Day 31: Taking a Break from a Career Break

Don’t worry, 31 days into unemployment, my status is still unchanged.

In those 31 days, there have been countless ups and downs. Moments of excitement, high concentration, positivity, hope. Moments of disappointment, insecurity, powerlessness, anxiety. Moments of acceptance and denial.

Job opportunities have been coming and going, passing me by or engaging me but being cancelled at the last minute. I’ve come to realize that a lot of the job hunt “science” has to do with luck. But I am not ready to curse my luck just yet.

I have sent out more job applications than I can remember, for all sorts of jobs that were remotely related to any of my previous positions. But I do have a very particular skillset that is valuable for certain jobs but not as much for general positions found in any company. All these applications that I’ve sent out and never heard back about, all those rejection emails stating I wasn’t the right fit for the job; they just haven’t been the right fit for me.

I have come a long way from those early days of frantic applying though. I am no longer targeting anything that might work. I have started pondering what it was I really wanted to do, as opposed to what I feel I need to do. I have been trying to educate myself further, to see what options there might be other than the obvious ones. I am not quite done figuring out what comes next yet, but I do feel things are becoming clearer.

One think I have been doing consistently from day 1 is blogging if you will, though it is more like journaling, as you know. A diary that I made public for two reasons:

  1. To keep myself writing, every day, keeping my emotions more or less in check and just getting into the habit of putting my thoughts on (digital) paper and publishing them.
  2. To keep track of the changes in thinking I’m going through, and of learnings that I take as I make them; and to make those learnings available to anybody who might be in a similar situation as me, anyone who might be struggling, anyone who needs to see that life is not easy for any of us.

Though this blog has not made millions of followers in the first 31 days of its existence, this was never really the goal. If there is one person who, having read this diary, felt like they were no longer alone, then this blog reached its ultimate success.

If you’ve read this, you know I was planning to go do some travelling, and that I wasn’t going to give up life just because I got fired.

Well, time has come to – literally – embark on a journey out of the struggles of my everyday life. What I am hoping for is to really relax and get some distance, including literal distance, gather some new strength and maybe open up to some new ideas.

Though my – figurative – journey back into employment is not finished yet, starting tomorrow, I am suspending my rigorous schedule of posting every day, at least for the time being. That does not mean that the blog is over, so make sure to check back every once in a while. I’ll be happy if you do.

Thank you for being with me this month.

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Day 30: Ode to All Recruiters Out There

It is a truth universally known that the job search is an extremely frustrating matter. Based in the unequal nature of the employee-employer relationship, frustration lies at its very foundation.

Historically, it is a story of exploitation. Think feudal servitude. Think industrialization and forced labor. Think modern times slavery.

Even in the 21st century, if you’re lucky enough to live in a country with human rights in place and enforced, working conditions regulated by law, guaranteed workplace safety, social welfare, free weekends and unions, it is still them who have the power. Them who set the rules. Them who decide.

Of course, we do have the power to say no. But do we, really? I am sure we have all had crappy jobs we just had to take, due to (financial) circumstances of our lives.

You and me, tiny little individuals against monstrous companies run by business rules, not necessarily respect to employees. Driven by the ultimate goal of making profit, and using you as a cheap means of achieving it.

If you apply for a job with a company, it is not you coming to them with an offer of mutually beneficial partnership. It is you asking them for a favor, and begging for a salary.

It is you spending hours of your time researching, applying, going through with whatever procedure they decide you need to go through, and them barely acknowledging your existence – them spending an average of 3 minutes checking out your resume and clicking a button to send a mass email, in the better case. In the worse case, your application gets dumped by a machine in a fully automatized selection process, never to be seen by a fellow human.

Sure, not all companies are like that. But, as I have had the chance to learn throughout this month, an alarming number of companies are.

And I do understand the need to sift through hundreds of applications in as short a time as possible. I have had enough work experience to know that there is a certain percentage of resumes that are not relevant at all, and I know how hard it is to find good employees. There are companies, included those highly sought-after, that have been struggling to fill certain positions for years. It would seem this situation, full of arrogance and attitudes, is not optimal for either side.

Which is why I have come to really appreciate the work of external recruiters. Serving as an interlink between candidate and employer, they bring some much-needed sense of dignity into the process. Sporting a customer-service attitude to both sides equally, they are usually energetic and friendly people, keen on making everyone happy, as creating the perfect match of candidate and job is their measurement of success. They are transparent about the hard facts of the position from the start, they don’t hesitate to tell you the salary bottom lines and what you can expect in the selection, and they stick to timelines. They treat you with fairness and respect. To them, you are not a filthy beggar; you are a rare gem. You are not a means to create profit, you are the proud product of their best efforts.

So this is a shout to all those fantastic recruiters out there: Thank you for making the job hunt bearable, and this world a better place.

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Day 29: Mind Battles

My first month of unemployment is slowly nearing its end. Looking back, I can’t help but notice how powerful my own mind is, pulling all these tricks on me.

And that getting it under control is a skill I have yet to master.

They say we only use 10 per cent of our brain capacity. No wonder the rest gets bored and plays around, mixing feelings, experimenting with their intensity and effectively enslaving the body and soul.

There are people who know how to control the minds of others, and to manipulate their behaviors. There are business strategies trying to exploit this. There are countless academic articles explaining how populist politicians and totalitarian regimes exploit this. There are TV shows exploiting this – remember The Push on Netflix?

I wonder if the same people sometimes struggle with controlling their own minds too. Being able to realize outside influence on your mind executed by other(s) is one step towards regaining your own control. But what if there is no outside entity trying to control you, and your fight is indeed with your mind only? How do you win that battle?

And, more importantly in the long run, how do you reconcile with your mind and use its capacity to your own advantage instead?

Meditation might be one thing to try. I have started testing a meditation app just a couple of days ago, and while I can tell it calms me down, I still have to wait for some longer term results.

Remember that Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon introduces the concept of super aging: Instead of letting your mind stagnate as you get older, as you stop learning after finishing school and get into a routine adult daily life, train it. Keep pushing it to the limit and beyond, keep learning, keep using those brain cells till it hurts, keep testing boundaries, both physical and mental. According to this New York Times article, chances are you will be on par with 25-year-olds, no matter your actual age.

And maybe, just maybe, you will motivate your mind to actually work with you instead of moving against you.

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Days 27+28: The Dream and the Connection to a True Self

I had a dream last night. For the first time in quite a while, it was not a haunted one.

I was an ambassador in an unknown country. I drove a car to which all gates opened, and which had do have its car plates removed each time. I had staff advising me on security risks. And on my shoulders, I carried a huge burden of responsibility for my people.

I don’t remember much of the dream, except the feeling of pride, humbleness and determination. And confidence in knowing that the risks were great and the responsibility enormous, but I was ready to face all challenges to the best of my ability. And that I had that ability, and no choice but to trust it.

After months of having me run in painful circles, I feel like this might be the moment my mind is finally letting me see that there might be is a way out. I do remember I used to feel like in that dream, almost like that, a long time ago. Proud of my work achievements, confident in the value I could deliver. Not perfect, but ready to learn from mistakes, rather than dread them. Thrilled but comfortable in my own skin.

So how did this happen – what was it that threw my self-perception completely out of balance and sent it down a spiral of anxiety?

I grew up in a country with a strong social system. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, such as having lost a job, the social structures are there to help you. As reassuring as this may seem, in practical terms, this also means that as long as you do have a job, your salary is subject to relatively high levels of taxation and social security deductions: more than a third of your salary goes off for that, month after month. Not everybody is happy about this. The unemployed are therefore often seen as parasites misusing the system, living off of other people’s salary deductions. Which of course does not make much sense – I might be unemployed now, but I did spend years paying into the system, right? And this is its sole purpose.

Either way, not having a job, having a gap on your resume, has become a bit of a taboo in the society, making an already difficult situation even worse for the individual.

Hence my everyday struggle, documented – both directly and indirectly – in each of my posts here on the blog.

It is, of course, not fair. Having lost a job is not an indication of you not being able to get or keep one. It is not indicative of your (in)ability to provide value for the society, or to be a good person. It is merely an indication of you not having a job at the moment.

Over this rainy, contemplative weekend, I have learned two things:

  1. The only thing that being unemployed says about you is that you are a person currently without a job.
  2. It is crucial to re-connect with your true, pre-crisis self. Remember who you were when you were at your best, and who you wanted to be. Hidden under the tricks your mind is playing at you now, you have it in you already.

    photo of woman riding swing in front of waterfalls
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Day 26: Back to Square 1. Or So.

So here I was, arrogantly thinking I was doing well, considering.

That I’ve come a long way from the insecure, anxious, throbbing pile of nerves.

That I’ve gained a bit of control over things.

That I’ve grown stronger.

Today, I’m back to being nothing but a weak pile of tired jelly.

Just the thought of a fight makes my muscles physically ache. And everything classifies as a fight: looking for jobs to apply for, leaving the house, opening my mailbox.

I’m wondering when this energy drain started: I was feeling alright just yesterday. It must have been this morning then; was it before or after I was notified that I did not get the part time job I interviewed for a couple of days ago?

We found a different solution,” the email said. I couldn’t understand what it meant: it seemed like the perfect job, and I seemed like the perfect candidate. A bit overqualified for what the requirements were, but motivated, with an easily comprehensible personal story to explain why a part time temp job makes a great sense to me. And I was sure I had the recruiter on my side.

And yet, a different solution it is.

I’ve been rejected a hundred times this month, and it’s never lead to an energy drain like this. That being said, I’ve never let myself think any of those jobs were perfect for me. Except this one.

I guess that’s my mistake.

So I spent pretty much most of my day in the jelly state, tormenting myself much and accomplishing little. Until my husband came home from work, and spontaneously took me out for dinner.

The evening was warm enough for us sit outside and watch the busy street, and I was amazed. All this energy emanating from all this buzz of the city; it had been there the whole day for me to go and absorb, and I wouldn’t have realized on my own.

I’ve learned two important things today:

1. No job is perfect unless you get it and it makes you happy.

2. Your social network, real people in your life who’ll help you leave your place when it seems impossible to make it on your own, are absolutely, absolutely crucial.

Day 25: The Physical Impact of Being Unemployed

Turns out being unemployed is dangerous.

The mental health challenge is undeniable; however unemployment can have negative effects on your physical health too. If you’re not careful enough.

Employed or not, health is the number one thing you need to look after.

Over thirty years old, and I still need my mom to remind me of that.

Since I don’t have a work to go to every morning, I’ve somewhat lost a structure of the everyday life.

I don’t stick to the usual meal times as I don’t have colleagues to have lunch with anymore, and lately I’ve been skipping meals too. And when I do eat before my husband gets home, it’s usually just whatever leftovers or snacks I can find at home. I used to eat salads for lunch at work, and I’ve started noticing my body might be missing being employed.

I read today that to keep healthy and fit, you should make sure that you do not spend over 75 per cent of your waking hours sitting down.

In the last week or so, as I’ve grown more used to my new reality (and the weather has gotten colder too!), my gym visits have become farther in between; and I have definitely been overstaying my time at my desk, staring at screens.

In my defense, not all behavioral changes I’m noticing on myself are necessarily bad:

  • I’ve been giving the skin on my face a break from makeup on most days, and my dry spots have disappeared.
  • My skin issues on my hands have almost disappeared as well, making me wonder whether they were related to stress more than to the alleged allergy to certain products.
  • I’ve been going easy on my hair too. I used to wash it every night, relinquishing in the obsessive pleasure of having freshly washed hair every day. Now I’m even considering starting a no-poo experiment. Being unemployed might be the best time to try this out! But then again, going to a job interview like that might equal requesting an extension of my current unemployed status.

Either way, the lessons learned I’m taking from today are:

1. Eat regularly, for god’s sake. No wonder you’ve been cranky.

2. Think vegetables! Loads of them! And consider fruits as a chocolate replacement.

3. Make sure to spend at least 4 hours a day away from your desk.

4. Preferably at the gym. Or outdoors. Or learning to cook good food.

5. Download a health app to keep track, preferably one that will bug you if you don’t.

By the way, in case you were wondering: No word from Betty as of yet.

Day 24: Help! Scam or No Scam?

Today, I want to share a super strange experience I had with a person who claimed to be an HR pro. Here is how it went:

Yesterday at around lunchtime, I received an email from a recruiter of a major global corporation asking me if I would have time to talk to her today. She referred to a position I supposedly applied for in the subject line as well as in the body of the email.

This already was weird because:

  1. The email started with the words: “I can reaching out to you because…
  2. Each time the person referred to the title of the position, she used different words, which left me at a loss as to what job it actually was. What’s more: I did not apply to either of the two job titles.
  3. I had interviewed at the same company a couple of times previously and the process was slightly different; each time, the recruiter asked for my availability over the next couple of weeks, not the following day.

I decided to go ahead anyway at this point, thinking the person is either super stressed, very imprecise or just had a bad day. After all, the email came from what seemed like a perfectly legit corporate email address, I did apply with this company just a week ago, job titles change, and people sometimes do need to be recruited at a short notice.

I asked for a job description of the position she was referring to, and she sent me a link to the job add that I actually applied for last week. We agreed to have a call today from 11.30 to 12.00.

So far so good.

This morning, I was preparing for the interview, and at 11.20, I got an email from the recruiter (let’s call her Betty), saying: I’ve been trying to call you but the call won’t go through, are you available?

I’ve had recruiters calling much later than at the agreed time, but none ever tried to call 10 (or more!) minutes earlier. I chose to ignore this fact, and triple-checked my phone. It was fully charged and connected to the network. Just to be sure, I restarted it and tried to call my husband’s phone. The call went through without any issues. I use the same phone and number every day, and I haven’t had any issues receiving calls or messages.

I emailed Betty saying yes, I was available, my phone was ready and if there were still issues, she could reach me on Skype as well.

And then I waited and waited. After more than 25 mins (!), well into our interview time, Betty finally emailed back, saying her company did not use Skype, and in case I was still available, she would try to call me again or I could try to call her. And she gave me a phone number.

This is when my suspicions got the best of me, and I rejected the idea of me calling her right away (remember all the infamous telephone scams?). I responded saying I was still available but as the interview time was almost over and I didn’t want to jeopardize her schedule, I suggested rescheduling would be no issue, and even offered to have an alternative phone number ready, just in case.

Surprisingly enough, Betty hasn’t responded to that.

So here I am, wondering what happened. I’m trying to imagine being in the recruiter’s shoes. Even if I did try to call and couldn’t reach the candidate on the phone, I would certainly not wait over 25 minutes of a 30-minute interview to respond to an email, knowing the person is waiting for my call. I would probably ask if they had another phone number available; or try to find a different alternative.

If I wanted to speak to the person, that is.

The situation seems too sophisticated to be a telephone scam like any other. But if Betty’s LinkedIn profile is anything to go by, she is far too experienced (and recently promoted!) for this chaotic, unprofessional behavior.

Needless to say, I’m still baffled. Or am I just being paranoid?

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Day 23: Acceptance and Making the Most of It

I woke up this morning, and I just didn’t feel like getting up. It had been too short of a night to make up for a very long exhausting day yesterday. The world outside looked grey and cold through the window. The air in the room was a little too cool to be comfortable. And my bed was warm and cozy.

And then it hit me:

I didn’t have to get up if I didn’t want to.

On day 23, I discovered the one perk of being unemployed.

“So what is it that you want to do?”

I had a job interview for a temporary part time job this afternoon, and I honestly told the interviewer I am still in the process of figuring it out; and part-timing for the time being would give me the opportunity to do that while taking off some of the financial pressure.

She understood, and not just that: She accepted it as if it was the most natural thing in the world, a perfectly valid situation in life.

This surprised me, as for me, this was a state of crisis, something that needed to be overcome ASAP and dealt with using any means possible.

Anything but a quiet interlude meant to reflect on one’s life and contemplate its direction.

I’ve been so focused on thinking of my resume in terms of what I’ve done in my previous jobs and how that fits profiles sought for on the job market, that I forgot to think about whether these profiles are what I want to do in life next.

Apparently, it takes acceptance to set yourself free. Once you’ve truly accepted your situation, you can make the best of it. After all, being unemployed is a great – and quite rare! – opportunity to take a step back from a corporate everyday life and ponder life, careers, happiness. Think about what you like doing, what you’re good at and who you are and who you want to be in the future; take classes and dip your toe into a wide variety of activities; get ideas from career experts, and take things from there.

And enjoy your lazy mornings while you still can.

Day 22: The Consumerist Within aka How to Save the World and Your Wallet

Merciless battles on the job market. Emotional struggles. As if that wasn’t enough, being unemployed also means learning to live on a budget.

I’m not that much into numbers or hoarding money; I like living life with the freedom of not keeping an eye on every cent. I’m convinced you can still keep that freedom AND not overspend, if you change the way you think and behave as a consumer.

I’ve lived in a number of different countries in my life, some of which were extremely focused on consuming as a way of validating your personal status and worth as an individual. If you didn’t have the latest iPhone as soon as it was released, if you wore non-designer shoes, if your colleagues could recall you wearing the same clothes twice, if you didn’t drive an expensive SUV, if you cleaned your own bathroom by yourself, you weren’t successful in life.

Notice how this says nothing about happiness.

Moving to a (very) different country, I arrived at a culture that values long term sustainability over abundance, personal freedoms of all over luxury of the few, environmental protection over quick and cheap solutions, fair, safe and healthy production of goods over easy exploitation.

When it comes to consuming, the switch in mindset wasn’t as easy as one would think, but I am now no longer embarrassed when somebody sees my old phone, or when I’m not wearing the latest jeans cut. I’ve learned to look for quality in materials and production conditions instead of quality of branding. I’m still (very) far from a minimalist but I buy considerably less than I used to, and I make choices that I am happier with.

Keep in mind: The job of all these marketing departments of brands big and small is to influence your brain to make you crave whatever they’re promoting, make you believe you need it and you need to have it immediately. To resist the urge, I’ve created a two-step purchase decision making process that both me and my husband use whenever buying anything. Ask yourself:

1. Do you really, objectively need it right now?

2. Is it a good deal in terms of quality, ethics and price?

If you honestly answer both questions yes, go ahead and buy it.

If one or both of them are a no, there’s your answer.

If you’re not sure how to answer either question, for example you love the thing but you’re not sure if you really, objectively need it right now, do the following (and this is the crucial part):

Wait 2 weeks.

In 2 weeks you will be sure whether the thing’ll have such a positive impact on your life and happiness that a purchase is justified.

Chances are, your brain will let you forget all about the thing once the shiny consumerist magic has been out of sight for a while, saving the Earth, resources, and your wallet.

I’m curious to see how this will work for you; try it and let me know!

Days 20+21: Owning the Narrative

Are you on your way to work?

It’s an early Sunday morning, I’m waiting for a train to go visit my mother. There is this atmosphere of a shared misery of being out too early on a Sunday morning, when you’re actually supposed to sleep in, make a coffee and enjoy a lazy morning in your cozy home. A stranger next to me is trying to make a conversation with what might be an easy ice-breaker among people who are out at this hour – too late to be coming back from a Saturday night party, too early to be headed for a Sunday brunch.

But I’m not part of any of these groups of people, and her question stings.

I hesitate; she interprets the silence her way and continues muttering, “Only true hard-workers work on Sundays…”

What does that make me? I wasn’t on my way to work this morning; and I’m not going to be on my way to work on Monday either, despite my best efforts. And chances are, Tuesday or Wednesday won’t be any different.

Trying to contain the negative feelings threatening to engulf me, I realize what my problem is: 21 days into unemployment, I still haven’t figured how to take control of my own story, how to communicate my situation from a healthy, non-self-depricating point, both to myself and to others.

Although this seems the crucial thing to move on.

It is my own life’s story, and I have the right – the obligation – to make the best of it. What seems like a setback (notice how I’m not saying failure!) at a certain phase in my life might turn out to be an important turning point in the long run.

My dearest husband, the voice of reason and love, helped me arrive at this when he said the other day: Do you know the story of the KFC founder?

I did, I just haven’t thought of it recently. Colonel Sanders lost several jobs before starting the mega-successful fast food restaurant, the safe choice of many weary travellers – and locals – around the globe.

Walt Disney was let go for being uncreative and had to face multiple failures before his big breakthrough, one that still entertains kids and adults nowadays.

Thomas Alva Edison was fired several times, and we all know how the light bulb story went.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from TV news before starting her talk show and becoming one of the most influential women in the world.

Steve Jobs got fired from his own company, and came back a winner, making Apple one of the strongest brands in the world.

Once you start looking into this, this list could go on and on. The lessons I’m taking from this weekend are:

Never stop believing in your own worth. Take a deep breath. Seize the opportunity. Learn. Work hard. Find your way.

If you hit rock bottom, make sure to bounce off it and become a shooting star.

It’s your story. Own it.