Advice & Inspiration from Jad Abumrad of Radiolab

By Judith E. Pasek, University of Wyoming

“Gut churn.” That is how Jad Abumrad, founder and co-host of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, described what he and his business partner recalled about their startup efforts. I recently heard Abumrad deliver an engaging keynote address at the 2015 ACRL (Association of College & Research Libraries) Conference. His messages about his pathway to success resonated with me, and seem particularly relevant for new librarians and information professionals. Abumrad said that people often ask him how he became successful. He readily admitted that he had no idea he would be successful when he started the Radiolab program. The beginning was fraught with uncertainty and anxiety—i.e., gut churn.

Jad AbumradAbumrad also said that it took him a long time to find his voice—not just in terms of his vocal quality as a radio host, but also in terms of content for the program. Initially, Abumrad looked to media giants for inspiration, but ultimately, he had to discover his own uniqueness. He also reflected that the first time we do something is not our best work. We improve with experience. And so too, his radio show was not an overnight success.

I think these are good points to keep in mind as new professionals. Recognize that trying something new involves a level of discomfort. We build confidence as we gain more experience in an area. So we build upon what has worked well for us, and refine and improve whatever did not quite meet our expectations. We carve out niches where we can shine as having a unique combination of knowledge, expertise, and skills in our workplace and profession. We find our voice and place in a new environment.

Abumrad recounted how Radiolab content developed a unique style in that it starts by telling a story, then hits a dead end. Later, something will further the story again in a repeated start and stop process. A new story angle is picked up when new information comes to light. But not every idea pans out. In journalism, about one out of every four ideas results in a useable news story. So multiple lines of inquiry need to be pursued at any given point in time. Abumrad said he learned from a professional gambler that odds of as little as 25% are good, because a big win can more than make up for three previous losses.

To get good stories, Abumrad said it is necessary to venture into the “dark woods,” that is, the unknown, every so often and re-experience that “gut churn” of doubt. For library and information professionals, this may translate into a willingness to take on challenging projects and new ways of doing things–and to not be too afraid that an idea may not work out as anticipated. In other words, taking risks is part of the learning and growing process, and a necessary element for advancement and success. Abumrad emphasized it is best to enter the “dark woods” with someone by your side to provide encouragement. Recognize the no one has to go it alone. Find a mentor, partner, supportive colleagues, or confidante to provide moral support and guidance, especially when the view ahead becomes murky.

For all of you embarking on new careers or new career directions, remember to embrace the “gut churn,” learn from your experiences, find your unique voice, be willing to walk into the darkness, and find someone to walk with you. Share your career development challenges and experiences. Support and learn from each other. And celebrate successes together.

Photo above Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Found on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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