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.

LIFE UPDATE: New job!

After two months of unemployment, I am pleased to say I will shortly be starting at a new job!

This has been no easy feat, by any stretch.

I’ve been actively looking for work for almost a year now, competing against the masses of other unemployed folk and the unique obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, I’ve probably sent off around 200+ job applications, received a whopping 180 “no responses” (sometimes not even an automated acknowledgement email), an explicit 15 rejections from the outset and a total of 5 virtual interviews.

What have I learned from this experience?

1. Don’t take rejection/failure personally!

The natural instinct is to take rejections personally. For every rejection email or ghosting, you can’t help but wonder, “what am I doing wrong?”. Especially after a while of actively searching for a new role, it’s quite easy to look inwards and see your disadvantages and flaws, as opposed to your assets and strengths. However, it’s important to remember that there are many factors working against you from the moment you hit the job market. For one, there’s the sheer amount of candidates applying for the same job. Employers are absolutely inundated with applications. Some prospective employees will be selected due to relevant experience in the same field or because they have exceptional qualifications. It’s a game of chance!

In addition, recent world events have had brutal consequences for the economy. So much has been destabilised by COVID-19 and people have had to become malleable in their searches for jobs, sacrificing “career jobs” in favour of any basic employment that can help to make ends meet. It’s an especially tough time and it’s important to be kind to yourself: whatever you’re going through, you’re certainly not alone and it’s not your fault. Take the search day by day.

2. Consult a variety of sources for advice

Getting an impartial opinion on your CV, portfolio or cover letter can really help when you’ve spent hours scrutinising your own work. Fresh eyes offer feedback and insight, potentially helping you to get rid of silly mistakes.

I was signed up to Universal Credit, who admittedly offered little to no services on this occasion, but they usually provide a work coach who is equipped to answer any queries and help to point you in the right direction. I also signed up to recruitment agencies and free online CV reviewing websites. In the end, after revising my CV countless times, I ended up with a synthesised final product that was far more accessible and well-formatted than the one I’d originally started my search with.

3. Network!

Get your tentacles out far and wide! I reached out to professionals on both LinkedIn and Instagram, taking care to update my social media channels regularly so that there was more opportunity for engagement. Through connecting wisely, I found a lot of useful advice from other fellows who’d found employment as fresh graduates in a post-COVID-19 world. I also found some brilliant opportunities, in the form of seminars and workshops, that helped me to engage with experienced professionals within the publishing industry, which was relevant to my motivation to manifest a career within the editorial sector.

On a personal basis, it was also very reassuring to learn that others were in similar, often identical, situations to me. Networking provides the opportunity to develop a close community of like-minded individuals who can help you to stay motivated and focused, even as circumstances are tough and applications are unsuccessful.

4. Use your time to learn new skills

Looking for work is a full-time job in itself. That being said, there are many other ways you can equip yourself with new skills and seek to stand out against other candidates. Taking on a part-time course or LinkedIn Learning course (LinkedIn Premium offers a free trial for a month, 10/10 would recommend!) is a good way to pass the time in a productive manner, shows initiative to prospective employers and keeps you mentally stimulated on the days where you can lose hours just waiting for a potential email response to an application.

5. Open your mind to new types of experiences

I once considered internships to be unworthy as experiences because, from what I’d seen, they were short-term and often unpaid opportunities. Recent reflection has seen me change my mind on this, as, at the end of the day, experiences are experiences! Industry-specific chances are useful as another way to gain new skills, network with professionals, as well as try the shoes on as such and see if they fit. You never know, an internship could lead to a permanent position further down the line or, alternatively, it could show you that you that the role you were aspiring for isn’t what you thought it would be and might not be worth pursuing.