Amanda Lang, Co-Host of CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Senior Business Correspondent for The National and author of “The Power of Why?” lets a love of learning be her guide.
BY CAROLYN LAWRENCE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAINA AND WILSON
Amanda Lang is on. We first met the Gemini-Award winning business journalist at her Women of Influence debut in November 2012, when Lang was recuperating from a very late night covering the US presidential election. You wouldn’t have known it, however; with a crisp suit, bright light and an engaging speech; she was on. She spoke of her passion for learning, her quest to get more Canadians asking why, and the journey that led her to become one of Canada’s leading business journalists and the author of a new book on fueling innovation in us all. Needless to say, we were hooked.
I caught up with Lang recently at the CBC’s Front Street studios in Toronto, where she shared the personal side to her professional success.
CAROLYN LAWRENCE: YOU’VE BEEN NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE OF 2012, YOU’RE AN ANCHOR ON A DAILY CBC SHOW, AND NOW YOU ARE THE AUTHOR OF A NEW BOOK. HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
AMANDA LANG: Well, it’s funny when you get to an age where people ask that question! They are usually young people asking how I do it, because they want to follow. The truth is – the super unhelpful truth – is the last 20 years have really been an exercise in working hard, enjoying what I’m doing and staying open to possibility. And possibilities always emerge.
CL: I’M ALWAYS AMAZED BY HOW MANY SUCCESSFUL, PROFESSIONAL WOMEN ATTRIBUTE THEIR SUCCESS TO LUCK WHEN IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE HARD WORK. TELL ME, WHAT DOES LUCK HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
AL: For me, luck came in a bunch of different forms and there were several different people in my career that took big chances on me, just because they thought they saw something. So what I would say is luck might be something different. [There was] the first person to give me a job, a real job, in journalism; the editor-in-chief who sent me to New York when I was a green reporter who had no business being sent to New York; the first person who put me on TV; and a whole series of people that said, “Yes, we are going to take a chance on this.” Then the hard work that follows after that is living up to those expectations because somebody has risked something on you and you are going to give it 100%.
CL: WHAT IS YOUR TRAINING VERSUS YOUR TALENT?
AL: Interesting, it may be hard to separate the two. I’ve had no formal training as a journalist, my degree was in architecture. I’ll never forget my first day at the Financial Post newspaper – there were three stocks to write about [for their market pages]. I was given 8 hours, now you can’t really write [about the market] until after 4pm so it’s not really [an 8 hour day]. It’s 2 hours to write 150 words each and I thought I was going to die. Now, the Post was really good because it was a smaller, underdog paper at that point. We all had to take the Canadian Securities Course, which is a wonderful economics and business survey. But they also had an unofficial mentorship mentality. For instance, I learned a lot from Dan Westell, a wonderful senior reporter who sat across from me.
So, what is talent versus what I have learned? I can juggle things mentally. I have an ability to have a bunch of different thoughts and keep them all in the air, which makes a live TV show with an aggressive sparring partner a lot easier for me than someone else. I don’t know if that is innate or if that was learned, but I certainly know I can do it. You can’t take much credit for it. It’s just something you know how to do. Being able to process a lot of information at once feels good to me. It feels fun.
CL: WHY DO YOU THINK THE LANG & O’LEARY EXCHANGE HAS BEEN SUCH A SUCCESS?
AL: I think in a macro way the format works because we can introduce concepts that may not be accessible or known, and because we are debating them you learn them in a way that feels powerful. I think that works as a format, but the mystery of why Kevin and I work is a little bit different. We came together quite by accident; I wasn’t even supposed to be on the show when it was first created a decade ago. I weaseled my way on, and then it wound up that Brian Tobin [former Premier of Newfoundland], the third person, left and there was just Kevin and me, and we have on-air chemistry. And what that is, is hard to define, but just like the Supreme Court’s comment on pornography: it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.
I think what people see is that we like each other and we are enjoying what we are doing. Otherwise it could just be bickering and unpleasantness. We are actually having fun, which makes a big difference. And I know he can be infuriating to some people, like my mother, but he makes me laugh. Now there’s a whole range of opinions of people who think that I’m this crazy socialist who needs to be quiet and let him talk, and some people think he is this mad man who repeats himself and must be squashed, and the commentary that I get a lot is you do a great job of keeping him in line and I suspect that he gets the same. That I can be considered left wing is hysterical. I am, you know, fiscally quite right wing, socially certainly centre right. My family thinks I am crazy right, so it’s amusing to me that because I take a counter point to balance him, that it gets cast as the communist role.
CL: LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR BOOK. WHY THE POWER OF WHY?
AL: I became fascinated with the productivity problem in Canada. I am friends with David Chilton, The Wealthy Barber, and he would make fun of me and say, “You can’t write about productivity, it’s so boring, nobody’s going to read it.” He’s right of course, but it’s what I cared about. It’s what we don’t care about. We [as Canadians] need to solve this problem, we alone. We are literally eroding our wealth; our kids are going to be poorer than we are.
And it’s a problem everybody knows about, everybody has ideas about and yet we still don’t fix it. So I started to think about that and it morphed into this conversation about innovation. And the minute I realized that innovation is an individual pursuit and that doing it brings so much happiness, I thought, “This is a book that’s worth writing.” For me, the thing I am passionate about is, if people really take the message on board, it’s just super simple, there is nothing in the book that people don’t already know. Reconnect with what you do and open your mind to the possibilities around what you do, that’s it! That’s pretty simple stuff and yet it’s life-changing. Collectively it would solve the productivity problem and would make our economy better, would make every place of work better. One person at a time, we can make this change. That is what really inspired me, and I am so happy when I see people reading it. If it reaches people, it’s worth it.
CL: WHAT IS YOUR DRIVING INSPIRATION WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AHEAD? WHAT ARE THE THINGS THAT YOU TURN TO FOR INSPIRATION?
AL: You know, this is going to sound funny or uninspirational, but I don’t think of the future in a concrete way. I don’t have a mental picture of it and I never have. So I don’t know what it holds except that it’s important for me to be happy and engaged and contributing. Those are the kind of things I care about. And what that looks like, I don’t really know. I never had a plan and it’s worked out well, so I’ll stick with that!
In terms of people who have inspired me, there are always those people who have that quality. For instance, Jennifer McGuire, who runs the news operations, and Kirstine Stewart are two women whom I look at as amazing role models. They are doing it all. They are making a difference in the world, they are totally connected to their jobs, they clearly care about other people, they are not just people who are into it for themselves. They have this mentality of concern and it’s people like that who inspire me.
When things are hard, like when you have those moments where something happens and it can feel difficult for a little while, what really inspires me is not so much other people but what we do. Like I can always come back to the touchstone of why do I do what I do. And there are days when it feels like, you know, I’m not curing cancer or helping children in Africa, I’m not doing anything really that would give your life meaning. And yet, in a little way, we are contributing. We are doing something important.
Journalism in general is important and business journalism in the past few years has come to feel a lot more important. I had a really hard time after 9/11 – I was in New York [during the attacks]. It doesn’t matter what the tragedy is these days, but tragedy happens and there is a human aftermath and then, at some point, someone asks what is the economics of this? What is the cost of it? And that is not an irrelevant question. It is just some stories are hard to go there. With 9/11, it took me a long time to care again about what airline stocks were doing or what insurance companies are going to do. I remember a producer from CNN actually pulling me aside a few weeks afterwards and saying, “You need to be smiling again on TV. It’s time. The viewers are not tuning in to be depressed.” And I remember thinking, “Yes, he is right. I need to pull it together. I’m letting what I feel about all this come out and that is not my job.” My job is to share information and help people make sense of stuff. But sometimes it’s harder than others.
CL: AT THE END OF THE DAY WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH?
AL: In different ways, the whole team here [on The Lang & O’Leary Exchange] and on The National help people understand the world better, and feel better about their lives, and there is something very satisfying about that. I get to help other people learn things, which I have come to see as really rewarding and kind of fun. I love what I do, but when I think about what I really thrive on, it’s the learning. I get to learn every single day. So you can take the cameras away and you can take the print; I don’t need an audience to do that. I’ve begun to think about what happens next. How do I keep learning for a living outside the work of media?
CL: I’VE HEARD YOU SAY ONE OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY IS LEADING BY EXAMPLE. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
AL: Well, you get to a point, or an age, where you realize that there are people who are looking to you. I’m not somebody who knows a lot about managing people – journalism is a very flat hierarchy, so I’ve never had to think about people who report to me, which would have developed a whole other set of skills. But what I did realize is that there are people who look to me, and so I kind of discovered that my motivation is to do my best, work as hard as I can and give as much as I can.
I expect that of the people I work with, I really do. And people who don’t want to bring it, bring the heat as it were, I find very difficult. I guess I just try to behave in a way that I think is worth emulating.