To Find Career and Personal Bliss You Have to Start Looking for It

During the blackout of 2003, the electricity went out along much of the East Coast, but the light bulb over my head clicked on.

I had been unhappy for most of that summer. I was frustrated by a lack of progress in my reporting job at the Wall Street Journal Online, wanted to be nearer to my family in Minnesota and disappointed that the last two guys I’d been interested in lived in the Twin Cities.

When the power went out that Aug. 14, I left my office to report what was happening. Out on the streets, I did what reporters are supposed to do — I talked to people, “real” people, as we call them in the news business. That wasn’t something I got to do every day from my desk at the Online Journal, writing about stock-market movements or spam technology.

I loved every minute of it.

I’m lucky to remember that light-bulb moment, the second when I knew it was time to take control and make my life what I wanted it to be.

I wanted to be closer to my family, so returning to the Midwest was a must. I wanted to own a home within a few years, and finding a place with a more reasonable cost of living than New York City made sense. I wanted to marry and be a parent someday, but needed a change of dating scenery. And I wanted to live in a place where people didn’t need a blackout just to glimpse a starry night.

When it came to finding a new job, I made three lists: one for places I’d be willing to move, another for topics I’d like to report on, and a third for newspapers where I’d like to work.

I ran each job opening I found through that screen. Covering manufacturing in St. Louis? Good paper, but not my beat and probably not my city. Covering health in the North Carolina Research Triangle? Great beat, good news town, but too far from Minnesota. I sent out resumes, but got not even a nibble.

Then, at the end of October, it appeared — the posting that cleared all my hurdles: A job in Madison, Wis., covering state government and politics for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Nothing could have been a better fit — I’m a political nut, I’d heard only good things about the Journal Sentinel, and it was just next door to Minnesota.

To my surprise, I soon heard back from the Journal Sentinel’s recruiting manager. The paper was looking for something a little different, too. The paper wanted a reporter in the Capitol bureau with a fresh perspective on the day-in, day-out dealings in Madison.

As I talked to editors at the paper and prepared to visit for an interview, I tapped some of my long-time mentors: Was it smart for me to leave for the dead-tree medium of a newspaper, when I was doing something new and inventive at the Online Journal?

Their guidance: If I stayed at my job, both the risk and the reward might be higher, but the experience I would get in Wisconsin would be a better base for my long-term journalism career.

But what they didn’t know was that a move to Wisconsin was high risk for me personally. Although it was closer to my family, I still would be more than four hours away from Minneapolis by car. And I didn’t know a soul in Madison.

What I stood to gain was a fresh start.

I got it on New Year’s Eve, when the Journal Sentinel called to offer me the job. I grabbed it.

Two interviews at the paper had sealed the deal for me. Over a meal of tacos and nacho chips with two of the paper’s reporters, one gushed, “I just love my job!”

The next day I had lunch at a Red Lobster with Steve Walters, a reporter who eventually would become my bureau chief in Madison. The more he talked about life in the state Capitol building — how wacky it could be and how fun it is to keep the lawmakers on their toes — the more I wanted to be part of it.

Steve often reminds me of that lunch. He turns to me at our cramped desks in the Capitol, as press releases fly at us, legislators stop by to plead their cases, and the phone rings off the hook, and says, “Remember at the Red Lobster when I told you I couldn’t truly explain this place. This is what I meant!”

And he’s right — some days we almost feel guilty about getting paid for having so much fun.

It also didn’t take long to find the personal bliss to go along with the rewards I’ve found at work. One of the first people I met in the Capitol press room was Colin Benedict, a reporter from a Madison TV station. Steve told me Colin was one of TV’s smartest reporters in town. I guessed he also was the cutest.

At the Capitol late one night, while waiting for the state Legislature to take a vote — this sometimes can take hours — we started talking. About baseball, travel, what made me leave New York, one conversation led to another.

We made a date for a sushi dinner, which happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day. I got to know him better over edamame and octopus, and by the time we hit a bar for a pint of Guinness, I was head over heels.

Like my professional life, the personal life I was looking for wasn’t in New York. It was in Madison. Colin and I are getting married in March and looking for a home to buy.

It hasn’t all been idyllic. There are times when I do miss life — and my friends — in New York. And a schedule centered around lawmakers’ long days rather than stock-market trading hours can sometimes get tiring. But overall, Madison has made me happy.

A few weeks ago, almost two years to the day since I decided to change my life, I was in northern Wisconsin at a cabin with my new fiance and some friends. During our stay, we went for a late-night boat ride to watch a meteor shower.

I rested my head on Colin’s shoulder and remembered the night of the blackout in New York. As the stars fell, I smiled to myself as I realized that all it took to discover such happiness was to simply do something about finding it.

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Career, job