"Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free. Take good care of yourself, you belong to me!"
-- 1928 popular song
Journalism remains, sadly, a macho field, often most rewarding those who are fastest, toughest, bravest, those who will do anything to get a story and beat the competition. It might be covering a war in winter or days of 12-hour stakeouts, eating junk food in your car, terrified to find a toilet lest you miss something.
I've yet to hear an editor, and very few journalists, speak frankly and compassionately about the need to care for yourself as you do your job. It's too easy to never leave your desk, to gobble garbage from the vending machine, to drink too much too quickly to unwind fast after a long, hard day, to never get to the gym. The end result, I think, is a reporter or writer too depleted to be of much use to themselves, their families, their sources or their employers.
Note the order.
I don't think one's boss should get the least of your efforts, but I think if you don't sharpen the saw on a regular basis (one of Stephen Coveys Seven Habits), you're only hurting yourself.
One fellow reporter slipped on the stairs as he was rushing to the airport to fly to Hong Kong on a story and worked for 10 days with a broken back. On my first big assignment, I worked three weeks in the snow and ice of a Montreal winter on crutches before finally seeing a physical therapist to start learning how to walk again. I know too many journalists, and photographers, willing, year after year, to endanger their health to stay on top of a story.
So, based on decades of reporting, sometimes under insane conditions, here are some basic recommendations:
- Get enough sleep! I can function on six or seven hours of sleep, but I'm not at my best. I need, unapologetically, eight, nine or even ten hours sleep to fully rest and recharge. I'm a terrific napper and it's a good habit to acquire. You can catch a good 20 minutes rest sitting in a chair or airplane, even in your car.
- Get moving. It's easy and tempting to skip the gym or miss classes at set times, but walking is good exercise and short of Haifa Street, you can do it almost aywhere. Keep a basket of hand weights and isometric cords in a closet. Treat yourself to a yoga mat and a few exercise videos. Buy a bike, a pair of rollerblades, a tennis racket, a basketball. Find as many ways as you can to strengthen your stamina, stretch your muscles, release stress and boost your endorphins. Your body, sore and cramped from hours staring at a computer screen or hunched over your desk, will thank you!
- Eat right. A nutritionist can really help you make sense of portion sizes and explain how even the healthiest choices (fruit yogurt, for example) can be disastrously loaded with sugar and calories. In a business where we sometimes eat whatever we can whenever we can, learn and stick to -- your body's best choices. (Your desk or backpack should always contain a bottle of water, power bars, raw almonds, teabags, dark chocolate, fresh fruit.)
- Talk it out. Whether you're struggling with work or family issues, don't be afraid to seek help as soon as you need it, from a therapist, pastor or good friend. In such a competitive field, it's tempting to ignore or downplay your stress everyone else does, right? Wrong.
- Beware the really tough stories, ones filled with emotional and/or physical violence. (See my essay entitled Pain.) Even if you only listen to such details, and never see them firsthand, you're liable to suffer what's called secondary trauma, which is the transfer of emotional distress from it's primary victim(s), the people you interview, to your own soul. This can manifest as insomnia, exhaustion, depression, and it's quite normal. Know it's a possibility and make sure, if you start to feel this way, you visit a therapist or other trained professional to help you deal with these difficult feelings. Don't assume it's just you feeling weak or shaky in the middle of a busy newsroom and ignore any macho dismissal of your reactions. They're real and they need help, now.
- Carve out time for yourself. On one trip that took me through three cities in three days, with harrowing interviews in each one, I desperately needed some quiet, peaceful time alone. I had so few hours in the day to myself that I made it a point to read, sleep or listen to music on the airplane. When you're on the road alone, it's easy to be chatty and social and end up depleted from doing your interviews, negotiating your way through a new place and being charming to strangers on top of it all. In one city, after working from 8:00 a.m. without a break, I didn't leave my room after 3:30 p.m. I took a two-hour nap then watched TV and ordered room service. Bliss!
- Nurture your passions that have nothing to do with journalism and publishing. It's easy to spend all one's free time reading and writing and taking classes and talking to other writers or editors and...
I clip recipes and really enjoy cooking. I love antiquing (I collect antique textiles, coin silver, early glass and porcelain.) I really look forward to my suburban pickup softball games every Saturday from April through December, and my team of fellow Canadians who play in Manhattan's city leagues. (I play third base.) It's a blast to be outdoors with a friendly group of people doing something athletic. And I can now hit to the outfield.
- Stay in touch with your dreams. No matter what job you're doing right now, and it may not be the job you hoped for, stay focused on what you do hope to achieve, in or outside of journalism. Let friends, family and mentors know what you want; let them help you when they can.
- Travel as far and as often as possible, even if it's just a road trip to some small town (or megalopolis).
As someone who grew up in Canada (that's the big country, just north, and the U.S.'s largest trading partner) and has visited Mexico many times, I know how valuable it is to live in, and look closely at, other societies.
How can a voter, or their representatives, hope to understand the social, political, economic and cultural value(s) of other cultures if they've never experienced one?
I've been to 37 countries, from Turkey to Fiji, Denmark to Thailand, often alone. My travels are my greatest treasures. I've met people of all races, ages and income levels, from a German stonemason on Ko Phi Phi in Thailand to the French trucker who took me from Perpignan to Istanbul.
I've also lived in England, France, Canada, Mexico and the U.S., and adapting to each foreign culture (I'm Canadian by birth and upbringing) has offered its own challenges. I know now how differently people can see the world when viewed through their local lenses and media.
My life, and my perspective, has been enriched by those experiences, even when (rarely) I was ill or scared or lonely and many thousands of miles from anyone or anything familiar. I traveled through England, France, Spain and Italy for four months alone when I was 20. Thats a long time to be solo in the world, but self-reliance is essential to being a writer.
Traveling far outside your comfort zone (Youth hostel? Couchette? Third world country?) inevitably forces you to face any number of truths about your life, your country, your beliefs, your politics.
I don't think every vacation needs to be Educational, but if I never visit Disneyworld, I'm OK with that; my current wish list includes Mongolia, Lebanon, Brazil, Argentina and Croatia.