Interview with Girish Gupta: the Power of Decisiveness

I met Girish in October 2010 in Mexico City after he responded to a Craiglist ad of mine.  We both arrived in the Mexican capital that month with a similar ambition: to be a reporter in a foreign country right out of college.  The difference was that I had come with five suitcases and a steady job as a newswire correspondent secured, while Girish had come with only his backpack and his determination.

In all my financial security, I had rented an enormous two-bedroom penthouse with a jacuzzi, a wrap-around view of one of the city’s most beautiful parks, and a library in the hip neighborhood of Condesa.   I soon realized that although the price was great relative to what I had been paying in Los Angeles, it was outrageously expensive by Mexico City standards.  But I didn’t want to leave.  So I decided to try saving some money by renting out not only the other bedroom but the library, as well — even though it had no windows, no bed, and no door.

Girish immediately responded to my Craigslist ad, saying he was a freelance journalist from England interested in the library.  He came over, saw the tiny room in all its pitiful circumstances, and with a wide grin and great enthusiasm informed me that he was enamored with it.  “I’ll stay here if that’s alright with you,” he said.  Caught off guard by his certainty, I took a few moments to think of what to say.  Girish was friendly, likeable and similar to me.  I got along with him right away.  But I didn’t want to say yes — in an ideal world, I would have lived in an all-female apartment.  “Let me think about it,” I said.

That’s when I first experienced Girish’s talents at persuasion.  In a minute or two, he listed all of the pro’s of living with him (i.e. “We’re both journalists and can learn from each other!” and “I am a sane, clean and respectful person!”), and had changed my mind.  He moved in two days later, purchased a cheap twin-sized bed for the library and put up a blanket between it and the living room to partion off his space.

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At first, I thought Girish was a bit crazy to think he would succeed as a freelance journalist in Mexico City.  He could barely speak Spanish; even I, who had been speaking Spanish to my family all my life, was struggling in  interviews and had a lot of trouble understanding the lingo of politicans and traders and the accents of Chilango Mexicans.

But I underestimated the power of Girish’s determination and energy.  Girish’s brain soaked up the language like a sponge, and within weeks, he was selling stories to major media and earning enough to survive.  It happened so fast, and I was so preoccupied with my own work, that I was ignorant to the details of how it happened.  All I could see was that Girish’s batteries never stopped; I would come home from my 9-5 job every evening to find him pacing around the living room, talking to sources or editors on the phone, or pounding away at his laptop’s keyboard.  I have few memories of seeing him do anything else — he was always either talking or typing.  The rare moments when he was not practically dancing with positive energy never lasted more than 15 minutes; he never let himself feel discouraged or disappointed for longer than that.  Six months later, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and became one of the most successful young freelance reporters in Latin America, with work frequently published in Time Magazine, BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, USA Today and more.  I have since come to believe that the decisiveness I witnessed in Girish during my first interaction with him is one of his top strengths — more so than his persuasiveness or persistence.  After seeing the pathetic library I was renting as a bedroom, Girish could have continued looking and he probably could have found something more spacious  (with a door) for the same price — but Girish is not the type of person who question his choices.  He thought the library suited his purposes just fine.  Girish Gupta decides what he wants and goes after it.  He doesn’t waste any time being uncertain.  That is a very rare trait.

Hoping to acquire more wisdom from Girish, I asked him to answer 10 questions about how he managed to beat the odds and make his ambitious dream a reality.  Always eager to help, he agreed.  The following are his responses, which I think will inspire anybody who dreams about freelancing.  For samples of Girish’s work, check out his web site at www.girish-gupta.com.

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1. How did you first get into freelancing?

A Reuters bureau chief in London suggested that the best way to kick off a career in foreign correspondence was to jump on a plane. I arrived in Mexico soon after finishing university with a small amount of money and no great idea of what lay ahead. I began filing stories and momentum quickly picked up. I realised that freelancing was the way forward and that I wouldn’t have done anything anywhere near as exciting, or fulfilling, had I stayed in London.

2. Did anyone ever discourage you from taking that step?  

No one directly discouraged me but I think some were apprehensive and perhaps expected me back a couple of months after I left.  Part of me did too, I guess, though I saw no problem with that. Freelancing is a far cry from the stability that most people have and there’s no safety net, no assurance that all will work out. Yet, I don’t think many people genuinely need that in their early 20s. I also think that freelancing, after that initial hurdle, can offer far more than a traditionally secure job both purely in terms of monetary earnings but also with the freedom it brings.

3. What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced at the beginning, and how did you overcome them?

Lack of money is the number one obstacle for a freelancer starting out though perhaps it also played a part in motivating me. If I didn’t make money, I didn’t eat or pay rent and so I had a major incentive to get going. Thankfully an incentive to earn pretty closely aligns with beginning a freelance career. They don’t completely align and so can take you down a path you may not want to be going down (well paid trade publications or tabloid journalism) so it’s important to keep focus on what you want to get out of it all and make sure that’s what you’re pushing for.

I always wanted to do my best with my work, make it as good as I could, and that I think should always be an aim. As I began, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing but I had my own ideas and learned as I worked. Editors and I seemed to get on and things worked out. It’s a funny industry and I also learned that just because things are done a certain way, it doesn’t mean that’s how they should be done. That’s another reason I prefer freelancing, that I don’t have to adhere to any one outlet’s way of working.

4. What are some of the biggest obstacles you face now?  

One thing that is lacking as a freelancer is an organizational structure or framework in which you can look to for support or a ladder on which to work your way up. I’m not sure I’d like that but I sometimes wish I had it.

After Hugo Chávez’s death in March and a couple of years living in Venezuela, I felt it time to move on though was unsure where to, both geographically and in terms of the type of work I was doing. I spent months flying around the world slightly aimlessly, albeit learning a lot, and still haven’t worked out exactly where I’m heading.

Another less personal obstacle is the industry itself. Many news outlets seem to think that cutting costs and therefore quality is the way forward. This seems an obviously false economy. The two things I, as a freelancer, require from an outlet are quality — good editors who care about getting things right and doing things properly — and money which funds all of that as well as my lifestyle. It’s extremely disappointing to see so many shortcuts being taken by much of the press and I look forward to its deserved demise.

David Remnick, of the New Yorker, touched upon this recently in an interview: “[People] are only prepared to pay … if the quality of the information, or the writing, or the Journalism is markedly better than, more accurate than, more beautiful than the stuff that’s everywhere… My strategy, both morally, financially, and journalistically, is to be even better than we were when there was no such a thing as an Internet. To insist on constantly pursuing of quality, higher and higher, which is expensive, by the way. And hope and pray that people will pay for it. And they do.”

5. What was the best moment of your career so far?

This is a tough one. There are many highlights but often at the time, they aren’t recognised as such. It is only in hindsight that I realise what great anecdotes they make!

6. Do you think you need certain personality traits to succeed as a freelancer?  Or can pretty much anyone do it?  

You really need to enjoy your work. It’s tough at times but that’s part of the fun. You also need to be willing to take big gambles. Making them pay off is the joy of freelancing and working for yourself. Also, don’t get too comfortable or too pleased with your work; that’s when things will get boring and you’ll start to stagnate.

7. What is the best part of being a freelancer, in your view?

Freedom. I can do what I like when I like. It means I can satisfy whatever urges I have to go to a new place, to learn about a new thing or to simply have time off and sit by a pool. The breadth is what really makes it interesting. I could be tramping around the Amazon jungle one week before trying to make sense of graffiti in Tahrir Square the next.

8. What is the worst part of being a freelancer?

I think it’s summed up in point four. The grass is always greener on the other side though. In reality, I wouldn’t change anything.

9. Do you feel you lack the guidance of mentors that you would have at an official newspaper job? Or do you prefer learning on your own?   

Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Some mentors are better than others whether you work for them, in a formal sense, or not. But yes, I do sometimes wish that there was a more standardised route, as I described in question four. But in reality, I don’t think I’d like that.

10. What advice do you have to other young writers who want to freelance?

Stop reading advice about it. Get on a plane and put everything into it and it’ll work out.

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