There was a time I called myself a travel writer. Then the blogosphere imploded and suddenly everyone owned that title, whether they earned it or not. I felt like the years I spent in journalism school and working my way up the chain of command at national glossies like Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly didn’t seem to matter as much anymore—at least not in some online circles—nor did my clip book with a decade’s worth of print bylines. Suddenly, online news outlets like HuffPo adopted the citizen journalism model (translating to undervaluing writers by not paying them) and credible publications that once divvied out $1000 a story (ahem, Forbes, I’m looking at you) wanted me to write for peanuts as they had recruited a new wave of “writers” who would. (I said no. Obviously.)
I could have thrown in the towel then and there, changed careers, gone over to the “dark side,” PR. But I didn’t. I stuck around.
Don’t get me wrong: I have continued to thrive as a freelance journalist, writing more than a dozen guidebooks and hundreds of feature articles for major glossies like Glamour and Redbook. But travel is no longer my sole focus. It’s still a large part of what I do, but writing only that day in, day out started to get boring; it began to feel stale; many publications wanted “watercooler content” that would translate to high SEO value and a lot of page views more than they did experiential, inspirational pieces. So rather than give in, I adapted, I evolved, I created my own piecemeal career of sorts.
Which brings me to my point. In order to rise to the top of a diluted market, there’s one thing you have to be: an entrepreneur. You can’t just be a freelance writer (or a blogger) anymore, you have to be so much more: a marketer, a social media maven, a photographer, a strategist, someone who thinks outside of the box. Five years ago I didn’t have the slightest desire to own my own business. Now I own three: my blog, a digital marketing firm, and an events and production company producing a major conference later this week in Nashville. I began to see a disconnect in the conference circuit—either every event was still too elementary (“how to pick your blog platform,” “how to grow your audience”) or too segmented (travel or family or tech or food, but not all of the above under one roof) or one big frat party that had too many attendees and too much chaos to actually provide value (SXSW)—and so I created my own concept to fill that void.
The result was KEEN Digital Summit, a first-year event that brought 350 “digital entrepreneurs” under one roof in just two days (eek! really?) at the brand spankin’ new Omni Nashville.
But to do all this, I didn’t give up on my dream; I simply reprioritized. I continue to write frequently for magazines I love (like Southern Living), I have sailed three voyages in three years on Semester at Sea’s MV Explorer, I have a stable of web development and marketing clients, I work as an independent adviser for a Nashville-based travel agency, I blog a couple times a week and through it partner with major brands and I’m even managing to oversee the PR for a couple non-profit events in my “downtime.” The big difference from my days working in a New York magazine office is that my day-to-day is erratic but never boring—or the same. Plus, full disclosure, I’d venture to say I make more money now that I ever would have staying on the editor track.
Other industry friends who I respect immensely have pursued similar paths. The extremely likeable but tenacious Annie Fitzsimmons kept a running spreadsheet of all the hotels in the world she wanted to visit, which grew quicker than it shrank, eventually numbering 2,600 properties divided up by continent, country, then city or region. A meeting with Nancy Novogrod of Travel + Leisure turned into her first shot writing for a nationally-recognized travel brand. Eventually Annie parlayed this love for hotels into a regular gig with National Geographic Traveler. Annie now is known as the magazine’s “Urban Insider,” a biweekly column on the NGT website that chronicles her city travels across the globe.
I met another (now well-known) writer, Andrew Evans, many years ago when he was still writing guidebooks, and I remember him telling me his dream was to be an editor at National Geographic Traveler. He pitched them a very compelling series on taking a bus from the magazine’s D.C. headquarters to Antarctica, they assigned it to him, and many stories later, he is more or less the face of the magazine and their “Digital Nomad.” (Worth noting: Neither Annie’s nor Andrew’s big breaks were born out of luck, but talent, persistence and a determination not to give up.)
I receive countless emails from college students each week wanting to “break into travel writing.” “How do I do it?” they ask, as if I will have some magical link with which to provide them that will instantly land them their dream job. The truth: Such a job doesn’t exist; you have to create one on your own, and it will takes years of hard work and a whole lot of sweat equity. But it will be worth every bump in the road along the way.
What my friends think: that I vacation for a living or else sit around my house in my pajamas eating bon bons all day (the PJ part, however, is true). The reality: I’m always working, at least double the hours I logged when I still worked in house. There is no such thing as a “day off” or even a weekend. Even when I’m in the most exotic of locales—something that’s becoming far less common as I sacrifice far-flung trips for domestic meetings to sell my conference—I’m not necessarily on a beach basking in the sun, but rather holed up in a dark hotel room trying to meet deadlines. But I’m not complaining; I chose this life.
And, yes, I do realize how fortunate I am to be in a line of work I find rewarding, to be able to do much of my work from home or to take it with me on the road when I need be. Not being tethered to an office desk allows for far more freedom, even if the work is twice as hard and sometimes half the pay. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I only wish more people would learn to turn their dreams into their reality and not settle for anything less. I’m a firm believer that any career is achievable if you want it badly enough, and I wish more bloggers and aspiring journalists alike would eschew this living-on-freebies model in lieu of leveraging their inner entrepreneur to make for a more sustainable and fulfilling career.