Beyond those important and tangible perks is an entire set of benefits I never expected when escaping the safe but stifling cocoon of gainful employment. Unemployment and all it entails — getting rejected multiple times a day, moving back in with mom and dad, wondering if it really will get better — isn’t all grande soy chai lattes and OINTB marathons. It’s not always #funemployment and anyone who tells you as much is a rotten liar.
But sometimes? Sometimes there’s an upside to taking a breather, stepping back, and evaluating where you are and where you want to go. I’m unemployed but I’m okay. I’m even learning some important lessons along the way:
1. Giving up on excuses.
How long have you been saying “maybe tomorrow?” Maybe tomorrow I’ll write that book. Maybe tomorrow I’ll hit the gym. Maybe tomorrow I’ll apply for that dream job at Google or The New Yorker or wherever it is your heart says is king.
When you’re unemployed, tomorrow is today.
You might continue to make excuses for awhile, replacing “I don’t have time” with “I have too many cover letters to write” but the more excuses you make, the weaker the reasoning will become, and the sooner you’ll understand that you’re not only lying to yourself but also sabotaging your potential success. One morning you’ll wake up and say, “Screw it, I’m gonna do the thing” and paint a mess across a canvas or compose the world’s worst pop song. It won’t be pretty at first — it might never be pretty — but at least you’re trying and being honest with what you want, what makes you laugh or cry, or what inflates your chest with pride.
If nothing else, once you find yourself back in the loving arms of a full-time gig, you can look back and say you tried. (Better yet, you can continue to do The Thing simply because it brings you joy.)
2. Cutting out the excess.
Minimalism is so much more than Ikea furniture with names you can’t pronounce and photos of sparsely decorated industrial lofts added to your Dream Dwellings Pinterest board. It’s a lifestyle choice that encourages you to be selective with the things you bring into your life — both physical and spiritual. It’s not about sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor but instead asking yourself, “Does this bring meaning to my life? Does this make me a happier being? Will this maintain its sentimental value in a month? A year? Five years?”
Unemployment (and the hours of aimless Internet surfing that comes with it) led me to learn and accept minimalism as a viable and necessary lifestyle choice. I’ve donated bags of clothing that other people need more than I do, eliminated nonessential spending, and most importantly, cleared space in my mind and in my life for people and experiences that will increase my quality of life.
Instead of falling into the “I have nothing” thought cycle that’s so compelling (especially when unemployed or single or broke or Whitney Houston) I can look around and think, “Look at everything I have, look how much it means to me, look how much abundance there is in the universe.” It might sound like I took one too many sips of Professor Trelawney’s tea, but it’s made the whole not having a job/friends/life situation way more bearable. My depleted bank account also doesn’t have any complaints.
3. Learning how to ask for help.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to ask for help. I’ve struggled with this my entire life and many friends have said the same. Being unemployed can put you in a peculiar and terrifying place where the only way to get out of the hole is to ask for a hand to pull you up. It might mean asking family or friends for a loan, or networking with former classmates with whom you’d otherwise never speak. It might be as small as asking your sister to look over your resume or as imposing as crashing on a couch for a few months while you find your bearings.
Help comes in small and large packages, but to ask for it is always hard. It takes courage and self-awareness and humility. They don’t teach you those things in college. It’s hard to admit that you can’t manage your thoughts or your cell phone bill (or your checkbook or your love life), but once you do and reach out for a little help, you start to feel like you’re reclaiming a bit of that control you lost.
4. Making your own definitions.
We spend so much of our lives defining who we are and what we do by the labels society provides. Single or taken, student or drop-out, gay or straight, frat boy or theatre geek, employed or unemployed. There’s an infinite number of ways to identify ourselves, a spectrum so broad that it’s not always so easy to place yourself in any one category.
If you’re unemployed, you’re probably spending hours of every day poring over a resume or a job description wondering how you can put your experiences into words that match predetermined requirements. You’re trying to define yourself in a way that places you squarely inside someone else’s boxes, letting someone else plop you down on that spectrum wherever they see fit. It might get you an interview but damn if it isn’t Dementor levels of soul-sucking.
You can use whatever power verbs you want, find the most eloquent synonyms, bullet points, and skew your prior responsibilities until you don’t even recognize the person reflected on the page. You can be Whomever It Might Concern’s standout candidate, but if you aren’t yourself and if you don’t define yourself on your own terms, it probably won’t work out. I’ve tried to be a person I’m not, tried to commit to jobs that sounded great over holiday dinner conversation but in reality felt like an ill-fitting pair of jeans. I’ve tried to define myself by someone else’s desires instead of my own experiences. You can probably guess how that worked out.
I recognize that most of the world can’t sit in a coffee shop and wonder how they’ve become a better person by not having a job because they’re too worried about where they’ll rest their heads tonight. I recognize my privilege and I know that I’m lucky. But I also know that if we don’t take these moments that are undefined and malleable and create something from their parts and create something of ourselves from what remains, we really will have nothing.