The call from the network news executive came only a year after I had graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He had seen my work and liked it.
Would I come to New York to talk about a job?
It was the dream of every young TV journalist: traveling around the world, covering the big stories. How could anyone turn down such an offer?
The news executive told me to think about it and get back to him the next day for travel arrangements. What’s to think about? For a 25-year-old reporter from a small town in Missouri, it was an exhilarating moment. As I hung up the phone I was excited and flattered that the best in the business had confidence that I could work at the national level. As a young reporter, I was as confident and aggressive as any rookie at the plate. I knew I could hit it out of the park.
But then, ever so slightly, the cautionary voice of my college mentor Dave Dugan echoed in my head: “Know your strengths and weaknesses. …” Dugan had been a CBS correspondent in the 1960s. Dan Rather cited him as taking the future anchor on his first network news story. Dugan’s message to me had always been clear: Have the maturity to coldly assess your abilities the best you can.
A couple of hours later I was sitting in a quiet place with a blank sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle. One side was labeled “strengths," the other, “weaknesses." How would they match up with the skills I would need to do the job? Yes, I could hit the ball, but could I hit the curve and the changeup at the network level?
What was clear was that I didn’t yet have the depth necessary to succeed as a national correspondent. I needed to be a better writer and to write quicker and more concisely. I needed the ability to put national and international issues in a current and historical context so viewers would understand their significance. I needed to understand the broad context of the job and have the maturity to gain the respect of my peers. I also needed to work on my presentation. In short, I wasn’t ready … and that is what I told the network executive in a phone call the following day.
My decision to hold back was the best professional decision I ever made. It eventually propelled me forward. Four years later, after gaining proper experience, I moved to the Washington bureau of CBS News.
It all came back to me as I watched the election play out on the national stage. I could only imagine the exhilaration Gov. Sarah Palin felt when Sen. John McCain asked her to be his vice presidential running mate. What an opportunity! She was confident and aggressive. She was flattered that such a veteran of the politics of Washington believed she could do the job. She knew she could hit it out of the park.
But did she have a clear understanding of what skills would be needed to succeed in the job? Did she sit down with that blank page (and with those who might be brutally honest with her) and coldly assess her strengths and weaknesses?
She was a phenom for a few weeks. But then came that fast ball high and tight, followed by the changeup. She flailed away like the rookie she was. Polls show she became a liability to the campaign. Her probability of success was dismal — a fact that many in her own party saw immediately but a fact to which she was blind.
Hers is a lesson for all of us in professional and political life: Know your strengths and weaknesses and assess them as honestly as you can.
It is a lesson I have found that, if ignored, courts disaster.
In retrospect, voters perceived Gov. Palin’s acceptance of the role as running mate as lacking judgment, both on her part and on the part of the person who chose her.
Clearly they should have begun the process with that blank sheet of paper.
John Ferrugia is a 1975 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and an investigative reporter for KMGH-TV in Denver.