Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Conventional wisdom and what it says about journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 31, 2011

Image: saaleha on Flickr

I’ve overcome lots of hurdles to survive two years of freelancing in one of Europe’s most expensive cities, in the middle of a recession.

The biggest challenge though was the one I faced before I even started. Back in the summer of 2009 I wanted to go it alone and have some digital adventures, but in my mind I couldn’t see how it could work.

All the opportunities to make films, teach, train, write and start exciting new projects that now make up every working day were invisible to me, because I was looking at it through the eyes of conventional wisdom.

What is conventional wisdom?

These are the rules, made up by conservative types, and silently adopted by society, that say how things should be. Most crucially, they make assumptions about the present based on the past, and not the present or the future, which is where the problem lies.

Why am I writing about conventional wisdom? Because its rules and beliefs stop even the most ardent potential innovator or entrepreneur before they’ve even begun. Now is the best time and place to start new projects, take risks and make big ideas happen in our industry, but I worry that the best ideas never happen because conventional wisdom stops their creators before they even begin.

Here are some things conventional wisdom might be telling you: do any of them sound familiar?

  • You need to ‘do your time’ before you can do any of the fun stuff in journalism
  • You need decades of experience in journalism to train other people how to do it
  • The economy is too weak to launch a new magazine
  • You’re too old to change career
  • You need an MBA to start your own business
  • You need a degree to become a journalist
  • It’s easier/more realistic to make £40k a year than £1million
  • It’s impossible to make money from blogging
  • You need an office to run a business
  • You need to wait until you’re 40+ to become a foreign correspondent
  • Getting a ‘proper job’ (no matter how poorly paid) is more secure than going it alone
  • You need to be talented in order to achieve great things (as opposed to just working damn hard)
  • You need to be good at maths/science to be able to understand coding
  • If you can’t get a good job you need to get another qualification

I have proven most of these wrong in the last two years; the others I have watched friends and colleagues disprove.

Conventional wisdom is dangerous because it stops us doing the things we know we really want to. It stops people who ought to do great things, stretch their abilities on ambitious work and ultimately shape the future of journalism and publishing.

On the flip side, of course, conventional wisdom does have one advantage, according to Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade*: it “thins the herd of competition” and makes it easier for those who are bold enough to forge their own path.

Is conventional wisdom affecting the choices you’re making in your career?

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4 Responses

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  1. Tina Remiz said, on November 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Absolutely agree with all of the above!
    However, there is another important role conventional wisdom play in our lives – they are excuses that make us feel better when things go wrong, reminding that all of the great things described above are not always easy to achieve.

  2. […] Conventional Wisdom and What It Says About Journalism | Adam Westbrook […]

  3. Karina Vasquez said, on December 6, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    As someone about to transition to this world, I am scared shitless (excuse my French, but I am a New Yorker). Your post is not only well written but incredibly reassuring. Thanks for this. Wish I could have you in my ear as a constant reminder, but I will just print this and refer to it in the moments of panic.

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