I’ve talked a lot about academic and non-academic employment on this blog. However it occurred to me that, despite the blog’s name, I’ve never addressed the emotional and motivational challenges of unemployment head on. It’s time to remedy that. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge the reality: unemployment sucks. There are a few upsides, I suppose. I can safely ignore NSFW warnings and click with reckless abandon. I can sleep late and watch TV in my pajamas. But these simple pleasures get old fast. The process of looking for work is also frustrating. It’s a very humiliating process, like dating in many ways. You’re putting yourself out there for evaluation, an enterprise fraught with the risk of rejection and all the negative emotions that accompany it. The lack of confidence that goes along with looking (unsuccessfully) for a job can spill over into other aspects of your life. As much as you tell yourself that your self-worth is not defined by how much you make, I think it’s hard to be poor and have good self-esteem. So how do you stay sane and motivated when you’re unemployed and looking for work? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here are a few thoughts that might help. (N.B. This post is not necessarily about how to find a job. For resume tips, click here.)
1. Stay positive
There’s a lot of nonsense written about affirmation and positive thinking. It’s not magic, but some studies in the social sciences — especially the psychology of sport — indicate that there’s something to it. If you talk to athletes, one of the common traits that sets them apart from people like me — besides physical prowess — is their ability to visualize success without experiencing what’s sometimes called “paralysis by analysis.” I know this latter sensation well because I have a pronounced tendency to over-think (hence, philosophy) especially about everything that could possibly go wrong. However, perhaps even these negative thoughts can be harnessed in positive ways. In reading about Stoicism, I’ve discovered that they practiced what we might call “negative visualization.” In other words, they thought to themselves “What’s the worst that could happen?” I find that this technique works quite well. By squarely facing your fears and visualizing the ‘worst case scenario’ you can relieve your anxiety. After all, the worst case scenario in most instances isn’t death. In most cases, the worst we fear is failure, rejection, or embarrassment. By coming to realize that the worst that could happen is not really that bad, we alleviate our anxiety and give ourselves the freedom to act, thereby avoiding ‘paralysis by analysis.’ I encourage you to try it sometime. I practice a combination of positive and negative visualization before public speaking, first dates, job interviews, etc. and find that it helps. It’s a useful way to turn negative emotions into positive results. Importantly, the goal of negative visualization is a positive attitude. It’s commonsensical to suppose that you’re more likely to be successful if you have a positive demeanor. It also stands to reason that you’re more likely to attract successful people if you’re the type of person they want to be around. Nobody wants to introduce negativity into the workplace, so you don’t want to present yourself to prospective employers as a negative person. When facing setbacks and frustration, staying positive can be difficult. However, try to motivate yourself by focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Focus on your goals
Jason Alexander (George Costanza on Seinfeld) starred in a very short-lived sitcom — only five episodes — called Bob Patterson. He played a self-help guru with the catchphrase: “The only thing between you and your goals is you …. and your goals.” Contemporary self-help and motivational speakers and authors usually over-emphasize the importance of being goal oriented and ‘dreaming big.’ Nevertheless, I think it’s useful to keep your goals in mind. Of course, sometimes we have to give up on certain goals or sometimes our priorities in life can change and, as a result, our goals can change. We need to critically evaluate our goals and ask ourselves whether they’re worth pursuing. The process of leaving academia has caused me to drastically re-evaluate my goals with respect to employment in particular and life in general. That’s fine. I’m not saying that you can achieve all of your dreams if you just believe hard enough. But I am saying that keeping your goals in mind — and thinking about how to achieve them — is a great motivator because without a goal, you will have very little incentive to work hard. So think about the questions: what do I want to achieve? What motivates me? Once you’ve answered these questions, and determined what goals are worth pursuing — an important step that’s often left out — you can focus your energies on finding work that fits in with your goals. It’s also a good idea to set smaller, realistic goals. Have daily tasks that you can realistically accomplish. For example, maybe today you’ll reformat your resume and cover letter. Achieving these goals will give you a feeling of accomplishment that will hopefully motivate you to take on other tasks tomorrow. In other words, set daily benchmarks. Take pleasure in small victories. If you set your sights too high, you can become frustrated when you don’t achieve those goals and this may actually demotivate you. Avoid this problem by breaking down your long-term goals into manageable parts.
3. Manage your time
When you’re unemployed, you have a lot of time on your hands. Using that time productively can be a real challenge. Most time management strategies talk about the dangers of procrastination. If you’re a procrastinator, like me, the usual time management advice will probably just make you miserable. But what if we took a different perspective? What if we could make procrastination work for us? John Perry, Stanford philosopher and co-host of Philosophy Talk, has coined the term “structured procrastination.” He argues that procrastinators, contrary to popular perception, are quite productive people. They get lots done in the process of putting off other tasks. For example, I’m procrastinating right now by writing this blog post. Perhaps you’re procrastinating by reading it. I can think of a lot of important things I should probably be doing, but I’m doing this instead. Nevertheless, I’m accomplishing something. The trick to being a structured procrastinator, according to Perry, is to use your tendency to procrastinate on some tasks to accomplish other tasks in the meantime. This is connected to my earlier point about setting small, realistic goals. If you use these smaller tasks as a means of putting off tackling your big tasks, you may find that you accomplish those bigger tasks in the aggregate. After all, most large projects consist of several small projects. This is why procrastinators can be very productive people. Of course, when you’re unemployed, ironically even procrastination can be difficult because you don’t have as much to do. But you should try to stay as busy as possible. If you only have one or two tasks on your list, like ‘find a job’, you may find that you put them off by doing nothing. This is obviously a bad use of your time. So don’t be afraid to take on other tasks to keep yourself mentally engaged and motivated. This leads into my next point.
4. Do something meaningful in the meantime
The catch-phrase for my podcast and blog is “Just because you’re unemployed, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of work.” It’s a handy way to sum up what I’m trying to do, but I think there’s also some philosophical substance there that could be unpacked. I didn’t plan it that way. At first, I was just trying to figure out what to name the blog and podcast. I came up with ‘The Unemployed Philosopher”, but then I thought “What if that URL is taken?” So I began to think about alternates. I thought, “how about ‘The Out of Work Philosopher?’” But that didn’t seem right. I began to then reflect on the differences between being unemployed and being out of work. It occurred to me that just because you’re unemployed, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find meaningful work to do in the meantime (while looking for a paying job). Hence the catchphrase. I tell this story to underscore the point that you can find meaningful things to do while you’re unemployed. This can really help you avoid the despair of the unsuccessful job search. In my case, I decided to write this blog, which has been a valuable creative outlet for me. I’ve also tried to learn new skills. For example, I had no idea how to make a podcast before I started. I still have a lot to learn about all kinds of things (mic craft, interview techniques, audio editing, etc.) but learning these skills has been lots of fun. Of course, your outlet doesn’t have to be anything that technical. Any kind of inexpensive activity or hobby can help you stay sane while you’re unemployed. It also helps if you can do these activities in a social context, which brings me to the next point.
5. Don’t let your social life die
I don’t always follow my own advice. As I mentioned recently, most of my social life came through the university. Without that social outlet, I’m struggling to find new venues in which to meet people with similar interests. As a result, my social life is in a bit of a slump lately. I think this problem becomes more pronounced when you’re unemployed because you’re not meeting new people through work. It’s also especially difficult, I suspect, for post-academics to stay in contact with their academic friends. Part of this has to do with the transitory lifestyle (the last teaching job I had is 3000 km from where I now live) and another part is the isolation that many post-academics experience after they leave the ranks. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to leaving which I’ve addressed on this blog before. For these reasons, it can be difficult to stay in touch with your academic friends. It’s also often difficult to stay connected to your non-academic friends. There’s an economic selection effect in these situations. As a poor, unemployed post-academic, you may find that your friends have moved on in terms of socioeconomic status and are busy working, buying houses, raising families etc. and don’t have much time to socialize. You may also find that you don’t have all that much in common with them having spent a decade or so cloistered in the ivory tower. But you need to find a way to overcome these difficulties. This is easier said than done. As a introvert, I know how difficult it can be to throw yourself into social situations. However, if you’re invited to a party, go! Any opportunity you get to meet new people, take it. Not only might you make some friends, you might network with people who can help you in the job search. Also, improving your social life can just make you feel better about yourself and contribute to that positive attitude we talked about earlier.
Well, that’s all folks. I hope you got something out of my foray into atypical self-help advice. Take it with a grain of salt though. I’m not exactly rolling in success at the moment, but hopefully that’s about to change. Random blogging tip: these ‘top five’ type lists are great ways to use material that you don’t have time to develop into full blog posts.