I struggle with the Tape, which is my name for the voice in my head that basically screams WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE every time I write something that I intend to publish. I still deal with that voice every week when I’m writing this letter. It’s part of the process.
I have a few coping mechanisms to get past the Tape. The Tab Can Method, which is a simple method for generating a lot of ideas, is one of my favorites.
Once upon a time…
Fifteen years ago, when I was 24 (!) and attending the Columbia School of Journalism pursuing my master’s degree, I took a core curriculum class called Reporting & Writing… One. “RW1,” as it was known.
My hazy recollection is that RW1 was a dull, hours-long weekly seminar. Our professor was Steve Isaacs. He was nuttier than Cracker Jack and a creep, too.
But he contained multitudes and so he also had plenty of interesting ideas. I remember once hearing him coach a (white, male) student who said the newspaper he wanted to work for was in a hiring freeze.
“Eh, they’re always in a hiring freeze, but if they really want you, they’ll find a way. Figure out why they can’t live without you and tell ’em.”
Anyway! I remember sitting in the Computer Lab (remember those?) on the top floor of the “J-school” building on Broadway just south of 116th St., when he put his can of Tab on a table in the center of the room. It wasn’t Diet Coke or Diet Rite. It was always Tab. (Did you know they still make Tab?)
He put the Tab on the table and ordered us to devise 100 news story ideas. Those were the instructions. “Come up with a hundred story ideas from this can of Tab.”
He may as well have asked me for a second installment of the 10 Commandments. Commandments 11 – 20. I was totally stumped.
I learned later that he was really teaching the “5Ws” of journalism – who, what, where, when, and why.
Where do they make Tab?
Who works at the factory?
What ended up happening in that ’80s saccharin cancer scare?
And so forth. I guess Isaacs taught it this way because the Tab should have made it fun. Or, maybe, the Tab could have made it fun, if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with wondering why I would waste my time on it.
I don’t remember how many ideas I came up with, but it wasn’t anywhere close to 100. It was probably more like 15. I didn’t loosen up. I didn’t engage my curiosity. I let my inner Tape lead. I.e.:
Tab?? Who cares about Tab? When the f*** is he going to drop the serious knowledge that I practically sold a kidney to pay the tuition for?
(About a decade later Planet Money created a popular, award-winning series based on essentially the same premise, but replaced “this can of Tab” with “this t-shirt.” Now Alex Blumberg is a millionaire many times over.)
But I digress. Or do I?
Probably the person who is most surprised that Alex Blumberg is a millionaire is Alex Blumberg.
Or IS HE?
If you listen to Alex Blumberg talk about founding his company, he talks about the idea. Sure, he’s worried it won’t work. He’s worried it won’t be a success. But he’s confident enough to explore the idea.
Even when he realizes he doesn’t know how to create a pitch deck for investors.
Even when he realizes he doesn’t know how to name a company.
Like any smart white guy, he found someone else who was an expert in that stuff and had them do it. But he had the idea and he engaged his own curiosity about where it would lead.
And like Isaacs advised… he argued for why his idea was one that people couldn’t live without.
It’s something that cis men – especially white, cis men – learn to do, are encouraged to do, are mentored to do, all the time.
Believe they can offer something that no one else can. Believe that they bring something to the table that is undeniable, and irresistible, and deserving.
I feel myself teetering dangerously toward a lesson that concludes, “If you only believe in your ideas, you’ll make millions.”
Barf. That’s not the takeaway.
Actually, it’s that kind BS leap that keeps white men in positions of power and influence while the rest of us wonder what’s wrong with us instead of poking holes in a system that keeps us in our places.
What I do want to do is leave with you the permission to let your curiosity lead you. You don’t need an engraved invitation but if you get one! (like I did when Isaacs asked us to write those 100 ideas), don’t be so quick to turn it down.
Let your own curiosity lead you.
It doesn’t always (or even usually) lead to millions, but not following it always leads nowhere, and always results in nothing.