A colleague was recently waxing eloquent about George Monbiot’s advice to aspiring journalists (he gets so many enquiries that he’s written it up). It’s nicely written, as you’d expect, and basically urges young would-be Georges to follow their stars rather than money or security. Don’t go and do something you hate (eg write press releases for some pointless PR firm or fluff pieces for a local paper) in order to be able to one day do something you love – you’ll be sucked in, ground down and lose your way: ‘whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty’.
As for what you should do with that liberty, George suggests three approaches:
‘The first is to start how you mean to go on. This is unlikely, for a while, to be self-financing, so you may need to supplement it with work which raises sufficient money to keep you alive but doesn’t demand too much mental energy. If you want to write about the Zapatistas in Mexico, earn the money required to get you out there and start covering them. Be prepared to live and travel as cheaply as possible: In seven years working in the poor world, I managed to keep my expenses down to £3000 a year.
Work hard, but don’t rush. Build up your reputation slowly and steadily. And specialisation, for all they tell you at journalism school, is, if you use it intelligently, not the trap but the key to escaping from the trap. You can become the person editors think of when they need someone to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say, your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs.
The second possible approach is this: if the market for the kind of work you want to do looks, at first, impenetrable, then engage in the issue by different means. If you want to write about homelessness, for example (one of the great undercovered issues of developed societies), it might be easier to find work with a group trying to assist the homeless. Learn the trade by learning the issues, and gradually branch into journalism.
The third approach is tougher, but just as valid. It is followed by people who have recognised the limitations of any form of engagement with mainstream employers, and who have created their own outlets for their work. Most countries have a number of small alternative papers and broadcasters, run voluntarily by people making their living by other means: part time jobs, grants or social security. These are, on the whole, people of tremendous courage and determination, who have placed their beliefs ahead of their comforts.’
But there’s a group of people who George rather ignores, which includes the younger me. Sure, his advice is good, uplifting stuff, and
can easily be adapted for those young people who ask me about how to find a job in the aid business, or in activist NGOs. Even if some of them are faking it, they seem awesomely clear about their aims. ‘I want to be/do X, how do I achieve it?’ But I find their determination and self confidence rather intimidating, and feel a bit of a fraud at being consulted, because at their age, I had no idea what I wanted to do. What about those people?
I left college with a physics degree that (though it was fun to acquire) seemed entirely irrelevant to my life and floundered about for years. So what advice might be useful if, like the younger me, you are much clearer on what you want to avoid than what you really want to do with your life?
My approach (I now realize) was to respond to that lack of direction by putting myself in a series of difficult situations that forced me to learn and experience new worlds and ideas, in the hope of finding some path that made sense: two years wandering around Latin America; squatting in London; teaching English to refugees; fund-raising for Central American human rights and solidarity groups; freelance journalism. None of these were easy; I wasn’t particularly good at any of them and none of them were well paid, but out of this slightly masochistic path, some clarity gradually (and painfully) emerged: I loved writing; I was (broadly) on the left; I wanted to understand social and political change and if possible contribute to it.
I was lucky – the jobs arrived, and over time, became more consistent with my emerging identity. There were a couple of moments when I might have gone off the rails. At one point, I was offered a job writing for a deadly dull business newsletter on international trade finance. The money was good, I was feeling a bit lost at the time and so was tempted, and I could well have then found the salary bump irreversible (something George talks about a lot in his piece). But my then girlfriend (now wife) said she would dump me if I took the job, so I ignored the offer. Thanks Cathy.
Any other answers to the question ‘what do you do, when you don’t know what to do?’