This week I met with Los Angeles Times Science Reporter Deborah Netburn in downtown Los Angeles to get her take on work-life balance. Deborah, 39, has been with the L.A. Times for nearly 10 years and is a mother of 2 boys, 8 and 5 years old.
How did you identify your passions and choose your career?
I wanted to be a reporter since I was 7, and I really never stopped wanting to be a reporter. When I graduated from college, it’s not like I wasn’t scared, but there wasn’t a feeling that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
Why did you want to be a reporter since a young age?
I like writing, and it felt like something I was good at. I’m curious anyway, and being a reporter gives you a license to ask people questions.
What led you to be a science reporter?
I graduated from college in ’99. Journalism was really different then. I wanted to be a features writer. I did do that kind of work for a while in New York and as a freelancer in LA. But it doesn’t pay very well to be freelance. [Laughs]
A friend of mine got a job at the L.A. Times ‘entertainment’ section, and he said “If I ever get to hire someone, I’m going to hire you.” And so he did.
My first job was the exact opposite of what I used to do. I went from long-form to shorter pieces, more like blogging. Then I moved to the ‘home’ section, and then I got moved to national news. I found myself drawn to the science stories. When I got moved to technology, I said “I’d really like to cover science.”
So you worked a lot of different beats before getting to science.
Yes, I think there’s real value in doing things you didn’t think you could do, or didn’t want to do. Because it’s really empowering to know you can do them. So it’s worth it to take on things you’re uncomfortable with to show yourself what you’re capable of.
What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?
I think it means that your whole life isn’t about work.
Do you think work-life balance is possible?
It’s definitely possible. I do wonder how possible it is if you’re very ambitious at work.
I find my work, ever since being in science, really meaningful. I believe in helping people learn about their world and their universe even if they don’t have PhDs. I believe in trying to make science and discoveries something everyone can understand. I am very proud to be a reporter at the LA Times, but I’m not like a world-famous science writer. I wonder how hard it would be to have the work-life balance I have now if my goals were different.
Did having kids change your thoughts on that?
I’m lucky because I have a very nice husband. That wasn’t a variable in my life. It always was very steady. So it was just work. Before I had kids, all my feelings about myself were tied up with how things were going at work, and I felt I needed to have something else. That’s when I decided to have my first kid, because my career at the time wasn’t wholly fulfilling. (I was writing about entertainment which wasn’t really my passion).
Do you wish there was one thing, now, that you had more time for?
So many things. [Laughs]
Before I had my kids, I used to do yoga 2-3 times a week. If I just went once, I’d feel disgusting. And then I went 5 years without doing yoga at all. My kids are getting older, and I can go to one yoga class a week, which I feel is heroic now.
Is there something you wish you do differently, in how you manage your time?
I think the one thing for me is a function of my job. I worked for people, for a while, where numbers were really important, like web traffic and Facebook likes. I sometimes check that at home now, and that’s not a useful activity. You know, I’m not going to be able to do anything to change it. I’m just watching it. It doesn’t feel like a good use of my time– checking how many likes your Facebook post got.
I think that’s something so many people can relate to these days.
Do you have advice for someone starting a new career or endeavor–especially now during graduation season–and trying to find balance, while following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference?
- Planning Ahead
I would say, if you want to have a family, and you’d like to be able to spend time with your kids, it’s probably worth going pretty hard when you’re young. In everything. You can’t imagine how much time your kids take.
Go hard at work. Go hard at whatever exercise you do… That’s all stuff that you’ll have later… It’s like muscle memory. Maybe you need to pull back a little bit when your kids are babies. If you’ve shown what you can do even from an employers’ perspective, it’s worth supporting you if they know what you’re capable of and what you can bring.
I’m not sure that’s what I’d want to hear when I was young, because you don’t want to imagine that things could change.
2. Taking Time to Learn What You Like
In 2003, when my husband and I left New York, we took some time off and travelled for 3 months, to Europe and Southeast Asia. People kept saying, “I wish I could do that.” It’s like, save money and do it. I think it’s really interesting to have to wake up and figure out what you want to do every day. Because if you’re at work all day, you don’t have to think about it. After work, you just get drinks with your friends…
What if you had time to fill? How would you fill it? I think that’s really interesting, for some people, to learn what you like.
Connect on Twitter: @DeborahNetburn.
Edited for length and clarity.