What's next? What are you going to do now? What are you working on?
I'm hearing versions of these questions a lot, most recently in group of young law professionals – lawyers, judges, prosecutors – I spent the weekend with (more on them soon).
Most of those doing the asking are kind, and curious: you ran a magazine, it's now been more than two months since you've stopped, so you must have other plans, right? I sheepishly tell them that these have been busy weeks, with various building troubles, prior commitments (mostly judging contests, and teaching), but also bureaucratic loose ends at DoR: chasing companies for unpaid bills (it happened all the time), closing services and accounts, counting magazines left in bookstores, and asking to have the ones not sold, returned.
I then say that my next three months, starting today, are more or less free, with some travel plans but not much else on the schedule.
Oh, that's cool, some reply. You deserve it.
Others are skeptical. Often, the skeptical ones are journalists and newsroom leaders. Some asked if I was OK – after all, I’m taking so much time for myself. Others were less generous. I told an editor who wanted to do some work together that I'm not committing to any projects at least until the summer, and the reply was: OK, not this month, but what about next month?
I've come to understand and accept this is less about me, and more about people’s own projections of how they would handle closing a project/not having something secure lined up. Sure, in a profession as insecure and as badly paid as mine, you often have no cushion, and you need a job right away. (Building a safety net is partly why I kept crazy busy these past couple of months). But even when you don't, the thought of sitting with the unknown of a next step in life can be maddening.
Some people I talked to pushed me hard to say what I was going to do, as if there was a secret I would reveal that would make them feel at ease.
I can't put them at ease because I don't know what's next. And while it's been uncomfortable to say "I have no idea", it's hasn’t bothered me all that much. (Which is not to say that I’m not terribly confused, sometimes scared). Just stick with the search, I tell myself, keep your ears and eyes open to the world and, one day, some next thing will emerge.
"What happened next?" is arguably the most powerful engine in a story.
A few days ago I was cleaning the house, and I turned on the latest season of Serial, The Coldest Case in Laramie, a murder-mystery told in eight fast paced episodes. The premise is simple. Kim Barker is a long-time New York Times investigative reporter who has covered national security and wars. It's early in COVID days, and she's at home, looking for ideas. She returns to an occasional Google search: trying to see if anything else happened in a murder case from the little town she grew up in: Laramie, Wyoming.
It was 1985, Kim was in high school, and the murder of a young woman named Shelli was particularly cruel, but no one had ever been tried and convicted for it. And then, almost 40 years later, Kim finds news: a police office is arrested, but the charges are then dropped even though he somewhat confesses to killing Shelli.
So, says Kim, setting up the story, what happened there? How is this case still open?
And off she goes. I listened to the first six episodes in a binge because they propelled me from one to the next, as Kim was discovering the known and unknown of this case. I tagged along less because I'm interested in who did it, and more because the journey of discovery was irresistible. I felt like a sidekick to Kim and the producers, going where the story took us, gaining more and more knowledge, but never enough so that I could put it together, and stop the story.
Of course, there is some trickery to all this. The story is told (structured, I mean) in a way that maximizes suspense. While it's built on genuine surprise and Kim's trips and discoveries over more than a year, it's arranged and narrated in a way that cleverly obscures what they know by the time they start telling the story to us.
This is often a tough move to pull off in long form journalism – whether narratives, explainers, or investigations. When we start reporting a story, we're often clueless. Or we have some documents. A hypothesis. A theory. But we don't know. And part of the fun – and the pain of the reporting – is finding things out. Confirming some of the things you believed might be true. Being wrong on others. Taking wrong turns. Taking fortuitous turns. Thanking the God of journalism for arranging a special moment, when somebody said something that you know will make the story sing, when you were there for a moment you just know will be the key detail of the whole thing.
Reporting often has an addictive quality because of the joy of discovery. Some reporters will be more dogged and braver than others, will be able to ask the tougher questions, confront evil doers without flinching. Some will be more restless. Some will work harder than others. But at the base of their pyramid of skills is the same trait: curiosity. If you're not curios about people, the world, piecing together a story, the jobs might not be for you. Especially if you're not willing to be surprised by the discovery.
What Serial pulls off so well – because they're great at their job – is recreating the journey of discovery the reporters took. And yes, they are smart enough to record everything in the process, but simply piecing together recordings from years ago won't cut it. When you tell a story driven by the question of what's next, you don't just tell the story of how it was in the field. You must be able to anticipate the beats of the story, the turns, the surprises, the moments when the audience will shake their heads, get angry, or go "wow". By paying attention to when you did that in the process, you are a step closer to figuring out what you want to recreate as a feeling.
Here are some questions I often ask reporters I work with as they slowly become experts in a story:
What surprised you? Why?
Where did you go "oh, shit"?
Where were you lost?
What are all the roads you took to get out?
What’s the most memorable thing not in your notebook?
These Sunday letters are my form of answering some of these questions, while paying attention to the process. Because I spent the last days helping legal professionals tell better stories, I thought a lot about structure, pacing, and suspense (hence the topic). And I also thought a lot about what’s next, and how I feel my answer is related to the need to be useful to as many ecosystems as possible.
Part of the aim of this program I taught in is to empower young professionals to be better leaders is a justice system that is broken, chronically understaffed (think of a deficit of 25.000 police), overworked (think of a being a 26-year-old judge with more than 1,000 cases a year), and full of people that like it just the way it is, because it preserves their power.
What’s next for these leaders is both an essential and complicated question. We tackled it directly, with the guidance of one of the facilitators, who took the group through a journaling exercise created by the Presencing Institute; more than a dozen questions meant to explore two great mysteries of their future: “Who is myself? What is my work?”
I’ll leave you with a few of these questions, if you want to practice, and a whole guide, plus extra questions, if you want to keep going:
Look at yourself from outside as if you were another person: What are the 3 or 4 most important challenges or tasks that your life (work and non-work) currently presents?
What 3 or 4 important aspirations, areas of interest, or undeveloped talents would you like to place more focus on in your future journey?
Watch yourself from above (as if in a helicopter). What are you doing? What are you trying to do in this stage of your professional and personal journey?
What in your current life or context provides the seeds for the future that you want to create? Where do you see your future beginning?
If you were to take on the project of bringing your intention into reality, what practical first steps would you take over the next 3 to 4 days?
I have been a fan of Serial since the very first season. While it has its critics (journalism is always about leaving stuff out), it’s still a collection of amazing stories. Last year’s Trojan Horse Affair was brilliant.
The narrative engine of all stories is what journalist/writer Tom French called the answering of the “what’s next” question. Watch him demonstrate this power in this tremendous talk.
I worked with some amazing judges and lawyers to help them tell stories on stage last December; here’s one on discovering how powerless you are as a professional facing the very system you belong to, and one on learning to make better decisions when the fate of an abused child is in your hands.
Every once in a while, I think about this story from the Atlantic: Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.
PS: What's next for me is a trip that will also bring me to Copenhagen for a few days. If there's anything I should do, or anyone I should meet, let me know.
Thanks for reading Draft Four! Subscribe for free to receive a letter every Sunday.
Reading your piece reminded me of just how fed up I am with people always demanding to know what's next. As if they all suddently forget that we're all works in progress, that we don't always have everything figured out in advance, and most importantly - that sometimes breaks make just as much sense as a well-defined 5-year plan. It's like we've all collectively lost sight of the value of slowing down and switching gears.
I know it must be hard dipping your toes into the unknown, but you're not starting from scratch, you're starting from experience. Lots of it, from what I could gather from reading your newsletters.
I wish you the best of luck with anything you choose to do going forward. I'm happy to follow along and learn from your journey - so thanks for opening this little window into your world. And have fun in Copenhagen! :)
Please do write about those three months and about the feelings you are experiencing when the anxiety might kick in. Do you think you will keep a list of habits, to-dos on hand, such as “daily/weekly reflection?” In order to balance everything?