Sarah Sekula: Five Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Journalist

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Develop as many skills as possible. Newsrooms want you to be a one-man band these days handling everything from shooting to editing to writing. I do all these things now, but I learned along the way. I did not have that skillset from the get-go.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Sekula.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Journalist”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Sekula.

When Maui-based journalist Sarah Sekula is not zigzagging around the planet — stand-up paddle boarding in Antarctica, spending the night on the side of a cliff in Colorado or diving with tiger sharks in the Bahamas — she’s writing about unusual excursions, fitness, health/wellness and extraordinary people.

As a multimedia storyteller, her job is to scour the globe for the amazing and obscure, interview fascinating humans and film and photograph some of the most incredible places on earth.

So far, assignments for CNN, ESPN, Lonely Planet, USA TODAY and NBC have taken her to nearly 40 different countries on all seven continents.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve been a journalist since 1999, but my freelance travel-writing career started 10 years ago with USA TODAY’s travel section. I went to a Society of American Travel Writers conference, and I had the chance to have lunch with the travel editor of USA TODAY.

I asked if she’d critique an article of mine. She said yes. All I was expecting was a few pointers. But guess what? She asked me to pitch her some story ideas. Woohoo!

Believe it or not, it took months for me to actually send her the pitches. I was still working full time at an ad agency, and I just kept putting it off. What were the chances she’d even say yes to any of my ideas? Well, she did say yes, again and again. My travel-writing career snowballed from there.

Years later, I pitched that same editor a video idea where I would host the video. I thought for sure the answer would be no; I had zero on-camera experience at that point. But again, it was a yes. I showed up to a huge media event at Walt Disney World for my first video assignment and, turns out, my videographer only had a background in shooting stills. This was one of his first video assignments, too. So we both learned (and laughed) together. Now, I script, scout locations, host, shoot and help with post production.

Fast forward 12 years later, and USA TODAY is still on my client roster. I’ve worked with dozens of editors, producers, photo editors and art directors since that wonderful lunch encounter with the travel editor. Along the way I’ve added more clients, including CNN, ESPNw, Lonely Planet, Matador Network, Walt Disney World and others.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

A very intriguing email landed in my inbox one day. It was an invite to fly in an amphibious plane that looks a lot like a sports car and maneuvers like a jet ski. I quickly secured video assignments with USA TODAY and CNN and drove to Tampa a few days later. While I was in flight with the CEO of the company (a former Air Force F-16 pilot), he asked if I wanted to take over the controls. Minutes later I was flying in formation with another plane. Needless to say, it was a thrilling assignment. Piloting a plane was never on my radar, it’s just not something I thought I’d be good at. But thanks to that invite, I’m now super stoked on flying.

Can you share the funniest mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson you learned from it?

I was covering a story at Walt Disney World on a super tight deadline. I needed to get some candid comments from a youngster who had experienced an attraction that had just opened. I found someone and approached the accompanying adult asking if I might be able to interview the daughter. Turns out, it was her son that I had referred to as her daughter. Darn that kiddo’s messy mop of hair! Fortunately, they still allowed me to do the interview. Whew! Definitely learned my lesson that day: Never assume anything.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

This year I wrote a story and video highlighting Ryan Robinson’s really rad life as a professional highliner. What’s a highliner? Oh, no big deal. He bravely walks across canyons, chasms and such, usually 1,000 feet in the air on an inch-wide nylon webbing. Think of it as tightrope-walking, but without the balancing pole and with more slack in the line. So much slack that, if a strong wind were to blow through, the line could sway back and forth in either direction. Yeah, that is my kind of story. It’s got everything: danger, inspiration and adrenaline all rolled into one.

I interviewed Mike Rowe about his life in San Francisco. Let’s just say, it was entertaining.

I went back to fly the sport plane again and mastered taking off and landing on the runway and taking off and landing on the open ocean. The biggest takeaways: It’s not rocket science. And plopping the plane down next to a remote beach is the best way to find seashells.

Long-term goals: Write the biography of an inspiring person, write a Sleep Story for Calm (I’m a huge fan!), work on a documentary, write for NatGeo. The list goes on and on. Meet with a TV producer about a travel-show idea I have, swim with whales, wing walking in Washington, visiting the gorillas in Rwanda, grizzly-bear tracking, see a narwhal in real life, become a better free diver.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

One of the perks of being a journalist is getting to seek out and learn from extraordinary humans on a daily basis. I love nothing more than telling a story through the eyes of colorful characters. Sharing with readers the mystery and intrigue of travel is so special to me. Writing about the time I had dinner with Tibetan monks or what is was like traveling through Papua New Guinea or the ins and outs of boating with a narwhal hunter in the Faroe Islands, helps me to remember the experiences.

Chatting on the phone with singer-songwriter Jack Johnson about his non-profit organization was such a thrill; his true passion is teaching kids and adults in the Hawaiian islands to grow their own food. I geeked out when I met with with Jason Mraz and simultaneously learned about urban farming. His organic ranch outside of San Diego produces 30,000 pounds of avocados each year. He sells most of them to a local Chipotle. The rest go to soup kitchens and food banks.

I especially love interviewing athletes. The late golfing legend Arnold Palmer is one of the kindest people I’ve interviewed. Tiger Woods’ late father was one of the funniest. Others include Olympians Kerri Walsh Jennings, Hannah Teter and pro surfer Tia Blanco, just to name a few.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?

Travel writing is not known for paying well. You will want to have side gigs that do pay well.

Traveling is certainly rewarding, but it can interfere with your personal life. You’re on the road often, so you miss things in town like birthday parties and weddings.

Find people you admire and study what they do. If you want to be a TV broadcaster, closely examine how Oprah makes a sit-down interview look like a casual conversation.

Don’t work for free. And read every contract closely.

Develop as many skills as possible. Newsrooms want you to be a one-man band these days handling everything from shooting to editing to writing. I do all these things now, but I learned along the way. I did not have that skillset from the get-go.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

Take a digital detox several times a year. It’s so important to step away from technology. I once went 18 days without technology on a Tahiti assignment. At first I freaked out: What if an editor had new work for me? Would I miss out on opportunities? But by day two I fully embraced being unreachable. I wish I could do this more often.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My first travel story was about human trafficking in India and in the U.S. and what we can do to create more awareness. I traveled to India to meet with survivors and tell the stories.

I took a church trip to Malawi years ago and had the chance to write about a worthy program called Children of the Nations, which helps lift children out of poverty and gives them tools to grow into community leaders and change-makers.

As journalists we have the ability to communicate quickly with a vast amount of people. Writing about topics that can bring about awareness and positive change is one way I can make an impact.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

Over the years I’ve carved out an adventure travel writing niche. As a result, I often fall asleep dreaming up wild ideas. I am always surprised and delighted when an editor or producer hires me to cover these oddball excursions like parahawking in San Diego (think paragliding with a bird of prey following along) or heli-biking in New Zealand or llama trekking on one of Peru’s highest peaks. I’m currently working up the courage to go diving with crocodiles. Mom, I hope you aren’t reading this.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Mere Christianity is a book I like to read every few years. Always helps put life in perspective. Big Magic helps remind me to chase down creative projects. The Glass Castle is an incredible read.

Ok wonderful. Thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Expect and embrace constant change in the publishing world, and be prepared to reinvent yourself over and over. Your favorite magazines will continue to fold, your favorite editors will be laid off, freelance budgets will freeze and unfreeze and freeze again.

2) Say yes to as many experiences as humanely possible. When famed shark cinematographer Joe Romeiro asked if I wanted to go diving with tiger sharks, I initially said, no. Years later I said yes, but I wish I had agreed to this unbelievable excursion earlier!

3) It’s OK to negotiate better rates. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There was one time when I asked if we could get the rate closer to my normal rate. The editor came back to me and doubled the rate. That is super unusual and has not happened since, but wow, what a win!

4) Continually focus on strength training for your upper body. You will need it when lugging camera gear around seven continents.

5) Do a meticulous job of organizing your content. I did not do a good job of this in the beginning and ended up losing lots of photos and videos.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Inspiring young women to be adventurous and courageous. You don’t have to follow the standard route of graduating from college, getting married, having kids and settling down. It’s OK to go see the world, tackle adventures and learn more about yourself first. It’s also absolutely alright to ignore those traditional things altogether.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Malala Yousafzai

How can our readers follow you on social media?


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Sarah Sekula: Five Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Journalist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.