The CNN anchor and author of Amanda Wakes Up reflects on the personal and professional lessons she’s learned over the years.
Many people have asked if Amanda Gallo, the 29-year-old protagonist of my new novel, Amanda Wakes Up, is a thinly veiled version of me. The answer is yes and no. At 29, I was ambitious and resourceful like Amanda, but she figures things out faster than I did. I wish I’d been able to see my blind spots and tackle my personal and professional life challenges as quickly as she does. My learning curve was longer.
At 29, my career trajectory appeared to be blazing a meteoric trail. I was working at my dream job: national correspondent for a new NBC morning show. I’d done so well during my first few months of reporting in the field that I’d been promoted to substitute anchor. I’ll never forget the day the real anchor was on assignment and I got my big break to host the show. When the red camera light turned on, I was so excited that I thought I might spontaneously combust on set. At that moment, it seemed all my years of hard work, of dropping everything for breaking news, being sent on far-flung assignments, and pulling all-nighters in edits room, were paying off.
Then my show was canceled. My dream job went up in smoke and I had no fallback plan. I was devastated. It seemed like the bright future I’d imagined was a mirage. It was a rough year of feeling directionless and alone.
So now, with the benefit of time and age, here are the seven things I wish I knew at 29.
1. Any job can be therapeutic.
One scene in Amanda Wakes Up is directly cribbed from real life: Amanda’s career hits a giant pothole and she sinks into a funk, spending day after day on her sofa in her pajamas. I’ve been there. When my show was canceled, I, too, logged a lot of couch time. My weekly paycheck had vanished — but my rent and bills had not. I needed a job. So I took a freelance reporting gig at a local station that I quickly determined I hated, since all I really wanted to do was wallow in my misery, clutching a box of tissues, watching my favorite soap opera. I was grumpy every afternoon when I had to click off the TV and lug my sad carcass from the sofa to the shower to prepare for the late shift at a temporary job I didn’t care about. But then something interesting happened. I was so busy chasing stories that I forgot how sad I was. I learned that there is a psychological payoff to working hard every day. Get to work doing something, anything, even if it’s not your dream job.
2. Toot your own professional horn.
In my depressed state, I decided that being a freelancer at a local Boston TV station was not a real job. “Why do you always tell people you’re ‘just a freelancer’?” my friend asked one day. “Because it’s the truth,” I replied. That’s when she reminded me that I was working in a job that other people would kill for. So what if it wasn’t a permanent job, she said. I should focus on what was good about it. I should tell people about the scoops I’d scored and how I’d convinced a crime victim to talk when she’d refused all others, how I’d ambushed a con artist, how I’d jumped into Boston Harbor from a Navy ship, surprising the sailors and viewers alike. In other words, she was saying: Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t focus on what’s wrong with the job. Instead, tout your successes, skills, and accomplishments. Play to the positive. Be your own PR agent. At the time, I rejected her advice. Now I know she was right.
3. Don’t be rude.
There is a memory from that year that haunts me. I was invited to a neighbor’s beautiful Boston home for dinner. She was reaching out to welcome the new reporter on the block (though I actually lived under the block, in a small, subterranean apartment). The neighbor suggested I swing by at 7 p.m., which I didn’t think was a hard and fast time, and anyway I was trapped in an edit room working on a piece that was proving problematic. I didn’t have the woman’s phone number or any way to contact her to tell her I was running late. So, when I finally extracted myself from work, I raced to her house, not wanting to waste time stopping for a bottle of wine or dessert. I showed up empty-handed, an hour and a half late. The food was cold and she was understandably annoyed. Suffice it to say, I was never invited back. I felt bad but justified it in my head: “Hey, the news never sleeps. Not my fault!” Today I’d call myself an inconsiderate brat. Of course, you can’t always guard against last-minute work issues. So shop early, keep a couple extra bottles of wine or small gifts in your office. That way when work invariably intrudes, you can still manage to be prepared and thoughtful.
4. Tired of being single? Hang out with married couples.
By 29, I’d gone on dozens of first dates and had handfuls of yearlong relationships. I thought I was practicing for marriage. Today, I know dating and marriage involve entirely different skill sets. Dating involves being witty and charming and making reservations at fabulous restaurants. Marriage involves compromise … something that sounded to me like a combo of castor oil and settling. I wanted to get married but had no earthly idea how to do it. Here’s a tip: Study the masters. Hang out with happily married couples. Watch how they treat each other. When I started doing that, I noticed that other women didn’t need their husbands to be perfect. They overlooked small annoyances. I saw that even after a spat, no one stormed off. The couples managed to stay connected and compromise (there, I said it) their way to a solution.
5. This too shall pass.
When I lost my job or when a relationship didn’t work out, I thought the despair would be permanent. Now I know feelings of sadness and loss will not last forever. You will not be toiling at an unfulfilling job forever. And you will not be single forever. Things will happen. New people will come into your life. That future dream job and dream guy can knock on your door any day. (Spoiler alert: At 33, the women in my book club introduced me to my amazing future husband!) So put yourself out there. Join clubs. Let your guard down. Take emotional risks. Be open.
6. Stay focused on your goal.
Every day you wake up is a new opportunity to make your own luck. Yes, there will be dozens of setbacks along the way. Someday you’ll laugh at all the peculiar job leads you followed the year you were 29. Remember that weird sci-fi show you hosted? How about that fitness series where you had to report in a crop top? (Hey, material for a future book!) You will lose count of how many prospective bosses will say they’ve “decided to go in a different direction” or “to hire from within.” Some of the jobs you want will go to other people. But don’t give up. Your dream life may not happen at 30. But if you keep moving forward step by step, it will happen.
7. Be grateful.
Writing stuff down helps. So, as Oprah says, keep a gratitude journal. You’ll realize even when things look bad, there is still so much to be grateful for (being physically healthy, the delicious peach ice cream you discovered on the Cape, the amazing friends who support you even when you reject their advice). And many years from now, you’ll look back at that journal and wish you could give that younger, lost former self a big hug and you’ll be deeply thankful that she found her way to today.
Alisyn Camerota is a journalist, author, and the co-anchor of CNN’s morning show, New Day. Her debut novel, Amanda Wakes Up, was published by Viking.