What Unemployment Taught Me About “Failure and Success”

On this day: unemployed me helped to build a bar in the back garden with my dad. The stereotype that unemployed folk are unproductive is totally and utterly wrong.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been the busy-body, workaholic, type-A individual. My life has comprised of working very hard towards a focused goal, accomplishing that goal with blood, sweat and tears, and then swiftly moving onto the next big objective in line. It has always felt alien to “rest” and has been a legitimate struggle to find ways to relax, as it seems my mind has always been more adept with chaos and, in contrast, struggled with stillness.

As you can imagine for a person with my tendencies, a period of unemployment earlier this year, for two whole months, could have been more than enough to send me spiralling. However, I actually found this quiet time for reflection to be very powerful. This was because I was emancipated from a job that was, quite frankly, completely draining me dry. After more than a year of “What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I good enough?”, I was finally free.

Of course I had the standard anxieties about the prospect of finding a new job and financial security, but first and foremost, I was relieved. I was no longer bound to a job that was making me, and consequently my loved ones, deeply unhappy. My life suddenly had perspective again: there’s so much more to living than being chained to a desk chair for 9 hours a day! There’s so many things I used to enjoy before this job took over every brain cell! I am so much more than just an employee! I felt like an absolute fool for allowing the drama of that employment spell to sink me so considerably for such a long time.

I don’t think I’d have felt this sense of clarity and peace without the context of my previous illness. Up till a few years ago in 2019 when I hit ultimate burnout/the darkest depression/the fiery pits of hell, AKA literally not having the physical or emotional capacity to keep on carrying on, I thought I’d be that person who just kept going forever and ever. I had never really imagined myself succumbing to full physical sickness due to mental exertion. However, when that burnout period came along, aspects of my life changed irrevocably and I have since learned a lot about my unhealthy coping mechanisms and attitudes towards failure/success.

I definitely feel the outside pressures of wanting to make my family proud and wanting to be perceived by society in a successful light, but the majority of my pressure to succeed comes from within and is entirely irrational. I’d always envisioned being unemployed as a sign of personal failure. I’d always considered overworking to be a sign of professionalism and necessity. I genuinely once thought that taking time to “do nothing” was a lazy cop-out for people without stamina. How criminally wrong I was.

This is evidenced by the fact that I stayed for so long in a working situation that made me so stressed, anxious and depleted. Despite absolutely giving my all, working endless overtime, taking on extra responsibilities and trying to pick myself up after being repeatedly knocked, I just couldn’t make my previous role work for me. Even though I knew I was regressing mentally and physically due to my efforts, I couldn’t throw the towel in because I was scared that it would amount to failure. The official nail in the coffin: “I’ve failed myself. I’ve failed the company. I’ve failed my colleagues. I’ve failed my family”.

In reality: I absolutely bloody did not.

It seems that I’ve been hardwired to push myself to absolute exertion for the majority of my life and, as a result, I’ve suffered massively. On a personal level, I’ve sacrificed a lot of precious time with family and friends. On a professional level, I’ve managed to self-sabotage opportunities for advancement due to being inundated with other responsibilities after overloading myself with absolutely everything else possible.

Part of me is ashamed by the fact that it’s taken me this long to redefine my ideas of success and failure, yet overall, I’m glad I’ve learned it in the first place. Sometimes I look at people far older than me and wonder whether, despite all the letters after their names, certificates on the walls and zeroes before the dot on their salaries, they’re actually content. Because when it comes down to it, I think that would be the ultimate success story now to 26-year-old me.

Summary: Life isn’t linear and neither is progress. Losing a job or a relationship or a status does not amount to failure. Wads of mullah do not amount to success. Working yourself to the bone in the hopes that you’ll please everybody will not lead to anything but incredibly bad and sad times. Life is precarious and oh so short. Don’t waste it always looking ahead to what you want to be and what you want to have and focus instead, at least sometimes, on the person you’ve already become and the things you’ve already accomplished.

FAVOURITE ALBUMS (part 1): Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece. Of all his discography, it is my favourite album. Released following the death of his mother, it’s intimate and personal, a private therapy to cope with grief. Of his experience, Stevens summarised “It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death- to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.” (interview with Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork magazine).

Carrie & Lowell is a powerful collection of tracks: nostalgic storytelling, twinkling soundscapes laden with mythological metaphors and anecdotes about childhood holidays with the family. It’s not all bliss: in fact, it’s far from it, with references to a turbulent childhood, a consequence of Stevens’ mother’s battles with schizophrenia and substance abuse. Carrie & Lowell is an acceptance of loss, with grief and bereavement as the central themes at the heart of the sound. I think it would be hard for any person, who has experienced loss firsthand, to ignore that. 

How does Carrie & Lowell make me feel?

Listening to it for the first time was like coming home: it felt like I’d been led to it with purpose, at that specific time. I too was wrestling with grief. It was an ugly fight because I was resistant, stubborn and very angry, with no comprehension as to what was at the heart of those volatile emotions. 

When I first listened to The Only Thing, I was struck by the beauty of it. I got to the second line, and something burst inside me like the waters of a pregnant woman, and I cried and cried as though all of the sorrow lurking inside had managed to build up enough pressure to escape. Between hearty sobs, I just listened and let the sadness sweep me away, dragging the cursor back to the beginning every time the song drew to an end.

For a while, I had to be in a very particular mood to withstand listening to the album. If a track came on shuffle and caught me off-guard, it hit a nerve and rendered me useless for a while. The songs had the power to make me an emotional wreck almost instantly. I’m glad to say that over time, as my relationship with grief has evolved, I’ve found myself able to actually enjoy Carrie & Lowell on a sonic level as opposed to purely emotional. It is definitely a point of pride that I can now listen to Carrie & Lowell all the way through now, crying yet smiling all at the same time!

How does Carrie & Lowell inspire me?

I’ve not made music for a few months now, but my aspiration is to one day achieve the creation of something as lyrically powerful and poignant as Carrie & Lowell. The storytelling is simple yet effective, and as a singer/lyricist, I really appreciate minimalism that packs a punch. The temptation is to spell everything out for an audience: it is so easy to over-complicate the expression of emotions and events when you think about it too much, but what Stevens does brilliantly is treat this record like an unfiltered journal, and I think that’s what resonates with the listener so much.

Recommendations

If you want to have your heart broken into a million tiny pieces, I thoroughly recommend the live show edition of this album. It’s hauntingly beautiful.