Jason Collins, and why storytellers succeed by breaking routine

He has been analyzed and over-analyzed.

In the past two weeks, a wide swath of writers, bloggers, broadcasters, and pundits have dissected the words of Jason Collins, who became the first American active male pro athlete to come out as gay.

But very few of them have addressed the paragraph that stood out most to me.

It is perhaps an afterthought in light of Collins’ many revelations in his Sports Illustrated article, but early on the NBA center talks about what made him decide to come out now.

Why am I coming out now? Well, I started thinking about this in 2011 during the NBA player lockout. I’m a creature of routine. When the regular season ends I immediately dedicate myself to getting game ready for the opener of the next campaign in the fall. But the lockout wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want. With the season delayed, I trained and worked out. But I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided.

Think about that for a second. Collins essentially put off making a major life decision because he became stuck in a routine.

He is, of course, not the only one. How many times in our lives do we put off potentially troubling decisions because we do not want to break our everyday patterns? After all, thinking critically about oneself is a difficult task; it takes effort, humility, and the ability to admit that our current routines may not always be the correct ones.

We all fall prey to this line of thinking.

And that is why we all should take a cue from Collins.

The center’s life has changed immensely since the NBA lockout of 2011, when he was forced to shake up his routine. He came out first to his relatives; nearly two years after the lockout, he came out to the world.

I think it’s fair to say he is thankful for that shake-up in his routine.

Anyone can learn from Collins’ revelation, and that of course includes storytellers. The world of journalism is filled with inborn pressures, from day-to-day deadlines to the demand for constant content. Amid the many responsibilities that fill our days, we rarely have the time to take the occasional step back.

But often, when we take that step back, we learn something new.

The journalists I admire never become complacent; they watch the work of others, pick up new techniques, and press themselves to improve as storytellers. I have always sought out colleagues who I knew could teach me something, and I have always given advice and critiques to those who asked for them. I respect that restlessness, that desire to always re-examine one’s abilities and performance.

Beyond that, I make an honest effort now on a daily basis to approach each story differently. Before I head out the door and launch into my day, I take a step back and try to figure out how I can best approach my story.

I am reminded of a great observation made by Ed Kilgore, the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Famer, in our most recent podcast. He remarked on how his outlook on life has greatly changed since he took a big leap and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

“It was a life-changing experience because it was so difficult to do,” Kilgore told me. “The end result of it was, I got this feeling that won’t go away.”

That feeling, Kilgore said, led him to write a book and ultimately take a new job — all after the age of 60.

The lesson he learned? “Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something that’s hard to do, and the result will be well worth it.”

You don’t need to climb a mountain to do something hard. Sometimes, taking a step back in your day-to-day life is difficult enough.

But, for anyone looking to grow as a journalist or storyteller, the result of doing so is indeed well worth it.


Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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