Just do the work

What I learned from Bob Woodward. Also, an embarrassing apology at Northwestern University, and 7 other things worth reading today.

When I was in 7th or 8th grade in the mid-1980s, I read All the President’s Men at least a half a dozen times.

(I’m talking about the book by legendary Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate investigation—but we all know that, right?)

I was really into it. I watched the 1976 film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman over and over, too, borrowing a VHS tape from the library in my hometown in Rhode Island.

Fast forward 20 years, wind your way through a truly bizarre chain of events (I’ll tell the story when I have more time one day)—and I wound up working as Woodward’s lead reporting assistant from 2005 to 2007.

Today’s story is mainly about what I learned from him.

I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably. Thanks for reading.
Trying a new thing today: putting this little blurb about what you’re reading a little lower. “Why not change it up?” I say. If you’re new here, why not add your email address below


The big secret

It was only a few weeks after I started working with Bob that his his Watergate-era source “Deep Throat” was revealed to the world, as the former #2 man in the FBI, Mark Felt.

So, I helped Bob quickly write his book, The Secret Man. I also worked on what turned out to be the “big project” during my tenure, his book about President Bush and the Iraq War called State of Denial.

Toward the end of my time working with Bob, a fellow journalist asked me for my big takeaways. I think he was hoping for some kind of magic spell that gets people to talk to journalists.

But it wasn’t that intriguing. It’s simply that you have to be willing to do the work. Most people aren’t.

Final 10 percent

It’s just that easy. You have to talk to a lot of people, and ask a ton of questions, and be willing to be embarrassed or look a little foolish.

You have to put in the time, and most importantly, keep quiet and listen to the answers.

Then, when you think you’ve got everything, you need to keep pushing — because the best stuff always comes during the last 5 to 10 percent of your effort.

I put this whole thing into practice with my own first book: In a Time of War, about West Point and the war on terror. I traveled all around the world, including Iraq, and did 600 interviews for what turned out to be a 300-page book.

(In fairness, I wouldn’t do it quite that way again, though.)

Shut up and listen

There are two things going on right now that have me thinking about these experiences:

  1. Editors of the student newspaper at Northwestern University published an apology after they committed journalistic sins such as: (a) covering a student protest, (b) looking up some of the protestors in a public directory, and (c) asking if they wanted to comment.

  2. The House of Representatives is starting public, televised hearings today to decide whether to impeach the president.

The Northwestern students look a little foolish in my estimation, but I won’t hit them too hard.

For one thing, college is when you’re supposed to make mistakes like this. Plus, you should see some of the stupid calls I made while running student newspapers. (Fortunately that was a pre-Twitter era.)

As for impeachment — I have strong feelings, as I’m sure all of you do. But I’m not going to go down that road, at least not today.

Instead, I’m just thinking about those keys to success: Put your head down, do the work, and be confident enough sometimes just to shut up and listen.

It’s not enough on its own — but it’s essential for a journalist, an entrepreneur, or in a lot of other endeavors, too. If you’re willing to do the work, you have an obvious and giant advantage over the majority of people who won’t.

Also worth reading…

  1. A survivor of the Sandy Hook school shootings and the families of other victims can sue gun maker Remington Arms, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block their lawsuit. (NBC Connecticut)

  2. Nike says it won’t sell directly to Amazon anymore. (The Wall Street Journal)

  3. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who filed a grievance against the league saying teams colluded to prevent him from being signed, looks closer to coming back to the NFL after three years on the sidelines. (CNN)

  4. ‘Days of Our Lives’ has been on the air for more than 50 years. On Tuesday, the show’s producers released its entire cast from their contracts. (It might be a game of chicken to get actors to return at lower salaries.) (TV Line)

  5. A junior varsity high school baseball coach was sued after he told a player to slide into third base. (The student athlete was injured to the point that it ended his career in sports.) (NJ.com)

  6. Two years after hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is still in very bad shape. (Roll Call)

  7. A federal judge ruled U.S. agents can’t search your smartphone or laptop at the border without at least “reasonable suspicion” of a crime. Appeal expected. (Reuters)

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