The revered Assistant Editor at the Sunday Times, writer for The Economist and stringer for NHK Japan Television believes it’s idealism that will get you far. We tend to agree.
I had heard Namini Wijedasa spoken of in awestruck tones whenever I mentioned I was meeting her—and always from the people I admired most. Needless to say, I was a little (okay, it was more than a little) intimidated to meet her.
I liked Namini from our very first conversation at the (for me) tough hour of 7 30AM. Chatting in a quiet corner of the studio, she states: “A great pair of jeans and a killer attitude. To me, that’s the secret behind confidence.” (For the record, and as you may notice, she’s slaying a pair of denims as we speak.)
For me, what defines Namini is her mix of hard-nosed persistence (her profession demands it) and her immediate empathy. She’s not afraid of the tough questions or, perhaps, the even tougher answers; in fact, she relishes in it. But, she also treats her subjects as people with flaws and unfathomable complexity. It’s a form that’s earned her high praise and distinguished accolades, but the true driver of her success stems from something more intangible: an inner belief that this is what she was meant to do.
“From an early age, I was rights-oriented and passionate about the fact that, as the public, we had a right to know certain things; and I wanted the people in charge to know that they had a duty to uphold certain principles. This feeling has been with me throughout my life, and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I always expect people who are beholden to the public to deliver.”
Perhaps it’s to be expected from someone who’s spent her life in cross-question, but Namini has none of the fluster or bluster of people in the spotlight. She’s calm, considerate and matter-of-fact. Pausing, she continues, “A senior editor once walked up to me and said, ‘You’re just too idealistic, but that’ll soon die down.’ It never did. I think everyone needs to have a certain level of idealism, because what else do you aspire to? You have to set the highest standards for yourself, and constantly work towards it.”
Namini started working as a journalist right out of school, at the complex age of 18. “I was really badly put together. I didn’t have experience, I was horribly dressed and I had awful hair. I definitely didn’t command confidence – actually, I don’t even think I felt confident in the beginning – but I knew that I could write. Nobody who read my articles could have guessed that I was so young.” It’s not said with arrogance or haughtiness, but with a measured certainty. Regardless of everything else going on at the time, this was something she could do, and she was good at it. But, that didn’t mean it was always easy to get the scoops she wanted.
“In journalism, they put you into the field pretty quickly; you have to go out and get the story, and I had all the energy. Because I looked very young, people would be kind, but also patronizing. I got the feeling that they were talking down to me—as if they knew, upon first meeting, that I wasn’t capable.”
“One day, I’d had enough, and I burst out in complaint at my boss. I explained to him that, no matter what I did, people treated me like a child, which was incredibly frustrating, because I was just trying to do my job. That’s when I got the best advice I’ve ever received, and which I still give younger people today. My boss said, ‘Let them underestimate you, putha, let them underestimate you.’”
“At the outset, it didn’t make sense, but I slowly realized that if they thought I was a child, I would play to the strengths of being a child—I asked endless questions at interviews and my interviewees would answer at length, because they thought I didn’t know anything. As a result, I got invaluable bits of information—knowledge I wouldn’t have received if they’d taken me as an adult journalist and been nervous about what I would publish. They didn’t expect anything from me, so I was able to get them to speak about subjects they might otherwise have been reticent about.”
Getting ahead in journalism requires pluck, mettle, and dealing with situations head-on. It requires a little bit of brashness and unending resilience. Starting so young, Namini had nothing to lose, so she did it all. “I started war reporting when I was 20 years old. We were at a particularly bad patch of the conflict, and editors were reluctant to send female journalists to the front. That, combined with how young I was, stacked the odds against me.” But, it wasn’t impossible. Namini went on to do some of her most hard-hitting pieces in conflict zones. “In certain areas, the army didn’t know what to do with me, because they weren’t used to having women around, and such young ones at that. I slept on the floor of a post office…in the women’s mess; it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was there, and determined to work.”
Doing a good job is a certain measure of success, but putting yourself in volatile situations to get the story is not something all of us were built to do. “I’ve been taking risks my whole life. People admire those risks, but they’ll never take them,” she says quietly and directly, matched with a piercing gaze. Before you think her larger than life, she continues, “I can be very brave at times, and then I sit back and think, Oh my god, should I have done that?. But, I do think that we owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of our strengths and fight for social change. There has to be a deeper objective for all of us; there’s no sense in living life only for yourself.”
If I were to identify one of the many reasons Namini ranks as one of the most impressive people I’ve met, it’s this: Despite the cold clarity, hard logic and unearthing that constitutes her day-to-day, she doesn’t shy away from the humanity at her core; at the ball of emotions that always tugs at a particularly gnarly human interest piece. I cry all the time: at a particularly vexing episode of Vampire Diaries; on any plane journey; in the shower after a long day at work. If I think of the most powerful women around me, they cry too (though perhaps not with such regularity). But, does that make us any less strong? And does that mean we’re doomed to live out the misconception that women are emotional grenades, bound to go off at any minute?
“I’ve cried!” Namini confirms. “Of course I have! We all need that form of release. I don’t always have a thick skin. In public, I’m stoic, but there are times I go back home and fall apart. What does it matter what people think, so long as you do your job excellently?”
“But, I cry within circles of people I really trust, who know that when I cry it’s just one side of me and doesn’t represent all of me. I could be crying in the office but I’ll still go out into the field, stand up straight and hold people to account.”
“To be a good journalist – actually, to be a good person – you need to be empathetic. You don’t have to be aggressive to get answers; you just have to phrase the question the right way.”
We go back to the topic of age. What’s changed compared to when she started out? “I have a lot more depth now than I did in my twenties in the way I analyze situations and emotions. Age does give you more experience, but it’s not a reflection of how good you can be at your job. And you don’t need to be the loudest person in the room. Given time, shy and retiring personalities can become kickass journalists.”
Here’s what I’ve learnt from Namini: You need to have the work ethic and the ability to shrug the bad stuff off your shoulders; you need to be persevering and confident in what you want, but the most important thing is that you always keep going. Excellence, whether acquired or innate, is the ultimate symbol of success, and the face of the idealism we so desperately need.
This article was originally published as ‘From The Pro: Namini Wijedasa’ in the August 2017 Confidence issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more stories on amazing people, grab a copy of our latest magazine.
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