It might not be pertinent, but I feel like it might be: I started writing this post last August, a week or two after finishing a lovely, longish stint of work at a newspaper. Clearly the euphoria of working in jam-stained pajamas again got to me, because I went on to not finish it for another eight months. In a way, though, that’s a core part of what this post is about. Prioritising and realising what you want to be spending your time doing, but more importantly what you don’t want to spend your time doing. Last August I wanted to go out and enjoy the warmth and sunshine (remember how great that was?), apply for fellowships in Germany, write for a magazine. I didn’t want to write a blog post about priorities. And now I do.
Back in August, while I was doing a ‘Favourites Dump’ on Twitter, I found this post that I’d added to my ‘To Be Read’ bookmark. The post itself had been sitting there for a year before last summer (sometimes I’m quick like a fox, sometimes… not). But in reading it in August 2013, and then again this week, I find that nothing’s really changed. It’s basically a ‘do what you want; don’t do what you don’t want’ piece, but I think a lot of us could stand to apply that more in our work lives.
Every so often I get an email from a young(er) journalist, or I attend a panel, or I give a talk. And these younger, newer journalists sometimes ask me about how they can do journalism that isn’t tokenistic, or reduces them to stereotype. How can they tell the stories they want to tell, that they feel strongly about etc. in a climate that is maybe hostile to that? How can they say ‘no’ to opportunities and commissions, when they’re only just starting out and to say ‘no’ might mean the editor puts them on a ‘list’ somewhere? The answer is: I don’t know. Do you, boo-boo. And that is not as flippant as it sounds – I mean it. Do you. Write down the things you like/want to do and then write a list of the things you don’t like/don’t want to do. Hang it up above your desk, tap it into your phone as a daily reminder, write it in a notebook, tattoo it on your thigh so you can re-read it while you’re on the loo. And then try your damnedest to stick to it. That’s it. DASSIT.
I know that – for me, at least – there have been periods where I have not acted in a very deliberate way. Nothing majorly bad happened – no one died, no one got maimed – but the clarity of hindsight can be blinding. A friend of mine once joked that she would be open to most jobs, as long as they could promise “no nerve damage, or video evidence”. It might not be easy to say ‘no’ – and when I was starting out as a journalist a decade ago, hungry for bylines and a nice wage, I can assure you it certainly was not – but it helps to draw those lines early. No one is a robot, so leave room for some flexibility. However, be clear on what you won’t do. Alongside your ‘to do’, there should always be an ‘I don’t’ list, if only as a reminder to yourself. Revisit and refine, revise, re-whatever at your convenience.
But draw your lines – and try your very hardest to stick to them.