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Listen to your heart
If you were to ask me during the early years of my career, “Maria, what is your passion? What do you really want to do?” I wouldn’t have had a good answer. I had a general idea that I wanted to pursue journalism, and I found, almost by accident, that I had an interest and facility in business reporting. But there are a thousand ?dif?ferent ways of expressing those interests, and I was still feeling my way. Luckily, I was in the right place to figure it out.
Landing a job as a production assistant at CNN right out of college was a dream come true. I didn’t even realize at first how valuable the opportunity was. When I was in school, people only wanted to work for the big guys—the established networks. But as I would discover, being at a small, non-union network like CNN allowed me a fuller plate of experiences. At the major networks, you had one job only and that was your narrow slot—whether it was teleprompting, ripping scripts, or floor direction. At CNN we all wore many hats, and I was able to learn every aspect of broadcasting.
What a time to be in the news business, especially at such an energetic young company! The Gulf War was just starting, and CNN was making history in news reporting. It was also pioneering an aggressive approach to business news, with Money Line, Business Day, and Business Morning. I was happy to go to work every day. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do at the time, but I did know that I loved the urgency and immediacy of the news business. I also knew I had a knack for learning things by speaking to people and getting information.
Within a couple of years I had found what I felt was the right fit for me: working as an editor on the assignment desk. That doesn’t sound too glamorous, I know, but I loved it. I wrote and produced pieces for on-air reporters like Kitty Pilgrim, Terry Keenan, and Jan Hopkins, who were the early stars of CNN’s business division. I also worked with Lou Dobbs on his popular show, Money Line.
At CNN I watched and learned from many smart, hardworking newshounds who loved what they did. They knew what they were good at and adapted to a changing news business—particularly during the war, when things were moving so fast. I admired their courage as they reported from war zones in the midst of bomb blasts.
I loved my job and was completely engaged in what I was doing. And then, after five years, out of the blue, CNN announced that it was going to restructure the assignment desk. My boss presented me with the “good news” that I was being promoted from assignment editor to producer on the overnight shift. My immediate reaction was disappointment—not the usual response to a promotion. I didn’t want to stop what I was doing. I was having such a great time, and I was good at interacting with sources and fostering the right relationships to get newsmakers on the air. I was beginning to compile a fantastic Rolodex. And I felt that I was valuable on the desk.
The promotion was a great opportunity, with more money and a better title, but it was not what I wanted. I was very upset, although I tried not to show it. I fled to the library on the twenty-second floor, where I could cry in peace.
It was a big moment of truth for me. Like most of my peers, I had been conditioned to think of my career as a climb up the ladder. The important thing was to keep moving upward, and it didn’t matter how much you loved it as long as you nabbed the better title and the bigger paycheck. And suddenly here I was, accomplishing just that, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t a job I would love. It wasn’t right for me.
What to do? I wandered into the ladies’ room to clean up my face, and as I stood at the sink, wiping my eyes, Kitty Pilgrim walked in. I’d always looked up to Kitty, although she was only a few years older than me. She had broken into the boys’ club of business news so smoothly, and she always seemed sure of herself. To this day, Kitty remains one of the top business anchors and reporters at CNN. I wondered how one achieved such confidence and certainty. I sure didn’t feel it.
Noticing that I was upset, Kitty stopped to talk with me. “Kitty,” I confided, “I don’t know what to do. I love this place, and I don’t want to leave. I’m proud to get promoted, but I think I will hate my new job. Should I quit? Should I just suck it up and enjoy the promotion?”
Kitty was very wise. She said, “Maria, you have to think about where you see yourself in five years. Once you get that picture, then you have to work toward it now. That’s the best advice I can give you.”
It was the first time anyone had spoken to me about taking the long view of my future. On that day, I began to think seriously about where I was headed. I considered what I loved—being in the center of the news, interacting with people from all walks of life, writing stories, reporting. I also realized an aspiration I hadn’t dared articulate before: to be on camera. I knew that as long as I stayed true to my ultimate goal, I could take the new job and use it as a stepping-stone to my future. And that’s what I did—with a little help from the crew.
I took the new job and started producing on the overnight shift, but I now had a larger plan: to build my portfolio and on-air experience. I convinced my boss to allow me to work longer than the typical day. After my regular shift, I’d go into the field with the morning crews and pick up the news and sound bites when the markets opened. I’d write out scripts, and when I was alone with the crew, I’d ask them to shoot me on camera, reporting, so I’d have some clips. I’d wheedle and plead—“It will only take ten minutes. I have a script. Can you just shoot me?” And they were very kind and supportive. With their help, I created a portfolio of clips: “Maria Bartiromo, reporting for CNN Business News.”
My heart was telling me what to do. And when I had compiled enough clips, I sent a tape to several places, including CNBC. I’d decided that I wanted to be where business news was central. And CNBC called me back. They liked my tape.
So one morning, after working all night, I got myself together and went to meet the then top executive, Peter Sturtevant, and Roger Ailes, who had just become the new president of CNBC, at their office in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I could feel that the interview was going well. We clicked. I know you can’t always be sure that your instincts are right about these things, but that day, at the tender age of twenty-six, I thought I knew. I left the meeting so convinced I had the job that I went back to Manhattan and bought two new dresses.
I was exhausted by the time I got home. I had to get a few hours’ sleep before I went on my night shift at CNN. In the middle of a deep sleep, I heard the phone ringing, and I grabbed it groggily. It was CNBC with an offer: they wanted me to be an on-camera reporter. I didn’t go back to sleep that day. I was elated.
When I think back on that period, more than sixteen years ago, I see the journey my younger self took, and the truth I learned has stayed with me. That is, you have to know yourself and follow your heart. Titles, prestige, and money are fine, but if you don’t love what you do, it’s all meaningless.
Control your fate, or someone else will
Jack Welch has been an important mentor for me. When I joined CNBC in 1993, he was the chairman and CEO of our parent company, General Electric. Jack used to say, “Control your own destiny, or someone else will.” (There was even a book about Jack with that title, Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will by Noel Tichy and Stratford Sherman.)
It’s such a basic idea—a centerpiece of success: You can’t go through life thinking that the tide will just move you along and take you where you want to be. You have to swim there. In today’s economic climate, I hear a lot of people saying, “I hope I don’t get laid off. I hope I can hang on to my job.” It’s a paralyzing attitude. You might survive this storm, but what about the next one? Do you want to spend your life hoping that bad things won’t happen to you? I know I don’t want people working for me who are just rolling along with the tide. I want the strong swimmers—and it’s okay with me if they falter sometimes, as long as they’re in there kicking, moving forward.
I’m struck that one of the main characteristics of our time is the overwhelming feeling many people have that they’re not in control. Many high-achieving professionals are sitting in their offices every day, hoping the phones on their desks don’t ring with the dreaded summons to the head office. I have spoken with many of them, both personally and professionally. They see what’s happening on Wall Street—firms consolidating and going out of business—and they’re afraid they’re going to be victims of the cutbacks. I notice two types of responses: Some people feel that they’re trapped by circumstances and there is nothing they can do but wait and hope for the best. Others take action, improving their skills or looking for options in other fields. The big question is, How can you be like the latter group and take control of your fate in perilous times?
From the Hardcover edition.