You Can Be More Than One Thing
On becoming something else, while keeping the thing you used to be
The best piece of advice I’ve gotten in a long time came a few months ago as I was trying not to fall on my ass on a rain-soaked hiking trail here in Northern California.
As I carefully placed one beat-up running shoe after the other in the muddy imprints left by my friend’s hiking boots, my thoughts kept wandering to how today would have been perfect for binge-watching Netflix and how I hoped the bread and cheese I’d stuffed in my backpack that morning was still semi-dry.
So I almost didn’t register my friend’s words, casually tossed over his shoulder into the damp air: “You can be more than one thing.”
We were talking about how I was exploring career possibilities outside of journalism, a field to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life.
It’s been almost nine years now since I decided I would be a journalist forever — a decision made with the type of certainty only found in 22-year-olds who believe in things like “forever.”
My biggest fear for a long time was that I would never be any good, a fear I countered with a near-manic work ethic. I was lucky enough to have some good mentors and a few editors who gave me a chance when they noticed that I seemed willing to chew my own arm off for a story.
In particular, an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle brought me in on some stories about a financial scandal at my college, generously sharing a handful of front page bylines. I used those clips to get freelance gigs with other publications and just kept going from there.
When students ask me how to get into journalism now, I never know what to say. I barely understand how I got into journalism, and things have changed so much since then. I think now you probably have to have a lot of Twitter followers and be good at writing “content,” whatever that is.
It was about a year ago that I started to feel my energy ebbing. Journalism is tough these days, freelance or otherwise, but I had always operated on the principle that no matter how many times you got knocked down, you just got back up. And then, about a year ago, I couldn’t get back up anymore.
The story of what exactly led to my journalistic depression is boring and not so different from that of anyone else who goes into a profession young and idealistic only to realize that the reality is not so shiny. A friend describes this phenomenon as going to work at your favorite restaurant only to wish you had never seen the kitchen.
At first, I tried to ignore the unwelcome feeling that maybe journalism wasn’t my forever. I’d wrapped my entire identity around my career, and I didn’t want to have to think about what would be left of me if you cut away the journalist part.
At the same time, I knew I wanted more. More meaning, more money, more stability, more of a sense that I was waking up every day and doing something that was maybe somehow making things better.
I wanted to recapture the excitement I used to feel over finding out something that not very many people knew — the satisfaction I used to get from wrestling with things, spinning them around and trying to see the different angles. Before it all got buried beneath analytics and followers and “impact” and gimmicks and waiting for the next round of layoffs.
Not knowing how to say any of this out loud, I didn’t tell anyone. I just slowed down — backed off of pitching editors, stopped picking up late night phone calls from sources. I shifted my focus to editing other people’s work, which is less stressful and also pays better. I wrote some personal essays and took some college classes and sat on my kitchen floor trying to imagine what my Twitter bio would say if it didn’t start with “Freelance journalist.”
When a colleague delicately asked over lunch one day why I seemed to be writing less, I just shrugged. “I’m taking a break from banging my head against the wall.”
There’s something about hiking that always makes me talk, though. It’s like the clean air rummages through my brain and starts tossing words out of my mouth. So there I was, trying not to do a face-plant on that soggy hiking trail, thinking about the cheddar in my backpack, and defensively trying to explain all of this to my friend — who also happens to be a former journalism instructor of mine.
How I didn’t want to leave journalism, how I didn’t even know what I was if I wasn’t a journalist. But how yes, I was maybe, possibly, looking into other opportunities. But still, I wasn’t leaving… right?
My friend didn’t miss a beat.
“You can be more than one thing.”
Well. Why didn’t I think of that?