Recently, I was asked for some advice by a young man who’s about to finish a politics degree and is keen to be a journalist.
He wanted to know about insights, regrets and aspirations I had as a young journalist and the expectations I had at the outset of my career.
He asked whether a master’s degree in journalism from a good institution was more important than building a profile and a portfolio.
He also asked whether being gay and not ‘blokey’ was something he’d have to grapple with. After pondering the questions, I decided to write a kind of 'this is what I know now.'
If you want a career badly enough, persistence is the only option. Persistence, practice, feedback (criticism) and life experience leads to mastery of the craft.
There has never been enough feedback in my career. Some organisations are surprisingly poor at this and I used to be too frightened to ask. My bad.
Always ask for a position, a role, a project that you want. Don’t wait for the invitation. If you ask and you don’t get it, ask why not and take note.
Challenge yourself, even when others don’t.
Don’t fear being outside the pack but more relevant perhaps, why define yourself by what others think?
The thing that stops people the most is self-sabotage. “I can’t do that or be that,” says the internal voice rather than “What do they want and how do I give it to them?"
Networking, building a profile and a portfolio or studying for an MA: further study is great once you’ve had a bit of experience. Mid-career, an MA - or fellowship - is a great opportunity to down tools, take stock, absorb and grow new branches.
Looking back over the year after recording fifty or so interviews for One Plus One, I noticed a frequent discussion I had with guests was the matter of being an outsider.
Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, for example, said this about his arrival in Australia as the son of Dutch migrants.
"Having that Dutch background … made me embrace the outsider status...I find I can take a step back and look on and not feel that I have to accept everything." he said.
In the family-friendly film Paddington (released December 2014) the small bear remarks at the movie's happy conclusion that his desire to belong came with the realisation that London was full of outsiders, including, though this was more implied than verbalised, members of his adopting, quirky family the Brown's.
On a more sombre note in The Battle to BelongNew York Times columnist Roger Cohen reveals his family’s story of immigration and assimilation and his mother’s battle with suicide and depression.
"The one story I had to tell was hers — and through hers that of a far-flung Jewish family, tied by the pain of forgetting, the strain of assimilation, the curse of mental illness and the ever-renewed consolation of love," Cohen wrote.
Being an outsider is something many of us contemplate. Do we fit it? Is it important to belong? What does it mean to be part of an in crowd?
There have been times when I've been part of an in crowd.
My husband Michael and I met as cameraman and correspondent during Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's funeral in Ramallah in 2003. We were part of a huge media contingent covering a key moment in Middle East history. We were part of the International Media and I felt comfortable in the nest; living in Jerusalem and Jordan - travelling to the West Bank and Gaza on a weekly basis - covering the Middle East region for two years.
While Arafat lay mysteriously ill in a French hospital, the international media gathered. Around us, makeshift studios and camera points popped up as they do whenever big news breaks in a particular area, transforming it into a miniature broadcast suburb overnight. All of the international networks set up their own mini bureaux and had plenty of support staff. With our driver and translator, ABC Australia as we are known in most places, haggled with a local family to rent rooms in a house behind the wall of Arafat’s compound, the Muqata.
So, in the middle of this vast story, we were insiders and yet glancing sideways, seeing what the big guns of the American networks, the BBC and CNN were operating with were we truly insiders? Did being an insider serve a useful purpose?
Reflecting on the individuals I’ve interviewed, being an outsider is about discomfort initially. Then a breeze of acceptance followed by resilience rolls in. It feels comforting to have a sense of being apart from the rest.
Outside the circle. A little uncomfortable. There is solace in being an outsider. (Photo credit: Top - Paddington the Movie. The photo below is mine)
Last week, a friend was getting his daughter into her car-seat to drive her to school. He put his camera kit on the pavement while he strapped her in. Then for whatever reason, his attention got diverted.
He drove away leaving the camera bag - with $20,000 worth of equipment - on the footpath outside his home. By the time he’d realised his mistake and contacted his partner to see if she could retrieve the bag, more than an hour had passed.
My friend’s business cards were inside the bag, but it never re-surfaced, despite contact with the police, a lengthy search and notices being displayed around the street.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting actor and comedian Shaun Micallef before interviewing him for my program One Plus One.
A few minutes after he walked into the interview room, he realised his mobile phone and wallet were missing.
He thought for a moment, then calmly announced he’d probably left them in the canteen or make-up room. He wasn’t flustered or concerned. Within moments, a make-up artist appeared and returned the missing loot. Then we sat down to chat before the cameras began to roll.
I asked him why he had been so calm about losing his possessions and he said that he expected to find them or to get them back. He didn’t like the default position to be that someone WOULDN’T do the right thing.
It reminded me of lots of good fortune I’ve had in the past. Once I left my laptop (with my life on its hard drive) on top of a turnstile at Central Station. The station attendant retrieved it and kept it safely in his booth. On another occasion I left an iPad on a Qantas flight. It was handed-in it to Lost Property.
I admire Shaun’s perspective. It’s a great feeling to be human and have others doing human things. It's wonderful to have our valued possessions returned. It’s a big reason why we value the idea of a community.
But we don’t always know our neighbours or some people within our community. Sometimes, outsiders may cross our paths.
What should we expect of them? To put it more bluntly, what would you do if you came across a stray iPhone and a wallet, a bag of expensive-looking camera equipment, or $100, just blowing around in the gutter?
I keep a well-stuffed Moleskin full of clippings, stories and jottings from mentor meet-ups, inspiring people and quotes of stuff that just resonates. I've got my research reading, so I can't stray (too frequently) by indulging in other guilty reading pleasures. The desk is indeed burdened.
I enjoy this time of year because it entails collating, tidying up, chucking out. I like to go through my notes and combine collected thoughts onto a single page: progress, insights and challenges. Then I review what didn't work and why. It's mostly a career-focused de-clutter, but there's some personal stuff too.
In January there is cloud time. By this I mean time to think. It comes from the era when I travelled alot and found that the best time to think was on a flight, staring out of the window at the clouds.
In January, I plan to borrow an idea from my friend Simon. Every January he writes (in long-hand) a journal. Only in January. In the journal goes as much or as little as he likes. It's only for a month. I think this is masterful.
I don't do New Year's resolutions. I once admired the Chinese notion of a Five Year Plan but these days five years seems so long. Any career plans seem rather pointless in the current circumstances.
But it's always good to review and file the old year and contemplate the new before Australia Day brings on a new tide of clutter.
There have been several conversations about daydreaming in recent days, reminding me of my own career daydreams over the years.
When I lived in London some years ago, I became mesmerised by the food culture. This surprised me, because I’d always thought Australia had one of the most diverse and innovative food cultures in the world.
The U.K. was awash for food shows - Jamie, Gordon, Hugh, Raymond, Heston and of course, the best ever version of MasterChef. I devoured them all.
Having just spent two years in Jerusalem, where I shopped in the markets of the wondrous Old City and learned about finding the best hummous and falafel, I found the whole food thing in London very inspiring and I decided to enrol in a food-writing course.
One thing lead to another, and in my spare time, I became an infrequent restaurant reviewer for Time Out London. I was assigned to the Chinatown beat (because of my background in China and Hong Kong) and of course it was all secretive; you didn’t announce yourself to make sure you got a real experience.
I continued this for another publication after returning to Australia, until I got my ‘termination notice’ from the friend who’d employed me. It came at the right time.
Over the years, I’ve also dabbled - quite fanatically - in finding decent chocolate during my travels and becoming knowledgeable about Champagne.
An old friend reminded me last night that my first writing assignment at university (which was given a bare pass by a former tutor named Peter Temple - now one of Australia’s finest crime writers) was on the subject of chocolate.
And I discovered that there is a competition for amateur champagne lovers, some of whom become such experts, like Bernadette O’Shea, that their passion becomes their livelihood.
I realised that I could search out fine chocolate whenever I liked and bore people talking about it. I realised too, towards the end of my brief time moonlighting as a food reviewer, that I was fed up finding new ways to describe noodles (slippery, slurpy, silky, sublime). Trying to describe the difference in the ‘bead’ (size of bubbles) in Champagne… well, I realised in all of these passions, I really just wanted to consume and enjoy them. Very much.
Having to dissect and explain what makes chocolate, food and champagne so enjoyable just took away the magic.
It's always good to dream. For some the dream becomes something enduring.