Emmy Award-winning journalist Lu Ann Cahn talks about missed opportunities, conquering fears and the need to look beyond a comfort zone

Sunday, 5 January 2014 - 8:00am IST | Agency: dna

It was almost the end of 2009, a year that hadn’t been particularly special for Emmy Award-winning journalist Lu Ann Cahn. The economy was tanking and the media world as the Philadelphia-based TV reporter knew it was changing. It was then that she started a blog with one simple idea — to do something new every day right through 2010. What began as a self-challenge to escape a rut ended up changing Cahn’s life view. The 57-year-old recently followed her blog with her memoir I Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day. The ‘reporter, wife, mother, blogger, cancer survivor’ talks to Shikha Kumar about missed opportunities, conquering fears and the need to look beyond a comfort zone. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea for One Year of Firsts come about?
I work full time as a TV news reporter in Philadelphia. I’ve been at the station 26 years. I’ve had a wonderful fulfilling career as a reporter, but in 2009 everything was changing around me. The economy was tanking. Co-workers were being let go or quitting. Resources were being cut. My job was changing. I was being asked to adopt new technology and social media. I wanted nothing to do with it.

For the first time in my life, I felt old and out of step. My daughter came home from LA where she was working at the time and saw that I was in bad shape. She suggested I needed a creative outlet; a blog. I didn’t even really know what a blog was. At first I resisted, but I knew I had to do SOMETHING. I finally came up with the idea of doing something new every day for a year as a kind of self-therapy. I started New Year’s Day 2010 with the Polar Bear Plunge.

You have been a cancer survivor. Did that also prompt you to reflect on your life and provide inspiration for the blog?
When I was stuck, I knew that wasn’t good for my head or my health. Not only had I survived breast cancer in 1991, but I’d also survived having my colon removed for ulcerative colitis and part of my right kidney removed because of a malignant tumour. I knew it was a miracle that I was missing so many body parts and still alive. I knew life was too precious to be that unhappy. All of this fueled an urgency to figure out how to get unstuck.

Your list of firsts was diverse: ranging from indulgent (eat desserts all day) to nice (don’t say anything negative all day) to experimental (start a conversation with a complete stranger). How did you go about selecting them?
Oh boy! It wasn’t easy but I had lots of help and different strategies. I kept a running list of first ideas. Friends, readers and viewers and family gave me suggestions. I tried to plan the night before what I was going to do the next day...but sometimes I really didn’t know what I was going to do and knew I had to look for a First opportunity during the day.

Sometimes finding a First just meant I had to say yes to an invitation to do something new. Sometimes a First was doing something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. A change in attitude could be an easy First like give out sincere compliments all day. One day I tried to stop cursing. I also looked for ways to do things for others, like pay a strangers bridge toll.

Which were the most challenging ones? Which ones did you enjoy the most?
I think the most challenging Firsts are the ones that allow you to face your fears. The Polar Bear Plunge may have been the most challenging because it was the first FIRST. I don’t even like going into the ocean in the middle of summer. Getting in a bathing suit and running into the freezing Atlantic Ocean with strangers in speedos pulling me in was so far outside my comfort zone. It still is.... but I did it. And when I ran out of the water, I felt completely exhilarated and thrilled. It was a great start. I knew right then that I was on the right path. I love food, so I probably enjoyed all the eating and cooking firsts. I would not recommend eating dessert all day. Though I thought that would be great, I felt awful at the end of the day.

Which Firsts will always stay with you?
There are so many of those. I learned a lot from spending time in a wheelchair. I now have a completely different perspective on the challenges of the disabled. As funny as the ‘ride a mechanical bull’ episode is, I actually learned something important while I was screaming my lungs out —sometimes it’s okay to let go! That applies to so many things in life.

I think the most memorable might be the day I talked to a stranger. I was challenged by a friend to find someone who looks as different from me as possible and have a full conversation with that person. I decided to sit next to an older African-American man in a park. He looked sad and alone.
He had bags at his feet. I wasn’t sure. I thought he might be homeless. When I sat next to him, his face lit up. I asked him if he came to the park often and he told me he did... more often since his wife died. He had apparently travelled the world with her and had his own business. He missed her terribly. When I asked how she died, he said “breast cancer.” I told him I’m a breast cancer survivor and he just looked at me like I was an angel. Maybe he was an angel sent to me. I have a video of him but I’ve never seen him again. Somehow, I felt that conversation was meant to be. It reminded me how connected we all are if we are open; if we say “hello”. How many opportunities, experiences and conversations do we miss because we close ourselves off?

How did the year change your life?
My life has opened up to so many possibilities and it is still evolving. I’ve adopted all the social media that I’d rejected. I love Facebook and Twitter and I’m curious about new apps that make my life easier. That change is a huge leap for me and made a big difference at work and in my personal life. Also, I still hula hoop, because it’s silly and fun. I love that I can make a really good cake from scratch now and I do it now and then for family and friends. I try to say yes to every new experience I can and when I don’t, my friends wag a finger at me to remind me that ‘no’ is not the right answer. I’m learning and growing again and I’m so grateful I get to share this experience with others now through the book.  

We live in a mechanical age where burnout is becoming increasingly common. Would you encourage everybody to embark on such adventures?

We are creatures of habit. Even if we are miserable on the treadmill of life, we will often eat the same things, talk to the same people and do our jobs exactly the same way because that’s what feels comfortable to us. The thing is, nothing changes unless we do something today that’s different from yesterday. I don’t think you have to get a divorce and run off to another country to do that. Even the smallest Firsts make us feel different and reinvigorate our lives. And I believe those small, new experiences can give us the confidence to challenge ourselves to the bigger goals we have in life. Anyone who feels stuck or in a life rut should experiment and see what a difference first time experiences make in their lives.

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