It’s now been fifteen months since I left my job. I planned to write an honest, laid-bare, in places humiliating account of why this is, but I’m not sure how to yet. I’m consistently in two minds about whether it’s nerve-wracking and uncomfortable but essentially a positive thing, or whether it’s nerve-wracking and uncomfortable because it’s a very bad idea and an awful failing. When I have a solid argument to pitch, I’ll let you know, but until then here’s one reason I don’t have a job: choices, or rather, a lack of having made any.
To illustrate this problem, here are the jobs I’ve given moderate to serious consideration this week alone:
Because: easy hours that compliment my writing schedule, limited interaction with the public, potential of changing a child’s life as they change mine, and then being played by Mandy Moore/Emma Roberts/Gemma Arterton in the movie version.
Obstacles: parents tend to want a person who can drive their kids around, and a license is another adult thing I do not have. However, I do have around twelve years’ experience with children from way back when I was one.
Likelihood verdict: something like this could work, just not this.
Because: I actually applied for a funeral director position once. I guess I like idea of it forcing me to feel, of never having the opportunity to get complacent, and of connecting with people when they really need it. That, and Six Feet Under.
Obstacles: driving, again, is a bonus. Plus I failed this situational test the job I applied for had me do, so someone thinks I’m not suitable.
Verdict: I’m going to listen to the universe. Probably not a good idea.
Because: I worry about those guys. I want to know everybody’s being nice to each other in there.
Obstacles: would very likely not be able to overpower anyone at a crucial moment. Also I have this pitchy, little girl voice that demands no respect whatsoever. Fair surprisingly well under pressure, however.
Verdict: may find it very fulfilling, may also die.
Because: I like the outdoors.
Obstacles: in the dream scenario, I’m doing this in the hundreds of square kilometres of Yosemite National Park, California, where I am not.
Verdict: I think my park ranger fantasy might be the ultimate manifestation of my wanderlust coupled with this little voice in my head that tells me to go toss my phone in a river and be at one with nature. Maybe someday.
Because: drank some wine, liked it, did indeed detect notes of red berries and chocolate.
Obstacles: have worked in hospitality before and it’s the fucking worst. This job is probably less drinking for a living and trips to Tuscany than paying for people’s dry-cleaning once you’ve spilled Merlot down them.
Verdict: already over the idea.
Because: learned that Pablo Escobar was worth $30 billion.
Obstacles: would have to research how one gets into this line of work. I have a feeling it’s more of a who you know than what you know type situation, in which case I’ve fallen at the first hurdle, but correct me if I’m wrong (my DMs are open). Also sales is something I usually find a little intimidating but your audience is more or less captive with this one. The most profitable drug operations tend to be family affairs, but I’m fairly certain I can get the other Mathewsons on board.
Verdict: is promising.
Because: watched The Martian. Would like to be able to save Matt Damon from space should the need present itself. Astrodynamics is what Donald Glover does in that movie, and the idea of something called the ‘Hannah Mathewson Manoeuvre’ appeals to me immensely.
Obstacles: skills I don’t have.
Verdict: realistically, this would be tough. But if I had the time, the money and the inclination, I could go back to school and get the A levels I don’t have in maths and physics, and then a second degree, and a masters, and a doctorate if I need that too. Our only limitations are the ones we place on ourselves or whatever. Going to put this one in the maybe pile.
Drug dealer it is then. But as much as being the next Pablo Escobar sounds like a perfect fit for me, my stomach does turns at the thought of committing; to anything from life as a drug lord to a weekend admin job. It all feels like admitting defeat, or an opportunity to get too comfortable again. Maybe all this job anxiety is an invaluable tool that keeps me pushing forward. Maybe my indecisiveness is confirmation that, really, I know which job I want. I just picked a bad one.
It’s been nearly a year since I worked a paying job. I never meant for it to be this long, but this is exactly what happens when you don’t have a plan B kids. Let this be a cautionary tale.
In the best case scenario, I had an agent and a publisher by now; maybe even a proof copy of my novel. The worst case scenario was probably me back at my old job, right where I was a year ago – and a year before that – but things aren’t that bad yet … yay?
It’s all good (translation: mostly okay). Unemployment is potentially crippling and life-ruining, but I had a place to fall back on, and parents who wanted to help. Plus I’m a handy little saver. But that’s not to say the silver linings don’t come attached to some pretty gloomy clouds. Here are my pros and cons of being unemployed.
Pro: It’s kind of great
All my time is mine to spend how I choose. My commitments are practically non-existent. I get up when I like, I write when I like, I make a cup of tea every twenty minutes and no one minds. Yes, I try to maintain a routine and cultivate discipline, but really, not having a job makes this easier. I don’t come home after a long day, mentally exhausted, and find I can’t even imagine sitting down to write. I don’t get more or less done at the weekends. I have the freedom to work when I’m most inspired, whether that’s at two in the afternoon or two in the morning.
Miniature con: friends have stopped laughing politely at my ‘let me check my diary’ joke.
Con: It’s kind of awful
All my time is mine to try and fill. My commitments are practically non-existent. Last month, I went an appalling nine days without leaving the house other than to walk my dog or to run; no socialising, no errands. I would go mad! I hear you cry. Bless. I was once a fully-functioning adult with complex psychological needs not unlike your own. You too are only a couple of skipped showers, half a dozen bowls of Shreddies and an emotional investment in House of Cards away from total recluse status. It’s easier than you could ever believe.
Pro: I’m learning what matters
I no longer have the luxury of hating every item of clothing I own after a handful of wears, so I don’t. For the best part, I make do, and it may sound nightmarish to any retail addict, but it’s actually kind of liberating.
Boots claims most of my retail expenditure on those luxuries such as shaving and conditioning my hair, but the rest of my spending is reserved for experiences. And by experiences I mainly mean beer. And by beer I mainly mean lime and soda. I don’t want to compromise too heavily on social spending – as low as that spending may already be – because that’s the kind of spending that actually helps us be happy. As for shopping, to know that I can spend so little on myself and not pine and covet is a relief.
Con: I’m learning what matters, and it’s money
Fuck you Boots. I’ve stripped make-up and toiletries just about as bare as I’m willing to, and you’re still bleeding me dry. My only saving grace is that being clean and looking pretty aren’t nearly as important as they used to be (see above).
I really want to be chill about not having an income – what do I really need money for right now anyway? – but I’ve been hardwired by the world we live in to freak out about it on a semi-regular basis. I’ve applied for a handful of part-time jobs throughout the year, because whether I like it or not, I’m going to need one eventually. I just hope I can pull something out of the bag while I still have the luxury of being a little choosy.
Pro: I’m doing what I really want to be doing
Despite the hurdles, the petty sacrifices, and the year thus far of very limited success, I’m happy with my decision to make what I want most a priority. As misguided as it might have been, I went into this without a plan B on purpose. It felt like bad karma to do otherwise.
Con: Doubts. So many doubts
Karma, Hannah? Really? Or was it that thinking of all the uncertainties ahead simply got so overwhelming that you shut them out? I would probably never have gone through with this if I hadn’t, and isn’t that our problem? Taking the first step, not seeing the whole staircase; all that malarkey.
Honestly, I thought this would feel empowering. It really, really doesn’t. I can’t separate my drive from my fear any more, and I don’t know if that’s an acceptable thing or a critically bad one. I’ve worked myself into a mental corner over finding work, one in which anything that distracts from my writing is the devil, and needing a job I don’t want is absolute failure. I don’t know how I fix this, and I can only hope the few tools in my arsenal can manage the job: time, persistence, positive thinking, and crossing my fingers.
But how far ahead can any of us really plan? How much of your life so far has worked out how you thought it would? I didn’t know my ex and I would break up. I didn’t know I’d be living safely back at home when I was offered redundancy. Either everything went to shit, or a gigantic door opened itself, and the only decider is how I feel about it.
I’ll get back to you.
Imagine it’s Monday morning. You slept horribly, your room’s cold, and it’s raining and miserable outside. You have a lot to do at work today, again, because that’s the way it’s been for weeks now, and you’ve had enough. So you think ‘fuck it’, and you turn your alarm off and roll over. You’ll catch up on all that work tomorrow.
But around 9.30, your boss calls. She’s wondering where you’ve got to. You’re straight with her: you’re noping out today and that’s that. Obviously, she’s a little taken aback because, I mean, it’s your job. She’s paying you for it. There are people relying on you. She says you’ve got an hour to get to the office or they’ll be repercussions. But there’s an easy fix: you turn your phone off for the rest of the day, and her four more calls go straight to voicemail.
When you check your phone on Tuesday morning, there are also a couple of messages from your friend Jeff. He wants you to go see a movie with him. You tell him you can’t, you have to go to work because you’re in deep shit as it is. But Jeff says you work too hard, that it’s okay to be easier on yourself sometimes, and you think ‘Jeff knows’, so you blow off work again and go to the movie. Maybe you get some dinner too. By the time you get home that evening, your boss is losing her shit. There’s a formal email in your inbox, summoning you to a disciplinary hearing the next day. If you fail to attend, the email states, you will be automatically suspended without pay for two weeks. Well, fine. Sounds cushty.
You have a swell two weeks. All your work friends – the ones picking up your slack – are on you round the clock, trying to find out what the fuck’s going on with you, but no matter. Your boss eventually schedules another meeting with you at the end of your suspension to talk about the next steps. You, like, really need to go to this meeting. The buck has well and truly stopped, and your career hangs in the balance.
But you don’t. So they fire you.
Now, imagine it again, except at around 9.30 on Monday, when your boss calls you up, she doesn’t. When you and Jeff go to the cinema on Tuesday, she’s cool with it. You check your inbox when you get home, and there’s some spam from thetrainline.com and ASOS, and that’s it. You decide to take two weeks off anyway, because why not? Jeff’s right, you do work yourself too hard. Your boss signs off on this too. You don’t get fired, you don’t piss anybody off, and the slowly building mountain of work – the stuff you need to do to get where you’re trying to go – will wait for you.
If scenario B sounds familiar, you’re probably writing a novel.
It’s not easy to get shit done when no one’s paying you, no one’s counting on you, and no one’s riding you to put the hours in other than you. Unlike me, the chances are you’re working a real, paying job too, or raising a family, or juggling some other first priority that makes it that much harder to listen to your boss (that’s you in this metaphor) when she tells you to show up, or there’ll be consequences. If you’ve ever wondered why so few people ever write the novel we supposedly all have in us, then this is why.
Self-motivation is an elusive thing at the best of times – but this is my second novel. The first was whittled at slowly over five years, in between shifts and studying and other priorities. I started it for the love of writing, but somewhere along the way I got giddy over the idea of seeing it in print, of having strangers read it and even – dare I dream? – enjoy it. It hasn’t worked out that way (yet; I hope to release it as an eBook sometime this year). Somewhere in the region of twenty agents turned it down. So, I started again. I had another idea for a story, and I’m about halfway through a first draft.
You tell yourself a lot of clichés when you’re grappling to succeed. One that I love and hate equally is this: ‘believe you can and you’re halfway there’. I love it because it’s true: halfway might sound like a long way for something as simple as your state of mind to carry you, and it is. No one’s trying to tell you the second half of the journey isn’t a frickin long way, but that second half starts way up in the mountains. Think the Fellowship digging through snow on the Redhorn Pass. You’ve got to elevate your mind.
And I hate it, also because it’s true: however soul-destroying it is to have to question whether you can even string a sentence together; however many agents turn you down; and however insurmountable the task of starting right back at the beginning may seem, if you don’t believe in yourself (yack. I should probably mention I’m sponsored by Disney) then there’s no point ever picking up a pen. It’s the catch-22 of this whole ‘ambition’ debacle: you have to set yourself up for the fall.
It could be worse. I could be surrounded with people who don’t take me seriously. Because there is no way in heck I’d have written that first line if my family and friends scoffed and laughed and told me to do something worthwhile and profitable instead. But, for the most part, they’re the closest thing I have to colleagues. They ask about my progress; they listen to me moan about my work day; and they offer [often hilarious] narrative solutions when I start into the nitty-gritty of whatever problem I can’t solve. Sure, every once in a while I have to put my foot down and tell them ‘no, actually, I can’t come to the pub because I’m working’, or ‘I know you mean well, but I’m not calling it a day just because it’s taking so long’. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, then believe me when I say that, when it’s done, this novel will have your infinite support to thank for its existence.
So I have two nuggets of advice. The first is to surround yourself with people who get it. You need colleagues. They’re no substitute for a real taskmaster, but even the most self-confidant of us can get a vital boost from a loved one telling us to soldier on.
And the second is this: toe the line. Listen to your boss. You’re her favourite, after all, and she wants to see you go far. Those deadlines she sets, the whip-cracking and the missed movie trips – they’re for your own good. Because when you took the job, you told her you wanted to hold your published novel in your hands. You told her you needed that giant dose of the feeling you only get when somebody’s reading something born in your imagination. And you never know, work hard enough and she might give you a raise*.
*lol, she won’t
My social life and I have a complex relationship. This is only in part down to the ebbs and flows of my mental health. The rest is thanks to my dread of sitting down at the pub next to someone I haven’t seen in a while, or have never spoken to at length before, and hearing these four little words: ‘What do you do?’
Other variations include ‘what are you up to these days?’ and ‘are you still at [that job you took to earn some money during your gap year, six years ago]?’. I feel my heart sink, and it shows on my face. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of everything my life and career is and isn’t right now, and it’s not the fear of silent judgement that makes me clam up. It’s the opposite – it’s expectation. It’s who the person thinks I am versus what I have to show for it.
I find myself forcing a positive spin. Yes, my landlord is my mum, and she gives me hugely forgiving mates rates. Yes, I’m probably looking like less of a hot prospect to employers with every passing month. And yes, the novel I’ve been telling you about sits on my bedroom floor under a heap of plot notes, statements from student finance, and a Buffy boxset, because twenty-odd agents turned it down. But I’m not worried, I’ll tell you (even though sometimes I really, really am). I’ll start on about the new novel, the one I’m feeling even better about, and bulk it out with titbits of work opportunities on the horizon (mainly hypothetical).
In short, I find myself turning the conversation to how I do define myself, because my employment status is not it. And I may be an extreme example, but I can’t be the only twenty-something – or even thirty-something – who feels a chill when they hear the words ‘what do you do?’. We are, after all, the infamous millennials. Job security and full-time employment are foreign concepts to legions of us, a degree no longer guarantees a better career or higher income, and there is a high chance that when we compare ourselves to our parents at our age – with their family and their mortgage and a couple of promotions under their belts – we feel like embryos. Embryos with debt, and slowing metabolisms.
One of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of this juncture in life is that we are all finding success and carving out our places in the world at drastically different rates. I have friends who are forging careers in accounting and publishing and civil service, and I have friends on – *shivers* – zero-hour contracts, for whom ‘what do you do’ can only be answered with a host of disclaimers and footnotes. Either they’re tripping over each other to work for free in thankless, hyper-competitive fields like the media industries; they lack the funds for training or to set themselves up in business; or, perhaps worst of all, they plain don’t know where they’re headed.
And hey, it’s all good. If you fall into the latter camp, I hope you’re not agonising over where you’re at every minute of the day. Because you don’t need to. You can’t compare yourself to others, because you are incomparable, and as Mary Schmich and Baz Luhrmann say, don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But if you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted with those words, that niggling desire to sell yourself as interesting and interested, aspirational and headed somewhere, is a big fat bummer.
But, I have a solution.
‘What do you do?’ is not the conversation opener for our generation. Its day is done. Let’s do away with it now and let those who love to talk about their careers – and power to you! I’m all ears – be the ones to bring it up. The rest of us can quietly feel better about ourselves. To aid in this process, below are some suggested alternatives:
‘Tell me, in your own words, how you define yourself.’
‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’
‘What’s the fattest thing you’ve ever done? Okay, I’ll go first.’ (proceed to tell them about the time you ate an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting, on a casual Tuesday afternoon, while your mother looked on, appalled)
‘There’s a high chance our interaction is headed this way anyway, so I’m going to go right ahead and start playing you my favourite wiener dog videos.’
Feel free to add your own.