Learn from the worst! The 3 top tips for balancing college and journalism (and the ways I failed at them but still hung in there)

The good folks at the Poynter Institute built a nice list of nine things to help you balance your college life with your journalism life. Of all the tips listed here, I would have to place my highest level of support on the last three:

Take care of yourself.

Learn to say no.

Do your best not to compare yourself.

These are also the three HARDEST ones to really accomplish, at least they were for me and the majority of students I have encountered over the last 20-plus years in higher education. As “Knish” said in “Rounders,” here’s a chance to learn from the bad beats I took in these areas:



Truth be told, I never really took care of myself in the way in which the Poynter piece explains. I often thought a balanced meal was a bag of Doritos in one hand and a can of Coke in the other. I would stock my desk drawers with protein bars and Girl Scout cookies so I wouldn’t starve while working on a deadline. I’d often get light-headed at certain points in the day, only to realize, I forgot to eat at all that day.

“Vegetable” was an obscenity and I only ran when I was being chased. I knew the guy who opened and closed the campus McDonald’s by name and he knew me by sight. After pulling an all-nighter, I’d head over there and wait for him to open up so I could get my two Egg McMuffins and hash browns, which always sounded so good at the time and yet wreaked havoc with my digestive system for the rest of the day. When Big Macs went on sale at 2 for $2, I bought four, eating one right away and metering out the other three throughout the day. I can’t think of anything as disgusting as a 16-hour-old, room-temperature Big Mac. Unless it was a 16-hour-old, 99-cent Whopper from the campus Burger King.

Sleep was what other people got while I was working on a story for the paper or trying to fix its finances. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I told people who asked why I looked like something out of a zombie movie. My friend Tony once replied, “That’ll be sooner than you think if you keep this (stuff) up.” It was also what a few of my fellow journalism students occasionally got in class, sawing logs loudly in the middle of lectures. There was nothing quite as embarrassing as the time a professor in a pit class asked me to “kindly wake the gentleman sitting next to you.”

There’s no “Behind the Music” story here, though. I made it through just fine. However, I know that I was sick a lot more often in those days and illnesses tended to linger more. I can blame my baldness on stress, but I’m sure hereditary issues played a major role as well. I will confess, however, that I was a raging a-hole during that time and the lack of sleep, good nutrition and stress reduction probably played a major role in that. I’m an awkwardly social human being to begin with, but I know I wasn’t making friends and influencing people with that kind of behavior.

Treating yourself better leads to feeling better and that helps you in acting better. In short, you become a much higher quality of human being and most people will appreciate that. At least, that’s what other people tell me…



The “Just Say No” phenomenon was a big deal when I was a kid. I said no to drugs, just like the First Lady told me to, but almost nothing else. To borrow another quote from the 1980s:

Between the standard Catholic guilt and the constant refrain of “this is going to look GREAT on a resume,” I think I participated in about 912 things, all at the same time. In addition, I couldn’t say no to the student newspaper when it needed a story written or a financial overhaul. I couldn’t say no when the State Journal offered an extra shift or an extra assignment. I wouldn’t say no to almost anything that looked like it would give me an inch up on the competition within the school, the job market or anything else.

Years later, I found out from a conversation with a hiring manager at a major sports website that most of those things probably didn’t matter all that much. (OK, the extra State Journal shifts kept me from going broke, but in terms of making me a Golden God of a candidate, none of my actions got me there.) The reason, he noted, was that most people in his position don’t care about what I did or how much of it I did. Rather, they cared about what I could do for their company or their organization.

In other words, working for work’s sake didn’t help a lot. What would have been better would have been a more strategic approach to doing certain things well that would have showcased my talents to the people who did the hiring.

I always felt like I gave my best effort each time I was trying to do something someone had asked of me. However, the more things I juggled, the lower the bar was for “my best” and I usually found myself hampered by a lack of focus or other impediments. I can’t even remember the number of times I was sick with a cold or something, but I took on an extra shift or agreed to stay late at work or something. I was practically mainlining DayQuil or whatever the cheap gas-station equivalent was to keep from hacking up a lung. My head felt like it was floating above my body and I was nowhere near “my best.”

At least once I answered the city desk phone at the State Journal in such a state and forgot where I was, only saying, “Uh… Hi?” to the person on the other end. My editor sent me home in one such situation and I panicked about how this would “look on my performance evaluation.”

The point is, even if you are awesome (which I wasn’t), you can only do so much. You might be able to do one or two or even three things at a top-notch level. However, once you get past that in terms of commitments, you’re going to slip here and there and nothing good is going to come of that.

On occasion, just say no.



If I could figure out a way to get all my students to abide by this rule, I could solve any other problem on Earth, including world hunger and how to avoid getting sucked into a “Real Housewives” marathon for no good reason.

Social comparisons happen all the time, so much so, there is literally a psychological theory based entirely around this concept. I remember reading about psych experiments where people were offered X dollars but if they took it, another person in the study would get Y dollars. What researchers found is that some people would take less money overall if it meant the gap between what they got and what the other person got was larger.

In other words, instead of taking something like $100 and letting the experimenter pay the other person $90, the subject would take $50 if the other person only got $5 or something. It makes no sense financially or logically, but it clearly demonstrates how people get locked into a comparative value struggle and do their best to “win” it.

I’ve seen this way, way, way too many times with my students over the years, particularly at some of the higher-ranked J-schools. If Bill got an internship at a top 50 marketing firm, Suzie felt the need to get an internship at a top 25 marketing firm. If Jayne got a job at a 100,000 circulation newspaper, Bobby felt the need to get a job at a 250,000 circulation publication.

It led some of my best students down the rabbit hole, going after jobs they hated or pursuing careers that didn’t fit their skills. I had a lot of sobbing seniors in my office, complaining about how someone else was clearly better because of a better internship or something. I had a lot of “quarter-life crisis” kids dropping by my office on random week days, asking me if they were wasting their lives.

I get that social comparison is a big deal, and I know it took me a while to figure that out as well. However, you should just do you to the best of your ability. The sooner you figure out that life isn’t perfect for your friends or peers, regardless of how often they self-aggrandize on FaceBook, you can relax and just enjoy the weirdness that is your own path through the jungle of life.


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