Sunday, October 25, 2009

On staying afloat..

Having been a full-time unemployed American for nearly six months, I feel I am qualified to share this list of do's (and some don'ts) for those struggling to keep our heads above water. And by heads, I mean our mental sharpness, motivation, and readiness.

1) Stay aware of your surroundings. This is always Survival Tip #1 no matter which incident, natural disaster, or crime you are trying to protect yourself from. In the case of being unemployed, this simply means being plugged into your community. Libraries and community centers are terrific - and free - resources that are offering useful information sessions, Q&A's, and workshops for job seekers, among other resources. Public universities often offer career services to the general public, not only alumni or students. All it takes is a trip to their website to find out. Reading the events section of your city's newspaper will also keep you abreast of opportunities to tap into while you search sans prix, and also often lead to networking opportunities. The main idea is to assess your area's built-in set of resources while being aware of how you can best utilize them.

2) Keep up regular contact. You're stuck in open waters with no rescue boat or shoreline to be seen, and you're pretty sure those dark figures below are ravenous sharks waiting to chomp you to pieces. This may be an accurate description of unemployment for many, and if it is, it probably means you've got to come back down to Earth for a while because you're losing it. Part of staying motivated and realistic about your job situation means you have to be talking about it to people. Lots of people. As much as your schedule - or really, their schedule - will allow. Being unemployed is not something to be ashamed of talking about, especially lately; and really, when there's honest, frank discussion going on about work in this day and age, why shouldn't there be the same for those not working? Rather than hiding your circumstances from acquaintances, make it known. Make the fact that you're actively searching known. Even make your frustrations known (but beware of sounding 9-year-old whiny). That way, the woman you met at a conference or at your weekly book club is much more likely to remember you when she hears about an opening in the field you had mentioned looking for work in. Never underestimate the power of people. Even if it doesn't lead to a job, talking to people on the other side can help greatly in staying focused and grounded when you're worst fears and doubts take hold of you.

3) Give yourself a break. Just like we strive for a work/life balance when in regular 9-5 work, we should be striving for the same when working full-time to find a job. The ratio may be somewhat different than what it was when you were working an office gig, but you need to have a day off every now and then. Give yourself the time to do the things you love, and even better, things that you're good at. Taking on a non-search related project from start to finish can provide a healthy sense of accomplishment that those in long-term unemployment are often starving for. You'll be invigorated when you return to treading water - and if cooking is your productive activity like it is mine - you'll have a delicious meal to enjoy!

4) Be resourceful. Another classic survival tip. Translated for unemployment purposes: explore every imaginable avenue for sharpening your skills and talents. Even if it means you won't get paid. There are a million and one opportunities to get involved with organizations these days as nonprofits are being forced to stretch their budgets even thinner than usual. And gone is the one-dimensional model of volunteering you experienced in high school. Nowadays, organizations want skilled professionals who both identify with their overall mission and are interested in sharing their cultivated knowledge and highly particular experience, no matter what sector its coming from. Websites like Idealist and Hands On Network are great national search tools for finding an opportunity catered to your interests, while more local opportunities can be found no further than coffee-shop bulletin boards. And it goes without saying that these volunteering gigs are hot beds for networking with other professionals from across sectors and fields of work. Many individuals who find themselves unemployed mid-career are quick to scoff at the idea of doing non-paying work, but if those individuals have a better idea for keeping their computer/communication/management skills sharp, staying abreast of local/national issues, all while expanding their network - let me know and I'll post it here.
Just because you haven't found the organization that will pay for your skill set doesn't mean it's not worth anything, and furthermore, that you shouldn't continue to cultivate and expand upon it. You'll be much more attractive - and successful - as a candidate if you've displayed a continuing commitment to both your professional development and a worthy cause, even if it was in a volunteer capacity.

Note: I realize that my four tips-approach for succeeding at unemployment might seem a little off to some, meaning they might find it a little weird that I'm glorifying the situation of having no work. Which is way off.
What I'm hoping to say with both this post and this entire blog in general is that given the actual state of employment (and unemployment) in our country at this time, it is a very real and yet very challenging thing to find yourself without work. With that, I am convinced that there is a right way to go about being unemployed, if indeed it becomes your long-term reality instead of the temporary stint you may have expected. And that right way doesn't involve self-pity, misguided or half-assed attempts, but can be just as calculated, intent-filled and learning-intensive as any other career move. And I am figuring out the rest as I go.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

following the scent...

Ok, I'm fearing that I'm starting to sound like one of those crazy careers-people who can't stop tweeting their innovative ideas every time they're near a wi-fi hotspot (and lets face it: those scary people are always near one...) But I'll accept the likely chance of sounding 21st century career-junkie during this post, because this weekend truly did ignite a new spark for the work I'm currently engaged in, and the position I'm diligently working to arrange for myself in the future. And it wasn't until after the two days of events and work had ended that I realized how abuzz I felt, even going off of a depleted sleep-reserve. Yeah, the coffee probably had something to do with it too.

Friday was a conference for grant-writers (a rank which I can officially place myself within, now) and a day full of amazing panel-sessions (including a live grant-making session with a proposal on which I collaborated. We didn't win, but there was an unexpected consolation prize that came out of it...) and chances to meet many development professionals from a number of areas in Seattle nonprofits. The best part of this day, for me, was finally being in a room I knew I deserved to be in, and had worked hard to get to. If this sounds like a small accomplishment, well it was. But not small in terms of the impact it had on me. Because following months of rejections and silence from employers and contacts alike, I needed a reminder, a firm push toward the field of work in which I've been trying to carve a place for myself. I had earned the right to be there, as a scholarship recipient, and that tiny achievement had voluminous effects.

Saturday was my interning organization's annual Auction Event, a messy, stressy, but wonderfully satisfying day/night for both myself and the organization as a whole. Again, a day that set my nonprofit embers aglow.

What has probably been the most unexpected and most challenging part of being unemployed, especially having no previous career to go from: continuing to chase the goals I had set for myself long before I knew how difficult it would be. So many times I have considered putting these efforts aside for the time being. So many times I have doubted myself, and my ability to actually get a job that's even partly related to what I want to be doing. And yes, a lot of these considerations have been made out of practicality and the fact that there are just more jobs available in customer-service and retail - and my newly-invigorated aspirations for nonprofit work won't keep me from applying to those jobs as well. Still, its been a hard coin to settle, whether to keep seeking opportunities that will let me down or opt for something that I'm more likely to get, but is uninteresting or worse, non-challenging. And these sorts of set-ups allow ample room for doubt to creep in. Do I really want to be doing this? I can't find a job, which must mean I'm just not cut out for this kind of work...

So I'm happy to say that just in time, this weekend let me know (in a head-throbbingly exhausting sort of way) that I'm sniffing out the right tracks. Which is just another way of saying that my senses haven't failed me whatsoever.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One giant leap...

I recently celebrated my 23rd birthday. My friends and I marked the occasion with an evening of decadent food, ever-flowing drinks, and non-stop dancing. While celebrations were light-hearted (and wonderfully collaborated, thanks to aforementioned friends), there shone a noticeably heavier glow from the light of those twenty-three candles. This feeling of mounting maturity and responsibility may have been contributed to by the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am not headed back for another year of school. As my friends and boyfriend begin their mornings with a crisp walk to campus, textbooks in tow, I stay at home - usually attached to my computer and phone for the latest job listings and contact calls.

Yet, I can't say that I'm not embracing my new Age Box (I just checked one for 23 - 29!). And I actually think that this may be precisely because I am not headed back to school for once, and because my future has never felt more in my hands. (Whether that's a good or bad thing is still to be determined - I kid, I kid!)

Turning the big 2-3 also has helped me to adopt a more accommodating attitude toward change. What was once a big, bad, six-letter word that found me hiding under the covers, the notion of change is no longer so intimidating. Example: My techno-phobia. I don't think my post about starting a blog quite conveyed the extent of my unexplainable and, now I realize, pretty irrational aversion to new 21st Century technology. But it can be summed up with a simple analogy to water's dislike for oil. Throughout college, I guess you could say I chose to be blissfully ignorant of words like i-pod, Blackberry, and Flickr. I mostly stuck with the basics - texting and Facebook - all the while claiming to be 'an old-fashioned girl'. Once I finished school and found time to start reading things again, I realized how far my ignorance had extended. Somehow, it had turned into fear.

So when the boyfriend's birthday gift to me was a small, sleek, and oh-so-stunning emerald green i-pod, I hate to admit that I wasn't too thrilled. I was actually terrified of having to learn how to use it! I gave a "Thanks," before muttering, "but I like my CD's" under my breath. Now, this is not an easy thing for a young, supposedly hip Generation Y'er to admit. We are hailed as the most tech-savvy, the most computer literate, the most adept with every teeny tiny device that's been dreamed up in the past five years.

But here's my official statement: I'm not. I'm not even close to being savvy.

Here's another statement: I'm working on it. I am adapting. Not only do I love how that green piece of metal shines on my bookshelf, I also love the 230 songs I learned to put on it. (One small step for Gen Y, one giant leap for me..)

And this blog. I haven't been the most frequent updater in its first two months of conception, but I'm feeling more and more excited each day about the work I want to put into it. Its leading me to seek all kinds of information on ideas and words I would have turned my nose against a year ago. And now that I've got this neat new layout, I feel like its a place I can visit more often. I hope at least a few others out there will too...even if its just my mom and best friend.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In the Aftermath of Rejection

So I alluded to my most recent rejection in the last post, but in the past couple of days, have really begun to dig deeper into what that moment of rejection might mean in the long term, and more broadly, what this extended period of involuntary unemployment is starting to mean for me and my future career.

The morning of my last interview (it was the second interview with this company), I was having some trouble getting psyched up. It was a distant cry from the type of job I wanted or imagined myself being qualified for, yet, nearly four months into being completely jobless, I knew I needed to land something. To give this company its credit, it was offering medical benefits, paid vacations, and store discounts, along with a cheerful atmosphere - certainly not a bad gig. And so, the boyfriend pumped me up with a few minutes of Drill Seargent shouting:
"What are you gonna do?!"
"When are you gonna get it?!"

I walked into the interview feeling excited, confident, and hopeful about working there. I sold it the best I knew how, following the advice of people who had interviewed successfully for the company in the past. At the end, I reiterated my desire to join their team, and my firm belief that I would prove a strong asset. The hiring manager told me to expect a call the following day, and I was prepared to receive a job offer 24 hours later. So when the call I received instead did not allow me to say the words, "I accept", I was disappointed to say the least. Once I hung up the phone, sat shell-shocked on my bed, remembering the encouraging words of friends and family who told me I would land the job "without a doubt", I felt even worse. And then, as I made the horrible mistake of factoring in the months of both explicit and implicit rejection, I couldn't help but think the most pitiful of self-pitying thoughts: "What is wrong with me?"

I could have asked similar questions like this for hours, even days. And in fact, I still am wondering what didn't quite add up about me for this particular hiring manager (which makes me wish I had asked him before the end of that unremarkable phone call). Granted, I allowed myself a few hours to indulge in orange Popsicles while evaluating my personal worth. But then around Popsicle No. 5, I realized that 1) I hadn't really wanted that job in the first place, and 2) if they hadn't been able to assess my tremendous value in two interviews, then I really didn't want to work there. And that provided just the right push I needed. It sounds cliche, but I realized that that job and I just weren't meant to be.

It also served as a reminder of how tough things still are, for qualified candidates, for degree-holding candidates, for all candidates. But the definite silver lining in this reality is the fact that people are much more willing to help you out. I have made several professional contacts who have astounded me with their willingness to make valuable introductions for me, forward my credentials onto colleagues, or just talk frankly about the hiring situations in their field over a cup of coffee.

Now is the time to take advantage of this.
Not the time for sitting in a pile of Popsicle sticks.

And looking at the larger picture, I have recently acknowledged the transformative effect this long period of unemployment has made on my approach to and ideas on building a career. Had I landed a job straight out of college, I would never have had to think half as much as I currently am about how to market myself to employers and peers. Or the importance of building cross-industry networks. Or written so many resumes or cover letters. These will all prove incredibly valuable throughout my career, as I move from job to job, field to field, and encounter the next economic bumps and slumps. Not to mention the amount of time this period has provided me toward researching jobs and fields of interest, so that I might realize what I really am passionate about pursuing.

So that when the time is right, my boyfriend won't have to be the one to jazz me up before an interview.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back in Action

Before I could say "Unemployed" - and apparently, before I could get a third blog post up - it became fall. Within a matter of days, the ground had received its annual blanket of crisp, red leaves. I don't know how this time of year always manages to creep up on everyone, although it's a welcome change and an opportunity for me to make some changes in my approach to unemployment (and future employment).

Summer days behind me, along with the ample availability of warm-weather excuses allowing me to blow off jobs-stuff on a whim, I finally took pause to evaluate my progress over the past three months. And there wasn't a whole lot to evaluate. I realized I had spent far too much time being "spread out", searching for jobs in numerous fields and industries of dozens of types. While I had hoped this approach would yield results quicker by putting myself into several different markets at once, it had proved really inefficient. Instead of being able to focusin my efforts in one direction, in one field, I was constantly moving back and forth, having to re-orient myself each time I came across a job opening. And so, after some careful (yet quick) scouring of the classifieds, I decided that I would start applying only to customer service/retail positions, as this seemed to be the most open field at the time. So, one trip to the library, 6 applications sent off, and voila - I suddenly had two interviews lined up (Remember, I had only ONE interview the entire summer. This was a reason to celebrate). This new focused method really seemed to be working.

Unfortunately, those interviews did not lead to employment. And I can't say I did't feel disappointment, particularly after I had just been called in for a second interview for one of the companies. I can't say I'm not starting to feel strained by the amount of "selling" I'm having to do - to potential employers, recruiters, professionals and peers. Because after four months of touting my most valuable assets, I hate to admit that its all beginning to sound a bit lackluster. However, I've spent the day recharging my batteries with my favorite career-oriented networks: Brazen Careerist and Excelle. I know this is just another opportunity to re-group once more, plan for my next set of action, keeping in mind the aforementioned goals of efficiency and direction. I am garnering the experience of those three interviews to hopefully propel myself forward and excel at the next interview in the (hopefully) not so distant future.

Here's to autumn - and changes in the air.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

To Blog, or Not to Blog...

It's obvious now what my answer is to this question, but it seems to be coming up a lot. Like in a conversation I had a few weeks back with my brother-in-law, who had just earned his Master's and is, like me, unemployed. "What is a blog, anyway?" he asked, when I brought up the topic. He's a traditional guy, but he doesn't live under a rock. Instead, what his question seemed to be asking was, "What might a blog be, for me?" He and I are a lot alike; both majored in English, enjoy creative writing, and are pursuing non-profit work. We both agreed that most blogs we'd encountered, aside from the personal, online diary-blogs, were politically-tilted, or corporately-minded. I didn't have a firm answer for him, as this was a question I'd been contemplating for months.
I had always considered myself tech/communications/writing savvy, and throughout college was able to flex those muscles for the occasional class project. Yet, once I exited the less rigorously structured "real world" (yes, college is structured, no matter what they told us in high school. Just think about the word 'assignment'. No one is assigning you to anything once you're looking for work.) I was surprised to learn that many of my peers had blogs that were at least loosely related to careers and jobs. And the blogs I was now noticing were not only about cutesy fashions or delicious dishes. Suddenly, it seemed this word was everywhere, not just my friends' Facebook pages, but in nearly every piece of 21st century career advice I came across - sometimes, on blogs. Everyone was touting the power of the blog. As I continued the summer sans employment, the idea gained weight. But still, I wondered, how could a blog be an asset to me and an attraction to potential employers? What would I write about? Who would read it?

There is a seemingly endless amount of literature on this topic, and its no longer just online. Books on blogging, magazines for bloggers. Not to mention blogs for bloggers! Even lead characters in movies are doing it. Which lead to my next concern...in a sea of bloggers, how could I ever stand out?

Ultimately, my decision to blog came from the realization that whether or not my content was totally original, whether or not I developed a large following, scored a book or movie deal (you never know!), I would be focusing in on a topic (post-college joblessness) and producing a particular take on it. As Adrienne Waldo of the blog Ask A Millenial put it, "[A blog] serves as a sort of enhanced writing sample because it allows employers a unique look at your personality in addition to seeing that you can, in fact, write. It also shows that you're tech-savvy and motivated -- both extremely important qualities to have in today's job market." And if over time, this blog actually reaches a measurable audience, then that will be another added bonus. (Only on Post #2, people). The point was that I could no longer ignore the role that new media, i.e. blogging, plays in the jobs world, no matter how much I tried to distance myself from the fast-paced, competitive corporate power ladder. Blogs are used, and useful, in every field, to everyone. For my nonprofit friends, including my skeptical bro-in-law, you can start here. Rather than hold myself back in timid reservation because of my age and brand-spanking-newness to the job market, I'm sharing what I do know and what I'm learning. And because my situation is far from unique, there will hopefully be people out there who will find a reason to read this (Activate social-networking skills NOW).

And it's all a part of my larger approach to being gainfully unemployed. Without formal employment, without a supervisor and team of colleagues to assign projects and form ideas, we better be seeking information daily, still forming ideas, and sharing/collaborating with a larger community, even if that community exists in a vast, somewhat intimidating technological jungle. Welcome to the 21st century...and the employment jungle!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gainfully Unemployed

Well folks, I'm finally doing it. After loads of coaxing from family, friends, and MSN's Career Section, I'm finally committing myself to blog-writing.
The biggest reason behind my slow-poke reluctance to begin this thing is simply that I needed to find my focus. Decide what, specifically, I wanted this hypothetical blog to be all about. Because being unemployed, at least for me, can make you a bit of a scatter-brain. (I can hear my sister chuckling now, "Sis, you've always been a space-cased, scatter-brained nut") I mean, once I finally realized the hours upon hours of nearly complete free time I had on my hands, suddenly I thought I'd become Super-Woman! Its like Saturday-morning syndrome on 7-day repeat. With the whole day spread out in wide expanse, my mind sees no limit to the things I could do! Browse the recipes on Smitten Kitchen, read the New York Times - AND the New Yorker - cover to cover! Deep clean the apartment, explore real-estate prices in Ohio (pretty good right now)! Make jewelry for my friends, learn how to make Pad Thai, watch the Opera online! Run down the Ave with a spoon on my nose! And that doesn't even begin to cover all the types of job opportunities I can read about/research/apply to...

Basically, I have a million and one interests and I could write about all of them. But that would only lead to more scatter-brainy-ness and if there's one mantra I'm trying my hardest to follow during my unemployment, it's to stay focused. And really, this is where my life is at the moment, in between the pendulum swing from college graduation to employment. And boy, do I have a lot to say about it.

It's just over two months since I moved back to Seattle, and really started searching for work (although I had been looking long before that). Now, I'm completely aware that my status is far from unique - especially among my peers - and I plead no sympathy from anyone. I cannot recall a time when I've complained about not finding work, and truthfully, at times, I enjoy the freedom it brings. The opportunity to reflect. Re-focus. Re-orient myself. Yet somehow I've managed to keep myself busy. On average, I submit 3-6 resume/cover letter combo's per week, and apply more informally to numerous other's. I'm in constant contact with former colleagues in Minnesota, and potentially helpful professionals in my fields of interest. I'm browsing job postings, news updates on the economy, and career-oriented blogs daily. Not unlike so many recent college graduates. Yet, unlike so many of them, I've remained more or less optimistic about my chances of not only finding a job - but finding a job I wanted. The beat on the street continues to be doom and gloom among so many unemployed 20-something's (maybe that's why I've been keeping myself indoors?). I can trace that pessimism all the way back to April, in my Senior Thesis classroom, when our professor - a man who had the responsibilty of pushing us through the last course of our undergrad careers - devotes two whole lectures to the unstable, near-depleted, and all-but warlike job market we were about to enter. While I agreed with his point that we must at least know what we're facing, it seemed to only spur self-pity among my classmates, a far from productive attitude. If even half of professors across the nation delivered the same depressing address, it would come as no surprise that so many 2009 graduates have curled into the fetal positions (most likely, on their parents' couches).

Rather than that dismal picture on the state of things, what I hope my nation's Class of 2009 retains from college instead - what I try to keep in my mind's forefront - is the ability to show resolve, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. We got ourselves through 4 years of grueling exams, months of paper-writing, and more pages of reading than will ever be necessary, all while developing a social circle, involving ourselves in extra-curriculars, and working evenings and weekends. And besides those select few who made it through solely riding Dad's coattails, that's gotta say something about us! It's true that there may not be anything to show for it just yet - besides that cheap piece of paper - but moaning and groaning won't help me get a job. Instead, I'm using this time to develop my skills, explore other niches, and re-focus my attention so that I actually become a better candidate for employment. Could having loads of free time actually give me, dare I say, an edge on my less-resourceful competition? Ok..I can't prove it just yet, but this liberal arts girl isn't afraid to try.

That's why I'm calling this my gainful unemployment, because there really is a way to make something from (almost) nothing. Stay tuned...