Over the years, I’ve learned not to take things personally. I have been in the public eye for most of my life and to be honest, at the beginning I took everything to heart.
I remember how proud I was of my first published news piece when I was nearly 15 years old. I had started writing a newspaper column at 14, but at 15, the editor trusted me to cover a story. It was exciting, I had wanted to be a journalist since I was a toddler, and this was the first step in that journey. I went out and eagerly covered a rally.
For the newspaper, it was a puff, community service piece, for me, it was my big break. I took two buses and two subway lines to get to the downtown location, interviewed scores of people there and guesstimated the attendance (with the help of another local reporter who took pity on me) at around 3000. Back onto the subway, two buses, got home three hours after the rally ended.
There was no internet back then, so I typed my copy on a typewriter and then faxed it into the paper. The Editor called me and suggested some changes, I retyped the document and resent it to him, he was pleased. The paper was published and there was my article, with my by-line on page 3. I was proud, I ran out and got 10 copies of the paper (a practice I still follow when published) and basked as my parents’ friends all called to say how impressed they were.
The next day, after school, I was standing in my father’s office when the phone rang. My dad answered and surprisingly said, hold on, looked at me and said, “it’s for you.” I took the phone, a male voice on the other end asked if I was the Howie Silbiger that wrote the article, I responded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to rip apart every detail I presented, including the attendance and he pointed out three spelling mistakes (made by the typographer at the paper). His conclusion after his tirade, leave journalism to the professionals. He then hung up.
I was devastated. Although the man was a complete stranger (I later met the guy and realized that he was a bit of a nut too) and I shouldn’t have taken his opinion to heart, I did. I was proud of my work, I was excited about a new opportunity and in one phone call, a complete stranger with no power over anything I say or do and no connection to the newspaper crushed my 15-year-old soul.
The phone rang a few hours later, the newspaper Editor was on the other side. He told me how much he loved the article and wanted to assign me to another story. Still shaken by the bad review, I declined. The Editor, an elderly experienced journalist asked me why. I explained what happened and apologized for sending in such horrible copy. I asked him for his forgiveness. There was a long pause and angrily he ordered me to come to his office immediately. I hopped on my bike and made my way to the newspaper building.
When I got to the Editor’s office, he told me to sit down. He sat across the desk staring at me, his piercing blue eyes penetrating my soul. It was getting uncomfortable, he hadn’t said a word, he was just sitting there glaring at me. After what felt like eternity, but was probably just a few seconds, he uttered words I will never forget and have followed for the entirety of my life.
“Son, in life there are leaders and there are followers. There are those who believe everything they say is right and those who follow the facts, look at the evidence and make educated conclusions.
The first group of people never get far in life, they tend to mix in circles that agree with them and are never challenged on their beliefs. They never learn and definitely never grow. After years of not moving anywhere intellectually, that group eventually gets angry and become belligerent and petty.
The second group of people are continuously learning. They seek out the truth or whatever passes for truth and make educated decisions and conclusions based on facts. Frustration doesn’t work into their being, as, how do you get frustrated when you are making calls based on fact? Sure, they may be wrong sometimes, due to faulty information or faulty processing of information, but at the end of the day, this group will always be closer to the truth, closer to happiness and much happier than the first group.
You, son, have a decision to make. What group do you want to be in?
Keep in mind, no matter which group you chose, you will never be a perfect reporter, nobody is. You will make mistakes, everyone does. You will publish false information, it’s inevitable. You will be challenged, you will be criticized, and you will be insulted. You will be loved by some and hated by others. You will find yourself in tight spots trying to defend an argument or a news piece that you submitted. This is part of the job, it is part of the responsibility. As long as you have strong evidence to backup anything you publish, you will be ok.
You’re a smart kid, go home and make a decision. If you want to continue covering events for us, call me in a few days, I’ll know which group you chose. If I never hear from you again, I’ll also know what group you chose. The decision is yours.”
With that he sent me packing.
Three days later, I called him and went to cover another event and eventually established a 20 year relationship with the newspaper. Had it not been for the wise words of an old man, I would not be writing this blog, hosting the radio shows or doing anything public.
It took a while for me to let criticism, insults and general abuse roll off my shoulders, but learning that skill was liberating, it allows me to do my job, to report the facts, to question others on their facts with a clear unemotional head. It allows me to admit when I’m wrong and plant my feet when I’m right.
The moral of the story, don’t let outside influences destroy you. There are mean folks out there who revel in seeing people fall, don’t give them the satisfaction. By denying them that, you are actually saving yourself.