Visiting furnace manufacturers and attending bathroom fittings launches isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of journalism.
This kind of work is the daily reality of a trade press — also known as B2B — reporter, which I was at one point in my career. Although wading through thick piles of press releases about new products was often yawn inducing, there were random moments of mirth, too.
Occasionally, strange packages would turn up at the office, from lawnmowers to kitchen gizmos via a brick around which a press release was wrapped and secured with an elastic band.
The latter was definitely a marketing coup whose significance left us all a little discombobulated. Imagine an entire newsroom staring at a brick, bemused, and then passing it around before bursting out laughing and being unable to stop.
Luckily, I regularly got out sent on assignments. Although none of them sounded riveting on paper, they actually were.
The perceived dullness of the assignment would invariably be offset by an enjoyable train ride, a change of scenery, and the satisfaction of having learned something new.
As a result, I never failed to have a thought-provoking day wherever I went.
Alas, the nature of the job was such that I’d only become an expert long enough to file my piece before forgetting all newly acquired knowledge and moving on to the next thing. The reason not much of it stuck is because I wasn’t particularly passionate about the industry, only about the people aspect of it and the mechanics of writing.
And yet, this alone was more than enough for me to derive satisfaction from my daily grind. It also spurred me on during the inevitable occasional all-nighter I had to pull before going to press because we were short-staffed.
So short-staffed that if my byline had appeared on every piece I wrote, readers would have wondered why there seemed to be just the one reporter and the one editor putting together an entire magazine. To get around that problem, we used the generic “staff reporter” byline on roughly half of our pieces.
English humor, no doubt: I was the resident freelancer.
Vocation was — and remains — one of my strengths.
As a freelancer, it was my job to make everyone’s life better and ease their workload.
I wasn’t so much driven as wholly dedicated to the task at hand because I worked with consummate professionals who were both affable and helpful. Whether a publisher, an editor, or a fellow reporter, everyone was always generous with time and advice. There wasn’t a single person in that newsroom who wished they were elsewhere, which is a testament to how well this media outlet treated us.
So well that we even had a tea lady who brought us steaming mugs of the magical brew throughout the day, remembering everyone’s preferences. This is a very outdated British custom that had long gone out of fashion by then, but not in our office. She was a beloved senior whose company everyone appreciated and treasured, and it was mutual.
Despite the non-mainstream nature of the journalism I practiced at the time, there was one part I loved and never failed to volunteer for: interviews.
Every now and then, I’d venture somewhere up North or down South to go and talk to independent hardware retailers.
I had the honor and privilege of making the acquaintance of extraordinary humans, many of whom shared their life story with me.
One of them was an Indian man who was forced to flee Uganda and seek refuge in Britain as a consequence of Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship.
He landed with nothing but his British passport and his encyclopedic knowledge of fixtures catalogues. Because he knew the specifications of all the items you can find in a hardware store, he was able to find work immediately and eventually set up his own business from scratch.
By the time I met him, his store was his and his wife’s life work. Their pride showed in every detail inside, how they welcomed and addressed customers, and how they told me their story.
This interview remains the highlight of my trade press career because their passion was contagious.
I went back to the office with a spring in my step that day, having met a kindred spirit who forever changed the way I looked at product press releases.
This man had vocation, too.
All jobs are about people.
Whichever way you earn your living, what you do intersects with human needs even if it’s not always immediately obvious.
Every job provides some kind of service that makes life better for others because every single occupation is useful. There is no lesser job; all work is productive.
Working alongside fellow humans who enjoy being there and push themselves to do their best is inspiring and catching. In this respect, journalism has never let me down. Those who practice it tend to be curious to a fault, favor straight talk, and don’t suffer fools gladly.
But when you work in a place where everyone lacks motivation and you do a job you loathe, being there 8 hours a day can be dispiriting. I’ve been there; I lost my way in the corporate world for years. If many tend to batten down the hatches to mitigate the soul-sucking nature of their tasks while keeping an eye on the clock, there is another way.
Talk to your colleagues and get to know them. If applicable, talk to your clients or suppliers and get to know them. And if none of that works, think of those your work helps support, even if it’s only yourself. Focus on the human side and you might just start looking forward to going to work.
Without tapping into our shared humanness, how would kitchen staff survive such a relentless place in an unforgiving environment for example? They’re on their feet in cramped spaces under extremely hot temperatures for a minimum of 8 hours and seldom get paid well.
But they, too, have superpowers: humor and team work.
My stepmom’s son spent his entire career as a chef and is a fantastic storyteller who will make random strangers laugh in less than five minutes. His contact book is chock full of people who will always have his back, the kind of people who will drop everything in the middle of the night if he needs help.
And if you’re a freelancer like me and work from home or while on the road, find your tribe, be it online or in person. Ask them how they go about their work and share how you approach your own, your motivations, your work ethics, what makes you tick.
When you build bridges and create relationships, what you do will become less important than who you do it with and who you do it for.
Work is a human necessity, we’re all in this together.
So why not collaborate instead of competing?
Only then can you discover what ingenuity squared can achieve, regardless of how you feel about your job.
As a bonus, what started out as lackluster might eventually become interesting.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.