Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Matthew Henry
To Yassmin Abdel-Magied, her life sometimes feels imaginary. “Growing up as a young Muslim girl, there is an expectation that you go to school, you go to university, you get a job, you get married. Living away from home and not being married feels like an imaginary life – it feels like I'm on a holiday before I return to real life.”
Taking a year off from her identity-defining career as an a mechanical engineer compounds this feeling. “When people ask me what I do, I tell them I'm an engineer. I'm not really a freelance writer who is on TV and travels around the world and gives talks. I'm just an engineer.”
For many of us, Yassmin’s long list of accomplishments and accolades belong to an imaginary life. Being a debut author at the of 24; a regular voice on Q&A, The Drum, The Project, Hack, and Radio National; the host of the weekly show Australia Wide on ABC; and the star of a new documentary The Truth About Racism, by Paul Scott, are all just the tip of the iceberg.
Yassmin is also the founder and chair of Youth Without Borders, an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne, and a host of the motorsport podcast Motor Mouth. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, The Griffith Review, Huffington Post and many other publications.
Both humble and keenly aware of herself, Yassmin admits it’s taken some time to adjust to this new life, and to figure out how engineering fits in. “It's a bit existential for me because my identity is based around being an engineer. I love engineering, but the people in my life right now have never seen me as an engineer. It feels like a faraway life, but it's the life that I enjoy, so that's why this life feels so imaginary.”
Many of us can relate to putting our ‘real life’ on hold for when things get less busy, when we finish a project, when we finally quit our jobs, when get back from holiday, or even when we lose weight or meet some external beauty standard. But how do we learn that the life we currently lead is real?
For Yassmin, it comes back to choice. “I was telling my roommate recently that life will settle down really soon. She wisely said, what makes you think it will settle down? Unless you consciously choose do something to change this trajectory, it's going to continue.”
“That's been a really hard thing for me to get my own head around. But it’s about realising this is a choice, this is the life I choose.”
Yassmin is unafraid of having her voice heard and being truly independent, despite, or perhaps because of, this sense of living an imaginary life.
“I am almost pathologically independent. I think that maybe comes from being a chick in a male-dominated industry, where asking people to help me was seen as reinforcing the image of women as menial and so on.”
We touch briefly on a new relationship in Yassmin’s life, and the difficulty that comes with learning how to navigate independence while being generous in allowing someone into your space.
“I've always firmly been of the belief that I would rather be single for the rest of my life than be with someone who would limit me or change me. It's been interesting to realise that it is okay for someone to help you if you have the right kind of relationship. You can make each other better.”
Even though her workload is ever expanding, Yassmin admits there is a tendency for procrastination – especially now that she no longer has the strict routine of working as an engineer and instead constructs her own days as a freelancer. “In April 2016, I decided to take a year off because I was publishing a book. All of a sudden I had to control my own time.”
But surely she doesn’t have time to procrastinate? “You'd be surprised,” and I get a glimpse of that photogenic laugh in real time.
“I’ll binge on YouTube or the Daily Show. I'll do things that are nice to do, but not necessarily required. I might have all these things to do on a given day, but if the sun is shining, I’ll convince myself it is imperative that I make use of the sunshine."
“But that's living, right?”
It's a life that might sound imaginary to Yassmin and the countless awe-inspired followers of her career and accomplishments, but it’s safe to say Yassmin’s approach to career, independence, choice and outlook is as close to really living as it gets.
Every day is different, but one of my most common rituals is that I will pray. As a Muslim, I have very disciplined times for prayer. I probably don't pray at the right times all the time, because my life is a bit all over the place, but I'll try to get within a certain time bracket – I pray when I wake up. I pray when I go to sleep. I pray during the day.
I also have faith-based words that I use in my daily life. Things like Inshallah, which means ‘if God wills’, I’ll say it whenever I'm talking about the future – “See you later, inshallah.” I'll try to always say Alhamdulillah, which is like ‘thank you to God’, whenever good things happen to remind myself to be grateful. They're small reminders. I think ultimately it's about remaining humble.
In terms of the rest of my routine, it's interesting because my life has changed a lot in the past year. I've been out of uni for five years and for the first four years of my working life I worked fly in, fly out either offshore on oil and gas rigs, or on onshore land rigs. When I was on the rig, my life was super, super regimented. During my first job onshore, I would wake up at four o'clock every morning, have breakfast, and then would be out of the door by five o’clock.
One of the few habits that has carried over is drinking two cups of water every morning as it helps me wake up. On the rigs we were all obsessed with being hydrated because people can die of dehydration or heat stroke when working in the desert.
Ideally, I’d like to say I wake up at a certain time every morning – my favourite thing to do is go out for a long bike ride before starting my day. But the reality is every day is different, made more so with travel – I went to 21 countries last year.
I fly to Sydney once a week to film for the ABC. Even though my flight is always at six-thirty, I'm always slightly terrified I'm not going to wake up for the flight. I book a taxi and tell them to call me because maybe four or five times, they've woken me up with that phone call!
Once I'm in Sydney, I'll head to the ABC studios and into makeup before going into a meeting with my producers and setting all the plans for the day.
If I’m not rushing to a flight, I like to listen to R’n’B bump and grind music in the morning. I’ll also spend a lot of time in the closet selecting an outfit – I’ll pick one item at a time, like a scarf or a jacket, and build the outfit around that.
I can get ready in fifteen minutes, but it stretches out to an hour because I’m on my phone reading and listening to stuff. There are a couple of email newsletters I get in the morning so I’ll read the highlights of the news. I use Pocket a lot, and also listen to podcasts – Monocle 24, Another Round, See Something Say Something, Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History.
When I’m in Melbourne, if I'm not going straight to a coffee meeting, I’ll go to my office in Trinity College in the University of Melbourne that is a super quiet workspace. Or, I'll come into the city and work at a place called the Henley Club occasionally. It's a great space full of interesting young people, but the problem is if I go into that space, I always end up chatting to people and I don't actually get any work done. Being a freelancer has meant that I spend a lot of time in cafes because I can choose wherever I want to work.
"Ideally, I’d like to say I wake up at a certain time every morning – my favourite thing to do is go out for a long bike ride before starting my day. But the reality is every day is different, made more so with travel – I went to 21 countries last year."
I moved to Melbourne when I took a year off and it's been interesting to establish myself in a city where I don't have a specific job – this past year has been mostly freelancing and speaking.
It means that I don't have a work routine, which can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. There’s no one forcing me to do anything, so I can procrastinate – I’m very good at procrastinating! If I have a deadline for an article or something I need to write, I often wait until just before it is due and lock myself down. Every time I enter a procrastination phase, I stress out a little bit. What if it sticks? What if I'm like this forever? But the deadline is definitely the thing that makes you do the stuff. For me, anyway.
When I was studying, I worked in concentrated blocks of thirty minutes. But writing is very different to studying engineering. I always underestimate how long it takes to write something. So I'll think, "Oh yes, this will take one hour”, and then I'm there five hours later with that one paragraph. What I do find, though, is that once I get into a zone, I need to maintain it, and I can't afford too many distractions, so it's terrible for a daily routine.
"I don't have a work routine, which can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. There’s no one forcing me to do anything, so I can procrastinate – I’m very good at procrastinating!"
I actually forget to eat a lot. I like having coffee in the morning but won't usually have breakfast, maybe banana bread or something, but I'll try go and eat at like maybe one or two.
I pretty much eat out all the time. I don't often buy groceries. Also because I don't drink, eating is the most social thing that I can do with other people. I also really enjoy learning about a city through its food.
In combination with writing, a lot of my time is spent on either market research, or thinking through stuff, which probably happens most in the afternoon. After lunch, I’ll often be catching up with someone and discussing issues and ideas.
I also spend a lot of time on emails and managing my social media, which takes a huge amount of time to maintain. I never have an empty inbox – I recently managed to finally get one of my accounts down to just one week's worth of work, but then the other has six months of backlog. So much of my work is about networking – I have 50 business cards from my last trip.
When I started to notice that I was spending all my time maintaining and not creating, and started to notice my lack of ability to keep up was affecting professional relationships, I decided to hire a PA.
Kelly handles my schedule, travel logistics, invoicing and that sort of thing. I'll forward my meeting and speaking request to her and she does the follow up.
I've got a ridiculous number of managers now – I have Kelly, I have a speaking agent, I have a book agent, a bookkeeper, and an accountant. It's crazy. But I get around 200 emails a day and I would say around 40% of those would be requests with time, and that's difficult, because I want to answer every person but I can't always. It breaks my heart to not be able to give everybody the time of day, but I’ve had to learn to say no, which is difficult.
"I get around 200 emails a day and I would say around 40% of those would be requests with time, and that's difficult, because I want to answer every person but I can't always."
If I’m not going to a networking event or a social event, something that I have found that is so important to me is going home and debriefing with someone.
Back home when I was living with my Mum and Dad, every night I would come home and talk about my day and go through the issues. When I didn't have that, say when I’m traveling, I really notice it having an effect. Something I've learned about myself is that I need to talk through things to be able to make sense of them.
When I was working on the rigs, I didn’t have people around me that were interested or could understand where I was coming from, and so I needed to write to make sense of my thoughts. It’s the same when I’m traveling. Now, I have a housemate, Cas, and she's incredible. We'll discuss issues and what we're thinking about stuff. Those chats can go for hours.
Debriefing might seem like procrastinating, but to me it's like it's really necessary. I may have an article the next day or a really early flight, or whatever, but I will always make the time to sit down and have a chat because it's something that I really, really value.
I very rarely sleep before midnight. I’m generally asleep say between twelve-thirty and two in the morning. I'm much more a night person than a day person, and before I go to bed I need to set twenty alarms. I have 7:02, 7:05, 7:08…
"Living our lives consciously and deliberately is a choice that we make, and a choice that is very powerful." – Yassmin Abdel-Magied