My last day of work was Friday, January 13. I have been jobless, or as I prefer to say, “funemployed” for nearly eight months. As I reflect back on this time, I’m struck by how much being out of full-time, paid work has changed me. I am a lot more patient. Little things don’t upset me as much. I am much less image-focused (I recently attended Fashion’s Night Out in Georgetown with chipped nail polish on my hands). And I now make the distinction between “full-time paid work” and “funemployment.” I may not be pulling a fat paycheck, but I am definitely employed in the industry of living life well and not taking myself too seriously.
Warning: Funemployment is not for everyone. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.
This perspective has not come naturally to me. For a girl who has never not gotten anything she’s set her mind to and done it well, this has been humbling. I don’t think it comes naturally to most people, especially not to recovering overachievers. We take ourselves very seriously. With regards to a job search, it has not (despite my good-natured attitude toward it) been easy and I am not funemployed because I have turned down an honest day’s work. So how did I get here?
Talking about our culture’s exalted view of work and the havoc it wreaks on the individual is such a well-worn path, I swear I can see the earth’s core from here. However, it’s been regularly trodden for a reason, which is that we humans never learn our lessons.
Although I have been “funemployed” for eight months, I started walking down the path that led me here last August. The job that I had loved for approximately three and a half years was being eliminated due to an organizational restructuring. I had been underemployed for approximately three months by that point. I had been told that I was valuable to the organization and that I was very much in demand for my work ethic and skill-set. Unfortunately, I wasn’t given any options that my skill-set or interests demanded. What was I to do? Here I had a comfortable and well-paying job (for the faith-based non-profit sector) with a flexible schedule, smart and interesting colleagues and a wonderful boss, who was much more of a mentor and partner than taskmaster. I was fully aware that the likelihood of finding another job like this one was slim.
Yet, like Odysseus on the island of the Lotus Eaters waking from his stupor, I realized I had been lulled into thinking that my job was my life, that all the impact I made could be cooly measured and put into neat little bullet points, and that I had achieved something great by having a stable job. The thought of taking another job there that would have taken over what little part of my life I had tried to shield from the all-consuming clutches of my work made me panic. This wasn’t life. It was existence. Like Henry David Thoreau, I didn’t want to die realizing that I had not actually lived.
And so, in an act that seemed completely irresponsible, yet in retrospect may have been the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, I let myself be laid off.
I have wrestled with the hideous thought that because I chose to be let go, I am paying the price by not finding another job. I have wrestled with guilt because I have felt relief when many of those jobs rejected me (although I did mourn the few amazing opportunities that got away). I have wrestled with the thought that I have lost almost a year of my life. Unproductive thinking like this plagues the minds of the funemployed (and I am sure, the unemployed as well). These thoughts have power only if you think the meaning of life and true judge your worth is your work.
I used to think like that, so I get it. Who were you, if not a job description, right? For overachievers like me, your job defined you and situated you on the hierarchy of value. What else would you have to talk about with people if you didn’t have a job? If you took time off, how would you account for a gap on your resume, as though potential employers are the Righteous Judges of the Universe, determining whether or not you are worthwhile based on a couple of pieces of paper (or, according to some career counselors, one, in no less than 12pts.)? And maybe–just maybe–taking a break from your work can make you more productive.
If you want to add in some crazy (and you might), I worked in non-profit and ministry combined. So not only did your job define you, your impact on society and the importance of your cause gave you meaning. Your purpose gave you weight.
Without a job, I have moments of weightlessness, feeling like, as King Solomon wrote, “vapor of vapors.” I’ve felt like I was in a barren no-man’s land. I am employed, therefore I am. I go to work, therefore I exist. But when your work becomes the anchor of your soul, that’s a problem. Whether you choose to leave your job or you lose it because some private equity firm bought your company, leaving it loaded with debt and forced to lay off its employees, you are never truly “full-time, permanent.” You need to find something else that gives you worth.
Because I was so consumed with my work (and with the overachievement that we’re told will lead to “success”), I neglected anything that didn’t serve that purpose. Sure, I had a great social life. But I didn’t prioritize having a family, because that would have conflicted with my professional goals. I was told that I had a talent for writing and though I had the desire to pursue it, I would never make the time, since I was always working. And also, I was terrified to fail at something I loved. I buried that talent along with dreams and desires for a different kind of life, because I didn’t realize that by taking my life so seriously, I was actually not really living it.
It goes without saying that in order to be resurrected, one first needs to die. And I have watched myself die over these past eight months. The doors to full-time, paid work have not opened for me. I have often felt like I was in a wasteland of failure. But opportunities to write came knocking on my door and persuaded me to come out and play. This second chance to dig up my buried talent and use it well has been a stream in the desert and this very article proof that fruit can grow even in the most barren winter.
So I started finding things to do and writing about them. I invested in being the best friend I could be. I noticed that even while living in a city in which power and impact are currency, I didn’t feel weightless for not having either. I began to notice that I wasn’t waiting for my former, career-driven life to begin again, as though this season was a short sabbatical between bouts of total insanity. If you measure success by having a job, then I have been wandering through a barren wasteland for eight months. I no longer measure success that way and might argue that this has been the most productive season of my life.
I will need to find a job soon, probably before the end of the year. Unfortunately, I have yet to find work that has captured my imagination more than “funemployment” and writing and editing for this blog. Friends remind me that Albert Einstein worked as a patent clerk while he pursued his real work. When I consider taking a temp job to fund my writing habit, my pride rears its ugly head and shouts loudly about “wasting my potential” and “squandering my education.” I may not be quite rid of that nasty career-idolatry. Yet it terrifies me to think of pursuing mission-driven, all-consuming work, because life has become too precious to spend it all on work.
I’d like to say that my life began again when I became unemployed. This is only partially true. While I don’t take myself as seriously as I used to, I now hold Life in the highest regard. Life found me in this Nowhere place. It gave me a second chance to live it well. And this time, I don’t plan on squandering it.