• Bex Highfield

Down + Dirty with: Jess Pan

‘Down & Dirty’ sees Marketing Island chat with Jess Pan, a successful writer and freelance journalist. We talk with Jess to uncover her recent social experiment living as an extrovert for a year (she’s a shy introvert). She touches upon her personal experience, having an introverted personality, facing her fears and valuable advice.

Jess on... Where the passion began.

Marketing Island: Your new book ‘SORRY I’M LATE, I DIDN’T WANT TO COME An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously' (amazing name!) is now out! Congratulations! So let’s start with your background in writing. Have you always written and how did your passion begin?

Jess: I always wanted to be a journalist, but I also wanted to travel and explore. A few months after I graduated from university, I moved to Beijing. To allay my fears, I told myself, “This is just for a year,” but I ended up getting a job as an editor of an expat magazine and staying for three years. Life is unpredictable like that – I met my husband at that job and he’s the reason I now live in London (he’s British).

I loved working at that magazine. It was a really, really great job – I had a tough editor and was surrounded by other writers. I learned so much. It was there that I really found my “voice” as they say. When I was at the magazine, I tried to freelance for other publications as a way to get more bylines and the experience of working with more editors.

Also during this time, my best friend from university, Rachel, was living in Paris and we used to write each other these really long, honest, funny emails to keep in touch. When we were reunited in London a few years later, we published them in the book Graduates in Wonderland (Gotham, 2014). I know it’s strange to say, but writing to Rachel over the years also really helped me figure out my style of writing.

"If you’re looking for your voice, tap into how you write and talk to your best friends – when you’re not trying to impress or be someone else, but just telling your stories. That’s the quickest way to find it."

Jess on... Going freelance.

Marketing Island: Now as a writer and freelance journalist, your writing has appeared in some amazing publications. Would you recommend going freelance?

Jess: When I’m in a full-time role, I wish I was freelance. When I’m freelance, I wish I was on-staff somewhere. Neither work situation is perfect. I like being freelance because I keep weird hours (I do my best work at night which means I like to sleep in), I like to pick my own projects and I enjoy the flexibility it affords me.

But it can also be super lonely. I began my journey in SORRY I’M LATE, I DIDN’T WANT TO COME right when I’d just gone freelance, lonely and depressed. You have to really hustle and also find other freelance friends you can meet up with to swap tips and just feel like a human being. There’s also the stress of making sure you’re bringing in enough money. Sometimes I think the best thing is to go back to being on-staff somewhere for a few years and then back to freelance and back again, so you really value the benefits of both. But right now, freelance makes the most sense for me.

I think it’s ideal for people who love to make their own schedule and are happy to be their own boss and can also emotionally handle uncertainty. There’s a lot of uncertainty as a freelancer. That’s the one constant.

Jess on... The past year.

Marketing Island: Did you know you wanted to carry out the social experiment for the purpose of writing a book? Or was it an added bonus?

Jess: Two pivotal things happened around the same time in my life: I went freelance and was struggling with being alone all day. And it was around then that all of my friends in London moved out or had babies or moved out and had babies. I was alone by myself all day and realised it was making me socially anxious. I was becoming more shy. I was using my introvert label as a licence to wall myself off from meeting new people or taking on new challenges.

I found this box of buttons in a local café and the buttons said “I Talk to Strangers.” It horrified me. I never, ever talk to strangers. It was practically a phobia (also practically a social faux pas in London). But I knew it was holding me back and also preventing me from making connections with potentially amazing people. So I pitched my idea to the Guardian – that I would talk to strangers for a month to see if it would make me happier (research says that it does). They commissioned it – and my first thought was, “Oh shit. Now I really have to do this.” (LINK TO ARTICLE HERE: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/02/who-is-the-queen-ways-get-talking-to-strangers)

That month seriously transformed my social anxiety – now I’m really not afraid to talk to strangers in most situations. And while doing these things I thought I could never do, I realised that by taking on challenges I’d avoided my entire life (public speaking, traveling alone making friends on the road, taking improv classes, going to big networking events alone, stand-up comedy), I might be able to conquer these fears and change my life. Expand my self-definition.

"I was 32 when I started the year. By our thirties, most people think our personalities are set – so it was so exciting to find out that we still have the capacity for change."

Jess on... Being an introvert.

Marketing Island: You speak a lot about being an introvert, yet you’ve managed to achieve such an extroverted year! What were the best and worst things you experienced?

Jess: I do want to stress that it was not an easy year, by any means! It was really, really tough sometimes. I cried a lot, I laughed a lot, I met so many amazing new people. And I also had “extrovert mentors” help me along the way – like psychologists, charisma coaches and people like Emma Gannon (who helped me with networking) and Dolly Alderton (who gave me advice on throwing my first ever dinner party).

The best thing was confidence. I was terrified of public speaking – I never spoke in meetings or raised my hand in class when I was a student. I faked sick to get out of school plays when I was a kid. For this year, I visited a speech therapist and it was really painful to talk through it. But then I managed to perform at Union Chapel to an audience of 900 people. When I walked off stage, I felt invincible. When you achieve something you never ever thought you could, the world suddenly feels so full of possibility. So the confidence and hope that facing my fear gave me was one of the best things.

Also, I loved improv. Which is something I thought I’d hate. I had no idea I’d like it so much. It’s actually wonderful to be proven wrong.

The worst thing…well the worst thing was bombing at stand-up comedy. Oh god that was so painful. But I lived. I survived. Which is something….and frankly any other challenge pales in comparison to that…

And also the year was pretty tiring – but it wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to be an extrovert for life!” It was just for a year to see who I would meet and what I could achieve and what lessons I could take from the year and apply to my life (and hopefully the lives of other introverts).

Jess on... Giving advice.

Marketing Island: London (and the world!) can be a pretty lonely place sometimes. What advice would you give to people who are introverted, but wanting to gain confidence?

Jess: I always thought that if I prepared enough and practiced enough and visualised enough, I would grow to be confident. But actually, when I was white-knuckle terrified at a task and still made myself go through with it, nerves and all, and then survived – that brought confidence.

Now I’m going to teach a Guardian masterclass and I’m speaking at a few literary events this summer. This would be incomprehensible to Past Me. I’m still anxious about it, but I know I can do this now. And if I can, anyone can.

As an introvert, I love one-on-one conversations and have just a few really close friends. So when my friend left London, I was left with none. It was hard to admit I wanted new friends. When you say you want new friends, people hear “I have no friends!” which was not the case – they just weren’t in London anymore.

Loneliness is such a common thing and it happens to all of us. But it’s circumstantial. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.

And so I had to go out and find new friends. This takes longer than we imagine – I went on ten blind friend dates, made friends with my comedy classmates and met many new people. But it’s hard to find people you have that spark with, that you can trust. “Your people.” That was the other big gain from this year – finding new friends that I really love.

Interested in reading Jess’s book? You can order the book here. It’s out May 30 2019.

Twitter: @jessicaLpan

Instagram: @jessypanpan

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