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Ellyn Spragins Headshot

With Apologies To Maureen Dowd

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The first useful trick I learned as an aspiring journalist was cynicism. No, that's not quite right. Off-handed, world-weary cynicism. That was the ticket. "Of course, everyone knows that Madoff is hardly the first upper-crust hustler to pull off a Ponzi scheme."

It's hard to overstate the outsized benefits of adopting this approach in your writing when you're trying to make it as a journalist. The world-weary tone makes it sound like you've been around the block a few thousand times rather than like a 25-year-old who still isn't sure which block she's supposed to be circling. The off-handed everyone knows sneakily invites the reader into the party -- the private, snickering party -- where the writer and the readers pass judgment on the subject at hand.

And, the cynicism, well, that is your all-purpose flak jacket. If you suspect everyone of the worst, you could hardly be accused of being a slouch as a journalist-investigator-bringing-truth-to-light. If you ridicule CEOs, dictators, presidents and senators, you collect a special Brownie point for speaking truth to power. If you sneer, it seems, you prove yourself incorruptible and insightful.

I got tired of it a long time before I gave it up. My litmus test was Maureen Dowd. I confess I used to cackle without remorse over her columns. "Oh, you have to read it," a friend would insist upon hearing I'd missed one of her saturated-in-sarcasm grenades. "Definitely -- I'll read it when I get home," I'd eagerly agree.

Even when I first left journalism, for a job at a fledgling cable-web enterprise, cynicism was highly valued. The single characteristic we all agreed we definitely did not want tainting our TV shows and web sites was earnestness. Gawd no. That would be death.

But there came a day, reading about the Bushies and Dubya and Miss Congeniality, that I began to feel like I was trapped in a perpetual loop of Mean Girls. Yes, I knew that all this high-handed sniping showed how smart we were. But did it reflect one ounce of the truth in our hearts? Did it ever change anyone's mind? Or did it just allow us to gather like-minded snide folk around us like a cozy fleece blankie?

I left journalism to follow a course that allows me to wear my heart on my sleave, a trait that -- much as it is me -- is faintly embarrassing even now. But sincerity, earnestness and hopefulness have slowly won my affection like a down-on-their-luck, underdog basketball team. It's strange. What if...I could stop the sophisticated pretense? What if....I could champion what I believe in without rubbing someone's face in the dirt? What if...I could be authentic?

The women who've emboldened me to cast aside snarkiness are the CEOs, CFOs and executives I've begun working with. They sit before one of their most important audiences -- other women in their company -- and reveal themselves at their most vulnerable. When their marriage was failing. Or they were failing on the job. Or their health was declining. Rather than portray the sanitized and idealized version of themselves that everyone already knows, they are choosing to be real.

I'm still learning. Sincerity probably won't ever make my name as well known as Maureen Dowd's. But even though it's harder than being snarky, being honest is kind of a relief.