Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to be a radio news anchor. My freshman year of college, I had one shift a week on our campus “training station” — which was basically a closet with a microphone that more or less broadcast to nobody — where I would record a couple of newscasts at a set time each hour.
My life revolved around those newscasts. I set my calendar around them. I would arrive early, so I could pore over the red-pen notes from the “real” station’s assistant news director, taking her feedback more seriously than I did any of my professors. I’d type (yes, type, this was a while ago) a story on a page, crumple it up, type out a new story, then get six or seven together before heading to the closet and waiting for my cue.
The first couple of times were OK. Then came the time when I just crashed. It was horrible. I don’t remember exactly what I did so poorly, but I do remember getting back to the dorms and crying my eyes out, knowing that I was failing at the one thing I was so desperate to succeed at.
I continued to hang around the radio station as long as they’d let me, still fighting for my shot to make the big leagues. At times, I’d just sit and watch whatever DJ was on duty through the newsroom window. In the evening, the jock was Tom Leslie, a subdued, razor-sharp guy, who went about his shift in a mature-beyond-his-years manner. He was excellent, the best jock at the station, but he never acted like it. That made him stand out in an ego-driven business. There were times I wondered why he was doing it at all.
I think the reason he was so good is because he didn’t put overt pressure on himself to succeed. He liked it, he was confident, and whatever mistakes he might have made never seemed to rattle him. It was fun. And maybe, just maybe, in the long run, it didn’t matter.
Tom’s now a professor of architecture. I spent the next twenty years in radio.
And all that time, the idea of Tom has always stayed with me. It would be good to say his example wore off on me. It didn’t. For years, I was a maniac, bouncing off the walls as if working myself into a frenzy would make me better at what I was trying to do. But I had my Tom-like moments.
Once, when I was an assistant program director, there was a personnel meeting. The goal was to mull over candidates for a prominent position. The meeting included the program director, relatively new to the job and desperate to make his mark; a show host, who stood to benefit from a strong hire; the show’s producer, who treated everything with a ridiculous degree of seriousness; and me, feeling well out of my league for this assignment. But they started, carefully suggesting potential candidates from across the industry. With each suggestion came criticism, reasons why the person wouldn’t work, reinforcement about how we needed to hire the perfect person. The room grew heavy, fast, as we realized how daunting the task would be.
At one point, silence. The program director was leaning into his desk, hands in prayer position at his lips. “We can’t afford to (screw) this up,” he groaned.
My immediate thought was: Of course we can. In fact, I bet we will. This was just a conversation, and willing ourselves to come up with the right answer didn’t mean it would happen. We needed a Tom, to point out that what we really needed was to lighten up and use some common sense. To tell us that any hire is a gamble, and applying this much pressure to make sure we got it right could only be counter-productive.
I didn’t have enough Tom in me to say it. Agonizing over the situation continued to be a cloud over the department, and eventually, after weeks, the decision was made . . . to promote one of our own people to the post.
Within a couple of years, the program director was fired, the host retired, the promotee was demoted, and the producer was let go. And you know what? Nobody recalls this end-all, be-all, watershed moment. Meantime, with all those positions replaced, this particular show slot is as strong as its been in some time.
Maybe, just maybe, in the long run, it didn’t matter.
This doesn’t mean meaningful conversations shouldn’t take place. But if the actions taken to achieve greatness become overwhelmed by the mere desire for greatness — well, I hope I will call on my inner Tom.