Deez Interviews: Meet the Poynter Leadership Academy organizer & writer behind “My Sweet Dumb Brain” who wants you to get paid, stay open, and support each other!!

Happy Friday, Deezers! This week’s interview is with Katie Hawkins-Gaar, who writes the most vulnerable and uplifting newsletter on the planet called My Sweet Dumb Brain while also running Poynter's Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, amongst many other things. How the heck does she do it all and manage to just radiate inspiration??? We tried to find out. Enjoy! 


The interviewee: Katie Hawkins-Gaar (follow her @katiehawk!)

The gig(s): Freelance writer, leadership coach and journalism consultant

You spent the first half of your career working as a producer for CNN, and you've now spent the last five years at The Poynter Institute and as a consultant/trainer. What inspired you to go from working directly with the news to working more closely with other journalists and news orgs?

Deciding to leave CNN wasn’t easy. I adored my team and the people I worked with, I was good at my job, and the fast-paced environment invigorated me. But I was also suffering from burnout, feeling anxious from multiple rounds of layoffs, and getting frustrated by a lack of transparency from higher-ups. I tried to alleviate those issues by organizing monthly staff meetings focused on transparency, along with other morale-boosting activities at work, but, ultimately, I hit a wall. There’s only so much that one person can change within a giant organization.

That’s what prompted by move to Poynter. I was interested in sharing those same ideas and helping many organizations adapt to change and improve internal culture. I wanted to help the industry at large, and not just feel stuck in one place. I’ve gotten to work with so many interesting teams, meet so many talented people, and fall in love with journalism all over again. It was a good move.

You've been writing My Sweet Dumb Brain for a year now, and much of it is focuses on your experience with grief following the death of your husband, Jamie, in 2017. What it's like to write about such a personal subject and to get so vulnerable with thousands of readers?

Writing was one of the things that saved me. I started keeping a journal in the disorienting days right after Jamie died — to remember things that I knew I’d otherwise forget, and also to try and make sense of what was happening. 

Not long after that, I started sharing long posts on Facebook. Those posts were meant to be updates on how I was doing, but most of them were pretty raw and honest about the realities of grief. Writing them helped me, and I was surprised as more and more people started messaging me to say that my posts helped them, too. It was a reminder that all of us are always going through something. We just don’t always talk about it.

Starting My Sweet Dumb Brain was a natural extension of my journaling and Facebook posts. Although the audience is larger, I’m trying to approach it with the same spirit: Writing helps me process my experiences and lessons learned, and it’s worth sharing because it could also help someone else. And honestly? It feels great to be so vulnerable! It takes the pressure off of me to pretend I’m something that I’m not. Whether I’m going through a grief wave or feeling conflicted about my happiness, I’m going to write about it. 

I tend to wait to write about experiences until I’ve gained some perspective or gleaned some lessons from them, so it’s really a practice in “controlled vulnerability,” as my therapist calls it. It’d be truly scary to let an audience read my unfiltered thoughts! 

You also recently decided to create a paid subscription model for My Sweet Dumb Brain, a decision that you detail in your latest edition as "putting out the tip jar.” What advice do you have for young creators/media professionals who might be grappling with the same decision — especially when the "pay your dues, get exposure" belief is so deeply rooted in this industry?

It took me a long time to take my own advice, but now that I’ve officially moved to a paid subscription model, I know it was the right choice for me. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Get paid for your work! Giving away our work for free not only hurts us, it hurts other people trying to make it as writers, artists, musicians, etc. “Exposure” doesn’t pay the bills.

  • Don’t charge right away. You need to build up a loyal audience over time. For me, that was writing My Sweet Dumb Brain for a year before introducing paid subscriptions.

  • Focus on the quality of your work. One of the things I appreciate about Substack’s tips on getting paid is their emphasis on the quality of the work, not extra things like incentives for backers. People will pay you because they value your work.

  • Find a partner. I’d be lost without the stellar edits and pep talks from my friend Becca, who reviews my newsletter each week. Also, introducing paid subscriptions means that I can reimburse her for that work, which feels so great!

  • Make time to check in with yourself. Creative projects and side hustles like writing a newsletter can be great, but they can also unnecessarily drain you. Ask yourself these questions every so often: Am I enjoying this? Is it fulfilling? Is it adding joy to my life, or taking away from other things I love?

Last but not least, remember that no one becomes a success overnight, and comparing yourself to others is a surefire path to misery. Sometimes I’ll look at the Substack leaderboard and think, I’ll never have an audience as big as those writers! I may never will. But I also didn’t expect to ever have hundreds of paying subscribers, and here I am. This is something I have to tell my sweet dumb brain over and over: Try not to compare success, and be proud of where you are. 

Based on your experience as the organizer for the Poynter Leadership Academy for Women, what's one underrated piece of advice all women in this industry should hear?

The better you take care of yourself, the better journalist you’ll be. Burnout is far too prevalent in this industry, and technology only makes it worse. The women who attend these academies are high achievers, which translates to them working crazy hours and never truly unplugging. You can see the toll that it takes.

Practicing self-care is especially important if you’re a leader in your organization. There are undoubtedly other women looking to you for cues how to rise up the ranks. If you set the example that the only way to succeed is by working endless hours, you’re perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

Finally, I'm curious about the ways you stay in touch with your own support network, which you've written a lot about, as well as the larger network of women in media that you nurture. Are there specific apps, events, or traditions you personally use to keep in close touch with your network?

Hell yes to support networks! I have a couple of different networks, and I’m immensely grateful for each of them. All of the Women’s Leadership Academy alumnae are connected in a variety of ways — big and small Facebook groups, WhatsApp chats, Slack channels, and so on. The academy graduates, located all over the country and the world, are also great at organizing regular meetups. Any time I get to join one of those, I leave feeling inspired and refreshed.

On a personal level, I’m part of a private Facebook group for other young widows and widowers. It’s been at least a few years since we’ve lost our partners, but we still need a place to put our grief and wickedly dark humor. It’s a saving grace.

Locally, I get together with female friends who are freelancers or remote workers around once a month to talk about our wins, challenges, and goals. (And to drink wine and eat food and vent, let’s be honest.) We have an ongoing group chat that’s super encouraging and always full of podcast and article recommendations. The routine and connection of something like monthly meetups are invaluable. It can be so easy to get lost in our own lives.


“The better you take care of yourself, the better journalist you’ll be.” And on that note, we’ll be taking off for the next two weeks to go on vacation! In the meantime, don’t forget to follow @katiehawk and subscribe to My Sweet Dumb Brain. See ya later, skaterz.