March 4, 2020 (Updated )
When I graduated from university, I thought the world was at my feet. I had a first-class degree, bucket-loads of confidence and a head spinning with possibilities. I wanted to write and create, and it felt like there was nothing standing in my way. I was invincible. It didn’t take long for reality to catch up with me.
After ferociously applying for anything even remotely creative, I wound up working in a bar. I felt like I’d taken some big steps back on the ladder of life. Everyone else seemed to be winning and I was slowly reversing. Masters courses didn’t want me, and big newspapers weren’t convinced I was “passionate” enough for work experience.
I knew what I wanted, but I wasn’t necessarily sure how to get there. Rejection became my new best friend and dreams of becoming a writer slowly started to dwindle. But while it may have felt like I was the only one losing direction, it’s a feeling well known by thousands of journalism graduates across the country.
Pursuing a career in journalism, or anything creative, is hard. Figures from the Sutton Trust show the industry is still dominated by those who have been privately educated, while the NCTJ’s most recent survey found that almost all journalists had taken unpaid internships or work experience before getting a job. In short, it can often feel like things are stacked against you. But trust me, it can be done.
Aside from the day-to-day advice you’ll find about job hunting (much of which you can find here) it’s also vital to look after your mental health, too.
Switching Off The Social Media Comparisons
Whether it’s on social media or an unhelpful comment from your mum about how well a family friend is doing, comparing yourself to others doesn’t serve you, and it certainly won’t help you get where you need to be. On a practical level, the time wasted worrying is time you could have been reading, writing, or planning.
But that can be easier said that done. Seeing other people’s successes, especially in writing or journalism, really started to get me down. I saw it as a constant reminder of what I wasn’t doing and what I hadn’t achieved. So I turned it off. Sure, I wasn’t able to go completely cold turkey, but I did recognise how it was making me feel.
As a freelancer or someone looking for work, social media can be a vital tool for work, so transforming your newsfeeds into positive and healthy spaces is as vital for your career as it is for your mental health.
For me, that meant things like unfollowing or muting accounts that made me feel negative and instead found ones which picked me up and inspired me. I was ruthless about it and even muted some of my own friends.
Equally, I limited the amount of time I spent on each app, something you can easily set up on your phone, and got a newsfeed eradicator for Facebook, which replaces your whole feed with an inspiring quote. In short, I started to win back the precious time that Mark Zuckerberg was stealing from me.
“Transforming your newsfeeds into positive and healthy spaces is as vital for your career as it is for your mental health.”
It’s really important to focus on the road ahead of you and not get de-railed by what other people are doing. Otherwise, you end up wasting so much time looking left and right, that you’ve completely forgotten to look ahead. Everyone is on their own path and timeline, and there really is no rush.
It can feel like there isn’t enough out there for everyone, but what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you. Just because she got commissioned for the Guardian or he nabbed that job, doesn’t mean there is less out there for you. In short, there’s plenty out there, and whatever your peers get has no impact on your potential success.
Changing Attitudes Takes Work And Time
It’s easy to tell someone that they should never give up, or that it’s vital to stay positive, but in practice changing your outlook takes a lot of hard work. A Carpe Diem print from Etsy will only get you so far. Trust me, I bought three.
When your mood starts to spiral, sometimes it can feel like there is absolutely no stopping it. A friend of mine, Jess Lord, is now a published writer and BBC broadcast assistant and host. But she struggled to see perspective when she moved back home after university and started working in M&S.
Looking back, she tells me: “I think it’s very easy to develop tunnel vision when you’re working somewhere that’s not what you’d like to be doing in the long term.”
But the thing is, your side hustle isn’t stopping you from where you want to be. If anything, it’s another step forward.
“I learnt so much from that job,” continues Jess. “I worked with a wonderful team, I developed my confidence and creativity, and I recognised qualities in others that I sought to emulate, as well as to avoid at all costs!”
It’s a similar story for another friend of mine, John Robinson. While he now works at a news agency, after graduation he found himself working in an airport, something he said gave him the time and space to work on other projects.
“It’s very easy to develop tunnel vision when you’re working somewhere that’s not what you’d like to be doing in the long term. But I learnt so much from that job.”
“I tried to write something every day,” he tells me, “even it was a half opinion picked up from somewhere or just a thought.”
That’s something I’ve used myself. Odd jobs gave me the time to research and really work on my writing. I honed my skills and ended up writing a whole play about my co-workers.
Working a side hustle can be hard, but it can be a stepping stone to freelancing. Rik Worth has some honest advice on how to navigate the two.
While it may have been terrible, it helped me to remember why I loved writing and to find the inspiration around me in the real world. Just because you’re not exactly where you want to be yet, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from where you are right now. Try to see the value in what’s in front of you, not just what’s ahead.
Accept Rejections And Reject Questions
Even putting aside social media and positivity, a rogue question from peers or family about what you’re up to can feel like a tornado in itself. That said, I began to realise that the damage to your self-esteem is more likely to come from the way you talk about yourself.
Sure, you’re not an editor yet, nor are you a world-famous columnist. And truth is you might never be, but that’s not what counts. What counts is that you’re giving it a damn good go. So next time, take a breath, and say exactly what you’re doing. Try phrases like, “I’m working in X and it’s great to be earning”, or “I’m still figuring it out”.
You’re not defined by what’s paying the bills and you can be whatever you want to be. Honestly, if you say you’re a wizard with enough conviction, someone will probably believe it. Just channel Lizzo and announce whatever you’re up to with pride and certainty. It’s a small change, but it can change the way you think about yourself more than you think.
At the same time, if you’re reading this you’ve probably experienced your fair share of rejections. Whether it’s for jobs, internships or higher education, it can often feel like radio silence is the only response. It’s hard, but Johanna Payton, a freelance journalist at lecturer at City University, has some sage advice.
“Think about pitches in terms of relationship building. It’s an opportunity to show that you have good ideas.”
Firstly, “don’t take rejection personally”, especially when it comes to job hunting and pitching, she tells me. There are many reasons your idea might not be what they’re looking for, and they don’t all boil down to you. Perhaps the timing isn’t right, they’ve recently run something similar or plans have changed.
Instead, Johanna advises me to think of pitches in terms of relationship building. “It’s an opportunity to show people that you have good ideas,” she says, regardless of whether you get the commission.
You never know what could come from establishing that initial contact – they might keep you in mind for another piece, or you might find yourself in line for shifts. Just keep opening doors, even if there doesn’t seem to be anything in there for you just yet. While both Jess and I agree that we’re not very good at dealing with rejection, we’re working on it.
Learning how to deal with rejection can be hard. So learn from those who’ve been there. Rosa Furneaux explains to us how a rejection from her dream job was the best thing that could have happened.
Sometimes things aren’t meant to be, and not getting something can work out as the best thing for you. See rejection as an opportunity to learn, grow and establish a network – not as an indictment on your abilities of your worth. It’s part and parcel of looking for a job, but equally it’s also OK if you’re still learning how to embrace it. Just make sure that you’ve got some chocolate and a binge-worthy TV show on hand.
Seeing The Value In Small Wins
When there doesn’t seem to be much of a light at the end of the tunnel, seeing the value in small wins is really hard. You might have written an unpaid piece for your local newspaper that you’re secretly really proud of, or maybe you’re creating content for a blog that no one knows about. Whatever it is, breathe and take a moment to celebrate.
I found it really hard to put any of my so-called ‘success’ into perspective, it just felt like it wasn’t big enough or impressive enough to be proud of. It sounds cheesy, but it was the ritual of writing them down and putting them in my own PDP jar that really helped me. Yep, that stands for Pretty Damn Proud.
Every day I scribbled down something I had achieved on a Post-It and stuffed it in my little jar. Everything from going to the gym to pitching an article to the Guardian made its way in there.
It might sound silly, but it honestly really helped me. Reading them back to myself later on made me proud of how far I’d come, and excited about what was next.
Finally, if you only take one thing away from this piece, remember that you’re not alone in your search. Journalism can have a reputation for being cut-throat and soulless, but, as Johannah reflects, “The world of journalism is actually a lot more supportive than I thought.”
Especially online, groups like Freelance Heroes and No 1 Freelance Media Women are filled with people posting for advice, advertising jobs, and those giving feedback. Other journalists aren’t your competitors. They’re collaborators waiting to happen, sources waiting to happen, and a community to fall back on.
Although it might feel like it at times, you’re not floating aimlessly on a life raft out at sea. I promise. Or, if you are, there are quite a few more people in that boat than you might think – and we’re all figuring it out together.