in Education

On earnestness and passion in New York City

Despite having been in New York for only two weeks, I already have one major observation: New Yorkers are genuinely very earnest and passionate about their chosen fields.

I’ve said this to a few people and it’s been interpreted as merely a comment on the level of entrepreneurship and creativity here. However, the level of passion goes deeper than that: New Yorkers seem to be unabashedly earnest about emerging ideas, to the point of what others might call naïveté about their chances for success.

New Yorkers are not actually that naïve — far from it. It’s just that they don’t seem to let criticism get in the way of their craft, and there does seem to be very little direct criticism of new ideas. The attitude seems to be more like how improvisational comedians do their work: rather than a “no”, every response to a pitch is a “yes, and…” type of answer that tends to encourage more refined ideas.

The dark side of unbounded optimism, of course, is the myth of the American dream. Few Americans will see themselves as poor, only that they’re not rich — yet. In other words, it’s the idea that by dint of hard work and no other mitigating factors, anyone can become as wealthy & successful as Donald J. Trump, however improbable that might be.

Still, the shortage of early criticism that might shut down big ideas in any other society seems to be absent, which does lead to many of those ideas being executed. Perhaps no other example is as poignant and relevant to me as the creation of the CUNY J-School itself. It never would have happened in Canada; too many naysayers would have killed the idea before it got off the ground. Instead, in New York, many well-known media professionals and organizations rose to the challenge, and helped CUNY start an innovative journalism program even in the midst of a terrible economic downturn.

I, too, am coming to the table with a high level of unbridled optimism about my potential for success. I’m not only going to be challenged by journalism’s practicalities, but I’m battling default character traits that work against me: as an introvert, I’m someone who asks few questions, avoids conflict, and follows orders. It’s no accident that my first career was in engineering and information technology, fields where predictability and compliance with authority are rewarded. I’m heartened, however, to hear that even someone as famous as Ira Glass is also, by default, meek and introverted. (Listen to the episode of This American Life about The Psychopath Test to hear this illustrated in an amusing way.) If Ira can get beyond his character flaws, so can I. And hey, as I said before: New York is the perfect laboratory for this experiment: a place where those who are earnest and fail are more highly regarded than those who never try at all.

J-School officially begins tomorrow morning. I’m sure these 18 months will whiz by, but wish me luck anyway.