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.

OPINION: Thoughts on conversion to a meat-free life

I stopped eating meat on Tuesday 1st September 2015. The choice was entirely pragmatic: I was on a shopping spree in a supermarket, having just moved into my second-year accommodation, and I was struck by the amount of meat-free alternatives on the shelves. I simply thought, “why not just pick up a load of these today and give them a go instead of meat?”. This was both an effort to save a bit of money and also an experimental foray into the world of vegetarianism, as I’ve always been fond of funky veggie/vegan cuisines. This wasn’t a challenging switch for me and I think this was for two primary reasons:

  1. There wasn’t any pressure to avoid meat. I wasn’t coerced by my friends, guilt-tripped by the teachings of a God after a dramatic conversion to a religion or dissuaded from the fresh meat aisle by a series of gruesome animal cruelty videos. I literally just thought about trying some new bits and pieces for the week ahead, until my next supermarket excursion. I hadn’t actually considered it as a significant milestone or as the beginning of a meat-free lifestyle for the foreseeable future. Thus, I was free of any weighty expectations and honestly didn’t give a flying fudge about potential judgment.
  2. I’ve always had an affinity for eating vegetables. Apparently I was quite an avid eater of the greens as a kid, and unlike most other petulant children dodging bits of leafy goodness in their dinner, I was gorging myself on it with no encouragement. I was excited by the prospect of trying something new, so I embraced it as an adventure.

This relaxed introduction to eating vegetarian alternatives then became a more permanent lifestyle change, with me choosing to continue on without meat. It has clearly worked as a long-term project. This year is my 5th anniversary of being “meat-free”, though I do occasionally consume fish (technically I’m a pescetarian, though I’m avoidant of “labels” where possible as they provoke so much emotive and political conflict!).

I’m not very strict. By that, I mean I’m not particularly concerned about cross-contamination or other people’s lifestyle/dietary choices, which means that I’m pretty relaxed with regards to eating around others. This is a necessity as I am presently living at home, surrounded by people who are carnivorous. In previous years, I have also lived alongside friends who are carnivorous and as a matter of courteous co-habitation with others, I have generally managed to overlook our dietary differences. I imagine this could shift more in the future, as I am hoping to transition to an entirely plant-based diet. In the meanwhile, I think a mutual respect for people’s differences and healthy debate about our lifestyle choices has helped more to encourage my peers towards a plant-based diet. I’ve also found that a lot of family and friends have tried alternatives when I’ve cooked for them, and some even prefer these meat-free alternatives over the “real deal”. This just goes to show that militant rhetoric and guilt-tripping isn’t a productive means of getting people to see from your perspective. A well-cooked dish can do all the talking for you!

There are definite advantages to my lifestyle. I don’t feel I’m “missing out” as nostalgia can be catered for: most meals I enjoyed as a child have been adapted so that they’re suitable for my present dietary needs. There were cravings, particularly in the earlier period of my abstaining from meat, but for the most part, I’ve found worthy substitutes for both flavour and textures that I’ve wanted to eat and have therefore managed to fulfil all my taste cravings without feeling guilty. Additionally, I’ve had my horizons broadened and tried traditional vegetarian/vegan dishes from all over the world, which has helped me to improve my palette and awareness of flavour.

On the flip-side, there are also disadvantages to my meat-free life. I mean, would I say I’m healthier? Probably not. But this is because I make poor lifestyle choices consisting of carb-heavy meals in unlimited portions, so I can’t say that my nutritional input is cleaner due to being greener and I certainly can’t blame the plants for that. That fault is entirely my own! Eating out of convenience and laziness generally holds me back, though an increased interest in cooking has meant that over recent years, I do cook a lot of meals from scratch, using derivatives of soy proteins and kooky vegetables that most people probably couldn’t even name.

Another major disadvantage is that my decision to deviate from the “norm” can bring up very interesting, often flammable, conversation topics when sat around the dinner table with family or eating out with acquaintances… I think eating meat is just an intrinsic part of our culture, and something embedded in recipes bequeathed from one generation to another. Some people are maybe offended by the notion that such dishes are being “rejected”, or threatened by the idea that it is indeed possible to live a life without meat, for whatever reason. I know that my casual foray into veggie eating has definitely confused and angered some people, simply because they don’t understand why I’m abstaining from meat and therefore feel it’s an inconvenience to those who are cooking or a purposeless endeavour, if there’s no justification such as an “end goal”. I wasn’t prepared for how much criticism I would receive from some people, and how emotive discussions would become when trying to explain why I was off meat. I was quite explosive at one point, angry at the expectation I had to explain myself, but I do think that over time I have learned to approach these queries from others with more kindness and patience. Life is a learning curve!

In summary, I would definitely say that I’ve had my eyes opened to alternatives which have made it difficult for me to consider rescinding and turning back to meat. I’ve also intentionally pursued, as well as accidentally stumbled upon, educational material regarding nutritional benefits from sustaining a plant-based diet and jarring footage of animal cruelty within the meat production industry. These experiences have only further inclined me to a future of plant-based living. I would definitely urge people to try and acknowledge some home-truths, as uncomfortable as that may be, with regards to how our food is sourced and how mainstream media has normalised insidious means of food production. This is a necessity in our modern society, which has distanced the realities of what we see on our plates from what we see on farms. It’s important now, more than ever, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which stemmed from zoonotic transmission (animal to human). Previous examples also include Avian Flu and Swine Flu (you may remember?). It’s worth thinking about how we can prevent contraction of such lethal diseases and whether it is entirely necessary, given the environmental and health repercussions, to sustain lifestyles so heavily reliant upon meat consumption.

I would love to hear your thoughts, dear reader. Are you meat-free? If so, why? And how have you found this experience?