In the nine years since my college graduation, I have endured multiple periods of unemployment. Refusing to settle for just any career path, I’ve always been very selective of the jobs I’m willing to apply for, making my searches that much tougher.
And while this follow-your-heart attitude has been a source of pride, it didn’t make going to my 10-year high school reunion with an address that matched my parents’ any less embarrassing.
Fortunately, I have been gainfully employed for a few years now. But when I think back to my last stint of joblessness, I can’t help but cringe, the wounds and battle scars still tender from an extremely stressful time in my life.
I had just put aside my dream of playing competitive golf, and my mind and spirit were the consistency of jell-o. I couldn’t think about taking on anything meaningful, so I scrapped my idealist aspirations of finding work that I cared about. I just wanted a job – something that would give me a steady paycheck and allow me to get out of my mom and dad’s house.
“Job Search ’06: The Less Responsibility, The Better.”
But despite sending out countless resumes for countless jobs – many of which I was overqualified for – the rejection letters poured in (that is, when I received a response at all). Frightened at how closely my life’s arc resembled that of George Costanza’s, I wondered if things would ever get better.
After nine fruitless months, I was tired – of feeling down, of feeling helpless, of feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t know what to do.
That’s when it dawned on me that maybe the problem wasn’t the jobs I was going after, or the people I was dealing with, or the competitiveness of the market, or anything on the outside.
Maybe the problem was me.
I began looking at what role I might be playing in my lack of success. I determined that, because I wasn’t passionate about these jobs, my indifference was seeping into my interactions with potential employers. I wasn’t aggressive enough. I wasn’t selling myself enough. So I decided to implement a new strategy:
I started lying.
Over my next several interviews, I buried my inner-Peter Gibbons (Office Space) and became Mr. Enthusiastic, proclaiming my excitement for the opportunity and how good of a fit I would be. I stressed that this was the job I wanted, and all I needed was a chance to prove my value.
While the first few companies didn’t buy my act, I eventually found one that did. After grinding through three call-backs, I finally had a contract.
Sure, I had sold my soul to the Initech Devil, but it was a small price to pay for an upgrade in the state of my union.
Getting out of an unhealthy situation isn’t easy. Stuck in a rut, unable to stop looping the same traffic circle of pain and frustration, you start to feel like you’ll never find an exit.
Oftentimes, it takes something disastrous to jolt you out the cycle, to finally put your foot down and say, “Enough!” You switch up your diet when a loved one has a heart attack. You move on from an ex-girlfriend after hearing she’s dating someone new. You stop texting behind the wheel, because it caused the star player on your alma mater’s football team to drive into an apartment building (this actually happened – click here).
But what if it didn’t have to come to that? What if you didn’t have to go through the anguish and agony of hitting rock-bottom to make a change?
Looking back at the difficult situations I’ve dealt with in my life, they are all unique, each distinctive in their own particular way. They’ve occurred at different ages under different circumstances over different issues. There have been plenty where I piled mistake on top of mistake, and there have been some where I was the recipient of injustice and bad luck.
When it comes to struggling, I’m an equal opportunity employer.
But despite all of the dissimilarities, through all of the changing variables, there was one constant:
That took me a while to recognize, and it was a hard realization to stomach. But as I analyzed the valleys of my life, and I asked myself, “Why do these things keep happening to me?” I saw that there was a clear pattern of behavior, and I had to own up to it. Because as much as I believe in fate, I also acknowledge that we were blessed with free will.
Of course, when things aren’t going our way, it’s convenient to dismiss this reality, to throw up our hands and act as if the world is conspiring against us. Instead of adjusting our approach, we keep doing what we’ve been doing, even though nothing is working. Instead of welcoming the help of our friends and family, we “yes, but” their advice, as in, “Yes, you are right, but can’t you see that I’m the victim here?”
We blame our predicament on anyone and anything but ourselves.
Sure, making excuses may help us sleep at night, but it also holds us hostage, preventing us from ever moving forward.
Shattering the status quo is a challenge, because it requires us to step out of our comfort zone. And the longer we’ve been in a situation – no matter how toxic – the harder it is to extract ourselves from it. Strange as it sounds, that hurt we’ve been feeling, those distressing emotions we’ve been experiencing, have become familiar and safe. (In my “expert” medical opinion) It’s why someone who is raised by an alcoholic parent ends up with an alcoholic spouse – it’s what you know.
But we are not always at the mercy of our DNA or other people’s decisions or the universe’s sick sense of humor. Each of us has a choice about how we want to live our lives. And until we accept responsibility for that, the possibility of real change will elude us.
Yes, sometimes the breaks don’t go our way, and sometimes things simply aren’t meant to be, regardless of how badly we want them or how hard we try. But it’s up to us to take ownership of our lot in life and be honest with ourselves about the part we play in it.
We may not be able to control the outcome, but we can control the process.
Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this enough to have Nurse Ratched as a babysitter, but it's empowering to realize that whenever I want to make a change, I hold the key.
And since I hope to have a better showing at my 20-year reunion, I should probably get started now.
- "It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?