Healthy habits from my JSK Fellowship year that I’ll take with me back to my freelance life
It’s hard to believe that my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford is coming to a close. And while the JSK Fellowships program directors keep graciously telling us that we shouldn’t think of this as the end — that we are JSK Fellows for life — we are now all faced with a period of transition.
People have begun to ask me: What did you learn? It feels impossible to package. Ten months of developing new skills, meetings with professors at the top of their fields, and, above all, having high-level conversations with an incredible cohort of fellows.
I spent my year here considering how photojournalism can be used to counter media stereotypes and planning for the long-term growth of my nonprofit, The Everyday Projects. We are a global network of storytellers with the goal of broadening perception beyond the headlines, beginning with the viral Everyday Africa project, and I’ve been working to leverage that network and to expand the reach of our educational programming.
Along the way, I’ve picked up a number of habits that have left me feeling healthier, more balanced, and more creative. Honing in on these has been one of the most important parts of my fellowship year. The other day, I started listing these, wrote them on Post-it notes, and stuck them on my computer. I desperately want to avoid forgetting them.
Let me first describe my life before the fellowship. I’d wake up, eat breakfast, and then start my commute — all the way across the hall into the extra bedroom of our apartment, where I’ve set up a little office space. Then, I would make a to-do list that was far more than any one person could get done in a single day; then try to work on it; then get distracted by housework or the black hole of the internet; and then end the day furious with myself for not finishing the to-do list. Somehow, I would end the day feeling that the solution to this was to try harder tomorrow. Having thus set myself up for failure, the cycle would repeat the next day, and the next.
Running on this hamster wheel left me feeling constantly upset with myself and completely drained of creativity. My JSK year has helped me break this pattern.
Here are seven practices and mindsets I hope to take with me as I leave.
1. Always have your own creative project going. Make time for it.
Regardless of what your “work” is at the moment, make sure you’ve got a project of your own going to feed your soul. Block out time in your calendar during which you focus only on this. Don’t schedule calls or meetings during this time, and don’t let yourself answer unrelated emails or check social media. Be rigid in this practice! If it’s something you love, you’ll find a way to focus on it.
And always have at least one major creative project on the back burner. When my co-editors and I published the Everyday Africa book — a massive, multi-year project — I didn’t know what I was doing next. I spent the next few months in a sort of “creative hangover,” unhappy and unfocused. Here at Stanford, I was a student in the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, a 20-week course during which the students write, produce, and publish a full-length comic book. (You can read more about our book, “Flying Kites: A Story of the California Prison Hunger Strike,” in my last post.) This time around, I learned my lesson; by the time our class published “Flying Kites,” I was already beginning work on a new comic.
2. Dare to be unoriginal.
I’m taking this one from Dan Klein, one of Stanford’s master improv professors, and he, in turn, takes it from renowned improv pioneer Keith Johnstone. Johnstone says that one major reason creative people reject their early ideas — regardless of their quality — is because they fear being unoriginal. But in the practice of improv, being unoriginal can be a good thing: The audience is pleased when a scene ends in an expected way.
Even as I write this piece, there’s a voice in my head saying, There’s nothing important about this; it’s not original enough to be worth writing. Quieting that voice, daring to be unafraid of being unoriginal, helped me to become a better storyteller this year. This is especially true as I start playing with a new (to me) medium: comic book writing. I don’t need to create something groundbreaking in this new craft; I just need to jump in with both feet and try something.
3. Put yourself in situations where success feels possible.
I became so used to my daily grind, and the feeling that I wasn’t accomplishing enough, that everything felt impossible. I would think of new skills I wish I had, or dream up new project ideas, and then just as quickly convince myself that they could never happen. This feeling took hold so gradually that I didn’t even realize it, and I never want to feel it again.
Not long into the graphic novel class, one of the teachers, who works at a comics journalism publication, invited me to start pitching stories to them. I have wanted to try writing comics for years, but I never thought I actually could. Simply having someone in that field tell me it was a possibility was all it took for me to completely shift my mindset. Sometimes, all you need is a little encouragement, a couple people to make you feel like nothing is impossible.
Find those people in your own life. Hang on to them.
4. Leave the house.
I am so much more focused when I work outside of the house, where there aren’t a million things to distract me. I can’t clean the house or get away with watching Netflix if I work in a cafe or coworking space.
5. Have a schedule, but set attainable goals.
At first, it seemed counterintuitive that having to be numerous places at certain times — classes, meetings, JSK events — would actually make me more productive, but it did. I became better at blocking out some of my free time as work time, and getting what I needed done in those allotted chunks of my day. This also helped me to focus on what I could actually accomplish in short periods, rather than my usual practice of trying to fit a week’s worth of tasks into a day.
6. Exercise. Meditate.
These are the kinds of things I skip, telling myself, There’s no time; just work harder. But these practices help my work because they help me think; or, they help me forget about work for a little while, which is also more beneficial than I usually like to admit.
7. Find community. Feel valued.
The JSK cohort of fellows and the program directors are the other people who, this year, have made me feel that nothing is impossible. For the past 10 months, they’ve thrown new ideas at me and sought out my opinion on their own projects. We’ve shared in our successes and have been supportive for our failures.
For the past few years, my primary work has been growing an online community of photographers. There are hundreds of us across the world. While I know and love many of these people, I communicate with them almost exclusively online. To have in-person brainstorming sessions so often with the JSK group has been a true gift. Those of you with office or newsroom jobs may think I sound crazy, but the freelance crowd may understand; before this, it had been more than a decade since I’d gone home at night and said “see you tomorrow” to my colleagues.
I will miss saying “see you tomorrow” to this incredible group of friends.