Listening for when the bow string sings

By Jon Funabiki

You’re stuck and worried. Panic sets in. Know that feeling?

What do you do? How do you get “unstuck” when you’re working on a big project?

That was one of the questions we posed to participants at a recent Renaissance Journalism retreat designed to help them to examine their work and purpose as journalists. We thought that we could all learn something if we shared stories about how we achieved creative breakthroughs over difficult challenges. And boy, did we.

First, there were the myriad ways in which journalists can be tripped up by what we started to describe as “moments of stuckness”—from practical roadblocks to existential angst. Such as: Trying to produce a video story, but being overwhelmed by interviews, data and details. Knowing when the plans for a new Web venture are “finished” and ready to launch. Struggling with an ethical issue while reporting an explosive story. Overcoming a feeling of paralysis because a previous project ended in failure. Succumbing to fatigue and burnout due to the building pressures of work.

I can’t go into details because we promised confidentiality to those who participated in “Purpose & Passion: A Storytelling Retreat for Journalists,” which was held in West Marin in July. (See my earlier blog about the conversation about hiding our identities behind “masks.”) But what I can tell you is that these were smart, intelligent journalists who work on important, sometimes life-or-death matters. In telling their stories, the journalists revealed some great insights about the process of creative problem solving. In fact, we harvested a list of tips—some of them practical, others more philosophical—that can be used by anyone trying to work through messy problems. Moreover, they also offer lessons about how to cope with the challenges of life.

Here, I offer a condensed list of seven of those life lessons.


You’ve lost half the battle if you don’t have confidence in yourself as a journalist and as a human being. You have to put trust in your training, instincts and values. One journalist put it this way: “It’s like jumping into a lake and knowing that you can get to the other side. I’ve been here before, and I can do it again.”


“Ask for help.” You can’t know everything. Make sure you’ve done your research, asked the right questions, dug up the facts that you need and sought advice from wise people who can give you new and different perspectives.

Go Surf

Sometimes you just need to step away from the problem to allow the brain to process. The metaphor “go surf” came from a journalist who does just that when she feels overcome by a jumble of ideas, contradictions and accumulated stress.

Name It

Whether it’s a problem or a solution, attaching a name to it makes it real. A name—like the headline for a story—clarifies your thinking and distills your thinking down to the bare essence. And a good name – say, like “Twitter” – gives you something to market and brand.

Map It

Whether you are trying to overcome a problem or create a new product, develop a step-by-step strategy for how you will make it happen. Where are you trying to go, and how will you get there? The visual journalists in the group said this could be as simple as a drawing on a napkin.

Empower Others

The days in which journalists only had to worry about reporting are gone. Now we deal with everything from how to use Facebook to how to monetize journalism. As your projects grow larger and more sophisticated, you probably need to enlist the help of others who can add different skill sets and capacity to execute your plan. Learn to delegate.

Lead & Love

The journalists began to recognize that our work and our lives are becoming more interconnected. We rely on the help and support of others to succeed. This means that we need to exercise good leadership so that people will do their best. It also means that we need to demonstrate empathy for others and take care of ourselves so that we don’t burn bridges—or burn out. “Take care of yourself,” said one of the participants. “I’ve learned that resiliency is a way to get unstuck.”

That final tip—Lead & Love—showed how the discussion moved from issues of practical problem solving to matters that were more philosophical and reflective. The wisdom of experience shined through. This is what we were hoping might happen during our retreat, which we had envisioned as a time and place for talented (yet often harried) journalists to think deeply not just about what they do, but why they do it. We hoped that the discussions would help the journalists clarify their sense of mission and purpose. Based on the positive feedback we received the participants, it seemed to work.

One of the participants said that when you’ve done everything right, you will know it and feel it. She offered a beautiful metaphor from the sport of archery to describe this feeling. “There’s a moment when you pull the bow back that the tension in the bow string is so tight that you almost hear the bow string sing.”

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