Story 32

What do you want to be when you give up?

Hi, I’m Irina, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a business journalist by day and a pun generator by night. I believe in long walks, Prada, old school delis, and Gogol.

Journalism didn’t seem like a safe career choice

There’s a New Yorker cartoon with two preschoolers playing with toy cars and Legos, captioned “What do you want to be when you give up?” Some look at it and see two kids that are in on this joke we call adulthood. When I first saw it in high school, I read it as a warning sign. I’ll never give up, I told myself.

Growing up, magazines were my toy cars and Legos. I can trace my life in magazine titles, from Disney Princess and National Geographic Kids to Top Gear and my school paper, from Harper’s Bazaar to the Economist and Businessweek. I even devoured the supermarket and airline magazines almost nobody else reads. So it’s only natural this cartoon, which haunts me to this day, reached me through a magazine. 

To me, magazines were aspirational as much as they were entertaining and informative. They were one-way tickets to worlds of ideas, questions, people, books, movies, fashion, music, jokes, and adventures that showed me there’s so much more to life than what’s in front of me — and I could be part of it all. 

It first dawned on me that magazines are made by actual people when I was around nine years old. At that time, I was reading Julie, a French magazine for young girls. I’d discovered it at the French Cultural Institute, where I was taking language classes. I hunted its issues — always months-old editions, never the latest, every time I went to the supermarket or this one bookstore with my parents. 

I got my hands on the magazine’s 100th-anniversary issue, which included a special section dedicated to “how it’s made,” introducing all the journalists, the newsroom dynamics, and the editorial process. It was right then and there that I decided I wanted to be one of them, the people who made it. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wasn’t going to give up.

“I guess we’ll never know.”

The beginning was easy. I edited my high school newspaper, subscribed to major business papers, filled my head with good sentences, started keeping a notebook, made notes of the career track of the journalists I read, and bought a beige trench coat that made me look like a detective. I also studied economics and politics at summer schools, where I took on issues like free speech in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo in writing.

The first thing I did when I went to study economics in London joined the student newspaper, which was even more exciting than I’d imagined. Just because I’d done well in school so far, I expected I’d be rushing into the newsroom with my laptop open and start typing top-notch articles straight away. Instead, my impostor syndrome showed up. Yes, I did have a C2 English language certificate, but writing sharp sentences didn’t come naturally, I was clueless about both UK domestic politics and ramen — a popular meal in the newsroom, I had never interviewed someone for a story, I had never written a news article, I had no idea what AP style was, I had never opened Twitter. 

I had week-long streaks of feeling like I didn’t belong in what I thought was my dream job. Like I was worthless because I couldn’t come up with a story idea, an angle, or a first paragraph. But somehow, I still gathered the courage to show up every time. Maybe it’s because that newsroom was the first time I met a group of people who all wanted to be journalists. I was no longer the odd one out. Boxing matches, student protests, education policy, modern art exhibitions — I spent nights, weekends, and holidays writing about them all, to the amusement and sometimes despair of my loved ones. Along the way, I fell in love with on-the-ground reporting, writing for and about the student tribe, and with the everyday dysfunctional-family-like dynamics of life in a newsroom. I like to joke that I showed up so much that I eventually became the Editor-in-chief. That’s still one of my favorite victories.

Still, journalism didn’t seem like a safe career choice by the time I got to the final year of my degree in London. The job prospects weren’t great, to put it mildly — I already had a rather long list of rejections. And I enjoyed economics and policy-making, which is why I applied for a public policy master. But the “What do you want to be when you give up?” cartoon popped up in my head. “I guess we’ll never know,” I wanted to answer, Kanye West-style. So I submitted my application for this highly competitive, dream program in journalism and economic policy in Paris. I didn’t think I’d get it. But if I did, I told myself, it would mean I’d never have to think about giving up ever again. It felt like a bet, and I put everything I had into making that application good.

I did get it. (Spoiler alert: the New Yorker cartoon is still credited as a cast member in the next season of my life.) It was everything I dreamed of and more. My teachers were the kind of journalists they make movies about — news junkies, obsessed with words, storytelling, and getting the facts right, in love with their jobs, and full of stories that would make for best-selling autobiographies.

My peers, each of them with their special spark, came from all over the world and were just as hungry to prove themselves and as passionate about reporting, reflecting, and questioning our world in creative ways through journalism as I was. Needless to say, they quickly became family. My days were filled with learning how to film, pitch ideas, chasing protesters, golden quotes and perfect opening paragraphs, interviewing small business owners and fashion designers from Paris’ least charming neighborhoods, talking to sneakerheads, and producing podcasts or turning air-quality data into visual stories. 

Less than five months from graduation, I hit a new low.

But my nights were filled with anxiety, and I doubted I’d ever get the chance to prove myself as a journalist outside school. By now, you’ve figured I have a thing for long lists. The most extended list in my repertoire is the one with rejections. Sending CVs, cover letters, and writing samples into the void, praying I’d get the job, and at the same time not even expecting an answer back, became everyday routine. I did well in my journalism school assignments, was praised by my teachers, and felt proud of my work. Yet I got rejected or did not even get a reply from almost every news organization you can name. I promise you that’s not an exaggeration.

Covid made things worse. It diluted the tribe-like vibe of journalism school and disconnected me from the much-needed adrenaline rush of on-the-ground reporting. Many internships were canceled, and it only added to the uncertainty that there is a place for me in this world.

It also opened new opportunities. Reporting on stories remotely forced me to get more creative about multimedia storytelling or find clever interview questions to be able to describe events as if I’d been there. For example, together with one of my best friends from journalism school, I created an Instagram page called “24 hours on lockdown,” showing how the lives of three people from the UK, Sri Lanka, and Italy unfolded over the same 24 hours. I also started freelancing remotely for a local Romanian news outlet, where I was given free rein to pursue my passion for data journalism, which was a formative experience for me. 

It was a new kind of adrenaline rush. One that I’d have to fight for every day. Chasing story ideas sometimes felt like looking for needles in the hay of the internet. I missed the pre-Covid feeling of being a detective roaming the streets with stories jumping at me from the most unexpected corners. I grew frustrated and disillusioned. 

I had promised myself not to give up. But remote working, chasing projects only to end up juggling too many assignments, and the uncertainty of freelancing with no end in sight was a far cry from the collaborative, resource-rich, innovation-driven newsrooms I’d glimpsed in the pages of Julie, and later in London and in journalism school.

Less than five months from graduation, I hit a new low. By then, it’d become obvious most newsrooms in Paris were only considering native French speakers (which I’m not). And international news organizations in the UK, which sometimes see thousands of applications for one position, wouldn’t consider me because they couldn’t sponsor my visa (I don’t have settled status). “What do you want to be when you give up?” was no longer a warning but a genuine question that demanded a practical answer.

I vividly remember one night after I’d received another email saying, “sorry, we don’t sponsor visas” minutes after submitting my application. I looked up from my laptop and saw mountains of post-its and planners with application plans and contacts, notebooks with story ideas, printed articles, annotated magazines, and books. Looking at them usually felt reassuring, as if they were part of this grand plan, a treasure I’d been amassing all these years. But that night, I felt like I was surrounded by trash. And it was everywhere I looked. 

Above all, I felt shame. The shame of having taken my childhood dreams too seriously, the shame of not giving up. Sure, I knew I’d gotten a lot better along the way, but the fact of the matter was I’d been getting rejections for five years. Maybe my dream job was simply not meant for me. Maybe it’d been a classic case of unrequited love all along.

I can start growing up from where I am

There was only one London newsroom that was sponsoring visas. I’d already been rejected in a previous internship round, but I thought I’d give it another shot. When I passed the CV screening stage, it felt like now or never. As I prepared for the interview rounds that followed, I started wanting this internship even more. It seemed like it was a combination of everything I was — or wanted to be good at following the money to report about business, politics, tech, and cultural change in a collaborative newsroom. 

I remember forbidding myself to even dream about getting this internship. When the final assessment day came, which consisted of multiple choice and writing tests, and a couple of interview rounds, I was excited more than anything. It was only the second time I’d passed to the actual interview stage in an application process. I felt so lucky to get a chance to prove myself in front of journalists whose work I admired.

When the bureau chief’s phone number popped up on my screen a few mornings later, I was in disbelief. Why would he call to tell me I didn’t get it? I couldn’t imagine I’d be accepted. Yet I was. 

And so I returned to London (after a lot of visa trouble). My internship felt like permission to be myself fully and a chance to push myself forward. I reported on vegan seafood, mini skirts, labor shortages, and the wheat harvest. I witnessed journalists literally move the market with their headlines. I got thrills from teasing information out of sources. Working for a big organization gave me the gift of belonging — being part of an ecosystem where I felt supported, encouraged, and inspired by everyone I worked with. Every morning in the office elevator on my way up, I’d get butterflies in my stomach. I had a crush on my internship — and it was not unrequited.

At the end of my internship, I was offered a full-time position in London. At the time of writing this, I’ve just started settling into my new role. In-between, there were two months of spending time with my family, going on long walks in my leafy neighborhood, and nourishing parts of myself I’d neglected or wounded in the process of “not giving up.” I even finished a novel. 

The New Yorker cartoon still haunts me, albeit in a very different way. Restless as I am, I’m tempted to start thinking about what’s next. While at home, I reported and wrote a short local piece for one of my favorite newsletters. This reminded me how much I love going on the ground and telling meaningful stories, no matter how small. I realized the “what” in “what do you want to be when you grow up” is not a fixed target but a particular way of working — and living. I understood it’s essential to find my tribe and create something of meaning for it through journalism.

But my new job has also indirectly gifted me patience with myself. I no longer have to fret over the next gig, the next job application, the next step. I now have the space and resources to develop myself and tell the best stories I can. I hope that will lead me to my tribe in time. Now that I no longer worry about giving up, I can start growing up from where I am.

Be patient,

Contributors of this story: Irina Anghel wrote this gem, Oana Filip provided feedback and edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge of the development.

A question by Irina Anghel, the author of this story:
How do you know the difference between giving up and adjusting your target so it serves you better?

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Alex Enășescusays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:journalist

What a refreshing read this was! The insight about chasing a way of life rather that a job is profound and spot on. It all comes back to learning to love the process, doesn’t it?As Naval Ravikant puts it: 

“Be a maker who makes something interesting people want. Show your craft, practice your craft, and the right people will eventually find you.” 

Fwiw, all through J-School and a few years after, I was dead-set on being a sports writer and now I barely watch football, so you never really know. It was a privilege to meet you and publish your work, Irina. You’ve got all it takes, no fretting! 

Its always amazing to read about people who know what they want to become since they were litle. I was never that person, and I must say that I admire you for your perseverence and for how much you invested in becoming the person you wanted to be.

I found my favorite job by luck and my following my instinct, and I am grateful that I managed to get here. So, for those of you reading this, don’t panic; you can find your spot at a later stage.

All in all, Irina, you had me glued to the screen while reading this piece; I was rooting for you, feeling the down moments with you, and felt relief when I read that you found your place. You are meant to do this. And you were right not to give up.

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