Friday, May 24, 2024

What I Learned About Working With The New York Times


On August 7, 2023, I received an email from Amy X. Wang, the assistant editor at the New York Times Magazine, inquiring about the modern-day FIRE movement and its Fat FIRE offshoot. Amy is a self-proclaimed FIRE enthusiast who has worked side hustles to earn extra money and utilized rewards points to save.

As one of the pioneers of the modern-day FIRE movement since launching Financial Samurai in 2009, I was eager to share my insights with Amy. My goal is to help as many people as possible achieve financial security so they can lead better lives. During our ~40-minute phone conversation, we discussed various aspects of financial independence, including why I decided to retire at 34 and why I’m considering returning to work.

However, as with many interviews, I understood that not all stories make it to print, and there’s no guarantee of being quoted or mentioned. Thus, I considered it a routine part of my day and forgot all about it after a couple of weeks.

Then on April 13, 2024, I received a follow-up email from Amy, reminding me of our conversation and proposing a “day in the life” photoshoot of individuals who achieved FIRE in San Francisco. I was both surprised and impressed by the dedication of Amy and her team, realizing they had been working on the story for at least eight months.

During this period, Amy spent hours meeting and conversing with FIRE enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds across the country to craft her story. I was particularly impressed by the breadth of her subjects.

Even though roughly half of the U.S. population lives in expensive coastal cities and is quite diverse, much of the FIRE coverage by the media has mainly been about people from the majority living in lower-cost areas of the country.

Sending In A Photographer

Given I’ve been writing for so long, speaking to journalists isn’t unusual anymore. However, for this piece, I got to work up close and personal with one of the New York Time’s freelance employees.

For this piece, the New York Times sent photographer Maggie Shannon, a celebrated photographer with over a decade of experience at the New York Times. She has captured images of celebrities like Conan O’Brian, Paul Rudd, and Kristin Wiig.

When Amy, the editor inquired about my availability to get photographed, my initial reaction wasn’t enthusiasm, but rather a thought about the time and expense involved in photographing me. As a personal finance enthusiast who values frugality, I suggested sending her a photo instead. Easy peasy!

Despite my reservations, Amy and Kristen Geisler, the photo editor, urged me to be photographed, so I acquiesced. If they wanted to spend the money and time to photograph a regular nobody, then so be it. It might be a fun experience to share with the kiddos.

Maggie and I then made plans for the weekend.

Realizing What It Takes To Get That One Shot

After much coordination, I met Maggie, and her partner Roy, outside my daughter’s ballet studio at 9:08 am on a Saturday. They had driven 5.5 hours from Los Angeles that morning. We exchanged pleasantries and discussed the day’s photo game plan.

Weekend time is precious time with our children, especially our son, who is in school full-time. As a result, I wasn’t willing to spend hours inside my house getting photographed as previously suggested. Instead, I wanted to keep our current plans with our children, which was as followed.

A Day In The Life Of A FIRE Parent: Saturday, April 20

9:08 am: Drop off daughter at dance studio to say hello to Maggie and Roy.

10 am: Meet me and my daughter outside the dance studio.

11 am: Meet me, my son, and my daughter at Acrosports, a movement studio.

12 noon: Walk across the street with us to Kezar Stadium, where we often go to runaround and race. My wife meets us with onigiri, a Japanese snack.

12:45 pm: Follow us to Blue Heron Lake in Golden Gate Park to go on a nature walk.

2 pm: Follow us to an open house for sale in Forest Hill on the West Side of San Francisco, which I think is the most promising area to buy real estate now due to significant local economic catalysts.

3 pm: Wrap things up and plan for tomorrow.

Approximately 500 photos were taken. Roughly 200 were sent to Kristen, the photo editor for the New York Times Magazine.

A Day In The Life Of A Fire Parent: Sunday, April 21

7 am – 8:45 am: Meet me at Carl Larsen Park where I play pickleball with a regular group of 4.0 – 4.5 players. This was an interesting session because none of us 12 players have ever had flashes go off while we battled. It was also a little awkward bringing my online world into my offline world.

5:30 pm – 6:45 pm: Meet at my retreat, an empty portion of a rental property where I go to write and relax. This was my compromise instead of spending hours photographing us at our house. Figuring out how to keep the kids entertained was our biggest challenge.

Approximately 200 photos were taken. I’m uncertain how many Maggie sent to Kristen. Maybe 50.

After their long weekend in San Francisco, Roy and Maggie drove 5.5 hours back to Los Angeles that Sunday evening. That must have been exhausting!

Despite the extensive effort and expense, after ~250 photos were submitted, only one photograph was selected. This was always going to be the case, as guided to me in the beginning. But it reminded me of the harrowing prospects of getting into an elite university or a highly coveted job. Good luck with that!

Tremendous Effort Must Be Made To Get To The top

Creating a New York Times Magazine article demands an immense amount of effort: dozens of hours of interviews and thousands of dollars in expenses. Competing publications, like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, must invest similar time and resources to stay competitive.

Until this experience, I didn’t fully comprehend how much was required to produce a magazine article. In the past, I sometimes joked with my father, who serves as my part-time editor, when he meticulously spent hours editing my work: “Hey dad! Take it easy. This isn’t the New York Times, OK?!”

But now I understand the dedication needed to excel in online storytelling. As an under-resourced and constantly tired stay-at-home dad, I’m unable to go to such lengths, but I’m inspired nonetheless. Despite my limitations, the democratization of the web has allowed me to carve out my little personal finance niche.

How Much Are You Willing To Work To Get To The Top?

From a photographer’s standpoint, Maggie Shannon has attained the pinnacle of her profession. However, anyone who assumes Maggie’s success came mostly from luck would be mistaken, as I discovered during the weekend I spent with her.

Maggie was willing to rise early, enduring brisk 50-degree weather for nearly two hours to capture the perfect shot of me playing pickleball, despite knowing the slim chance her editor would select the photo.

Throughout our five hours together that Saturday, she only took one bathroom break on my suggestion, even though she was eight months pregnant. She persisted until she felt she had captured the essence she sought.

Maggie’s professionalism never made me or my family uncomfortable; instead, she allowed us to act naturally. And when she felt a picture’s lighting was not quite right, she’d ask Roy to adjust the lighting and try again. I’m sure Maggie made the photo editor’s job hard, which is a good thing.

To achieve FIRE, sacrifices must be made! But once you get there, you will realize the sacrifices really weren’t that big of a deal at all given freedom is priceless.

The NY Times Article On Financial Independence Retirement Early

As a subscriber to The New York Times, you can access my gift article, Your Neighbors Are Retiring In Their 30s. Why Can’t You? without hitting a paywall. At the bottom, you’ll find the one photo Maggie took of me and my children that made the cut. How entertaining are the other pictures she took? I appreciate the publication for respecting the privacy of my children.

I found the main character’s story to be both poignant and inspiring. It serves as a reminder to me that the origins of FIRE often stem from a place of discontent. This discontent can arise from various sources, such as having a difficult boss or experiencing a tragic upbringing, as is the case with the main character, Allen Wong.

The hope is that once you accumulate enough wealth, you can leave behind those things that cause you suffering. Perhaps by purchasing a $250,000 Lamborghini and a nice house as a single individual near Disney World, Allen could alleviate some of the trauma he experienced with his parents.

For me, a realization dawned during my first week at work 5:30 am on the 49th floor of One New York Plaza. Sitting under bright fluorescent lights while outside was still dark, I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure a career in finance until traditional retirement age. I could also only take so much yelling from my English manager.

While I was highly appreciative of the opportunity to work at a top investment bank, I also immediately began planning for my exit by age 40. FIRE enabled me to leave behind a stressful job that didn’t provide much meaning after 13 years. It also helped us become parents and gave me more joy as a writer.

The World Is An Ultra-Competitive Place

Recognize that what appears effortless in the final product often conceals hours, weeks, or even years of hard work behind the scenes.

Take, for instance, my second book with Portfolio Penguin, which took two years to write and edit. After that, it undergoes at least five rounds of polishing by my publisher’s team before it’s ready for the market. Following publication, I spend an additional 3-6 months marketing the book through podcasts, TV appearances, and online channels.

The sheer effort required to publish a traditional book is immense, which is why I now read many books. I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the process.

Even hobbies carry various levels of intense focus if you want to climb to the top.

Recently, I took my wife to the pickleball courts for a post-lunch game. As we played, we encountered another parent from our school who had been there since 9 am drilling with friends. It’s no wonder they’re such skilled players.

Good luck any fair-weather player who takes them on for a pick-up game!

Underneath The Iceberg Is Massive

Underestimating the effort involved in achieving something can lead to frustration when attempting it yourself. Perfecting a pickleball dink requires hours of practice, just as capturing the perfect moment in a photograph demands hundreds of shots. And even then, mistakes are inevitable, and criticism is bound to arise.

Please appreciate the efforts of others, especially creatives who consistently put themselves out there.

It may not be popular to say, but expecting to get ahead while working only 40 hours a week or less is unrealistic. When equally talented individuals are putting in 60-80 hours a week, the odds of success are slim.

Realizing how hard people work to attain success is why I worry for my children. If someone isn’t outworking you in your city, there’s undoubtedly someone else in another part of the world who is.

One of my core responsibilities as a parent is to somehow teach my children grit. They need it in order to survive the future.

In some ways, I sometimes wish I were ignorant of the effort required to succeed. As they say, ignorance is bliss! And I often long for that bliss.

Give your all to whatever endeavor you pursue. Even if you fall short, you will at least experience satisfaction knowing you have it your best.

Finally, if you ever get an odd opportunity that makes you feel comfortable, go ahead and take it. You never know what might come of it!

Reader Questions

Are you aware of how much effort (and luck) it takes to get to the top? If so, does that make you feel motivated or defeated? How much do you think luck plays a part in success, however you define it? What did you think of The NY Times article on FIRE? Congrats Maggie for giving birth to your daughter!

Pick up a copy of How To Engineer Your Layoff, my bestselling severance negotiation book that helps you break free from a job you dislike. If you’re planning on retiring early or pursuing a new endeavor, it’s worth trying to negotiate a severance. There is no downside. Receiving a severance package was my #1 catalyst to break free from finance and change my life for the better. Use the code “saveten” to save $10 at checkout.

Listen and subscribe to The Financial Samurai podcast on Apple or Spotify. I interview experts in their respective fields and discuss some of the most interesting topics on this site. Please share, rate, and review!

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