New Corona Curfew Diaries 01: An Interview with Ajita Kadirgamar

Ajita’s LinkedIn profile says she is a self-employed freelance writer. But do not be fooled by that. There is a vastly multi-talented lady behind that humble description.

I first got to know Ajita through her television programmes in the 80s. Not so recently I had the opportunity to meet her in person and have kept in touch through social media ever since.

I knew she was interesting. But how interesting I did not know until she answered my interview questions. So here are my questions and her answers. Enjoy.

Has COVID-19 changed the way you look at life?

Definitely. It has demonstrated that we take too much for granted at a personal level (health, relationships) and as a nation. By slowing down and even halting the frantic pace of industry and consumption globally we have seen nature and the environment resuscitate itself.

A lot of people have extra time on their hands that they did not have earlier. What do you do with the extra time you have?

I will answer this question in a slightly different way to show that when one has time on one’s hands (though preferably not because of a pandemic induced curfew) it should be used to step out of one’s comfort zone and expand horizons.

In 2008 while living and working in Massachusetts, USA I was laid off from my marketing job at an IT company at the height of the economic crisis. While I thought I would find another job within a few months, I ended up being unemployed for 1.5 years.

In the early weeks and months, I would apply for jobs online but never hear back – very demoralizing. With so much time on my hands and stuck aimlessly at home, I began to realise I had to find ways to stay busy for the sake of my sanity and self-preservation.

Joining a Networking Group

One of the first things I did was to join a large Networking group for unemployed people. We would meet weekly and share our stories as well as available job opportunities in various sectors that could be of use to others in the group. I was one of the very few “foreigners” in this group. Once when I was called on to make a presentation on my experience, I made sure to tell the audience that if I, as a foreigner in the country, could have achieved so much during my period of unemployment, there was no excuse for them with their huge support systems and networks to remain inactive and isolated.

Responded to Ads Calling Volunteers

Early on in my unemployment period, I saw an ad calling for Volunteers with different skillsets to undertake projects in and around Boston. I volunteered my writing skills and was taken on as a copywriter for a brochure for educational and scholarship services. The value of the free work we did as a team was estimated to be around $40,000. While I did not earn a cent, the experience looked good on my resume and I would advise everyone to list volunteer work on their resume.

Acting Talent

I came across an ad placed by Boston Casting, a leading agency for sourcing Acting Talent. Once I was confirmed in their database, I received regular emails and phone calls and went for quite a few auditions. I ended up with two particularly good assignments; a gender discrimination corporate video for Microsoft where I played the tough manager; and an ongoing series of workplace etiquette videos for leading IT company Skillsoft. For the first time, I made good money off this extracurricular activity which came my way so unexpectedly.

Blogger/reporter

Since writing is my strong point, I also became a blogger/reporter for two Massachusetts news sites (Examiner.com and MarlboroughPatch.com) which lead me to explore and write about interesting places and events in the area.

Again, this effort was not so much about money- making but about establishing an online presence. I would advise anyone with writing skills to make use of the many opportunities (social media, blogs etc.) available today to establish a cyber footprint to help build your reputation.

When you are unemployed anything ‘free’ is to be grabbed enthusiastically!

Whenever I came across a Free Seminar or Workshop on social media, marketing, women’s issues or any other topic close to my heart, I would attend and inevitably come off richer in knowledge.

Joined conversation groups

In an effort to meet interesting people and also practice my French and Spanish I joined local Conversation Groups. Amusingly, I was usually more advanced than the others and ended up translating for them.

While many of the activities described above may not exist in Sri Lanka, my message is that unexpected opportunities can arise in an unanticipated situation, so always explore and push yourself to do new and different things.

If you were 18 and out of school right now what would you do while waiting at home?

If I was 18 right now and had the internet at my disposal, I’d be in heaven!

If I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue, I would be able to research professions and jobs, watch tutorials, join groups and engage in discussions from the comfort of my home.

Read, improve your vocabulary and language skills especially in English

With time on your hands every young person should read, improve your vocabulary and language skills especially in English, as it remains the gateway to career success.

Start thinking about your resume

The most important step at this age is to start thinking about one’s resume. You may have no work experience at this stage of your life but start by drafting your bio with personal details, academic achievements, extra-curricular activities, volunteer and social work. Recruiters and potential hirers want to see a rounded personality with creative as well as leadership skills.

If you are 25, employed but at home these days, what would you do?

At any age, self-improvement is a must. Read up on trends and developments in your area of interest, expand your interests to other areas, take online courses and certifications.

Look back at your life. Do you have regrets of what you did or did not (career and education wise) when you were 18 or 25? What are they? What would you do differently?

I have no regrets at aby age because I have been blessed and my life has been a series of “right place, right time” moments.

That said, I have also always put in 100% effort and even gone the extra mile to be good at what I do.

I don’t think many young people in Sri Lanka today want to push themselves beyond the minimum expectations of a salary at the end of the month.

What advice do you give to job seekers today who want to find success?

  • Make sure you are passionate about the career you choose

Make sure you are passionate about the career you choose because you will be doing it for the greater part of your life. You have to be excited and motivated about getting up every morning. If you settle for something that is just a ‘job’ you will soon resent the routine.

  • If you have an entrepreneurial spirit

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, aim to make your passion (baking, yoga, electronics etc.) your business. To own one’s own business or be self-employed is challenging but rewarding.

  • Always be punctual
  • Do a little more than what is expected of you

Endeavour do a little more than what is expected of you whether at work or in life in general. It’s called “going the extra mile”.

  • Strive for self-improvement every single day
  • Always be a team player

What advice do you give to a person who gets their first job about success?

True success does not come overnight. It is the culmination of many years of learning, dedication and constant self-improvement.

Unfortunately, technology has made life very easy for today’s generation, many of whom think you can become an overnight sensation/success because of the wide reach of the internet. As a first-generation TV professional, I know only too well the limitations we had in the early 80’s as producers and presenters. There was no internet to research an interview or check facts for a script etc., there were no teleprompters in the early days, we had limited special effects when editing, and so on.

We had to use our heads, be quick on the uptake and resort to our own ingenuity. I notice for instance many young radio and TV presenters today calling themselves “personalities” on their social media bios. Fame (being a ‘personality’) comes with years of hard work, learning the craft, proving one’s professionalism, which then leads to public acclaim; we do not declare ourselves a personality, it is an honour the public bestows upon us!

What do you think about the COVID-19 related lockdowns? What do you want to tell our readers about it?

I’m grateful that to date we have had no COVID19 related deaths in Sri Lanka. But this has been a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. It has made us think about (self) discipline, community, health and personal hygiene. Personally, I hope the lessons learnt during this period remain with us forever. The biggest lesson is that no individual lives in a protected bubble. We are all part of an infinite global web and what happens in one remote corner of the world can have devastating repercussions on another equally remote part.

The COVID19 situation has also given the younger generation in Sri Lanka a taste of what older people went through during the war years: curfews, the isolation of the north and east and the general fear and uncertainty that we experienced as a nation. We must never return to that time whether through war or pandemic.

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