Half Defeat, Half Determination

Still all quiet on the job front. At first, I was really gung ho about not letting the unemployment blues get me down. I applied for jobs every day, made sure my resume was updated and error-free. I even emailed certain companies asking why they decided not to select me for an interview when I felt I had the qualifications and that I was genuinely interested for any constructive criticism they could provide me about my resume. No response. I did yoga to help keep me active and mentally grounded. And yes, it’s only been two months (exactly two months to the day) that I’ve been fired.

I always thought I was the type of person not to easily give up in the face of adversity, but that’s not entirely true. Half of me almost always wants to give up when I’m faced with one of life’s many obstacles. After all, I left New York City because I lost my job and wasn’t able to carve out a semblance of a romantic life (one night stands don’t count). Of the usual things about New York that people always complain about were true in my case too. (You can only sustain the pace of intense living for so long, tiny apartments are super expensive, etc).

And now I want to leave Austin. I tell myself it’s because I don’t like the fact that you have to drive everywhere and I find that it’s hard to make friends in this city (which, true). Really, it’s because I lost my job and haven’t really been able to make my life work here after six years either. I have a boyfriend, but both of us have acknowledged we can’t do much for each other except work on ourselves (I’m unemployed, he’s underemployed). I love him and I know he loves me and we’ve managed to make things work under a very difficult situation. He’s a big part of the reason I didn’t pack up long ago. He’s the reason I hope I can make it work here.

Of course, I’m lucky. I have friends and family I can move back in with if I can’t find a job by the end of my lease in late July. As someone who lived in a foreign country when she was 17, who has lived on her own for most of her adult life, the very real possibility of moving back home in my mid 30s is a hard pill to swallow. I have the security of knowing I won’t be living on the street or in my car and that’s something I don’t take for granted.

I have fantasies of some magical event or person coming to rescue me from a life filled with a never ending cycle of occupational drudgery followed by unceremonious termination living a humdrum existence in a second-tier city. The other half of me knows that no such event or person exists, the only person who rescue me from said occupational drudgery and humdrum existence is me and I’m not up to the task of rescuing myself from my own life right now.



10 Things I’ve Learned in 11 Years of Work

shovel to dig on the farm
Your Monday memespiration.

I’ve been focusing a lot on my fear of and my general aimlessness surrounding work. It’s time to focus on the helpful things I’ve learned in my 11 years in the work world.

  1. You might have more than one calling. As I navigate through this very uncertain career terrain, I’ve figured that I might end up cobbling together two callings. One will be for the sheer joy of doing it. Hell, I might not even get paid much or anything at all for doing it. The other will be more practical. I might not love it, but I’ll be good enough to get paid decently and won’t hate going into work every day. If you’re like me and have a lot of diverse interests, it might be that one calling won’t be enough to capitalize on all your awesome gifts 😉
  2. You are only as valuable as your value to others. Like it or not, working hard and being a nice person is only half the battle when it comes to crawling through the trenches that is modern work life. I’ve had at least three jobs where they could see I was a hard worker and I made people laugh, but once it became clear I didn’t have the right skill set, I was handed my walking papers. The sooner you be honest about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, the more likely it is you’ll land a stable job (one you hopefully like).
  3. Being likable isn’t everything, but it is important. While bringing tasty donuts every morning or having a tight comedy set won’t keep you from losing a job you’re terrible at, it’s not something you should neglect. We all want to work with people we like and it’s much easier for your boss to forgive mistakes if you’re well-regarded among your colleagues. Every company has a culture and being liked is part of fitting in.
  4. Your job = high school with a paycheck. Learn to fit in or find another job. One of the reasons I began to suspect working in finance wasn’t for me was because I felt severely out of place at my job. Not only am I a woman working in a heavily male dominated environment, but I’m also a liberal, an agnostic, a proud feminist with a better head for creative projects than numbers. My Republican, Christian polo shirt wearing, golf playing, Dave Matthews band listening colleagues and managers didn’t quite know what to do with me. They enjoyed my weird, sarcastic sense of humor and liked that I didn’t seem easily offended (or could tactfully call them out if I was).  Once it became clear our values didn’t exactly line up, I started to become unhappier at my job. I thought all jobs were meant to make you miserable until I started finding environments where I had more in common with the people I work with. Make no mistake, your coworkers are not your friends. You should be friendly but always professional and take care never to reveal anything you don’t want used against you later. Still, birds of a feather work together.
  5. I don’t work well under pressure. What is  strange is that I have been in a few life or death situations in my life and handled them much better than I do any kind of work place criticism or mistakes. I prevented  a car accident on an icy road where I could’ve easily died. For some reason, my brain gets injected with an extra dose of clarity during emergency situations and I was able to act quickly and steer the car from crashing into another vehicle or into a tree. Once I get the sense that my job is in danger because I’m not performing up my bosses standards, or get even mild criticism, I fall apart like a four-year-old child being told she won’t get her favorite toy for Christmas.
  6. I’m only detail-oriented if I like doing something. If I enjoy writing or I’m researching something I’m actually interested in, I’ll produce my best work and triple-check it for accuracy. If I’m uninterested in the industry that I’m working in as a whole or a specific project I’m working on, I get sloppy. I stupidly used to think that if I could write about anything or research all the day long I would love my job and never want to leave. Dead wrong.
  7. I fear failure more than I like success. If I get praised for my work (which usually happens involving something research-, marketing-, event planning-, social media-related), I write it off as “just doing my job” and don’t take time to fully savor the recognition for my good work. If I make a mistake, it’s the end of the world and I’m going to die a nice person but an incompetent failure.
  8. My idea of success isn’t tied to my salary. When I think of what successful Alex looks like, she is helping people, learning a lot and making a difference in her community. Ideally, I’d love to make a lot of money while doing those things, but I could forgo a six figure salary if it means doing meaningless, tedious work. Once I realized making money wasn’t my primary purpose for going to work every day, that was another hint that maybe the ole money industry wasn’t for me.
  9. I place too much pressure on my career to make me happy. In Amy Poehler’s fantastic book Yes, Please, she advises her reader to remember that “your career is like a bad boyfriend, it likes it when you don’t depend on it.” I don’t think I would’ve realized how true that statement was if I hadn’t been fired or laid off as much as I have. Friends, travel, great loves, family are going to be the features of my death bed highlight reel, not how many work hours I put in. There’s a reason why nobody’s epitaph has ever read “I wish I spent more time in the office.”
  10. You have bad days at a good job. Even at a job you love and find purpose in, you will have to deal with jerks, boredom, unexpected overtime and unrealistic expectations. There is no such thing as a job where every day is 100% awesome all the day. The sooner you learn this, the easier your work life will be.

Only Thing Holding Me Back is Ergophobia

Of course there is a Dilbert cartoon about this.

Ergophobia or ergasiophobia is an abnormal and persistent fear of work (manual labor, non-manual labour, etc.) or finding employment. Ergophobia may also be a subset of either social phobia or performance anxiety. Sufferers of ergophobia experience undue anxiety about the workplace environment even though they realize their fear is irrational. Their fear may actually be a combination of fears, such as fear of failing at assigned tasks, speaking before groups at work (both of which are types of performance anxiety), socializing with co-workers (a type of social phobia), and other fears of emotional, psychological and/or physiological injuries.[1]

The term ergophobia comes from the Greek “ergon” (work) and “phobos” (fear). (Source: Wikipedia)

I’ve realized my career problem isn’t as simple as a fear of being fired (although that’s a major part of it). I’m now afraid of having a job, period. Having a job means losing a job. Losing a job means personal failure. Specifically, failure as a person.

This week I was in a professional training class and it was the most stress free few days I’ve had since temping at this job. It makes sense. Being in that class wasn’t just about learning a new and very useful skill, it was a way to avoid my fear of working.

Once I was back in the office, I became overwhelmed by my paralyzing fear of work.

I have about 11 years of work experience. I have been laid off, downsized, let go, and left to pursue other opportunities. If there’s a corporate euphemism for losing a job, chances are it’s happened to me and it’s about to happen to me again (although at least this job was never intended to be permanent — whatever that means these days).

My longest job has lasted four years. I realized all jobs come to an end, even those that are your calling. It’s frustrating to have a decent number of diverse jobs under my belt and still be so scared of losing my job. I’m not even this scared of dying!

This fear of work as real for me as your fear of snakes or clowns is for you. The difference is that your fear is acceptable. Everyone can understand your fear. Snakes and clowns are creepy and have been featured in countless horror movies. You’re supposed to be afraid of snakes and clowns. You are not supposed to be afraid of your job, of working. Having a job is a core part of adulthood, so being afraid of a job makes you a weak adult. You would think that having a lot of jobs would make the fear go away, but it doesn’t. This isn’t like being thrown into the ocean to overcome a fear of swimming or base jumping to overcome a fear of heights. More exposure only heightens my fear.

Oddly enough, my fear of work doesn’t make me lazy. One of the few constants in my career is how much people will tell me I’m a hard worker. I will jokingly attribute this to my stodgy Protestant work ethic but in all seriousness, I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from working long and hard hours. If I get to do that for a project I love, forget about it…

My first post in this blog was about career commitment phobia. Wading deeper into the waters of this problem, it all makes sense now. I’m not afraid of committing to a career path because I’m a flake (that’s not the whole reason, anyway). I’m afraid of committing to a career because all work is scary to me. Instead of accepting that with work comes vulnerability, failure, loss, disapproval, rejection, long stretches of unemployment followed by temporary security and starting over, many, many times. Instead of learning how to cope with my ergophobia in a healthy way, it’s easier just to keep taking jobs without really committing to a career path, because that means not addressing the fear.

Unless I become fabulously and independently wealthy, work will be a part of my life. If I don’t want the fear to come along with it, it means accepting it and addressing it.

It means getting more idealistic about what work actually is and not looking for some false sense of security. It means being honest about the type of work I want to do, even if it means not being seen as traditionally successful or properly adult. It means being honest about being a sensitive mush of a person, whose career map might involve trekking different routes than others who travel on safer, more established ones.

But for now, let it be Friday and let me be free.