July 20, 2023 (Updated )

Award-winning journalist Minreet Kaur reflects on how she discovered the joy of swimming at a difficult point in her career, serendipitously fell into teaching the sport, and why she thinks other freelance journalists should also consider having a paying hobby on the side.

Like many other freelance journalists, I lost a lot of my work during the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. I kept applying for jobs but found it hard to source commissions. After nearly a year of trying, I made the decision to go back to marketing — my original line of work — or look to do something entirely different.

It was then that a friend told me how she had recently learnt how to swim. She was in her 50s and knew of many Asian women in the same position. They had developed a desire for swimming later in life, despite never having learnt as children. My friend suggested that maybe I could look into becoming a swimming teacher.

That was the day my new journey began. I found a course with Triton Training, which offers a bursary to those who are unemployed. Level One was really straightforward, and I passed easily. At the time of writing, I was due to take on the more intense Level Two. At the same time, I was hearing from many Asian women, who had seen my social media posts on how beneficial swimming is, and wanted me to teach them. I couldn’t believe I had already built a long list of budding learners.

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Swimming has so many benefits. It keeps your heart rate up, building endurance, muscle strength, and cardiovascular fitness. At the same time, it reduces the impact of stress from your body by stretching tense muscles and redirecting your focus. It also helps maintain a healthy weight, healthy heart and lungs, and toned muscles. For me, it is therapeutic, and certainly not boring like some exercises.

I had fallen in love with swimming and couldn’t wait to train others in this life skill. In the process of teaching, swimming has also brought me something else aside from additional income. It introduced new ways of communicating into my life, and allowed me to practise engagement skills that are important in journalism.

Exploring A New Skillset

Given the sense of urgency embedded in the industry, journalism can feel like an all-consuming pursuit. However, it is well worth taking the space to do something unrelated outside of work hours. Not only will regular breaks benefit mental health, a side gig could also result in journalism-related gains.

Freelance writer Katrina Robinson, who writes for titles such as Best of British, Woman Alive, and The Lady, also works part-time at a university library. There, she finds inspiration for features by noting what books the readers are ordering from the closed stacks.

She explains: “I think having another job keeps me grounded ‘in real life’. It [gives me] daily social contact, which can be a contrast to the lonely experience of writing. It’s kept me tuned into technology through having to learn new software programs. This is also good training for an increasingly online working world.”

For Robinson, examining people’s reading choices gives her a glimpse into the topics and personalities that she may not come across in her everyday life. “Inspirational women, long-forgotten but fascinating true crime cases, [and] ancient myths still play out in front of us today,” she says.

Both Katrina Robinson (R) and Lauren Crosby Medlicott (L) agree that a side job can be beneficial — and not just for journalists. (Images: @laurencrosbymedlicott and @katrina_m_robinson / Instagram)

Freelance journalist Lauren Crosby Medlicott agrees that having a ‘side job’ is important to gaining new skills. She started writing in summer 2020, but decided to maintain work as a supply teaching assistant and project manager for a charity supporting survivors of modern slavery.

“I think having side jobs — which I don’t consider hustles because I adore each role — has given me so many necessary skills,” insists Crosby. “Through teaching, I learned to break down lofty ideas into bite-size pieces. Project managing, especially for clients who are vulnerable, taught me how to interview people who have experienced trauma. Being a mum of three boys has provided me with experience of managing a lot of work in a very short amount of time.”

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“I think having another job keeps me grounded ‘in real life’. It [gives me] daily social contact, which can be a contrast to the lonely experience of writing.”
Katrina Robinson, freelance journalist

The Value Of Branching Out

Wendy Sloane, associate professor of journalism at the London Metropolitan University, explains how having a second job can help journalists gain transferable skills that can be valuable when carrying out interviews, making contacts, and reporting on stories.

“Many of my students work in retail or hospitality, which teaches them skills that are vital to any job, including journalism, such as team-working, leadership and numeracy,” Sloane explains. “They learn the importance of treating other people as they would wish to be treated, and the necessity of always being polite, open, and ethical.”

As a job that can often be public-facing, people skills are an important trait in any journalist. Sloane continues: “Being a straight-shooter is paramount when it comes to journalism. People open up more easily to others who are open and straight-forward themselves.”

The ability to approach complete strangers is a fantastic skill to have, and one that doesn’t come easy to a lot of people. Branching out with a side job or hobby can hone highly transferrable abilities which are needed in every media role.

As a bonus, of course, turning to a paying hobby is also a great way to increase your income — especially useful when getting started in journalism, coming back after a career break, or even to get through this cost-of-living crisis.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Minreet Kaur has a splashing time teaching other Asian women to swim.

Becoming A Better Journalist

According to regional-turned-freelance journalist Lorraine Gibson, anything from “creating products or working in a shop or office” can lead to a “rich seam of stories”. She says: “All you have to do is work out how to dig them out, then hang them on that journo hook.”

In my case with swimming, teaching can be an educational experience not just for students, but for the instructor too. When you consider how much work goes into preparing and producing a lesson, it’s not too hard to see the links with interviewing people and presenting a written or broadcast report.

Freelancer Peter Carvill finds his writing and reporting has improved greatly by pursuing a job in teaching English. “It’s made me a better reporter in two ways. Firstly, I’ve had to spend a lot of time brushing up on my English language skills. Secondly, once you’ve essentially performed an impromptu lesson for 90 minutes in front of 25 bored students, you tend not to have much fear when it comes to interviewing people. Equally, the cachet of having a [professional] journalist as a teacher has made me marketable.”

This is why Sloane continues to tell her students of Newsroom Production that having a second job is not a tool not to be sniffed at. In fact, it is a great help to budding — and more experienced — journalists to “move outside their comfort zone and see the world through others’ eyes”.

She advises: “It opens up new worlds, and can give you a whole new contacts book.” This is something that will always look great on any resumé.

Time will tell what kind of skills my swimming teacher career will grant me, but I have no doubt my journalism will benefit regardless.

Minreet Kaur
Minreet Kaur

Minreet Kaur is an award-winning freelance journalist with the BBC and Sky News. Apart from being a BAFTA juror, she also presents, reports, and is a swimming teacher focused on bringing the joy of the water to other Asian women.

Header image courtesy of Vladimir Fedotov via Unsplash