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Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa gives advice for finding your purpose and path in life

  • Communications
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  • Feb 15, 2023
Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa gives advice for finding your purpose and path in life

Maria Ressa.

Investigative journalist Maria Ressa’s harrowing journey to defend press freedom and democracy might appear to have been full of crossroads, but when it came to living her values, there was only one path to take.

In her virtual address to Ivey students at a recent leadership conference, Ressa discussed how character gave her the courage to expose the Philippines’ corrupt and authoritarian government through her online news site, Rappler, even when the stakes were high. Ressa faced jail time for speaking out and was recently acquitted of tax evasion charges filed by former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte that she and other critics say were an attempt to stifle her and her media outlet.

Despite those risks, Ressa said defining her values early in life kept her steadfast in her crusade to report on the human rights abuses of Duterte and fight for freedom of expression, which resulted in her being awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

“It's layers and layers of character, of values that you build up over time … Before you get out in the real world, define the line where on this side, you're good and if you cross over you’re evil. Make it that simple on every front,” she said. “If you are true to who you are, the more the path narrows until you only have one choice to make.”

In a discussion moderated by Gerard Seijts to kick off the 10th annual HBA1 Leader Character & Candour Conference, Ressa detailed the experiences that shaped her personal values, which include honour, excellence, and lifelong learning. One particularly formative experience was her family’s move to the U.S. when she was a child after martial law was declared in the Philippines.

Choose to learn

Ressa shared how her initial insecurity within her newly adopted country ignited her passion, initiative, and pursuit of excellence. To prove she belonged, Ressa said she aimed to be the best at almost everything, subsequently learning to play eight instruments and multiple sports, all while excelling academically. She also told of how one of her teachers fostered her commitment to learning by encouraging her to skip a grade, despite Ressa’s reluctance to leave her friends behind.  

“I will always remember her [the teacher] saying, ‘You always have to make the choice to learn, and you have nothing more to learn in my classroom.’ So I made the choice to learn and that has kept me company through the years,” she said. “If you have two roads to take, choose the road where you learn … That learning actually strengthens you as a human being.”

When Ressa later returned to the Philippines, a series of demonstrations known as the People Power Revolution were in full motion. She said she embarked on a career in journalism because it challenged her and allowed her to learn more about her home country.

Embrace your fear

Ressa also highlighted the importance of embracing your fear, again sharing how a childhood experience taught her this lesson. She told how she was afraid to exit her car to join her friends at a sleepover party because she was embarrassed for mistakenly arriving dressed in pyjamas.

“Opening that door took everything … But if I didn’t [get out of the car] it would have been worse … That works for everything. You are your own worst enemy. Whatever you are afraid of, you have to touch it, hold it tight, and then think it through,” she said. “Embracing your fear stops you from letting fear get in your way. If you can conquer your fear, then no one can stop you.”

That ability to embrace fear was the key to Ressa’s temperance, even when she endured sustained harassment and death threats that were licensed through Duterte on social media. It was a skill she honed through her work as a journalist when she had to report on the facts even as bullets whizzed by.   

“You take your emotions and push them to the pit of your stomach and then you aim for clarity of thought. You don’t have the luxury of having emotions … If you push it down, you can think things through, especially if you need to make quick decisions,” she said. “I tried very hard not to take the attacks personally because I realized they were meant to stop me from doing my job, which then only pushed me to tell a better story.”

Fight for facts

Noting how social media platforms have been used to spread hate speech, misinformation, and incite cyberbullying that might lead to real violence, Ressa warned the students to be aware of how that influence might be distorting their identity.

“On social media when you're doing something for clicks, that popularity, that crowd that gives you what you crave, can turn into a mob … and that has real consequences … Meaning isn’t something that you can buy … It’s something that you build layer by layer,” she said. “This is why I worry about the generation that grows up in a very toxic, manipulative environment like social media … Do not let someone else decide who you will become. Take control of that and learn to build meaning in your life.”

Stand up to bullies

Discussing what it took to stand up to a dictator, Ressa shared another childhood experience that helped her to build that fortitude. She told how she befriended and stood up for a classmate who was being bullied because she wore inexpensive clothing due to her family’s financial trouble.

“You can’t just turn a blind eye. Silence is consent … You have to control your ego so you can take yourself out of the picture and make the right decision,” she said. “You have to make it so your honour isn’t violated.”

Ressa said it’s easy to say you believe in certain values when you’re not being tested, but much harder to walk the talk during trying times. That’s why it’s important to build a strong foundation through small steps, as she did in her childhood, so you are ready for those tests.

“It’s like going to the gym … You keep exercising because at some point your strength is going to be needed for a marathon or a sprint … You have to be there when it matters,” she said. “Your identity – who you are – is a work of art … It’s something that connects to the present moment of the past. Build a good foundation and then check where you are.”