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January 17, 2014

World of tradecraft

Working on non-academic projects can pay off.

After 36 years at The Washington Post, Bob Levey (A.B. ’66) had plenty of tips for making it in journalism: Start your career in smaller, local papers; streamline your phone interview skills; spend less time blogging and more time playing bridge on the third floor of Ida Noyes. Toward the end of his 60 minutes in the Maroon’s basement office, the venerable columnist leaned back in his chair and gave some advice with a slightly broader appeal.

“Always have a project you’re working on,” he urged us. “Practice your tradecraft.”

Easier said than done. After five days juggling Hum readings and calc problem sets, it’s difficult to muster the energy to go downtown or jog along the lake, let alone explore a non-academic interest. Yet Levey was in our shoes 50 years ago, and despite the timeless pressures of life at UChicago, he made time for his burgeoning interest in journalism. Not everyone gets a rush from cranking out last-minute Viewpoints columns, but his advice to “practice your tradecraft” could apply just as well to judo as to journalism. Amid the rigors of academic life, though, when to get started?

I chose winter break. In the “tradecraft” of journalism, opportunities to practice abound, and I spent a decent chunk of December researching the firestorm of controversy surrounding fracking in Illinois. In three weeks of phone calls, e-mails, and article revisions, I learned more than I ever planned to know about the widening gulf between the Sierra Club and Frack Free Illinois, and about the minutiae of Johnson County politics. As those facts coalesced into an upcoming series for The Gate, my brain couldn’t store it all; a few things had to go.

At some point in the process, I forgot that I had slipped below straight As for the first time since middle school. I forgot that I still struggled to follow the obscure literary references that my classmates casually dropped into conversations. I forgot the pangs of bitter disillusionment that had struck while studying for my calc final. Why dwell on them? I had a project of my own to focus on.

Never mind that this particular project focused, reductively, on bubbles of hydrocarbons a mile beneath an obscure corner of southern Illinois. It hadn’t begun with the most manageable Hum essay prompt or the need to crank out a Sosc reaction paper; it had begun with a story my co-author and I wanted to tell, and could tell to the depth we wanted in the style we wanted. Our little series met Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation in Outliers that “autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”

That’s a far cry from my high school days, shaped by what my dad calls “the achievement industry”: essay contests, Model U.N. meets, All-State Band auditions, and the common conviction that accomplishment requires a medal for one and sore feelings for many. Don’t get me wrong: Long hours polishing an audition piece or revising the latest essay contest entry definitely entailed “practicing tradecraft,” but to what end? Another line on the Common App and the smug satisfaction of one-upmanship. Self-improvement was a nice afterthought.

I suspect that the achievement industry mind-set accompanies quite a few UChicago students (myself included) to Hyde Park. Once here, it evolves into this school’s famous anxiety. Along with top-notch grades and SAT scores, everyone here—by virtue of being here—had to meet formidable benchmarks of success. The achievement industry had conveniently set them out for us in high school—the medals, gavels, and scholarships that we eagerly snapped up and slapped on our résumé. Yet suddenly, those ready-made goals are fewer and farther between. Instead, we have a much steeper grading curve and a gnawing anxiety about everyone who reads more books, speaks more languages, makes more insightful comments in Hum, or otherwise seems smarter than us.

Intimidated by our peers, it’s easy to forget our own savvy with music, sports, computers, or whatever other unique “tradecraft” got us this far. If, two and a half weeks into 2014, you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution, I recommend taking up Levey’s advice and “practicing” it. Compose a symphony, write a software program, or hone your bridge strategy for the weekly games in Ida Noyes. When Friday or the next break rolls around, have a project ready that will help you transcend the week’s anxieties and give you a unique end product to share with the world.

Just don’t write an article about fracking in Johnson County. That project’s taken.

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College.

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