(Also titled: It’s time to get back to work.)
I’ve been unemployed for two months now, exactly. This has been the longest period of unemployment I’ve had in my adult life—even when I was in university, I was mostly engaged in part-time, if not full-time, work—and while the time has been restorative and rejuvenating, the anxiety associated with not having a job is starting to get worse.
This period of unemployment is mostly self-imposed: I left my previous job because of the commute, and have turned down a few offers since then because I didn’t feel like they were the right fit for me, or I was the right fit for them. I didn’t want to jump into employment strictly to get an income, but instead to find something where I would be useful, effective, and have some kind of broader social impact. (I recognize that the ability to take a few weeks off, to not take the first job offered to me, and to enjoy unemployment as much as I have so far is a privilege and a luxury not afforded to most; I am immensely thankful for that.) The right placement hasn’t come along just yet, and while I felt okay with this liminal state for the first five or six weeks, the past two weeks have been marked with heightened anxiety.
Anxiety, of course, comes in many forms and can be triggered by many factors. Clearly, the financial pressure of being unemployed is significant; you can only live on savings and debt for so long before you start becoming overwhelmed by anxiousness. More insidious is the anxiety of uncertainty, the crisis of confidence that hits you (very hard, in my case) and creates an abhorrent voice in your head, repeatedly telling you that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never be good enough. The voice amplifies with every passing hour; these days, it resonates very loudly through my mind to the point where I have trouble sleeping.
Rationally, I know that this anxiety is unfounded. While finances are tight, we can definitely live off one income in the household for a little while, and when it comes to my experience and expertise, I know that I can, and will, excel in a variety of work placements and environments, should the opportunity be presented to me. Rationality, however, doesn’t help with anxiety. The gnawing sense of dread fights away any rational thought, filling me with doubt and shame and, on bad days, bouts of self-disgust.
Luckily, those bad days are rare. In the meantime, I keep looking for work.
Recently, I started to think about life in boxes. Four boxes, to be specific: what sustains us, what makes us happy, what inspires us, and what makes us curious.
There are many ways to think about what we do in life, but these four quadrants have been pretty important to me as I have been exploring this space of transition over the past two months. Creating this scaffolding, as simple as it may be, has allowed me to discover a lot about how I’ve approached my career trajectory, and the life I lead outside my work.
Sustenance, of course, is generally the first condition of life we live. We need to make enough money to pay the rent, to pay for groceries, and if we can, to find room for entertainment and respite. I have been fortunate that the activities I have pursued for sustenance (my career) have all also contributed significantly to my happiness. I may not have always loved my job, but I always loved my work, and seeing my work done well—I am lucky that, in most cases, the impact of the work has been large—has brought me immense happiness.
I will not pretend that I derive all my happiness, or even most of it, from my employment. I have people in my life (my incredible wife, friends, family, strangers who all teach me something new every day) and activities that all contribute to that contentment, and I have taught myself over the years to find happiness within myself, as well. It has been, however, serendipitous that my work over the past couple of decades has been a part of creating happiness, rather than the opposite.
My sheepish admission is that, though I know it to be a failing of mine, I often ignore the boxes that fall on the right side of the quadrant in my desire to always pursue the left side with gusto. I have been good, in the past, at finding work, and finding happiness; for that, I am blessed and fortunate. I have been less successful at pursuing, or even identifying, what inspires me and what makes me curious.
This failing is most obvious when people ask me about my hobbies. In truth, I have none. I write letters, and I write essays; I stroll aimlessly through the city in an effort to witness small, ignored beauty; I attend cultural events and sometimes perform in them as well. All of these activities are fun, and they bring happiness, but do not fit the definition of a hobby. And while witnessing beauty, either through the built environment or in the actions of people, can be inspirational, I often struggle with the result of that inspiration. What do I do, when inspired, to build upon what I have witnessed? What curiosities does that inspiration launch, and how do I pursue that curiosity?
These are questions I have been exploring over the past two months. I have met with dozens of people and have conversations over coffee and over walks in the park, conversations on topics that are near to my interests or experience, and topics that are foreign and new to me. I have been journaling, meditating, reflecting. In an effort to better answer what inspires me, and what makes me curious, I have taken to tracking the inspirations and curiosities I encounter, and keeping a record of what they are and what kinds of emotions they incite.
I don’t have answers yet. Perhaps I never will, but the exercise has been important.
These past two months have been hard to reconcile. On one hand, I have done an incredible amount of self-exploration and have learned many things about who I am and who I want to be. On the other, I am periodically gripped by an anxiety that makes me feel inadequate, and on the verge of a perilous precipice.
How those two competing emotions are able to co-exist is baffling. What I do know, however, is that both have led me to a place, to a realization: that it is time for me to find meaningful work, again.
What that work looks like, I’m not completely sure, but I do know that my search for employment will serve two purposes. The first, of course, is to alleviate this anxiety, to prove to myself that I can, and will, excel and create measurable good. The second, is to see how I can marry the left side of the quadrant with the right. My job does not have to offer me the opportunity to pursue all four boxes, but it must give me the space to consider them.
Consider this my call out to the universe: after two months of trying to figure things out, of being useful to myself, I’m ready to start being useful to others.
I’d love your help in finding a way to do that, again.