A month before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world, I received an invitation to attend a four-month scientific program at the University of California, Berkeley, and be paid $25,000 US. Instead, I enrolled in a one-year journalism program at Concordia University. I turned down an excellent career opportunity in favour of personal growth.
To explain why, I need to go back 35 years.
I was born in Pakistan and grew up in Iran. My name first appeared in print at age 13, when I translated a short story called The lonely monkey from English to Persian, and a children’s magazine published it. I was over the moon. I still have the handwritten acceptance note.
Becoming a writer or a journalist was not an option, though. The only choice was between becoming an engineer and a doctor.
I loved mathematics and enjoyed spending several hours alone solving a problem. The abstract world of mathematics was beautiful and perfect; I spent most of my time there, away from the messy world of humans.
At age 23, I immigrated to Canada to study math. I imagined Canada as a perfect society, where everything is in order, people are friendly to one another and the government is there to help you.
After a few years, I slowly saw the cracks: widespread loneliness, homelessness, Indigenous issues, the climate crisis. But I still cared much more about Iran, which had far more serious problems.
Moreover, my expertise was in mathematics, so I thought that the best way I could help the world would be to become a university professor and educate students. But that plan failed. After receiving a PhD, I did six job interviews but didn’t get a permanent job offer. For five years after my PhD, I held temporary research positions at three universities. My salary was decent, but the impact of my work intangible.
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Then my inner writer kicked in. In January 2019, I tried publishing again. I translated part of a book and published it in a Montreal-based Persian magazine, and then I started freelance writing in Persian; I wrote about the climate crisis and Indigenous issues, and I realized that this was a way that I could have a broader impact.
When I became a Canadian citizen in July 2019, I started to expect more from myself than just having a well-paying job and personal happiness. I thought I needed to contribute to making Canada a better country, but then I realized how little I knew about this diverse society and its issues. Since immigrating in 2009, my social life had been confined to the Iranian diaspora and the mathematics community. I felt the urge to burst these bubbles, and journalism helped, as it compelled me to interact with many different people.
I started publishing in English. In March 2020, I interviewed two researchers who were testing a potential treatment for COVID-19, and the story was published in a student newspaper. A few days later, two strangers emailed me saying they liked my article and wanted to chat with me. My work had a tangible impact. I was over the moon again. The treatment didn’t work, but that’s not the point.
These experiences steered me to take a one-year break from mathematics and study journalism. And it has been the best decision of the past decade.
The program has been difficult yet extremely fulfilling. I produced 15 newscasts in Persian during the Christmas break, which were listened to nearly 500 times. This term, I’m making my first 15-minute documentary film and interning at a Toronto-based magazine, learning the ins and outs of publishing a high-quality monthly. I dream of publishing one myself someday.
Journalism and mathematics have their differences. Journalistic work involves more human connection while mathematics is more abstract. Also, journalism has the advantage that its product can be understood and enjoyed by almost anyone.
But in both, you need to do a great deal of background research, and accuracy and getting the details right are extremely important. In both, strong, clear writing is crucial, and the goal is to produce something beautiful.
After completing the journalism program at the end of April, I will divide my time between mathematics and journalism. I enjoy doing both; math is more lucrative while journalism is more meaningful.
I am lucky to have enough savings and prospects for a job after graduation to be able to diverge from the standard path. This divergence will not be my last one. I’m an adventurous person who likes to experience new things and learn new skills, and I believe in “the joy and transformative power of lifelong learning.”
Being a one-dimensional person holds no attraction for me. While I may not become super successful in both careers, what matters is living a fulfilled life. As Arthur C. Brooks says, “You can conduct your life in two meters at once, creating playful clashes, cheerful dissonances and unanticipated harmonies.”
Abbas Mehrabian is an intern at Broadview.
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