No corner office can compete with the view that greeted Lauren Steele when she worked as Columbia Sportswear’s director of toughness.
1. When you are assigned to climb an 18,996-foot volcano and write about it, what is your process to juggle the physical aspect of climbing a mountain with the mental aspect of recording the experience so you can write about it later?
You know, I have the easy job here. It’s the photographers and videographers who have it tough! I don’t know how they lug all the gear up the faces and find the motivation and strength to get it out and have the mental capacity to shoot amazing content. For me, I just climb the mountain and stay in tune to my thoughts and the experience throughout. And let me tell you: Trudging up mountains all night and trudging down them all day gives you a lot of time to process what you’re going through. As soon as it’s over and everything is still fresh and at the front of my mind, I write. That seals the integrity of the experience and keeps it authentic. If I write when I’m still sleep- and oxygen-deprived, that certainly comes across authentically later.
2. The competition for a dream job like Columbia Sportswear’s director of toughness must be intense. What do you think set your application apart from the rest? What advice would you give young journalists who are applying for jobs in today’s competitive media market?
More than 3,500 people applied for this job. Many of them were incredible athletes and adventurers. There were ex-Olympians, military, pro athletes, and a slew of accomplished travelers who applied. But what set Zach Doleac and I apart was that we understood the importance of good storytelling. What good is living an adventure tale if you can’t tell it to anyone?
In my interview I was asked, “What makes you the director of toughness?” I know that I’m not the most badass or accomplished athlete, but I knew how to tell a relatable story. So I recounted a first date that had gone awry the week before. I had two skinned knees from a trail running fall I had taken, and the guy taking me on the date was more concerned about getting me Band-Aids to cover up my scabs than he was about noticing my dress. At the end of the anecdote I said, “I realized that my skinned-up knees were just as they should be. They weren’t a temporary flaw; they were a mark of my conviction that we are meant to use our bodies to their fullest capacities. We are meant to continue jumping, spinning, cartwheeling, running, swinging and, most important, falling until we can’t anymore. And I want to be a part of a project that encourages me to get out into the world and push my limits in the craziest, harshest environments and not be afraid to fall.”
Columbia agreed with me when I told them of my first date failure during that interview. In fact, they agreed so much they let me do the same thing with their gear that I do to my knees.
You can’t rely on being the best writer or storyteller or athlete or photographer because there will always be someone better, stronger or more accomplished than you. You must rely on being the best you because that’s the skill that no one else can trump you in and that no one else has. When going for a job, I always remind myself that I’m not a writer and a runner; I’m Lauren who writes and who runs. That makes me instantly unique and irreplaceable.
3. What lessons will you bring from your six-month globe-trotting experience to your career as a freelance writer?
Stories aren’t going anywhere, so you have to go to them. We are losing the integrity of reporting because it’s so easy to sit on your computer and Google-craft your content into perfect paragraphs. If you want to tell the stories that no one else has, you have to get off Google and report them. See places, talk to people, and experience things. The world is a big place where big things happen every minute of every day. Trust me; you’ll never run out of ideas out here.
4. Was there a specific classmate or professor who influenced you while at Mizzou and helped you get started in your career?
Dr. Berkley Hudson has been my mentor and comrade since my first day at Mizzou when I stepped into his office as his work-study student employee. He sincerely cares about the integrity of storytelling and the connectedness of people. His advanced writing capstone class gave me courage as a writer and endless inspiration as a person. He taught me “to write of the heart, not the glands.” That kind of zeal for our craft makes me feel like I have the privilege create something that I am passionate about every day and never feel like any of it is a job requirement. To this day, I reach out to Berkley when I need direction, inspiration or just a good chat.
5. One of the features in this issue of MIZZOU magazine is titled “CoMo Outdoors” and is all about outside opportunities in Columbia. Since you are an avid adventure seeker, what were a few of your favorite trails, parks and patios that you enjoyed as a student at Mizzou?
Columbia is where I fell in love with long-distance running, thanks to the trail system that surrounds Mizzou’s campus. I ran my first 20-miler by connecting the Hinkson Trail to the MKT. When I had a bad day, I would hike in Rock Bridge State Park. Dr. Hudson took our class on a field trip to Devil’s Icebox. Some of the prettiest sunrises and sunsets I’ve seen in Missouri were watched from the cliffs at Capen Park. My favorite “secret trail” was the Ridgeline Trail in Grindstone Nature Area. I never felt like I had to deprive myself of fresh air and dirt even though I was on a college campus.