Why Missing Out On My Dream Job Ended Up Being The Best Thing For My Career

On December 31, 2014, I stared at my computer, rereading a cover letter I had worked on for weeks. I’d sent it to my mom, my boyfriend, my best friend, and my best friend’s parents, but it still didn’t feel ready. I wanted it to be perfect. I was applying to NPR’s Kroc Fellowship for emerging public radio journalists and knew that, done right, this cover letter would change my life. It did, but not in the way you might think. Growing up, I’d never known I would want to work with audio. My dream was always to become a National Geographic photographer. But as I studied photojournalism, I realized more and more photographers were getting laid off from major magazines. Plus, I couldn’t help but realize I didn’t love photojournalism the way I thought I had. Even when I had internships in the industry, I’d work my hardest during the job, only to come home and spend evenings and weekends listening to podcasts. I’d spend Saturdays playing a podcast with a pen and notebook in hand, trying to deconstruct story elements that captured my attention. Why was I emotionally invested in people I had never met and whose faces I would never see? Narrative-driven audio pulled at my heart in a way photo just didn’t. The problem: I had no experience, and no money to go back to school. I knew I wanted — no, needed — to work with audio. Which meant doing it myself. While my photojournalism friends went on to work at big publications like The New York Times, or to attend graduate school, I decided to create my own “grad program.” Millennial, a podcast about maneuvering my 20s, was born. It was a “thesis” project to my homemade grad school that I would work on between shifts at a restaurant. Millennial was supposed to be a means to an end, a portfolio piece to help me get a job in public radio and to close the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. After releasing the first episode in January 2015, I sent NPR my cover letter and résumé, identifying myself as the host and producer of Millennial. Three months later, I received a call. Out of about 500 applicants, I had been selected as one of 10 to fly to D.C. for an interview. Even though there were 10 of us and only three positions, I was ecstatic. My odds weren’t good, but at least my foot was in the door. When I walked into NPR, my shoes clicking on the shiny floors, panic hit. When I sat down for the interview, I couldn’t connect with the people across the table from me. I felt like an athlete at the Olympics on a bad day; I knew it wasn’t a gold-medal performance but I had to keep trying. When the committee asked me if I had anything else to add, I jumped at the chance to make my last, best impression. “I’m going to work in radio, whether you choose me or not. I know this is where I want to be,” I said confidently. I realize now that I was trying to convince myself as much as those committee members. I resumed my life as a server, making Millennial in my downtime. When I finally heard back from NPR and saw the word “sorry,” I broke down. But as I was falling from rejection, Millennial caught me. After a few days of mourning my future, I had exhausted my tears and immediately started working on the next episode of the show. A month later, my work on Millennial helped me secure a producer position in public radio. Here’s the weird thing: The busier I got at my “grown-up” day job, the more important Millennial became to me. In producing Millennial by myself, in my closet, I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. After seven months of making Millennial and working a full-time job, I reached a breaking point. There were too many nights that turned into mornings and too many 3 a.m. alarms. I had to choose between my full-time job and Millennial. I jumped off the cliff. I quit my “day job,” and began my career as a professional podcaster. A week later, I got a call inviting me to join the Radiotopia podcast network, home to some of my podcasting and radio heroes. I had thought I’d been quietly producing a show barely anyone had heard of, but people had been listening the whole time. About a year after receiving the NPR rejection letter, Millennial was announced as the network’s newest addition. Under Radiotopia, Millennial could maintain its identity. I would still be independent, own my content, and make all of the editorial decisions. This was the dream job I didn’t know was possible. As I step into my closet to record the next episode of Millennial, I think back to that 2014 New Year’s Eve when I was applying for the NPR fellowship, all my eggs in one basket. I thought securing the fellowship would change my life. I never considered how not getting the job could do the same. Subscribe to Millennial, from Radiotopia, on iTunes here.

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