Love & Wisdom

Clarity: Becoming a Beginner

Change is inevitable. Let’s embrace it.

By Danny O’Neil January 2, 2024

Danny Holden

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

My very public crisis of confidence began with a gasp from Brock Huard.

He was the co-host of our morning talk show at a Seattle sports radio station, and I’d just finished introducing our guest, Aaron Goldsmith, the Mariners play-by-play announcer, as Aaron Goldschmidt. As soon as I said the name, I heard Huard emit an audible puff of disbelief. I felt my cheeks bloom red and I became slightly dizzy as I tried to figure out just what I’d screwed up this time.

“Goldschmidt!?!?” hissed a voice in my ear.

It was Tom Wassell, the producer of the radio show. He sat on the other side of a piece of soundproof glass in what is called the control room, holding down a button to speak directly to me through the headset I was wearing.

Now I knew what I’d screwed up: the guest’s last name. I still wasn’t sure how, though. I didn’t know if Goldschmidt was the name I should have said or if it was the name I did say.

So, I shut up for the next minute or maybe even two. I stopped listening to what was being said and let my eyes wander around the studio before I began staring distantly at a spot on the wall above the window that looked out into the newsroom. I was like a pinball machine that had tilted.

“I thought, ‘Danny’s really going through it,’” said Kyle Brown.

Kyle was serving as the board operator that day, meaning he played the music and initiated the commercial breaks, and on this particular day almost 10 years ago, he was witness to my personal existential crisis.

Maybe I’m not cut out for this … Perhaps I shouldn’t have left my job as a newspaper reporter … What if this was all one big mistake?

In retrospect, that morning was one of my most important professional experiences, not because I learned anything from it per se, but because I endured it. I sat there with sweaty palms and flushed cheeks in a pit of personal embarrassment and professional discomfort. I waited out the self-loathing and the defensiveness and the resentment and after a stretch that felt entirely timeless, I reengaged to ask a forgettable question as part of an otherwise forgettable interview. I continued, and then I came back the next day and did the whole thing again.

It is never easy being a beginner, and it actually gets harder as we get older. We become competent at something, we’re comfortable, and it’s hard to imagine going back to that novice or that amateur, but that can also mean we shy away from finding new and more fulfilling ways to live.

I never set out to be a radio host. I didn’t think it was something I’d want to do, let alone that someone would want to pay me for doing it. But after 14 years working as a newspaper reporter in Seattle, I began doing it on a part-time basis and in 2013 — at the age of 38 — I accepted a full-time gig as a host.

I’m sure it’s possible to become good at something without ever going through some sort of soul-searching struggle, but I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve always had to endure some very deep bouts of self-doubt and angst, whether it was switching from skiing to snowboarding in my 20s, taking a job as a radio host in my 30s or now — in my 40s — as I chart my own path in the publishing world. Each time I’ve found myself wondering why I ever decided the switch was a good idea.

I used to think of this insecurity as my own personal soft spot. A weakness that I was afflicted with. I’ve learned to see that it’s actually a strength. A result of my willingness to take risks and try new things, to immerse myself in those challenges, and the fact that I am able to wade through the inevitable self-doubt and uncertainty is what allows me to achieve competence of something new. Sure, it may get dicey in the middle, but I tend to make it across.

I’ve even come up with a name for that little period of angst: the dark and lonely night. I’ve accepted it as part of my own personal learning process, and I think the fear that I feel may even help me summon a sharpness and urgency that helps me improve.

Now, when I’m feeling frightened by the possibility that I’m not good and may never become good at something that I’m trying, I remind myself that this very well may be my dark and lonely night and things could feel much different once I get through it.

I made plenty of mistakes on the radio after introducing Aaron Goldsmith as Aaron Goldschmidt, many of them much more noticeable. One time, I completely forgot the script of the ad I was reciting, dissolving into laughter instead of reading the disclaimer about the docking fee that could be added to the capitalized cost of a vehicle from Carter Volkswagen.

I’ve been undermined by technology as an echo in my headset made it impossible for me to intelligibly introduce sports journalist John Clayton, saying, “We do have him, the profefefefefe …” and sounding like a robot who ran out of power. Once, during a live interview on KIRO-TV, I had a coughing fit so pronounced, I had to walk off the set to get a drink of water. Even before the segment wrapped.

None of those mistakes inspired the same crisis of confidence I felt that one morning when I flubbed Goldsmith’s name. In fact, I was able to laugh at all of those things almost immediately. I am better because I bottomed out that morning when Huard gasped and Wassell hissed. I faced the fear that I was utterly unqualified for and incapable of doing the job I had, and I decided to keep trying. You know what? I got better.

Jacob Hodgson / UNSPLASH

I consider working as a radio host to be the happiest accident of my professional life. I worked at that station for more than eight years — the longest I’ve held any job — and I believe I became a more open, more honest person because of my time there.

I also became more confident about my ability to become a beginner. I can start over. I’ve learned that about myself. I can choose to move from one job in which I am at least professionally competent, maybe even good, and become a beginner in a whole new endeavor. I’ll take some lumps in the process, but eventually, I’ll figure it out.

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