Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Many years ago I was invited to interview Thom Yorke, the acclaimed front man for Radiohead. A contact of mine was representing a charity and Yorke was the ambassador. Once we were ready to roll I started to ask some basic questions like ‘why was it important for you to get involved with this charity?’ or ‘what drew you to it?’. This was a way for me to help us get comfortable with each other and get into a rhythm. All I would get from Yorke was a one word answer or a throw away comment that didn’t really add to the conversation in any way. I remember leaving that interview feeling frustrated knowing that none of it was useable. For a long time I would think of that interview as my worst. I told myself it was a crappy interview because he wasn’t an engaged guest.
Here’s the thing, that interview failed not because of Thom Yorke, but because of me. I didn’t do my homework. Don’t get me wrong, I did my research. I researched the cause and I researched Yorke’s involvement in the cause but I didn’t do any research on Thom Yorke himself. I made a rookie error by only focusing on one angle of the story. I had tunnel vision where in my head I only saw us talking about the charity. I didn't see it as an opportunity to dig deeper and broaden the conversation. I asked boring, simplistic questions. I was arrogant in thinking I didn't need to do more than the bare minimum. I just did what I thought I was supposed to do not what I could do. It was like I was "ticking the commercial boxes" as the brilliant interviewer, Apple Music's Global Creative Director and former BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe described his interviews before he started to truly listen and use those opportunities to get to the heart of someone's craft. It was perhaps my biggest learning experience in the in-depth interviewing portion of my career.
Had I done my research on Yorke, I would have learned that he was/is an extremely intelligent man whose thoughts and opinions come from a very cerebral and deep place. He challenges the way we think about issues and about our emotions. One only has to really listen to his lyrics and music to know that. Had I done my research on Yorke, I would know that cerebral conversations are the only ones in which he truly engages. He doesn’t have time for the very basic questions that solely lie on the surface; the questions famous people often get asked time and time again. He wants to dig deeper. He expects journalists to dig deeper too so that his time isn’t wasted circling around questions that don’t really mean anything. It was a signal to me that I needed to get out of my comfort zone.
When I look back at that time I can see how much I really needed to grow up and grow out of that thinking that there was only one way to do an interview. I had to practice the art of "feeling the fear and doing it anyway." A the same time, I had so many questions that I was starting to ask myself about life, about how we find our way through it with joy, grace, and freedom. I was wondering about how one finds their passion and the courage to go after it. I was searching for answers anywhere and everywhere so much so that I started to see interviews an opportunity to learn about who we are and why we do what we do; an opportunity to learn from those who seemingly understood what was going on in the depths of my heart. I found immense relief and comfort in researching my guests and formulating questions. It was almost as if, through osmosis, I was starting to understand myself.
In coaching, there is something known as Key Decisions. We can often trace behaviours, choices, mindsets to an event in our life where we decided something about ourselves based on how we felt and what we perceived to be true at that time. Whether it is about relationships, work, love--our actions and reactions stem from a key decision we made at an eventful time in our past. For example, do you remember the film The Holiday? There is a scene where Cameron Diaz’s character explains why she doesn’t cry. She talks about how when she was young she saw her father leave the family as her parents were getting a divorce. It broke her heart and she cried for days. Then one day she decided crying wasn’t going to bring him back so she stopped. Since then, she built a barrier around her where no one could ever get close enough to hurt her. And she never cried. She made a key decision that day (unconsciously) when she was young that crying never helped her. Now, we know that crying isn’t bad. It is a wonderful release but for people who have associated it with a negative moment in their life, they will decide to never partake in something that would take them back to how they felt that day. Or people who find it difficult to truly open up in a relationship. Perhaps at one point when they were young, their vulnerability was not appreciated or treated with compassion so they decided that in order to protect themselves from rejection it was safer to never be vulnerable.
Early on in my career, I remember I always had a love of engaging in conversations with people and would want to learn as much about them as possible. But two things happened that would dictate how I would interview people in the future. First, in local news it would be very rare where we would get a chance to do in-depth interviews. We had to get the news-making soundbite and then leave to file our story for the six o’clock news deadline. I was young and just starting out in my career. I felt I had no right to express what I wanted to do. I had to pay my dues and focus on what I was told that job needed.
Secondly, I remember a boss telling me once to not focus so much on the emotional side of a story/political issue, that I had to stick to the facts. While I understood why she believed that—and there is a place for that kind of an interview—I also knew deep down that those were not the kind of interviews I was interested in doing. I even questioned if I should be a journalist at all since I seemingly didn’t understand what the priority was in news.
I wanted to explore more human interest type stories and interviews but at the time, I didn’t feel I had the right to ask for it, nor did I have the confidence at the time to believe that I could be an in-depth interviewer as it was often reserved for established journalists. The voice in my head would be screaming, “who do you think you are? Oprah?” And that stuck with me for quite a few years. If I was to dig even deeper, I would find that I was raised to never rock the boat, to always be a "good girl" and do what I was told. My parents, as immigrants and people of colour, knew that in order to survive at a job they had to keep their heads down and not be a "troublemaker". For them, doing what they wanted, or doing the work that comes from self-reflection was 1) not something anyone ever did in their culture or generation and 2) potentially losing out on a paycheque. That is what I absorbed from them and it would take years for me to exorcise that thinking from my system.
When we resign ourselves to believe what others place on us, we accept it for fact in order to be accepted, liked, loved, and even to survive. But there will come a point when our own voice starts to whisper again, pushing us to live according to our own desires, ambitions, and truth. That voice gets louder until something happens that shakes us out of that ‘comfort’ zone. I call it a comfort zone not because it’s particularly comfortable but because oftentimes we seek the path of least resistance for all the reasons as stated above, until we know better. We get to that place of discomfort because what we’re feeling and all that we've been taught to feel or understand isn’t aligned with who we are or who we want to be and staying there is deeply detrimental to our growth. I was in this place for much of my life. It was as the rapper and songwriter Timothy Lee McKenzie, also known as Labrinth, said recently in an interview when talking about how his career unfolded in the early days, "I didn't ask myself what I wanted because I was always accommodating what everyone else wanted."
Knowing what we want, knowing how to act accordingly & proactively takes time and patience. We also have to know the difference between the good kind of fear and the kind that paralyses us. We can get to know ourselves by getting curious about ourself. Really try to understand why we feel what we feel. Ask yourself, 'what do I want?' over and over again and see what shows up for you. Be really honest with yourself about why you want it, what your intention is behind it. Get to know your "negative" feelings such as anger, disappointment, frustration, and definitely fear.
A brilliant way to be an observer of our emotions rather than a reactive participant is to do what Byron Katie described as The Work. This is where we ask ourselves 4 questions any time we are in a situation or belief that causes us to feel pain or anger. They are:
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without the thought?
Once those questions have been answered, we come up with a "turnaround"--a sentence that expresses the opposite of what we believe.
Our feelings both the ones that energise us and drain us are information that we can use to help guide us. They are clues in the jigsaw puzzle that is our life. Our history plays a huge part in shaping us but it doesn't always have to define us. That's our job in the present so that our future is one that is designed by us.
It took a while for me to feel confident where I not only listened to my voice but also used it to claim ownership over my work and how I wanted to shape my career. When working for a large organisation it can be difficult to carve out space for oneself. In places like that and in life, it isn’t easy to have the courage to use our voice but in order to use it we need to first be able to know what we want to say. What I wanted to say was there was so much to learn from someone else’s life that we can use in our own. We learn how similar we are and how, at the root of our existence, is the desire for connection, to have an impact, and to be seen. I wanted to be the conduit for that education. For me those were the conversations that needed to be had especially at a time where so much negativity was taking pole position in the race for our attention. And it was in having those conversations, conducting those kind of interviews where I flourished. Like Thom Yorke, I only wanted to engage in conversations that actually meant something. Through those conversations I found my why. I stopped asking who was I to take/ask for an opportunity. I started telling myself, as Mindy Kaling writes in her book, Why Not Me?
So thank you Thom Yorke. You'll probably never read this, you'll never know that my failure to conduct a good interview with you that day was a great life lesson for me. You shook me out of my comfort zone. In doing so, I found my courage, my voice, my skill, and my strength as an interviewer, and now as a coach. All I needed to do to get here was to fail before I could succeed.