A few years prior to Summer 2016, I had stretches of time where I would search for jobs online. This era of my life was marked by stress, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Hope did occasionally find its way toward me. I’d feel good about a job or have high hopes of obtaining a job that “didn’t sound half bad.” Looking back, though, I wasn’t searching for jobs based on what I liked to do or what I was good at. For me, the criteria were: (1) The job can’t stress me out too much, (2) The job cannot be too phone-oriented, and (3) Simplicity is key.
There were other rules, of course. I needed it to be full-time with benefits. I needed to work during the day and overnights were definitely out of the question. My wages needed to at least be decent. To be fair, I think these are acceptable filters.
But then, I also had to agree with the social aspects of the company in question. For instance, companies that put emphasis on extroverted customer interactions turned me off. I knew interacting with customers, the public, or other coworkers was practically impossible to avoid. So, I just needed to make sure the interaction was at a minimum.
Do you notice a pattern here? I spent days, weeks, months–all this time–trying to find a job that I could handle based on avoiding things I didn’t like versus trying to find jobs based on what I was good at. In other words, my job search was limited by my anxieties. I didn’t put my unique personality or talents into the search. Fear was the only thing guiding me. I think that’s what made the job search difficult; I came into it with a pessimistic view. For instance, I knew that I liked to write back then. That’s definitely not a small detail and could have been helpful for my job search. But I refused to even allow myself to think that I could find a job that would help nourish my desire to write and pay the bills.
My frame of reference was, “Any job I get will be miserable, so I just have to pick the one that will likely present the least amount of misery.” There was no soul to my job search. It was almost mechanical. Plus, I was still living with my parents, so half of my motivation to look for a job was to appease them. I always hated the questions. I hated how they would check up on me. I hated the pressure I felt. The worst part was when my efforts hadn’t been “enough.”
Granted, there were times when I wouldn’t put in my best effort. Sometimes, it was laziness. Sometimes, it was the procrastination that comes with fear. Ultimately, I know I felt distress. The level and severity of this distress was something I doubt my parents ever knew. I never communicated my feelings with them, which was nothing new. But there’s something I just want to point out. The job hunt isn’t easy. I mean, how many applications can you fill before you start to feel hopeless? How much silence on the end of potential employers can one withstand before feelings of despair sink in? I sent my resume to many, many places. Some never got back with me. I did score some interviews, and while they mostly went well, they weren’t exactly great experiences. I’m sure many of you are reminded of your own job-seeking struggles.
There were many problems with my own efforts. First, my soul wasn’t in it. My job search was devoid of willful purpose. I searched for jobs the same way I brushed my teeth–you just have to do it. Plus, it got my parents off my back. If I had a story to tell them by dinner time (“I applied for XYZ” or “ZYX finally got back to me today”), then they seemed appeased with my efforts. I also believed that the things I actually enjoyed in life could not be applied to work.
Application after application. Cumulative hours behind a laptop screen. Checking job databases every single day while trying to discern how much effort was “enough” per day. Click after click, link after link. Most roads, sadly, led nowhere. But I didn’t want to talk about the pain. I didn’t want to acknowledge the gaping hole in the ground sucking in more and more of my hope. I just wanted to be okay. Or at least look okay.
Every now and then, my mom would ask me what I was aiming for. What’s my direction? Where do I want to go? Well, I’d long ago abandoned myself. The only way to answer the question was to think back to my four years in college pursuing a winding path that hasn’t served me at all as far as career is concerned. It began with Computer Science, which I ultimately failed. I could only make it two years in a four-year university program. I had to bail for my own sanity. For the next two years, I went to a community college and earned an Associates in Information Systems Technology. That’s a fancy way of saying I memorized terms and did okay on my computer-related quizzes for two years.
But because I never shared my feelings on the inside, my assumption was that those looking at me from the outside could only see me aiming toward the fields I’d chosen to study. My default answer to my mom’s question was a vague statement about how I was aiming for a tech-related job. I couldn’t even narrow it down most times. “Tech” could mean so many different things. But if we’re being real, my heart wasn’t in it.
But I was so afraid of being honest.
I didn’t want my mom to think I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t comfortable revealing my pain. For me, it was much more expedient to give a vague answer. I just needed to get out of the conversation. But what really killed me was the fact that it seemed like the only thing we could talk about was my job hunt. Both of my parents were interested in that aspect of my life. And trust me, I get it. They’re parents. That’s how parents work. But when I’m not feeling good about something, talking about it and pretending all is well is like picking scabs until they bleed again.
I would have much rather been ignored.
My struggle with the job search was ultimately a struggle with myself. I had no concept of what I wanted other than “I just want to avoid anxiety as much as possible.” No wonder the job search often felt like a drag. My standards for finding the right job were narrow and unrealistic. They weren’t based on interests or ambitions. The search didn’t take into account my abilities, talents, and dreams. I approached my job search not as myself, but as a stranger. Someone I didn’t know.
I think I tried my best not to think about the core issue. I think the core issue could be narrowed down to a fear of being empty. Because if I had to think about what I truly wanted (when you take anxiety out of the equation), I would have found uncertainty. Not knowing what career path I wanted amounted to not knowing who I was. But this is what happens when you conflate career with self-worth. Even before you turn 18, you are flooded with the idea that life basically only goes one way. First primary education, then college, then the almighty career.
God forbid you go off the tracks of what’s expected. I could write a whole post on my thoughts about college and career. Maybe I will later on. I have many strong opinions on those topics.
But now that I have a job and have stabilized (I’ve had some real shitty jobs in the past), I can look back and have more compassion on myself. I’m going to say this, because I think it’s what I needed to hear and maybe it’s what you need to hear. It’s okay to not know what you want to do. If you’re confused about the type of work you want to do, that’s okay. If you have absolutely no idea what you want as a career, that’s okay. Career confusion does not cancel you out as a human. It does not take away your inherent dignity.
Also, even the idea of “career” is something that might be making you hurt. I think we emphasize careers too much. Who’s to say you stick with only one career for life? I think we get this impression that a career is forever. Nope. Things can change. Interests and dreams can change. You might even develop a new talent you want to use. I also believe that pursuing a career is fine as long as it’s in line with who you are and what you like. If you can make a living being a chef and you like cooking, then you have a great career! But maybe what you’re interested in doesn’t directly translate into a career. And that’s okay! For instance, I am a writer and I intend to self-publish as much as I can. Is this a career? Not now, because I can’t devote to my craft full-time. But my craft is way more important to me than my actual job. In fact, I work my job so I have the capital to pursue what I’m really passionate about. In my opinion, I have no career, nor do I think in a career-minded way. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
So, I just wanted to say we can get into these traps where we confuse jobs/careers for self-worth. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness or emptiness. What we need to realize is that we have a lot to offer and there’s more to life than careers. Our own worth and value is coded into us by virtue of existence. It’s not about what we do. It’s who we are.
Let’s end on a positive. Getting to know who you are and what you want is much more important than finding the right job or career. Because once you get comfortable with yourself, everything else flows from that. Maybe the job search will not be as painful. Maybe you allow yourself to set a goal. And if you have no idea what you want to do, then that’s actually not as bad a situation as you may think. It allows you to try different things until you find something that sticks. It took me a long time to find more of myself, but I promise it can be done.
Now get back to work! (I’m kidding)