Surviving unemployment

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I wrote this shortly after accepted a job that ended my unemployment. A lot of people on LinkedIn found it useful, so I figured I’d share it here.

I have finally gotten and accepted an offer for a full-time job. I was without full-time work for more than 13 months, and the role I’ve taken pays less than half what I was making at my last full-time job. Despite that, I think I escaped unemployment relatively unscathed in that I didn’t have any psychotic breaks, and my husband and I aren’t out on the streets. I also count a “win” for my husband and I staying together; our relationship relatively unaffected by the layoff. My heart goes out to everyone still unemployed or without full-time work. Just recently, I read a post asking, “What do you do when things get really tough?” It inspired me to throw my lot in with the myriad of resources and come up with a list to survive a layoff and hopefully avoid hitting bottom in unemployment. I’m going to avoid getting too much into job hunting tips, because that’s a different topic. This article is more of a “how not to have a breakdown when you’re laid off.” I’ll try to go in order of importance so anyone in a big rush hits the highlights first.

1. Focus on what you can control. Everything else on this list will be based on this simple notion. Simple…not easy. Getting laid off was beyond your control. Getting a job is also beyond your control. Sure, you can put your resume out there and polish up for the interviews, but the ultimate decision to make an offer is someone else’s decision. Heck, getting an interview isn’t even within your control as someone else decides whether they’ll interview you. You may control your own destiny if you ultimately decide to open your own business, but even that will probably be predicated on a business loan, and you won’t decide if you get that either.

When you pull back, you realize that you actually control very little. This is both good and bad. I don’t need to explain the bad, because you’re living it, but the good thing is that you can focus your efforts. Don’t focus on the problem. Focus on the solution(s), which include getting your resume up to snuff, high-grading which jobs you apply for, and/or possibly searching for avenues in which to set off on your own. Notice I didn’t say, “the solution is finding a job,” because you don’t control that solution. Focus on what you completely control. The rest will eventually fall into place, even if it does so in a way(s) you don’t expect, want, or prepare for.

I learned this skill during my tenure in softball, which culminated in a successful Division I career. Being a batter for baseball/softball is hard and extremely mentally demanding. The fact that a “good batter” statistically fails 70% of the time should tell you something about this endeavor. Because of the way statistics are set up, most people incorrectly assume a batter’s goal is to get on base. Sure, that’s the ultimate desire, but the batter doesn’t control whether or not she gets on base. She doesn’t control the pitches thrown at her, the call the umpire makes, nor the play any fielder might make on the ball. All she controls is which pitch to swing at, and the way she swings at that pitch.

As a batter, my goal was to pick a good pitch, and then hit the crap out of it. That was a hard enough prospect because “hitting the crap out of it,” is the hardest thing in sports. Your goal is to take two round objects, each moving independently towards each other at fast speeds, and connect them squarely. Good luck. With that. I worked hard at it though, and I got really good at it. I struck out less than 50 times in probably over 600 at-bats during my entire college career and had just as few walks. In other words, I hit the ball. A lot. I can’t tell you how many great, hard hits I had that went up the middle, just like they’re supposed to, only to have the shortstop or second baseman make the diving catch play of their lives on my dang ball.

If my goal had been to get on base, then I’d have viewed those at-bats as failures, but they weren’t. I did my job. I picked a good pitch to hit, and I hit the crap out of it. The fielders just did their jobs too. My mental state, however, was better because I didn’t view the at-bat as a failure. That’s not to say I didn’t get frustrated. I did, but I still viewed the at-bat as a win, which set me up for success my next at-bat. There’s about a million other things I could add to this analogy, including how a batter’s reaction to an umpire’s calls can make or break an at-bat, but I will just leave it where I’ve got it.

How you set your goals affects your mental state, and your mental state is everything. It’s really just a matter of setting appropriate goals that you control, and realizing your role (or lack thereof) in your current situation. It’s not your fault you’re laid off. You did your job. Someone just made a play on your ball. This doesn’t mean you lose sight of your ultimate desire, but it does mean the steps you take to fulfill that desire are within your control. If your resume rocks, you’re going after appropriate jobs, and you’re tapping your network like someone dying of thirst goes after a cactus, then you’re doing the best you can with the few bits you control. Consider them wins and wait for your ball to find a hole.

2. Realize this is temporary. This is a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason, even though a layoff could theoretically result in lifetime unemployment. I think those cases are very rare and are caused by a number of factors. You’re going to live to (hopefully) a ripe old age of somewhere beyond 80, but probably working until you’re only 65. Most likely, your layoff will not last that long. You’ll find something eventually, and when you do, you’ll look back on this as just a bump in the road, or maybe as the point where you hit your stride.

3. Do something with other people outside of your house at least once a week. Preferably, you’re interacting with people, but just being around them is helpful too. Humans are social creatures, and holing up inside your home until you’re employed again is not safe for you emotionally, mentally, or even physically. Get. Out. Of. Your. House. If you’ve been inside for a week or more, get out now. Seriously. Close this tab, or open it up on your phone and leave. Get coffee or lunch somewhere. Even Starbucks charges about $2 for drip coffee. You can afford that, I promise. What you spend now, you’ll save on therapy bills later.

I get it. Maybe you’re embarrassed about being laid off. You shouldn’t be. You should be embarrassed about the fact that you’ve spent the past week in the same pair of sweats (unless this is your first week…you get a pass there). Maybe you’re terrified because you have no money coming in anymore and it seems like everything social requires money. That’s simply not true. You can do free social things, but you’ll have to dig a little bit for them. Heck, you can probably even do free social things that are going on in your industry, which means you can also network. If they’re not free, they’re probably relatively cheap. Instead of buying that case of beer, go to a networking event. Get on Facebook, LinkedIn, or MeetUp and find local groups in your industry. If an industry event isn’t your thing, see if someone in your neighborhood does a Yoga or running group you can tag along with. Anything. Just get out there.

Another option is to get a part-time job and/or volunteer somewhere. Realize that your part-time job probably won’t affect how much you can get from unemployment, and you may be able to pull in more money total than if you just collected unemployment. In Colorado, you can get up to 125% of your unemployment benefits by combining income from a part-time job and unemployment. Ultimately though, this job isn’t for money. It’s to get you out of the house, doing something productive, and keeping you on some kind of schedule. Yes, this will take some time away from the job hunt, but unless you’re expecting to get hired in the next month or two, you cannot job hunt 40 hours a week. This runs counter to what all the interwebs say, and is my number 4 on the list.

4. Don’t spend 40 hours per week job hunting for more than one or two months, and don’t beat yourself up if you take a little break from it. It’s so draining to spend 40 hours week after week looking for jobs, customizing your resume, cover letter, etc., only to never hear back from anyone on any of it. In my first two or three weeks, I was in an application frenzy and followed the shot-gun method. I applied to anything remotely related to geology or data science, amassing what seemed like more than 100 job applications. I heard nothing back on any of it beyond the occasional automated, “thank you for your application. We’ll review it and contact you if your application comes under consideration for the position.” It killed me emotionally and mentally. On top of just being laid off, I wasn’t getting anywhere on my job hunt despite my hard work. I decided to work both harder and smarter and apply for only jobs that I had a real chance at getting. This narrowed the field down a good bit and meant that my job hunt was not 40 hours a week. It was maybe 10-15, and the applications I put in were better quality. I still didn’t hear anything back on almost any of them for over 7 months. Speaking of that, if you guys notice anything on my profile that’s off-putting or have tips to spruce it up, I’m all ears.

Since I wasn’t exactly busy prepping for interviews, I occupied my time by building my online geology school and eventually volunteered as a tour guide for school groups at a local tourist attraction. That turned into a fun part-time job. I got to be outside, tell horrible geology jokes to a captive (even paying!) audience, and I made decent tips. The downside was that I had to give up one of my weekend days, but that was a trade-off I was willing to make. Another downside was a bit of pride swallowing. It was tough to go from a PhD geologist in the industry to tour guide, especially since some customers were pretty rude with, “wow. A PhD and this is all you could get?” I wanted to kick them off my bus, but I never did. Most people who got that far into the conversation were actually great, and many of them had encouraging words.

I definitely wouldn’t say I thrived during my unemployment, but I didn’t die either. In the end, my tiny network is the only thing that’s really gotten me anywhere as far as job-hunting goes. Everyone talks about it, but now that I’ve lived it, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the value of networking. I can see it from the employer’s point of view too. I imagine finding good employees is really tough, and what better way to narrow down the field than to tap your current resource of good employees? Successful people tend to attract other successful people, so if a good worker recommends someone, I’d certainly pay more attention to that referral than an unknown applicant.

I got an interview for this role because of a referral. A friend of a CrossFit friend works at the company. In other words, something outside of work is what’s ultimately led to this role. That’s one of the reasons I encourage people to have lives outside of work, and I definitely encourage you to start something while you’re laid off. Not just because it could ultimately lead to a job, but because it will keep you out of the nut house. If you’re one of those people who’s been in your house for a week, and you finished the article rather than getting up immediately to go somewhere, now’s your chance. Get up and get out there. Goodbye and good luck!

Rub some acetone on it and call me in the morning.

Side note/legal jargon: Everything on this blog is based strictly on my own personal, private views and is completely independent from my current employer unless otherwise explicitly stated. In no way, shape, or form is my current employer responsible for any written content on this blog, though I may borrow the occasional picture with appropriate permissions and credits.

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