The expression is as old as time (or at least as old as “How I Met Your Mother”):
Allow me to offer an exception, starring a budding TV reporter, a veteran newspaper writer, last month’s Winter Olympics, and an easy expression of gratitude.
It is the result — but, I hope, not the end result — of an action I took ten years ago.
In 2004, I had not yet received my current job as a reporter in a major city. I had not yet covered an Olympics, a Democratic Convention, or any major news event. I had not yet achieved many of the successes to which I aspired.
I had barely passed my first year as a professional.
And I was struggling.
At the time I worked at KMEG-TV, the CBS affiliate in Sioux City, Ia., as a one-man sports department. Every weekday I wrote, edited, and anchored a pair of sportscasts; I spent most of my days running around town, shooting high school and college games, and hustling back to the station to put it all on television.
To be sure, I enjoyed it. I had always dreamed of being a sports anchor and reporter, and now, here I was, getting paid to do it. Even in a small market with maybe a few thousand nightly viewers, I relished the chance to inform and connect with an audience in a meaningful way.
But I battled stress the whole time. I grappled with the undeniable culture shock of moving to a “big city” the size of my hometown. I worked grueling and intense hours, often self-prescribed in my efforts to tell great stories and improve my skills.
Mostly I wrestled with self-doubt — the lingering fear that, despite all the hours and effort, I would never achieve my goals on a larger stage. I spent many nights wondering, “Is this worth it?”
And then came a spark.
One night in November, seeking inspiration, I cracked open the 2002 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology, which chronicled the year’s finest sports journalism. Its lead-off article was a piece by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke called “Her Blue Haven”.
It was beautiful. Plaschke detailed his correspondence with an LA Dodgers blogger who has cerebral palsy; the blogger, Sarah Morris, wrote with a head pointer because she could not control her fingers.
(I wrote about my affection for this article, and the Best American Sports Writing series, this past fall.)
I had read the article in 2002 but found it even more powerful, and personally empowering, in 2004.
I decided to let Plaschke know.
Late that night, I wrote him a 500-word e-mail, describing my situation in Iowa and appreciation for his work. Towards the end, I said the following:
Work like “Her Blue Haven” — work that emphasizes, as you put it, “the fight to believe” — is a vital but often overlooked category of sports journalism. The story touches me as a human being, but it also gratifies the part of me that believes sports can be more than just scores, highlights, and recaps. In my own way in Sioux City, I try to carry on that sentiment and tradition, and I find it arguably the most rewarding part of my job.
I pushed “Send” and went to bed.
The next day, Plaschke responded.
“What a nice, nice note, Matt,” he wrote. Plaschke thanked me for my kind words, updated me on Sarah Morris, and capped it off with 12 words that made an unquantifiable impact:
“And good luck in your quest … You are doing the right thing.”
It was just what I needed.
I still remember the complexity of emotions with which I digested that e-mail. I felt grateful that such an esteemed journalist, with an undoubtably busy schedule, took the time to write back. I felt envious, hoping that one day I could mimic the successes, and the opportunities to inspire, of Plaschke’s career.
Mainly? I felt emboldened: to keep going in my “quest”, long hours and self-doubt be damned.
Fast forward ten years, nine time zones, and an even later time of night.
For the most part, I cannot be happier with my journey as a journalist. But I still battle the stresses, doubts, and long hours that nearly enveloped me a decade earlier.
The Olympics provided them all.
Covering the 2014 Winter Games was extremely grueling — an exhausting, sleep-lacking, often frustrating experience that often left me physically and emotionally spent. One night, following a pair in which I had left the workspace on the 5 AM bus, I could barely stay awake at my computer.
As the clock cleared 2 AM that night, I sat in the workspace for USA Today, waiting to shoot a wrap-up for ladies figure skating. Needing to generate some energy, I got up and walked around for a bit.
As I returned, I saw a familiar face walking in front of me.
I had never met Plaschke — I had just seen him on ESPN’s Around the Horn — and I could not be certain it was him. Even in my slumber, I instantly thought back to that e-mail from Iowa. I had to let him know of the impact of our exchange. Despite having just a split second to think about it, I mustered up enough strength to make one more first move:
“Bill?” I asked.
“Yes?” He turned around, seemingly puzzled as to why this beleaguered young journalist had stopped him at such a late hour.
Emboldened again, I explained to him our history. I told him about my admiration for “Her Blue Haven” and my appreciation for his now decade-old response to my thank-you note.
Plaschke seemed genuinely flattered. No doubt tired himself, he stopped walking and chatted with me for a bit, even asking about the recent ice storm in my hometown of Atlanta. Maybe two minutes later, we said goodbye and went our separate ways.
And I walked away with the same jumble of emotions.
I remained envious; I have achieved a lot in my young career, but when I look at Plaschke’s body of work (let alone his 116,000 Twitter followers), I am reminded of how far I can still climb. I remained motivated; even the most driven of individuals can benefit from a little outside push, and I again felt that spark.
But mostly, I remained grateful — to Plaschke, for the grace and sincerity with which he received my compliments, and to myself, for twice taking the opportunity to express appreciation for his work.
And I remained grateful for gratitude. A simple, heartfelt e-mail in 2004, followed by a late-night greeting in 2014, had helped me through some tough challenges and, I like to believe, lifted a few of Plaschke’s days in the process.
Two weeks later, on one final late night after returning from Sochi, I found that old e-mail and reread it. Its author seemed like a completely different person, and yet very much the same.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.