a large glass of red wine on a Monday night.
#11 Your career is a playground
Your career doesn’t have to be about doing one thing, and just that one thing for the rest of your life.
Instead, think of your career as a playground. A playground where you can experiment, reinvent yourself, try things out.
A designer friend of mine started posting photos on Instagram, today he has over 750k followers and makes a living that way. He didn’t intend to make a living as a photographer on Instagram; he was just playing around, experimenting with a new digital tool.
#12 The things that make you weird as a kid will make you great tomorrow
This is an old photograph of me. I guess I’m around eight years old. I’m standing on a seawall somewhere in Essex. I’m alone, standing by the edfe, with a pair of binoculars, observing.
And that’s funny, because that’s not too different to the 2015 version of Ian.
I love this quote “The things that make you weird as a kid will make you great tomorrow,” it’s from the American artist and designer James Victore.
And okay I wasn’t that weird as a kid, but I was the observer, the quiet kid standing on the edges, with a big imagination, writing stories, doodling, taking it all in.
These are the skills that inform what I do today as a ‘business storyteller’.
So if you get lost in your career, ask yourself James’ question: who were you as a kid and how can it help you today?
#13 Every business needs a storyteller
So today in 2015 I do many different things, I wrap it all up as a ‘business storyteller’.
Traditionally, if you wanted a job as a writer, photographer or videographer you might apply to work at a news organisation.
Today, the advent of digital means that any organisation — any business whatever it does, whatever its size — wants to tell its story online. And that brings opportunities for people who are good storytellers.
I took this photograph at the end of January. It was the view out of an office window in Davos, Switzerland, where I spent six days working at the 2015 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
I was a member of WEF’s digital media team, a ‘content factory’ producing content for their blog and social media.
Disintermediation isn’t just an interesting trend; this is a career opportunity.
#14 The Digital Opportunity
I want you to get excited.
I want you to get excited about DIGITAL!
This is a photograph I took in the late 80s on a march to Clapham Common against apartheid in South Africa.
Back then if you wanted to get angry about something you would write to a newspaper, sign a petition or go on a march. Today if you want to express an opinion, you can write a blog post, send a Tweet, write a Facebook post.
I don’t want to stop people marching but I do want you to get excited about the digital opportunities.
You remember how I told you about getting that job at local radio? That was me getting lucky.
But if you want to work in radio in 2015 you don’t need to apply to the BBC. Start a podcast, start an internet radio station, record something on your phone. Build an audience, and if you’re lucky you may have BBC radio knocking on your door.
‘Digital’ has replaced traditional gatekeepers; you have digital tools at your disposal to demonstrate your creative talents.
#15 What’s your compass?
I started by saying the idea of a career plan is outdated.
But I've still needed something to help me navigate my career.
I needed a compass, and you might need one too.
Your compass is about following ‘You’, making sure all your decisions are aligned with you; your values, what you stand for, where and how you work best.
It may sound corny, but it’s about going back to who you are, in my case — it’s about being that kid on the seawall with the binoculars. He’s the one I stay true to.