Best known as the long-time host of the TV show Daily Planet, Ziya Tong is one of Canada’s most highly-regarded science journalists, a best-selling author and the Vice Chair of WWF Canada.
When she was 21, she got a question mark tattooed on the back of her neck, which was quite fitting when you look at everything she’s done since then. Her natural curiosity about, well, pretty much everything and propensity to keep asking questions have helped to drive her career forward. These qualities can be beneficial to so many of us in both our personal and professional lives.
“There are a lot of kids out there that are always like ‘why, why, why, why, why’ but when people grow up they sometimes stop asking all those questions,” Tong says over the phone from her home in Toronto.
“My profession involves asking ‘why’ and I continue to do that all the time. People I really admire like Jane Goodall, David Suzuki and so many others remain curious. I think a fundamentally important property of a thinker is to stay curious. The minute you’re not curious you might as well be dead.”
Earlier this year, Tong released her first book, The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World. It was recently longlisted for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize, Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction award.
In the book, Tong examines what she feels are 10 of humanity’s biggest blind spots and how because of them we only experience a small sliver of reality. By being curious and examining things through a scientific lens, she hopes that people can see the world in a completely different way.
Writing the book forced Tong to question her own biases and perceptions – something that’s quite challenging to do. But a wise master provided some valuable insight that helped guide her along this journey.
“A quote that really inspired me is from Yoda, ‘You must unlearn what you have learned,’” she says. “I worked to really look at the world from a different perspective and sort of shatter a lot of my original thinking and ideas that I took for granted.
“I did a tremendous amount of research and the trickiest part in the whole process was to be able to synthesize all of it under a broader narrative. Some of the best compliments I’ve gotten are that it’s a funny book, but it’s also a deadly serious book. It’s a trippy book, but it’s also a science book. I hope it brings a lot of unexpected realizations and epiphanies.”
The Reality Bubble was created over the course of a year while she was still working full-time at Daily Planet. As a journalist and broadcaster, Tong is very used to deadlines. Knowing she had to meet tight timeline demands of creating one new chapter a month helped stave off writer’s block.
Instead, Tong ran into another issue that would stall her progress and disrupt her creativity. It’s an issue that trips up many other people too. A need to get things absolutely right the first time around, instead of just getting ideas down, seeing how they naturally evolve and making any needed changes later.
“The beginning can take me forever because of perfectionism,” she explains. “You really want the beginning to be as good as it can be and perfectionism is a really destructive force when you’re writing. It really blocks creativity because it doesn’t allow any flow.
“If you want things to be perfect you’re actually meddling and interfering with the creative process. So, I had to work on letting go of that and just beginning to write. The more relaxed I was about the process, the easier I found it to be.”
Through her work with Daily Planet, WWF Canada and more, Tong has long been an advocate of the environment and has spoken at length about climate change. And while The Reality Bubble isn’t an environmental book, in its pages Tong does talk about how eventually all bubbles burst. This is something that does connect to the climate-related issues that are becoming much more prevalent.
“It’s just an absolutely staggering situation that we’re in,” she says. “On top of the climate emergency, we’re also in the middle of the sixth grade extinction. Life itself on the planet is disappearing. We’re talking about close to a million species disappearing. That we can walk around and think that business as usual is going to keep going on is just absolutely absurd.”
Before wrapping up our chat with Tong, we took a moment to ask for her thoughts on the world of insurance. It should come as little surprise that she used the opportunity to ask some important questions about our changing climate and how severe weather events will impact the lives of Canadians and people around the planet.
“As climate change continues to increase and as more places in the world become uninhabitable, who is going to insure them?” she wondered. “Once your home is destroyed and everybody knows that your land is valued less, what are you going to do? Are you just going to get a home re-built in that same area that’s going to flood or experience whatever sort of climate catastrophe again? Who’s going to actually insure places that are uninsurable. That’s going to be a really tricky question that people have to really start thinking about.
“Insurance companies – more than any other companies – for the longest time have known about climate change. They haven’t been the ones who’ve been denying it because they’ve had to start making those payouts. They’ve been the most awake and they’ve been the most aware of what’s actually coming.”