Outside the comfort zone

Comfortable? Most people are, when ensconced in their own routines and operating in the realm of their individual areas of expertise.

But of course there are times when either professional or personal interests require us to step outside our boxes, take a deep breath and plunge into a setting or topic area that is more alien than familiar to us.

Having worked as a writer for various newspapers and corporations for nearly 30 years to date, this has happened to me on more occasions than I can count. The native curiosity that draws a person into writing/reporting is at the root of this “out of my comfort zone” phenomenon, and necessarily part of the job, as one person could never be a master of all areas upon which one might be called to write. More often in reporting, it’s a fun, thrilling, “permission to be intrusive” sense that pervades, and I couldn’t be more delighted.

For instance, what woman doesn’t enjoy asking a recent bride about the details of her wedding, or teasing the intricacies of a house remodel out of a proud homeowner? Or when it’s time to craft a personal profile, who wouldn’t find the ins and outs of someone’s life and career path fairly fascinating?

The pleasure I derive from such assignments is what led my father-in-law, years ago, to fondly but somewhat condescendingly dub me “Frieda Feature,” a moniker I didn’t always welcome but now recognize I probably deserved.

Still, it’s the unfamiliar, the challenges, the things that bring a stab of anxiety, that stretch and shape us, not the “Frieda Feature” pieces into which I can slide as easily as a fearless toddler scampers into a wading pool on a hot summer’s day.

When Tom West, an early writing mentor who hired me at age 20 as a summer intern at the Janesville Argus, sent me to cover a Janesville city council meeting–and a tax increment financing plan was the night’s primary hot button–I can still feel the panic I experienced when the meeting room door closed behind me and I was left to take notes on a topic I’m not even sure I’d heard of until that very moment. With an expectation that I was somehow supposed to explain the issue in understandable and accurate terms for the general public’s consumption, I quickly boned up on tax increment financing and its implications, particularly as related to the project in question. Glancing at the finished article all these years later, I’m relieved to see it made sense and clarified the questions at hand, though I wasn’t sure I knew at all what I was writing about then.

A year or so down the road (literally miles further east via Highway 14), a stint at the Rochester Post-Bulletin provided many more “teachable moments.” While the editor, Steve Andrist, was extremely supportive and kind to this greenhorn reporter, he and the other mostly male editorial staff nevertheless seemed to take a certain glee in giving me assignments that were absolutely NOT up my alley.

Two particular examples stand out to this day. ¬†First is their decision to dispatch sports-ignorant ME, rather than a sports reporter, to Mankato to write a couple of “color pieces” about the Minnesota Vikings training camp. Yes, really. I recall that tight end Mike Mularkey was generous with a few comments, so even if his stats don’t place him there, he ranks among the Vikings’ all-time greats in my book.

Another was my mandatory attendance at a World Wrestling Federation match at the Rochester Civic Center. I can maybe think of a few things in life I would rather do than watch “All-Star Wrestling,” but I’d need a week to name them. (My then-boyfriend, now husband, however, was envious of this “plum” assignment.) ¬†While I’ve apparently blocked most of that night from my memory, my overall impression was FAKE, FAKE, FAKE.

Here in Worthington, this non-farm girl finds most things agriculture-related (and most things here ARE agriculture-related, with only a few degrees of separation) to be an uphill climb. Discussing HACCP regulations with area feed manufacturers, or correctly identifying cattle, may come naturally to an ag reporter, but takes more effort for a “city girl.”

Still, isn’t it Kelly Clarkson who reminds us that “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?” Going outside your comfort zone, like eating Brussels sprouts, just has to be good for you.

2 thoughts on “Outside the comfort zone

  1. We in the newsroom can all relate, Jane. Thanks for putting it into words for us. I often tell my farm interviews that I will likely ask some stupid questions because I’m a city girl. They seem to get a kick out of trying to dumb it down for me.

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