Most people wouldn't mind having an ideas editor in their life. For Sarah Green Carmichael, though, it's her actual day job: at investing publication Barron's, she works with experts to hone their ideas into stories that readers can benefit from, every day.
Sarah's own story is an interesting one. Like many others, she became a professional journalist without ever obtaining a journalism degree. She also took a step that frightens some students: transferring colleges after her sophomore year, upon finally realizing that her school simply wasn't right for her. The transfer had added intrigue. Her next school was Brown, which offers a unique learning environment packed with go-getter students—but also a famously forgiving grading system that is the ire of anyone who's ever failed a college course elsewhere.
In an honestly wonderful and very fun conversation, Sarah took us through her education and career odyssey, including how she landed a column at the student newspaper, some of her favorite classes (and also one she found totally unnecessary), and why never saying no to opportunities—however terrifying they may be—is one of her ultimate keys to success.
Where do you work, and what do you do? I'm the Ideas Editor at Barron's, the world's premier investing publication since 1921. What Barron's tries to do is give normal working people the tools they need to be much more financially savvy, so they can meet their financial goals, and live a more independent life where they are in control of their future.
And what, exactly, does an "ideas editor" do? I ask experts like researchers and professors to write short articles on subjects relating to business and investing. We work together to come up with an interesting, specific story idea, and then they send me a draft. I work with them to polish the draft and make it as good as we can!
Where did you go to school? Brown University, class of '04. BA in English. I had transferred from Connecticut College, where I never really felt like I fit in.
Why do you think that was? What was different about Connecticut compared to Brown? It's hard to define what makes a school right, or not right, for you. At Brown, people seemed more intellectually curious and engaged and more passionate about learning for learning's sake—a bit more cerebral, I guess. And I'm a huge nerd, so that works for me.
How did you decide where to go to college? I wanted to be in a small city, and Providence was perfect. I had a good feeling about Brown! It was not a very strategic decision. I had initially chosen Conn College because there was a view of the ocean from the main quad—also not very strategic!
What's your advice for students who want to go to Conn College or Brown? When I applyied to Conn College out of high school, I really tried to show: "I'm so well rounded. Please just ignore those terrible grades in math. Don't look behind the curtain!" And then, when I was applying to transfer, I was like, "Screw that. I may as well just show these colleges who I really am—and if that's enough for them then maybe I will be happy there."
I wrote an essay that was much less self-conscious and much more fun and had much more voice. And it was sort of less like the typical college essay of finding yourself in the wilderness, and much more about "Here's who I am and what I actually enjoy doing...I am someone who loves writing, and I probably want to go into journalism. I'm not entirely sure! But that's kind of what I'm thinking?" And that seemed to work.
Schools like Brown care more about whether you are passionate and interested in one particular thing than whether you've spread your attention over a wide variety of things.
How did you display that? What interests and passions did you pursue at Brown? What I loved about Brown was that you didn't have to waste a bunch of time taking Math for Poets or something like that. If you want to take a bunch of literature classes (which is what I did), you can do that!
Connecticut College had all these distribution requirements—one math class and one science class and a foreign language and all this stuff—to kind of become a well-rounded person. Unfortunately for me, being a super-organized Hermione Granger-type person, I was like, "I shall do these all in the first two years and get them out of the way!" And then I transferred to Brown, where there were no requirements.
What was transferring like? It took me a whole year to figure out that Connecticut College wasn't the right fit for me. I was miserable after the first semester and just thought, "You have to give things time, maybe I'm just slow to adapt?" All sorts of people around me, adults I trusted, said to "give it time." Well, you're only in college for four years, you know? How much time am I going to give it?
When I finally decided to transfer, I felt a lot of relief. It's not that I failed to adapt to college. I just wasn't in the right place.
How was the transition once you were there? There was definitely a transition from being kind of a big fish in a small pond to being the same size fish in a much bigger pond.
At Brown, there were lots of smart people. I was getting straight As, but so were lots of other people. I didn't stand out quite as much. I still managed to build great relationships with the faculty I needed to, and I felt much more at home in the classes, in the seminar discussion. Conn had great classes, too, but the students at Brown made those classes a better academic experience for me.
How so? At Brown, the students are really passionate. I remember my roommate, for example, was studying on a Friday night. It was 10 o'clock, and she was still studying, and I was like, "Hey, can we go out? We're 21, it's Friday night." And she was like, "No, I really want to learn this." And I said, "Well you can only get an A in the class are already getting an A. Why keep studying? Let's go out!" And she said, "No, I really want to learn the material."
Even though I loved learning, and loved learning for its own sake, I was still kind of blown away by the dedication of Brown students not necessarily to improve their grades, but to really learn the material.
What were your all-time favorite courses? There is a great class at Brown—one that everybody raves about—called City Politics, with Professor Morone. It's a fascinating look at local city-level politics, political theory, and how political systems work. I have drawn on the knowledge I learned in that class since then. I loved all of my literature classes, which is, I mean, typical, right? You know, writers and editors are like, "Oh, books—books are nice."
I also took a class at Conn College which I loved, in preparation for being a writing tutor. I had been a tutor in the Conn College writing center and I had taken this class to prepare to do that, and I loved that work. It made me a much better writer, but also helps with what I do now, coaching other people to be better writers.
What about your least favorite, most unnecessary course? Do you have one of those? Man, I do. That would definitely be the class I took at Conn College called Introduction to Mathematical Thought. The first assignment was to write a one-page essay describing your fear of math. It was a huge waste of time. We watched a video on fractals and I was like, "I should be stoned for this."
Back to Brown. What's the story with the grades compared to other schools? Or, the perceived lack of them? When I was there, you couldn't fail the class, you would just not get credit for it. I think it was a good idea to kind of try to counteract some of that academic pressure I was talking about earlier.
You have a student body of incredibly curious, self-motivated people, so you don't need the threat of "F" to motivate them. But I think it does make the school seems soft in the eyes of outside people. I didn't worry about my grades when I was at Brown. The only thing I think they should do is maybe use a "C" more freely. I don't know why we care so much about grades anyway.
So I know, like many prospective journalists, you worked on the student newspaper at both stops—what did you do? At Conn, I was the news editor and I wrote a column. And then, at the Brown Daily Herald, I was an opinion columnist. We had another paper, The College Hill Independent, I also would occasionally write for.
How did you get your start at the papers? I think the thing you don't realize from the outside is that these organizations are desperate to have people join them—especially people who might have some clue as to what they're doing, or will show up on time. I had a friend at Conn College, who was the news editor at the paper when I was a freshman, and I kind of just got roped into it. But then the next year, as a sophomore, I became the news editor and he became the editor in chief.
When I transferred to Brown, I think I just wrote something kind of on spec and sent it to them, and they said something like, "You should write for us every week."
What was your professional path after you graduated? At Brown, I was really lucky to have a roommate who spotted a job opening to be a research assistant for a syndicated columnist. I had really loved writing the opinion columns for the Brown Daily Herald, so I applied. It turned out that the job was with Ellen Goodman. I was very fortunate to get that as my first job right out of school.
Ellen was an amazing mentor to me, and she was so supportive. But, after a couple of years, I was kind of thinking "OK, I have mastered this." The job was to be her assistant; it wasn't clear exactly where I would go from there. So, I started freelance writing for the Boston Phoenix, when it was still around. They paid a lot more than other publications, and so when they called—any idea they had—I'd be like, "Yes, I will write that!" I wrote one piece on where to meet men in Boston, which was like, "Ahh yes, for this, I went to college." But that's how you start, right?
Through some of this freelancing, I got a regular gig as a weekly sports columnist for the Boston Metro. That became a regular and fairly high profile thing. Then I spent some time working in a school and working in a bookstore, and sort of being an English major who is trying all the English major jobs at the same time.
After about six months, I landed a job at Harvard Business Review, where I worked for almost 12 years, which was not my intention when I set out. I just thought: I need a full-time job and this seems like a good one, so we'll see how it goes. I loved it there, and I was really lucky to kind of stumble into that organization. I learned a lot.
Did you ever intern anywhere? Between sophomore and junior year, I interned at Harper's Bazaar, in New York City. What is that movie with Anne Hathaway—The Devil Wears Prada? It was like that: nerdy girl shows up wearing Payless shoes at a very fashionable magazine, does not know what she is doing. But that was a tremendous growth experience and a great exposure to the New York glossy magazine world, and just working in an office.
I have to add: I was really fortunate to be able to do that. It's very expensive to live in New York, especially when you're doing an unpaid internship. Internships should be paid. I'm really lucky that I was in a position where I could do that, because it helped me get the job with Ellen later on.
What's the one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out your career? You should always negotiate your salary.
What's the best career advice you've ever gotten? Say "yes" to as many opportunities and challenges as you can.
What are some of the things you've said "yes" to in your career? When I started writing about sports, I mostly only knew about baseball. The editor at the Metro said, "You need a second sport because every sports writer has to have two sports. How about writing about football?" And I just was like, "Yes, okay, I can write about football. Sounds great." And then I went to a used bookstore and bought the Complete Idiot's Guide to Football.
That is an example of perhaps chutzpah that could have totally backfired.
When I joined Harvard Business Review, pretty early in my tenure, they had a podcast and were like, "We need to give this to someone to do." I was like, "OK!" If you listen to the first one I hosted, it's terrible. I sound really nervous. I didn't know what I was doing. Looking back, it was a really good thing that I got over that and kept doing it—because it turns out podcasts are kind of a big deal. When I left HBR, that podcast was getting over a million downloads a month, maybe almost two million.
I just happened to say yes when they offered it to me—when it seemed like it was a low-value thing to give away. So: say yes to everything.
Well, thank you for saying yes to this interview. No, thank you!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Questions or feedback? Email email@example.com