On March 10 of last year, I received a call from an editor at The New York Times. It was still the early days of the pandemic, and a medical center in the city I live in decided to repurpose one of its garages to be a drive-thru site for COVID-19 testing. It would have been one of the first of its kind in the U.S. Think a fast-food drive-thru line but for nose swabs, my editor quipped. Would I be up for the assignment?
You can probably guess how I responded. After all, isn’t getting called up by The New York Times the dream?
I work as a freelance journalist out of Seattle, mainly producing enterprise and magazine journalism: stories that require deep sourcing, months of reporting, and, very often, travel. Covering breaking news — or reporting stories that are tied to the news cycle at all — isn’t typically my jam. But in early March, the world had shut down. A reporting trip I had planned to South Asia was canceled. And I was out of work.
The story about COVID-19 testing wasn’t the only assignment that I accepted last year that I would ordinarily consider to be out of my wheelhouse. On a weekend in late May, an editor from The Daily Beast got in touch with me. The George Floyd protests were underway, and those in Seattle were particularly explosive as demonstrators clashed with law enforcement. Then, a small section of the city — about a 10-minute walk from my apartment at the time — turned into an “anarchy zone.” An editor at Curbed wanted a piece about what it was like to live there.
I said yes to all of the above. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even for the money. (A few hundred bucks here or there frankly isn’t enough to cover my cost of living in a city as expensive as Seattle.) I took those assignments because I felt so deeply aligned to the mission of my job. The ecosystem of news was brimming with misinformation, and I felt compelled in my position as a journalist to bring engaging, accurate stories of what was going on to a larger audience.
Not to mention, it was a pandemic. We all lost the things that kept us sane: freely socializing with friends, going to the gym, or working out of coffee shops. In a way, work was all that I had — and I made it a large component of my identity. In doing so, it burned me out.
Scott Reinardy, a professor at The University of Kansas’ William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, told me that I’m not alone in feeling that deep social responsibility as a journalist.
“There’s a real inherent mission amongst journalists to go out there and discover truths and facts, and to eliminate some of the fictitious material and misinformation,” he said. But too much of an attachment to work — whether by choice or a relentless news cycle — can burn us out. (My colleague, Olivia Messer, explored the psychological toll of covering COVID-19 for Study Hall, for instance.)
Journalists identify so much with their profession that even when they leave the field (of their own volition or not) they still identify as a journalist.
Why are journalists like this? Why do we care so much about what we do, and why do we carry so much of our profession into how we think about who we are?
It doesn’t help that the industry socializes us to believe that journalism is a calling. It’s trite, and it suits us when we want to justify the passion and purpose that bring us to the profession, but it also makes us supremely exploitable. If we’re so drawn to the mission, then we should be willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to go to journalism school, accept low-paying entry-level jobs, or even sacrifice our own happiness, sanity, or personal relationships. If we care about getting the story out, we should be willing to be on the clock at all hours of the day, neglect our mental and physical health, or put off spending time with our loved ones. After all, our partners and friends may have a higher chance of sticking around, even as the institution of journalism crumbles.
Society, too, has expectations for journalists. which influences how we perceive ourselves. Nikki Usher, a professor who studies journalists at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that the public tends to view us as a “special, rarified type of person,” which can create a sense of superiority and distance from everyone else.
And it doesn’t help that we work in a precarious industry. Newspapers or publishers can fold without warning. “Because you’re not affiliated with any kind of long-lasting organization, there’s no guarantee that the institution will represent you as part of your identity,” said Usher. “So the profession becomes the standard.”
Of course, it’s good to care about the work. Readers can often tell the care that went into a story. But sometimes that can go too far. If you’re too invested in your job, the professional can become personal and affect your mental health and relationships. This is especially troubling when journalists are under fire, and any attack on your job could also be perceived as an attack on you. Suddenly, what you do for a living can have a lot of power over your happiness and well-being.
“There’s professional identity and then there’s personal identity, (which) is tied up in the way that you see your purpose, mission and character,” Usher said. “Those things are distinct, and it’s probably helpful to see it that way.”
It bears repeating: Our identities are much more than our jobs. Our identities are our preferences and passions, the philosophies that govern how we live and motivate us, said Fritz Galette, a New York City-based psychologist.
When he works with clients in untangling their profession from their identity, he tries to figure out what makes them tick, or their vibe. How do they spend their off time? What is their life history? What did they enjoy as a child?
I was forced to think about these questions over the last year as I contended with the fact that my attachment to my job wasn’t serving my mental health. With help from my therapist, I learned that burnout is a fire that keeps gaining ground. By working more, I was only stoking the fire. To close the cycle, I had to extinguish the flame. And the only way for me to do that was to stop working.
I don’t have the privilege of doing that. Being a freelancer means that I only get paid for work I complete. But I learned to toss a bucket of water on top of that flame on a regular basis to get it under control.
Over the last year, I’ve spent more time getting in touch with the person I am when I’m not at work. I rediscovered my love of fiber arts: I learned to crochet as a teenager, and expanded into knitting. I spent countless hours exploring the wilderness in my home state. I reconnected with old friends and made room for new ones. Exploring, creating, and making connections are persistent themes in my life — both in my personal and professional realms. When I made a practice of spending time away from making a living, I realized that I loved it — perhaps as much as I loved the work.
Many of my colleagues will say that journalism feels like a natural extension of being a curious human in the world, which makes it harder yet to unlink our lives from our professions. Traits like curiosity or doggedness can correlate, or predispose us to how we decide to spend our time professionally — and in other arenas of life — rather than the other way around (i.e. our job imparting traits on us that make us who we are).
When I started realizing the distinction between who I am and what I do to earn a living, I started to draw better boundaries around the latter. I no longer work weekends or cover news. (I have two Post-it’s in my office I read every day: “I don’t have to do everything;” “I will not be at the whims of the news cycle.”) And I would argue that those boundaries haven’t made me feel any less of a journalist: I can be committed to telling accurate, illuminating stories when I put work in a box of its own.
Journalism fundamentally trains us to be more observant, analytical and critical of the world around us. When I first entered the field, some of my colleagues joked that journalists are great at understanding others and their problems, but are terrible at recognizing their own. What if we turned that journalistic lens inward to reflect on how we identify, and how those identifiers serve us — or not?
If we spent the time to explore our full narratives — not just as a function of what we do, but who we are — how would we tell the story of who we are?
This article was originally published Nov. 30, 2021.