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Career

Data Journalist Mona Chalabi Walked Away From Office Politics, and Won

The 2018 99U Conference theme is about overcoming creative challenges, so we’re asking our speakers and breakout session leaders to reflect on a gridlock moment and share how they navigated it.


Mona Chalabi has attracted praise for her unique, illustrated presentations of data on everything from pay inequality to pet safety on airlines for the Guardian US. Chalabi will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Chalabi to reflect on a gridlock moment and share how she navigated it.

“For over a year, I worked in an office with people who didn’t take me seriously. My colleagues weren’t all prejudiced, nepotistic, or dumb. They simply weren’t into what I had to offer.

“There are plenty of areas of my life where I doubt my abilities. But work was always different. Whether I was working in a clothing store or in a newsroom, I’d always felt like I could see what I needed to do to be ‘good’ and then could work fast to get there.

“All of a sudden though, the rules for success seemed foreign. We’d all file into a meeting room and the boss would say ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ then ‘Hello Mona.’ I’d never understand their sports analogies. I’ve always found it easy to talk to new people (I think that’s why I went into journalism). But now, my self-confidence was decimated.

“What made it worse is that I couldn’t leave the job. There was a clause in my contract saying that if I left before 18 months I would have to pay the company a sum that I couldn’t afford. Plus, for an immigrant on a visa, switching jobs is always difficult.

“My internal thought process went something like: I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid.

“I realized that I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won (or, where winning meant sacrificing my sanity). The time to stop fighting was when I didn’t feel like myself anymore. So, I channeled my energy elsewhere.

“I started to draw.

“The illustrations looked like sh*t but they forced me to suspend my judgement of myself, to create and create until I had the strength to be critical in a way that wasn’t destructive. I finally got to a place where I could look at something and think, ‘Wow, that’s bad’, shrug and try again.

“You can fight and fight and fight to be seen. Or you can walk away and try something else. I could never be one of that team. The thing that took the most time? Realizing that I didn’t want to be. Jobs are like relationships, the hard part is working out how long to fight for them.

See Mona Chalabi along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

 

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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