Cherish Small Steps and Stay Rooted

A self-reflection on turning around a disappointing end to the year.

I wrote this to remind my future self, in case I ever get carried away again. If you like this, it’s a bonus for me.

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By April 2020, the year was looking pretty bad for my freelance science journalism career in Malaysia. The pandemic cancelled or shrunk most of my field reporting plans. I have been gearing up to apply for three or four journalism fellowships, but only one accepted applications.

Writing this on 1 Jan 2021, I am surprised that 2020 turned out fine. I published my first story in The Atlantic; ran several webinars on science writing and journalism; and received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for an investigative story on forest-use in Peninsular Malaysia which I completed after 9 months.

Macaranga, an environmental journalism outfit I co-founded, churned out 17 stories and two commentaries —about 30,000 words in total. In the last few days of December, we welcomed six contributing writers to our roster!

The icing on the cake was winning the One World Media Award (Print category) for my narrative longform story on snakebites in Indonesia. The bonus durian cream on the cake (I love durians) was that the jury was led by a journalist I respect very much — Rana Ayyub. (Read her profile in the New Yorker and tell you aren’t floored.)

So, like I said, 2020 was a good year. Even without the setback of the pandemic, I would still be happy with my achievements for the year.

Then I got carried away.

Head in the Clouds

Winning the One World Media Award pumped helium into my ego. I had also submitted my snakebite story for the Medical Journalists’ Association Award (UK) and the True Story Award.

I made the shortlist for the MJA Award in 2018, so I was feeling good about my prospects this time. I was aiming for the sky with the True Story Award but I thought my story made a strong contender in the criteria the jury was looking for.

Well, the announcement dates in September and December rolled by. My story didn’t even make the longlist. My incessant refreshing of their websites didn’t help.

I was disappointed. I was already imagining what I could do with the prize money (invest into Macaranga and fund my podcast) and how when I attend the True Story ceremony in Bern I could also catch up with my friend in Zurich…

Poof! All gone. Down from the clouds and back to ground. Solid, familiar ground. It took me a whole night and day to swipe clean the scenes of 3,000 Swiss francs and a Swiss trip that had been playing in my mind.

Dear future self: I wish your “Delete disappointment” button works faster than in 2020.

Long shot, says who?

Truth be told, the True Story Award was for me a long shot on the scale of an intercontinental ballistic missile. How could I even be upset that I wasn’t picked? Take a look at the longlist — it’s oozing quality!

I must have duped myself into thinking that I deserve more. A string of stories in top magazines, praises for those stories, and people asking me for advice. I achieved these through hard work and humility, and I should have cherished them as bonus reward for doing what I like — writing.

Instead, I transformed the appreciation into helium and pumped it full-strength into my head. I had savored the extra durian cream on a sponge cake, then demanded a whole durian orchard gifted to me.

Silly, I know. Hindsight is 20/20.

This recent spade of disappointment reminded me of the times years ago when I too had taken achievements for granted.

I deserve a better grade!

I did my BSc. degree in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University, 2002–2006. Somehow, I excelled in McGill and was scoring As in all my classes, even in mathematics which I barely got passing grades in high school. My CGPA kept close to 4.00.

Then I took an elective class in Introductory Mycology (fungi) and a graduate-level class in Parasitoid Behavioral Ecology. I worked as hard in these two classes as I did for the rest. In fact, I must have invested more into the Parasitoid Behavioral Ecology class because it was a marriage of my two loves — parasitoids and animal behavior.

Yet, I only got B or B+ for both of the classes. I was so pissed off. No kidding. Those were the only times I felt mistreated by lecturers. I couldn’t understand why the two professors graded my assignments so badly. I took the classes two years apart, but in each instance, I wanted to question the professors.

For the Parasitoid Behavioral Ecology class, I vividly remember standing outside the door of the professor’s other class, ready to ambush him when he walks out and demand an explanation.

Well, I didn’t. I can’t remember what held me back but I am pretty sure I must have cooled it off with ice-cream. (A bowl of ice-cream was my regular evening supplement during those Montreal years.)

What I remember though was that around the same time the Parasitoid Behavioral Ecology class destroyed my near-perfect CGPA, my PhD scholarship applications for Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, and Stanford also fell through.

Those rejections hit me hard. This was after several years of acing (almost) every class and impressing the many research groups I worked with. Was my CGPA (3.92) or my GRE scores too low? Or was my personal statement too stale?

Postmortem didn’t matter. Knowing where I fell short couldn’t have made me happier. Even fresh durians might not have sparked joy for me then*.

Just Work, Don’t Expect a Bonus

Then a friend, more matured and wise, leaned into his Christian teachings and told me: “This is God’s way of telling you not to take things for granted.”

I am not a Christian, but his words resonated with me.

“Yes, Yao Hua, don’t take things for granted,” I told myself.

Dear future self: Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, so you should cherish every small success.

Failure are inevitable, and though they hurt, you could at least use them to keep yourself humble and grounded.

On December 22, I brushed off any lingering disappointment from not making the longlist of the True Story Award. As other freelance journalists posted their lists of stories and income for the year, for me it was time for hard work and small steps to close the year.

In the last two weeks of 2020, I built a new website, designed infographics, planned my upcoming podcast (Monsoon!), and read many articles on writing and podcasting on Medium.

I learned many new skills and tools in a dozen days. I count each as a success; I cherish them all.

And oh, durian cream on the cake — I earned my first $0.99 on Medium on a few days ago!

2020 was a good year after all.

*: Kidding. Fresh durians have always brought me joy.

Freelance science journalist in Malaysia. Stories in Macaranga, Science News, Science, BBC, Mosaic, Nikkei Asia. Loves durian. https://scienceilluminates.com

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