Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Sheetz, Space Reporter at CNBC. Originally recorded on October 25, 2022. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
Transcript – #155 Michael Sheetz, Space Reporter at CNBC: Favorite Books, Lessons Learned as a Reporter, Superpowers, and More
Daniel Scrivner (00:00):
Michael, I am so thrilled to have you on 20 Minute Playbook. Thank you so much for joining me and for coming on.
Michael Sheetz (00:04):
Thanks. I'm really grateful to be here and excited to chat with you.
Daniel Scrivner (00:09):
Excited to have you on. I always love to start with a recent obsession or fascination. You're constantly focused on the world of outer space, so it doesn't have to be space related. But I'm curious, what's on your mind, what's capturing your attention at the moment?
Michael Sheetz (00:23):
Well, I'll give you one space thing and one non-space thing. So one space thing that's been very fascinating recently, especially in the last couple months, with all these private passengers that have been flying to space, we had 46 in just over the last 12 months. That's an incredible number. Starting the change of the game, the human health aspects of space flight, I'm very fascinated by. And just about how little we know. ,I was just seeing the other day, the Polaris program put out the list of scientific research and experiments they're going to be conducting during the Polaris Don Mission, and one of them was figuring out how to do CPR inside of SpaceX's Dragon Capsule. Didn't know that you didn't have a process set up for that. Also, it never conceptualized what that process would look like and realized that of course you would need to possibly do CPR while on a multi-day space flight.
And that was one thing that has been fascinating to me is all the little things where we actually don't know how to solve this problem in space. And it's such a wide range because human health is such a fragile and specific thing to each person and it changes. When you take out gravity and you're in this weird different environment, you're being exposed to lots more radiation and other things, what happens to the human body? How do you survive? I think that's a really fascinating question. It's not really super pertinent to my job, it's more something I'm just trying to keep in mind and read up a little bit more about.
The non-space thing that I'm super fascinated by, and this is more relevant because of the World Cup coming up, which is just the amount of money flowing around European football, whether it's the clubs, whether it's the national teams, the corruption around the World Cup, the fact that it's been pervasive for a long, long time, whether it's FIFA, UEFA, all these other major footballing organizations, and how that side of the world does business. The business of football, the business of these, if you will, bragging rights to hosting something like the World Cup, and what goes beyond behind the scenes. So that's been something really interesting to read up on. There's a number of different podcasts and good research out there, especially in the lead up to the World Cup that I've been familiarizing myself with because I find it really interesting.
Daniel Scrivner (02:42):
That's fascinating. I love the CPR in outer space. I too have never thought about what it would take to actually try to do CPR in zero Gs, and I imagine it's going to be challenging.
Michael Sheetz (02:52):
It's not going to be easy for sure. So you don't want to send someone flying across the spacecraft while you're trying to get something out of their throat.
Daniel Scrivner (02:59):
No, I don't think that's probably going to be a net health positive. Moving on, you're an incredibly well respected journalist for CNBC. I've had on a number of space focused CEOs, whether Dylan Taylor at Voyager Space Holdings, Daliana Varder they've all spoken very highly of you. So one of the questions I wanted to ask is, what are some of the biggest lessons you've learned as a journalist? I think journalism as a profession, if you're not a journalist, you're constantly reading what journalists are creating and yet you don't really know what that life is like. And then the second part of that is, how has being a journalist changed the way you see the world? I imagine it's a switch that once you switch it on, can't really switch it off in your day to day life.
Michael Sheetz (03:37):
So first of all, I want to say thank you. I really appreciate those kind words and I'm very grateful for the respect that people have shown me in the industry and the respect that I've gained. I think that's a huge piece of being a journalist is you have to earn your respect every day and you have to earn the trust of your readers. If your readers don't trust you, they don't understand, they're not willing to read what you're writing and they're not really willing to take it seriously. So that's a huge aspect of it. I'd say one thing that I learned along the way that, part of being a journalist, it's not necessarily specific to the space industry, but the importance of being fast is critically important in the digital era. You need to be quick, you need to have news out within minutes of it being announced or ideally before it's even announced. And you need to be accurate. Because if you do one without the other, you're either fast and you're sloppy or you're missing parts of the story or you're slow and the good work you're doing isn't being read.
So the marketing aspect of making sure I'm using Twitter and LinkedIn and the social branding tools that I can to take this story that I worked hard on and then push it out there to the world for as many people as possible to see it, is such a skill that I've developed and really honed over the years. And I think I'm still learning all the time about what platforms I can utilize to reach a broader audience. But that's one thing that has been incredible about learning to be a journalist while at CNBC. I've spent effectively my entire career here since being an intern, working my way up. And the mentorships that I've had along the way and the people who have taught me so much about what it's like to be not just a fast, hard hitting journalist, but a respected and understood and someone who really understands the topic area that they're diving into. Trying to balance those two things in cohesion with each other has been a really huge aspect of what I've learned over the way.
Daniel Scrivner (05:39):
And I would encourage anyone that's not following you to follow you on Twitter, because you are... I would say there's many journalists that share what they write. You are prolific. And so honestly, the way I treat following you is you're probably the highest signal account that I follow just for anything space related. So for anyone listening plus one to everything you say, I highly encourage people to follow you.
Michael Sheetz (05:59):
Thank you for the plug. I really appreciate that. I'm trying to condense it a little bit. We just launched my weekly newsletter a couple weeks ago and we're getting that underway. Because I had some feedback from people on my tweets actually, who were like, look, we love your tweets, we love the fact that you're so in touch. Even if it's not an article you're publishing yourself, it's a press release with something that someone should know about the industry. But sometimes it's a little too much and I can't go back through all of your tweets in a given week. And they're like, can you put this in a single place? And so that's where the newsletter idea came out of. For the people who just want one weekly update on everything that happened in the industry, probably a lot of stuff that I tweeted about, it's going to be in that weekly email.
Daniel Scrivner (06:41):
Well totally. And they can follow you on Twitter and get exposed to the fast flowing water of everything that you're sharing, or they can wait and bucket it and read it one time per week. We will link to all that in the show notes so for anyone interested, you can find that at outlieracademy.com. One of the things I wanted to ask is what you wish someone sat you down and told you before becoming a journalist or before deciding to focus on the intersection of space in business. And what I'm asking there is what do you wish you knew before you got started that you knew now?
Michael Sheetz (07:11):
Two things. One, I wish I knew how much fun it was going to be and how many unbelievable experiences I would be able to have along the way. I've gotten to watch astronauts on historic missions flying into space with my own eyes, a few miles away from the rocket launching. I've gotten to step inside of these amazing factories with people, all different types and mentalities, the way they're approaching new generations of manufacturing. I've gotten to speak to some incredible executives, founders. I'm in touch with everyone from bankers all the way down to engineers, who are all just in this in different respects.
And they're all so important to me and that's an incredible piece of what I'm exposed to as a reporter all the time. It's an amazing experience that so often which I'll come home from a trip and I'll tell my wife about it. I'm like, I cannot believe I just had this experience. So I wish someone had told me that it would be as much fun as it has been. The other thing I wish people would've told me is that there really isn't a set time of when I log in and when to log out. There is no nine to five aspect of being a reporter, especially being a Beat reporter. When news is happening around the world, that's when I need to be writing about it.
And that's something that I've had to learn how to recognize like, you know what? I also personally need to take some breaks and be like, I'm not going to cover this story for my own mental health and personal health. But then also just recognizing, it's important to be as connected and in the know as possible along the way. And the lack of a set time that I'm working any given week is both a good and a bad thing. It can be bad because I can work myself to the bone on some weight, and it can be good on others where I get to work on longer term projects and different ideas and different programs that we're developing along the way. And so there's this unique flexibility there that I didn't expect that I wish people would've braced me for a little.
Daniel Scrivner (09:14):
That's so cool. If people listening could shadow you for a day from the moment you wake up until you go to bed, as creepy as that might be, what do you think they would be most surprised by? You just talked about this always on nature of what you do, what's unique about how you work or how you approach work in life?
Michael Sheetz (09:28):
Hopefully nothing about my personal hygiene would be surprising to anybody. I try to say good care of myself. But no, I'd say the thing that they'd be maybe surprised the most about is that my day to day is not space obsessed. I try to take as much time to myself, surfboard over my shoulder gives an idea. I was just surfing yesterday evening out here in the Rockaways in Brooklyn. I try to take some time to do surfing, I do sim racing with some of my friends, I watch Premier League soccer. I play a lot of different sports myself. I'm always trying to be both active and also take trips and time to myself. I hope in shadowing me on a daily basis. They'd be like, "Less of Michael's daily life is just about space all the time." As much as that might be my persona for a CNBC's reporter, that isn't necessarily my personal life. So I think that might surprise some people.
Daniel Scrivner (10:22):
I'm sure that's probably a great way of also balancing out just how much you have to work in order to do what you do at CNBC.
Michael Sheetz (10:28):
Certainly. It's a huge aspect of it, and you need to be able to give yourself breaks. It's something that I certainly had to learn early on in my career where I was facing these walls of burnout and feeling like, how am I going to just keep going on this path and recognizing, you know what? I actually just need to put my phone away. A huge aspect and a very simple thing that changed things for me was having a personal phone and a work phone that are completely bifurcated, both software and hardware. So when I don't have my work phone on me, I can't look at emails and stuff from CNBC or from The Space Beat. And so that's been a huge aspect of it, is physically turning that over and being like, this is not what I'm focused on right now, I'm stepping away from that.
Daniel Scrivner (11:13):
I hope as soon as you get home, your wife says, give me that work phone and she puts it away. And I sit somewhere in the house.
Michael Sheetz (11:19):
It's pretty much effectively, put it upside down, leave it on the coffee table. If it buzzes, it better be ringing off the hook.
Daniel Scrivner (11:27):
That was funny. I'd love to go a little bit higher level and talk about areas where you have an edge or a superpower. Just as I've thought about what you do day to day, you have to be able to learn incredibly quickly about new things that are coming out and then synthesize it and be able to share it with other people. That's a fascinating skill. You have to be able to work within this 24/7, nonstop news cycle. So what I'm curious is, as you think about your work as a journalist and just how you go about that work, what do you think of as your superpowers and how do those show up day to day in your work or your life?
Michael Sheetz (11:58):
One of them is more of a personality trait than anything else. I don't know if you've ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality test, but I've taken it a couple different times over the years. There's only been one consistency. The other aspects of it have ebbed and flowed. Every single time I've ever taken it, I test a hundred percent extroverted. I am a full extrovert. I need people, I need to be around people. And as a reporter, that's incredibly useful because when I go to a conference and when I spend time there getting to know people in the industry, when I'm out at a launch down in Florida, I'm using all my other time to, who's going to this party?
Who can I spend time with today? What reception can I try to get an invite to and then mingle with other folks there? What opportunity has come up that I'm just going to go and run for it and try to get to know it every person here possible in that amount of time. So that's a huge tool I think I have because a lot of people, if you're not an extreme extrovert, that can be extremely exhausting. And as an extrovert, I feel like I can lean on that and take the energy from it to be able to get more time with folks and build trust and build relationships along the way. So that's something I really try to leverage as much as I can.
Daniel Scrivner (13:16):
That makes a lot of sense. I wouldn't have necessarily intuited that because I would guess that a lot of your work is socializing with people, but then a lot of your work is just sitting down writing this very deep work, introverted work state. But it makes sense because it seems like obviously a key asset that you need is just this extensive network of as big as possible, as many interesting people as possible, that are working on space and business.
Michael Sheetz (13:37):
And that's a great point because that aspect of my job, when I was working from home shortly after Covid started, I didn't feel the impact of that as severely as I expected because my wife was also working from home in our living room. And so I had someone around and that helped the extreme extroverted part of me where I need to step off from a draft that I'm working on and go talk to her for a few minutes and then come back. That helped me reset. Whereas now that she's back in the office, I'm back in the office, the days where I'm home and she's not, I can feel that man, I'm just home alone.
I got to go do something, I got to get out of here. It adds that level when I'm just completely by myself for several hours at a time, that I'm not super comfortable with. And so there are certain ways of getting around that that I really try to leverage. But I'd say that the biggest thing is just recognizing when I have something in front of me that I need to get done and focus on, that's the primary motivation and that can always drive me to make sure I'm getting a scoop or an exclusive done on time.
Daniel Scrivner (14:47):
That's fascinating. I'm curious, as I think about what you do day to day, journalism is something that I would think just have an extremely high bar for how you show up and the quality of work that you do and what you're submitting. It seems like a very values focused profession, at least for the best journalists. So I'm curious, what sorts of values and standards do you bring to your work everyday and what's important to you about how you show up? And that can be for your readers, that could be for your team at CNBC, what comes to mind?
Michael Sheetz (15:14):
So that's a great question because it's really unique as I've started to learn more about other industries and other roles out there, journalism where my finished product is just immediately on public display and for everyone's scrutiny, is very different than a lot of other industries where, you make a presentation maybe it doesn't go super well. So the six people in the room were the people who didn't like it. It's a little bit different than what I deal with because even if I have a story that flops in terms of not a lot of people read it or something like that, there might be a thousand people who read it and still went like, this is garbage, you suck. So I have to deal with that reality of when someone either fairly or unfairly attacks the work that I've done, can I sit back? And then this goes to the values part of your question. Can I sit back and go, you know what? This is good work that I'm proud of and here's why I don't need to engage with that person, here's why I don't need to let that personally affect me.
And so that's been a huge aspect of recognizing you can't respond to everybody on Twitter who wants to start a fight. That's not a way to go about your life, whether or not you're a journalist. But that aspect of taking the personal side out of my work and recognizing if I hold true to the values that I've been taught at CNBC, of doing work that's well sourced, that is attributable to people by name or specifically when it's not by name, you're giving as much information as possible, doing work that's researched well, that gives a full picture of... If you're writing about, say, a new startup, that you give a picture of the sub-sector that they're entering into and who the existing players are. Giving this context that's so key and providing it every single time and doing it in a very winsome way. I think one of the unique aspects of my job at CNBC is that maybe we didn't have a full-time space reporter before, but if you look at other outlets out there, some of them still don't have a full-time space reporter.
And I see a huge opportunity to bridge the gap between maybe a broader, more mainstream audience that we have at CMBC, where we're talking to investors and bankers and Wall Street and everybody else across the world. But then also bridging the gap to being able to speak a technical language and being able to understand some of the more technical aspects of the companies that I'm writing about, the work that they're doing, how they're approaching it, how they do what they do. And bridging that gap between the two things so that it's both clear and understandable to folks who don't known or have any understanding of the space industry, but also still technically accurate. And that someone who is in the industry wouldn't look at me and be like, "Yo, you dumbed that down way too much or you just completely missed the point." So walking that fine line has been a challenge, but a really, really fun one along the way.
Daniel Scrivner (18:19):
It seems like a high wire act because that's extremely challenging, because in your head you have to have all the context of all the different sub-sectors in space. You have to, to your point, and I hope this changes, it seems like space has gained massively in popularity just over the last decade with people like SpaceX and Musk and Bezos participating. Anyways. And so I hope that there are more news outlets that cover space, but it is still a challenge because you have, I would say most people don't understand it or have a very basic level of knowledge, and yet there's some companies that are working on extremely technical problems and you have to try to explain both of those.
One of the questions I wanted to ask, just going back to your work is open for scrutiny. So clearly on Twitter, everybody sees just attacks, which to me are slightly different than criticism because it has nothing to do with substance, it's more just about getting attention and attacking someone. But it does seem like being a journalist, you have to get comfortable with people just always scrutinizing your work. And so the question I would ask you is, was that something that you had to get comfortable with over time? Were you just naturally wired where you were able to emotionally detach from your work? How was that process for you?
Michael Sheetz (19:23):
Not naturally wired that way at all. I'll say that it is taken me a long time to be able to deal with the personal fronts that come to it. I think a couple different things that have helped me along the way is, one thing that I saw from sitting next to some of my female colleagues at CNBC was how much worse it was for them than for me as a male. And it was shocking, but then it made me realize, if I'm getting 10% of the death threats, horrible emails, nasty comments about my appearance kind of things, why can't I just deal with those 10%? I should be able to process that if I'm getting such a lower level. The other aspect of it too was recognizing that while my work has value, my value is not in my work.
So my work being the thing that gives me personal value is not solely tied up on it, and not being totally engrossed in do people like this article? Was this a big enough story? Did it get enough retweets? Stuff like that. No. Was I proud of it when we hit publish? That's the bottom line. I was proud of it. Am I still proud of it today? And looking back on some of my work and I try to do this pretty regularly, I'll look back to my work and like, I really liked that story. I was really proud of whether it was a feature on a company, an exclusive announcement. I was proud of the way that I approached it. And if I look back at something and I was like, you know what? I could've done this a little better, learning from that and recognizing that maybe Chris isn't levied at me, can point me and steer me in a direction of learning along the way, but it to doesn't have to completely take down my character and take out my self worth.
Daniel Scrivner (21:05):
Said another way it's like, it's one other piece of data that you can choose to listen to or not listen to, but it's not everything. You still have your own personal opinion, your own sense of the work. It makes a lot of sense.
Michael Sheetz (21:17):
And it hurts. Especially when there's people in the industry who I like or respect, who maybe won't talk to me again because of a article I published about their company or something like that, I understand it. There's a personal side of that too. It's a two-way street there. But I can't take that and go, "Oh man, I don't know how I'm going to keep reporting." I have to be able to move on pretty quickly.
Daniel Scrivner (21:42):
That makes sense. I always love to ask guests about their favorite books. When you think of books that have either had an outsized impact on you or that you recommend to other people, what comes to mind? And I'm curious if you have any books about space or revolving around space as part of that list that you could share with others?
Michael Sheetz (21:59):
Similar to your first question, I'll give a space answer and I'll give a non-space answer. So my space answer, and this is a little bit of a selfless plug because I helped her work on this book, but Escaping Gravity by Lori Garver. She was the deputy administrator at NASA for several years. Really helped change so much of the game in terms of how the NASA side was willing to partner and work with private companies. There's a lot more to it than that. Lori tells it in this incredible memoir that I was just privileged to help her work on along the way.
And her storytelling about it, especially for people who want to understand what's changed in the industry, really brings in a lot of the pieces of the politics, the business, the money, the personalities. So it's a really great introductory there. I'd say the second one would be not a space book, it's Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. As a server, very biased to this book, but I will say, to phrase it the way and think about it the way that you frame the question, it's outsized impact for me was as a writer, being able to step back and look at my work and think about it more in a sense of, is this interesting to read. Regardless of the content, but is the way it's written interesting to read? And the way his writing style was so foreign to me and so this flowing, very train of thought start up process where you could see the moments of when he had a different thought while he was still completing another one.
And he did it so seamlessly. And I realized how difficult that is as a writer to actually portray that to a reader and how economical you need to be in your wording. He'd write an entire paragraph that was one sentence and you'd be like, how is this economical at all? And then you understand a little bit about the words that he chose and why he chose them. And so that really actually less interesting maybe for me as indulging in my love of surfing, more interesting for me as indulging in my love of writing and understanding a little bit more of how I can challenge myself.
Daniel Scrivner (24:07):
I love the way you frame that as well too, because it is such an art too. You both have to know what you're talking about, but then there's a completely separate art on top of that of just the style with which you do it and how interesting that is. And you need to constantly have these different loops running in your brain to be able to think about things and bounce between those levels. I have immense respect for anyone that spends all their time writing. So you're included in that, Michael. I find it very challenging myself. Two last questions. Second to last one is, what tiny habit or practices had the biggest positive impact on your life or your performance? And this can be absolutely anything. Inbox zero, planning your day the night before. What has had a big impact on you?
Michael Sheetz (24:47):
I talked about it a bit at length earlier, but I'd say the biggest one was the separation of my work on two different phones. And the simplicity there of when we live in a digital age where we're always connected via our phones, when you put one physically away from you, how it changes your mental and physical state. And I think that was huge for me in recognizing, especially in the evenings where I want to make dinner with my wife and we want to sit down and watch a show or just talk about what's been going on, putting it away and setting it aside and not being able to use my personal phone without seeing work emails distracting me, just changed so much for me. And I think it's a practice that I really encourage. It doesn't necessarily work for everybody, but it certainly helped me a lot in terms of being able to turn off the always on journalism, I got to beat everybody to every story side that wants to just win in all the time. So turning that off for my own personal health was huge.
Daniel Scrivner (25:48):
And it seems like something that more people should try. You're uniquely in a position, where I imagine just the velocity of information coming your way and messages is off the charts. But it seems like something that a lot of people should try. Last question. If you could go back to the start of your career, and this can be before your career as well too, say when you're entering college, and whisper some words of wisdom advice, a reminder in your ear, is there anything you would tell your younger self?
Michael Sheetz (26:15):
I would tell my younger self that there's nothing to be afraid of. I grew up in Orange County, California, suburbia. I was one of the few people I knew that left the state for college and I came to New York City. And I did it because I had this vague idea of what being a journalist would be like and I figured that if there was anywhere for me to learn it would be here in New York, in the media empire of the world. And I was right about that gut feeling, but I was terrified that I was going to be wrong. I was terrified that this wasn't the right path and that I could never make a living as a journalist. And so I think I would just tell myself, don't be afraid of jumping in on it because you can absolutely do this and you're giving yourself so little credit.
Daniel Scrivner (26:58):
That's a massive leap. You've literally moved to the complete other side of the country, from west coast to east coast. You left behind all your friends, I'm sure you had to make a whole new friend group. You're going to a entirely new school. So it was a massive leap. But I love that perspective, love that wisdom. Thank you so much for coming on, Michael. I really appreciate it.
Michael Sheetz (27:18):
Thank you Daniel.
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