Jamila Rizvi: Political commentator and author
Jamila Rizvi is a big believer in never letting a plan get in the way of a great opportunity.
"If you had asked me a year ago what I would be doing in my career, I wouldn’t have guessed – and the same goes if you went back another year."
With a background working in politics as an advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments before entering the media, Jamila describes herself as a thorough day-to-day planner and a strategic thinker, with the rest being open to opportunities.
"My career has been a series of happy accidents and circumstances that have allowed me to go after something. The last few years in particular haven’t been as planned as my career had been previously – instead I’ve been chasing things that make me happy, and also bring in a good income for my family."
Such a ‘grab bag’ approach has led to a diverse freelance career. Currently, Jamila writes a column for News Limited, has frequent public speaking engagements, is a regular host on ABC radio and guest on Today Show and The Project, and has edited the new anthology The Motherhood – all alongside starting a new part-time role as Editor-at-Large for Future Women.
"I’m very all over the place," Jamila admits; yet switching between her various hats remains quite seamless. "While I don’t have a consistent platform, the themes of gender, politics and inclusivity remain the same – and the work feeds into itself in that sense."
One difficulty of cobbling together work in the media industry is the level of uncertainty. "In this industry, a lot of the time things don’t come off, which can be really hard. I think you’ve got to have some space in your work where you’re a little bit protected by that, otherwise your hopes – and ego – are constantly being built right up only to crash."
But in recent months, Jamila has become less susceptible to worry after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. “There was definitely a change in perspective. I am less scared of things that don't have to do with mortality.”
After surgery things that would normal cause nerves or stress such as public speaking have taken a back seat. “I haven't felt nervous since. It's almost just like, what's the worst thing that could happen, right?”
It’s not the big, grand, I’m-going-to-change-everything-about-my-life cliché you might expect after someone faces their mortality, but Jamila says that’s a good thing.
“I think it was perhaps more of a personal reflection and realisation that I was doing things that genuinely made me happy. My life still measures up in the way that I wanted it to measure up.”
The realisation that we are not as indestructible as we might think is humbling, she adds. “I just want to be alive to keep doing what I'm doing. From a work perspective, from a family perspective, from a friendship perspective. I just want more time to do what I am doing.”
More time to do what we do, more time making the most of it – ain’t that the thing we all strive for? Jamila shares what she does with her time, reminding us our days are simple and grand all at the same time.
A day in the life
I’m not a super early riser – I usually wake up at about 7am to a knock on the door from my toddler Rafi.
On a normal weekday I’m getting Rafi off to childcare at around 8am, then I almost always go straight to a coffee shop.
I have a bunch of five friends with various artistic pursuits who I write with – there’s usually at least two or three of us every day in the mornings. We treat the coffee shop as our office, really!
If it’s a writing day, I’ll write between 9am–12pm as that’s when my brain is at its best for new ideas. I’ll also use brunch as a way to reward myself – I don’t let myself order food at the cafe until I’ve done a certain amount of writing.
Some mornings, though, I will have to do breakfast TV, which throws everything out.
From a schedule perspective, the afternoons are a real mix and I partly miss having structure, because I am quite a right-brained, logical person.
I often do radio at least one afternoon a week, but usually I try to schedule meetings for after lunch because that’s the time I tend to have a dip in energy, and I find meetings will usually reenergise me.
A lot of having an artistic pursuit of any kind is about the hustle and having meetings about things that might not happen, like an event or podcast or things like that. You go through this process of your hopes getting up very high and then something doesn’t come off. I’m very glad I don’t have to audition for things anymore because I think that can be really hard.
On the nights I’m home, I’ll usually do childcare pickup around 6pm. I’m always home on a Monday night because the political programming on the ABC is so important. Also my husband has yoga on Monday nights, so someone has to be home with our child.
Typically between 6-8pm, I’m just with my son, convincing him to eat some dinner, making him have a bath, and reading ten thousand books before bed.
In our house, I am the boring cook and Jeremy is the special occasion cook, which I actually think is underlying misogyny because he only likes cooking when there’s a grand applause for the cooking and then everyone thinks he's amazing – but I’m the one that cooked all week! But we also get a lot of Uber Eats – an excessive amount of Uber Eats!
If I’m co-hosting The Project or if I’m on The Drum, my husband will do childcare pickup. I’ll head in and do TV and come back just as my little boy’s going to bed. If there is a speaking event, though, that can run much later.
When I’m home I’m almost always sitting with my husband watching Netflix and I am on my computer clearing emails – I don’t work well in the evenings so I do stuff that requires low brain power.
Sleeping is my secret super power – I’ve never been one of those people who has trouble sleeping. I need my sleep and if I get less than seven hours, I’m really an unpleasant person; if I get nine, I’m thrilled. So I’m usually in bed by 10.30pm.
During the week, my husband and I have a rough schedule where I’m with our son for the start of the week when he isn’t in childcare, and my husband takes the later bit of the week because I often have to work on weekends – a lot of speaking events and writers' festivals are on weekends, things like that.
We tend to sit down on a Sunday night and go through both of our schedules for the week, but without a doubt there is always at least one day where both of us can’t do one thing. Then there's sort of this standoff around whose work is more important – my husband's a lawyer and he’ll be like, "I'm in court," and I'll be sitting there going, "I'm on television." No one wins!
We also have an army of babysitters and Rafi’s fairy godfathers – self-named!
Life lessons from Jamila Rizvi
On not letting the plan get in the way of opportunities…
I have a day-to-day plan and a month-to-month plan. I don't have a year-to-year plan necessarily. I think that's the nature of freelancing. I’m a big believer that you should never let the plan get in the way of great opportunities. If I just stuck to my plan and just said, "Well, no. I’m doing this." I would never have written a book. I would never have tried out television.
My friend Clare Bowditch and I were walking in the park a few months ago when she said, "Hey, we should do a podcast together," and I said "No, I’m sick of podcasts. Let's do live events." That wasn’t part of the plan, but we did it.
I don’t like the idea of my plan getting in the way of things. I think with creative work, I find that it’s about piecing together a career and knowing that the jigsaw is going to keep moving all the time.
On procrastination as part of the creative process…
Often when I start writing I just go for it. If I’m writing a column for a newspaper for example, I don’t spend days beforehand crafting the column, I will write a column in three hours – I’m not a perfectionist in that sense.
I tend to feel like I’m procrastinating, but the procrastinating is actually formulating a lot of the work in my head. I’ll start to map out dot points on the page and then start moving them around on the page to find the best flow, and then I will write it all in a big burst.
On figuring out when your brain does its best work…
I know I think best first thing in the morning, so I’m frustrated with myself if I mess around because the best thing for me is to start immediately. I’m not someone who can go and take a break for a few hours and come back in the afternoon, as I know I won’t be at my best.
I think the challenge is to find out when your brain does its best work. Not just during the day, but even during the week. I have a friend, for example, who looks after her elderly mother-in-law on a Wednesday, and she’s completely drained on a Thursday. There’s no point in her trying to put creative stuff on that Thursday.
So don’t try and force yourself to do it when it’s not coming. Work out the times in your schedule when you’re most creative and you’re most alert. For me, it is first thing in the morning. For a lot of people I know, it is the last thing at night.
On creating a list of people whose opinions matter to you…
I sometimes receive horrible comments in response to my work, which is the nature of writing on the internet. But one of the things I did early on was come up with a list of ten people whose opinions I was going to listen to – almost like a personal board of directors! It’s an exercise I’ve also done with staff and it’s important to know they didn't have to be people you knew – you could put Beyoncé on your list if you wanted!
Hillary Clinton is on my list, Stella Young is on my list, my dad is on my list, and some former mentors too, and so when I receive a criticism that upsets me, I mentally run through what happen with that board of people and ask, are they unimpressed with what I've done? If they are, well then maybe I need to reconsider how I've approached this and if I have messed up, but if they say I'm fine, then I know not to listen to this sideline critic.
In a very un-routined fashion, my ad-hoc newsletter explores the daily rhythms and inevitable stumbles in creative life through a curated list of interviews, musings, experiments and interesting links.
It is equal parts comforting and inspiring, and anticipated by thousands of readers.
Sign up below if you're curious!