Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Modern storytelling

It's been a year since I started writing for NST on Sundays. Every weekend, I would do two articles for a two-page spread called Savvy.

On the left page would be Future Proof, my column on technological developments for the future. On the right side would be a Q&A-style profile of interesting and innovative individuals.

There's been a bit of a revamp and now my articles appear on two different days on the weekend. The Future Proof column will stay on Sundays but the profile articles will appear on Saturdays. The profile pieces will also be different. I'm working on making them into full-on profiles and not just Q&A pieces. That means a full-feature with narrative story-telling and more pictures. For the online version I will also create some multimedia content.

This starts next week with a feature on the founder of GrubCycle, a social enterprise that deals with food wastage. It will be an interesting one, I promise you!

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Trump has re-energized journalism

Journalism had been in a funk for many years, with many traditional media outlets letting go of staff and in some cases, actually closing shop. Even the venerable New York Times had had to let go of some staff as we seen in the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times.

This all changed when Donald Trump unexpectedly became president of the United States. The media became reinvigorated and tons of scoops emerged like never before. And this was true for non-political stories as well. The Harvey Weinstein bombshell and the numerous other sexual harassment stories that came after it are examples of excellent journalism.

What we are seeing with the media in the US right now, in particular the NY Times and Washington Post is journalism at its very best. It's so exciting checking out the news online and watching news clips on YouTube. There's so much good journalism happening in the US.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Write, write, write

There is a movie out in the US now called The Post which is about journalism. It's not out in Malaysia yet and I doubt it'll ever come here because this is not the kind of Jumani-like action movie that would do well in this country. But it's a topic that's immensely interesting to me. For many years, I was a journalist and an editor at various newspapers.

Even when I was an editor, I continued to write feature articles and opinion columns. I felt it was important for me to stay in touch with reporting and writing even though my primary responsibilities had to do with editing and managing journalists. I never wanted to be the kind of editor who lost touch with writing. I don't think that makes for a good editor.

I don't really consider myself a journalist per se anymore although I do write regular columns for NST on Sundays. In addition to that I write my thoughts on running a judo club, which is not an easy endeavor, especially in a place like Malaysia where judo is a very niche sport. I haven't done general blogging in a long, long time but perhaps it's time to return to doing so. The start of a new year is a good time to do this.

When people blog, they tend to write for themselves. It's sort of an online, public diary of their thoughts. For me, as a writer, I've always written for my audience. It doesn't matter what topic I'm writing about, whether it's politics or IT, I would write with the audience in mind. I'm writing for their benefit, for them to better understand an issue and for their reading pleasure. And so it is when I blog as well. Whether it's about judo or about my observations about life or work or human nature, if I bother to write something, it's for the audience. To write for myself would be a classic case of shiok sendiri. If I wanted to do that, I'll do it in my own offline, personal diary not an online, public one.

When I write, I always ask myself questions like: Is this topic of interest to anyone? Have I got some useful insight to share? Is what I'm writing interesting or entertaining? Will it help anyone have a better understanding or grasp of that particular issue? I think it's important, as a writer, to ask such questions of myself. That will keep me on the right track and write something of value to others.

Each of us is born with different talents. Some people are musically-inclined. Some are very artistic. Others can write computer programs and cook really well. We all have gifts. I'm good at judo and I write well. It's important to do something tangible with your gifts, otherwise you are wasting your natural talent.

Judo, I'm already contributing by way of my JudoCrazy blog and Facebook Page which are popular with judokas around the world. Plus I run a judo club in KL.

Writing, well... I have my NST columns. I guess I could (and should) work on some new books since I have the skills and the know-how to do books. And I think I should blog about general topics more often. Over the years, I've had a lot of experiences and I've met a lot of different people (still do). I think I have a lot of useful observations and insights to share. So, I should do it.

When the late great film critic Roger Ebert got cancer, far from slowing down, he increased his writing output. Besides the formal movie reviews that he would do, he would blog extensively. I guess he felt he didn't have a lot of time left in this world and whatever time he had, he would use it to write for the benefit and entertainment of his audience. He was after all a writer. What better way to use his talents than to write, write and write?

Friday, September 08, 2017

On fame and greatness...

Although not everybody will admit it, deep down inside most people want to become famous. Who wouldn't want their names to appear in newspapers or magazines or be featured on TV? Sure, there are a few media shy people out there but the truth is that most people would relish being famous.

The harsh reality is that most people — an overwhelming majority — will never become famous. Not even for 15 minutes. But that's ok. It doesn't mean you can't live a really meaningful life.

This NYT article: You’ll Never Be Famous — And That’s O.K., talks about that and makes many good points. Here's a really good one:
Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve — and we can find our meaning in that.
When we think of heroes or idols we admire, we tend to think of the big names like Zuckerberg. Or Steve Jobs. Or Bill Gates. Or Elon Musk. If those are the benchmarks we've set for ourselves, we will almost surely be disappointed.

Yeah, I like reading their stories and I am inspired by such larger than life personalities. But I'd rather have my heroes be teachers who made an impact on how I see things. Or a local business person who's pursuing their dreams despite the naysayers who say it can't be done. Or anyone who is genuinely nice and helpful towards others.

They might not exactly be changing the world but they sure are changing the world of the people around them.

Think about the teachers who made you see things in a different light. Or the business people who make you think: "Why don't more businesses offer such products or services?" And think about those people you sometimes come across who are so kind and sincere that it restores your hope for a society that has gone dog-eat-dog.

There's an Instagram meme I came across (see on the left) which is very apt for this posting.

How many of us get the chance to do big things in the first place? Very few. But all of us do small things every day. The question is do you do those small things in a great way or not? And if not, why not?

Give it all you've got no matter what you are doing. And if you do that, you will be impacting some people or at least someone in a positive way. Do enough of that and you would be leading a very meaningful life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

On skills development

Continuous learning is about picking up new skills to remain relevant. Of course it's important. But what about existing skills that you already have? Do you still need to develop those further?

The instinctive answer is yes, of course you can always learn more and become better at what you do. But can you? What if you are already very good at what you do and there's not that much more to learn?

Let's take a famous chef like Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver. Sure, they could learn new cooking techniques. Let's say they were to embark on a course on Nyonya Cooking. For sure there are new techniques they could pick up because it's not something they would be familiar with. But that falls under the category of "continuous learning" which is stuff you don't yet know. The question I'm interested in is whether there is more for them to learn for stuff they already do know.

If Gorden Ramsey is very good at making poached eggs and mushroom on toast, would he need to further improve on that? Is it even possible to improve on his poached-egg-and-mushroom-on-toast making skills?

My thoughts on that: There are only so many ways you can make poached eggs and mushroom on toast and since he's mastered it (heck he teaches a Masterclass on it) what more is there for him to learn on this? Nyonya cooking, yes. Poached eggs... I don't think so. He's got that one down already.

I've pondered upon my own skill sets. There are two things I do quite well. One is writing. The other is judo. I write professionally and it's how I make a living. As for judo, I'm a former national champion and have represented Malaysia in two World Championships.

So, I've asked myself: Is there more I can learn about being a good writer? And the same with judo. The answer is not yes to both or no to both but yes to one and no to the other.

I honestly doubt there's more I can do or learn to further improve my writing skills. For sure I'm a better writer now than I was 20 years ago. But I probably honed my writing skills to a high level perhaps 15 years ago. During the first five years of my writing career I learned a lot about writing, mostly self-taught. I did this by studying and emulating the good writers whom I admired and by doing a heck of a lot of writing. As they say, practice makes perfect.

At first, because I was starting from a very low base, the improvements were very noticeable and rapid. I went from being an amateurish writer with potential to someone who was writing for local and international publications within a few short years. I became a section editor of a newspaper within those five years. Like I said, the improvements were vast and they were fast.

But after that, although I kept writing a lot and I kept reading a lot -- this never changed over the years -- there was no noticeable improvements. I had become as good as I could possibly be. That doesn't mean I'm the best writer in the world. Of course not but as far as my capabilities are concerned, I had peaked. No amount of practice or analyzing other people's writing styles will make me a better writer.

In contrast, I've been doing judo for about 30 years -- that's more than a quarter of a century -- and I'm still learning and improving every day. Each time I analyze a judo competition video clip, my skills as a judo player/coach improves. Each time I train in judo, I become a better judoka. Each time I teach a technique I already know so well, I discover a facet of it that I didn't realize before.

I feel I can't really improve anymore as a writer. The level that I'm at is what I'm stuck with. (Fortunately, it's a pretty good level). But with judo, I am constantly improving and I'm sure I'll be much better at it a year from now, even though my level of judo mastery is already at a very high level.

So, why is that?

I think it's because one art form doesn't really evolve much while the other does so and rather quickly. Good journalistic writing in 2017 is indistinguishable from good journalistic writing in 1997. Nothing has changed in terms of how you write a good news report or a feature article or an opinion piece in the last 20 years. The topics that you write about might have changed but the art and science of news, feature and opinion writing have remained the same.

In contrast, judo today doesn't look anything like judo in 1997. Not only are the rules different but the style of play, the techniques that are used, the strategies employed -- all very different. You don't even have to go back that far. Judo in 2007 is very, very different from the judo of today, in all those areas that I'd just mentioned.

So, in a way, there is continuous learning involved when it comes to judo. You actually have to learn new things. Even for those techniques that you have already mastered and know so well, there are so many changes to the way those techniques are done and how they contribute to the scores you can get that it does involve learning new things. Not so with writing articles.