The novelty of journalism

I was reminded today of just why I love having a blog. I was glancing at some of my old posts from my summer working with a healthcare NGO in Tanzania 2 years ago and I came across this from June 9, 2012,

The excitement threshold, along with our expectations of what constitutes a “novelty,” rises exponentially in the middle years of our life trajectory. At 4, we can easily be entertained by the spinning wheels of a tricycle. And at 60, people like my grandmother and the medical professionals we have been working with during the mMaisha training sessions are positively glowing with giddy excitement at the concept of a successful email correspondence. Perhaps this phenomenon is limited to the world of information technology—but nevertheless, the elders in our life are noticeably more willing to be excited.

And what about us? The 20 and 30-somethings who are still figuring out their way, or perhaps are a little too confident that they have already found it. Maybe you can ascribe it to the typical youth angst and skepticism that characterizes this age group—the portion of society which keeps the institutions accountable since they will be the first to take to the streets should something be asmiss. For those of us who are in this age group, the excitement threshold is high.

Sitting at a desk in the Compañeros en Salud (CES) office in Mexico, I  wonder if I still agree. Do I still think it takes a lot to elicit excitement in a 20-something such as myself? Well, I do think (for me at least) that it generally takes something with a bit of novelty about it to get me excited. But I’ve now decided that what is of more consequence is how exactly I go about defining “novelty.” 

Let me give an example.

The worlds of global health, journalism, and Spanish language study have long interested me, but what I have realized in my time here is that it is incredible what novelty can be created in making something just a little different than it was before.

Stephanie Khurana, a woman I’ve always regarded as a brilliant and compassionate House Master at Harvard, once illustrated this point by using the following example in a talk she was giving. She explained that she realized her love for entrepreneurship as a child, when she used to sell strawberries by the carton in her neighborhood. Her profits were solid, she shared–not remarkable, but decent considering her market access and available resources. But one day, she decided to use the strawberries to make a strawberry pie, and then sold that instead. She had created value, and hence the novelty of the entire endeavor. Her profits skyrocketed (keeping this in perspective, of course).

When I met Rocío, the fiery red-haired Spaniard and volunteer journalist working in the CES office, I was excited to hear of her adventures traveling the world and writing about what she encountered. To use her pen as a means of reconciling viewpoints and uncovering truths—it seemed nothing short of idyllic. And she wanted my help with an article she was writing about the case of one particular patient with severe manchas (skin discoloration) that CES had recently treated. I had long been enamored by global health, journalism and Spanish– not to mention the chance to now learn more about her life–and so I gladly agreed.

And here, I realized that my opportunity to add value to Rocío’s endeavor was in fact an additional definition of novelty for me. Maybe the topics and the exercise were old, but the opportunity to combine these three worlds and to work out the unique rhythms of an English-language and Spanish-language news article allowed me to refashion what I had already experienced into something altogether new. I was already excited.

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Back and forth, between Spanish and English, Rocío and I talked. We found points of agreement and many more of debate as we tried to find the right way to express certain phrases in English and give them the same sentido in Spanish. And through these two languages I learned about the patient whom Rocío had been reporting on and how and why journalism in the field of public health so fascinated her. Much of what she said resonated with me–no translation needed.

I love and have always loved telling stories. Language–whether English, Spanish, or my parents’ native Sinhala–is incredible in its versatility. I hope that refashioning it around a story will always be one of the ways in which I create value. And for me, there is endless novelty in that.

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