Drake Baer on Pursuing Dreams and Becoming a Professional Writer

After graduating from the College of Media at the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism, Drake Baer spent close to three years backpacking, teaching, and writing his way around the world, after which he landed in New York City. He now serves as a contributing writer for Fast Company and is the co-author of Everything Connects, which will come out in February 2014.

I interviewed Drake in October of 2014 to garner some advice on taking big risks, following far-flung dreams, becoming a professional writer, and creating fresh, engaging work. The highlights of our conversation are summarized below. For more interesting insights on working more efficiently and effectively, check out Drake’s insightful articles.

The Impetus Behind Great Leaps

Drake BaerThough many of us dream of traveling the world and pursuing dream jobs (economic conditions and fluctuating industries be damned!), only a small handful of us ultimately act on our ambitions. Given Drake’s unique position as one of these rare individuals, I asked him to share what enabled him to undertake the arduous and risky challenges of traveling around the world and pursuing a job as a journalist.

Simply put, Drake pursued his dreams thanks to limitations and passion.

Drake grew up in Rockford, a medium-sized Rust Belt town in Illinois, and attended his state school, the University of Illinois--despite his intense wanderlust. As he graduated with a degree in journalism in 2009, just as the economy had tanked, his professional options were severely limited, so he decided to buy a one-way ticket to Prague and become an English teacher.

Though the prospect of teaching abroad required no small amount of gumption, Drake didn’t exactly have a cush career waiting for him. As one of his College of Media colleagues put it, “A degree in print journalism- I should have gotten a degree in gramophones!”

Ultimately, Drake’s circumscribed post-grad job prospects granted him the justification he needed to explore the world and take risks. Had he graduated from an elite university and been presented with several job offers, or entered the job market during an economic boom, Drake’s journey may have never kicked off.

After discovering that English teaching prospects in Prague were quite limited (apparently economic fallout reached Prague right around the time he arrived), Drake moved again to South Korea, where he spent some time teaching English, after which he hitch-hiked and backpacked through much of Asia- China, Nepal, and Turkey included.

Drake acknowledges his sheer passion for writing when explaining his success as a professional writer. After arriving in New York, Drake wrote to, arranged meetings with, and bought drinks for as many friends, family members, and colleagues as possible in hopes of finding a high quality gig. His big break eventually came in the form of an internship at Fast Company, which eventually lead to his position as a contributing writer.

Though Drake doesn’t love the passion hypothesis- that when you find your passion, everything else will fall into place- the amount of energy his passion for writing generated doubtlessly bolstered his endurance when looking for professional opportunities. Drake loves and cares about journalism. He loves talking to amazing people. He loves paying attention to what goes on in the world. There isn’t anything else he would rather be doing.

On Books and Co-Authorship

To many, the prospect of co-authorship is rather vague. Who reaches out to whom? What goes in to co-authoring a book? Thankfully, Drake is able to shed a little bit of light on the subject, having recently co-authored the soon-to-be-released book Everything Connects with entrepreneur and author Faisal Hoque.

Drake was introduced to Faisal’s work when faced with the task of excerpting one of Faisal’s already-published books for Fast Company. Intrigued by Faisal’s engaging and substantive writing, Drake reached out to Faisal, suggested he contribute to Fast Company, then acted as his editor for a few months.

Drake and Faisal’s editor-writer relationship worked so well that Faisal reached out to Drake after his Fast Company internship ended to invite him to co-author his next book. The rest is history.

On the subject of working with a co-author, Drake explains that “writing a book is kind of like getting married.”

As Everything Connects was being written, Drake and Faisal spoke multiple times a day and became close friends. Their healthy relationship played a crucial role in the book’s successful completion, and Drake advocates thinking very carefully about your relationship with a potential co-author before moving forward.

Having co-authored a book, Drake is now contemplating the prospect of authoring a book of his own. With regard independent authorship, Drake recommends regularly bringing your book up in conversation and learning how to present its premise as an elevator pitch, pointing out that Darwin talked about evolution for 20 years before he wrote the Origin of Species. The more you talk about an idea, the more you will be able to strengthen and refine it. If you can’t express an idea to someone in a conversation, it will probably not come across very well in your manuscript either.

Finding Work with a Major Publication

Drake recommends a three-pronged approach to finding work as a fledgling freelance writer:

  1. Get a foot in the door with new blogs created by large blog networks
  2. Attend industry events to meet editors in person
  3. Leverage your personal network

Drake has discovered that one of the most effective means by which freelance writers can get in on the first floor is by closely monitoring major blog networks (such as Gawker, Deadspin, etc.) to see when they debut new blogs. Editors of these fledgling publications are typically very keen to find new writers and will be far more receptive to your pitches than their counterparts at already-established digital properties, which are doubtlessly flooded by prospective contributors.

Though emailing editors out of the blue is not likely to endear you to them, speaking with editors in person may yield to concrete opportunities. Drake has found industry events, such as meetings organized by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association to be excellent occasions for courting serendipity.

Finally, Drake has experienced some success by leveraging his personal network- going to the fringes of his network to find anyone who might have ties with a desirable publication. It was this method, after all, that led to his internship with Fast Company.

How to Discover New Material

As the blogosphere is full of rehashed and recycled content, an ability to dredge up something novel and substantive carries with it a great deal of value.

Drake’s heuristics for covering novel subjects involve the careful cultivation of RSS feeds combined with active monitoring of academic research. He compares himself to a mother penguin who finds fish, chews it up into easy-to-swallow mush, and feeds it to her chicks. Just as penguins masticate food for their young, journalists make dense, hard-to-digest information palatable. The key to offering fresh, substantive writing, Drake explains, is to know where to find the fish.

In addition to creating special collections within his RSS reader devoted to different areas scientific and academic research, Drake regularly checks in with professors and researchers to discover topics of interest and debate within their respective fields. He has discovered many widely-discussed and interesting subjects within academic circles that have yet to make their way into mainstream media. A journalist’s job is to find those topics and be the first to introduce them, using layman's terms, to mainstream audiences.

On Writing Efficiently and Effectively

Though Drake blogged and freelanced occasionally while traveling abroad, his chaotic life and lack of routine limited his productivity as a writer (he agrees with Flaubert’s quip that you must “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”), so he was not quite in the space to pursue his career as a professional writer until settling in New York City after nearly three years of travel abroad.

Though you may have a different relationship with fixed schedules and productivity, it is nevertheless important to understand how your lifestyle and routine affects your writing and design your schedule in a manner that yields optimal results.

Drake also advocates allowing enough looseness in your work so that it can still be fun. He sometimes encumbers himself with so many tasks that he arrives at a point where surfing the web feels more like a desperate attempt to keep from drowning.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed and enduring crazed struggles against deadlines and information overload, Drake recommends carving out space for serendipity and downtime. Saying no to things requires a special type of discipline, but even some of the most engaged, brilliant thinkers in our time (and before) managed to carve out free time, and chances are they were on to something.