“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour.” ~Unknown
After finishing my master’s degree, I felt pretty directionless. I felt like I graduated with more questions than answers, and I really didn’t know what career I wanted, or where.
I figured I should take whatever opportunity came my way, so I accepted a low-paying teaching job in a foreign country, which didn’t work out for various reasons, and ended up leaving after only five months.
I came back to the U.S. the day before Christmas, feeling like a total and utter failure. I was unemployed, living with my parents in a sleepy midwestern town that I had sworn never to return to, with an empty bank account and over a hundred thousand dollars of student debt staring me in the face.
To add insult to injury, I almost immediately contracted the flu, which turned into pneumonia, and was essentially bed-ridden for almost a month.
I felt miserable.
What had happened to my dreams? My aspirations? My idealist musings about my dynamic, passion-filled, world-changing future career?
I felt more confused than ever and had figured very little out, except how to screw up romantic relationships and spend all my money in the process. I had to figure out what to do next, and fast, or flounder.
If I’ve learned anything from my encounters with Buddhism, it’s that moments like this, when it feels like the rug is being pulled our from under your feet, usually end up being the most valuable.
It doesn’t feel very valuable when it’s happening, of course, but being shaken forces you to stop for a while and take account of what’s unshakeable. In moments of utter insecurity, you realize what is really important in your life.
Here are my takeaways from months “in between”:
1. Don’t panic, and breathe.
Not having a next step can be scary. Really scary. Our culture is obsessed with progress, personal growth, and especially next steps, so not knowing where you’re going can seem overwhelming. It’s hard not to get swept up into that feeling of helplessness.
Stop, breathe, maybe meditate for fifteen minutes, and keep going in whatever way you can.
2. Focus on what matters to you, not other people.
This is an important, and difficult, one. When I was first considering leaving my terrible post-grad job, I reached out to a lot of people to ask for advice. I knew that if I quit the job, it might take awhile to find another hopefully better one, and that I might experience the cold, dark grip of failure.
Some people told me to finish out my contract, because it was safer. Others told me to do what made me happy. But ultimately, I had to sit with my anxieties and fears, dissect them, and figure out what was best for me, according to my goals.
I had to totally let go of everyone else’s ideas of success, security, and happiness and define what those concepts meant to me.
Did being unemployed, single, and homebound make me feel like a failure because I personally felt like a failure, or because someone else had told me once that those things = failure? Sometimes, it’s really hard to separate what really matters to you from what matters to the people around you, but it’s necessary.
Also, the job search can be oh-so-discouraging. It can be really hard to receive mass rejection email after mass rejection email (or no email at all) and not get enormously depressed.
Don’t take it personally. Know that you’re great, smart, and capable, and divert the energy you were going to spend weeping into writing a fantastic cover letter for your next job application.
3. Set realistic goals and get organized.
For a while, setting goals seemed impossible. How could I set a goal if I had no idea what I wanted out of a career? Every job description I looked at seemed unattainable, unrealistic, or unattractive to me. Goals? I couldn’t make goals! I was broke and stuck!
In truth, I was overthinking it. I didn’t have to know exactly where I would be in five years, or one year, or even one month. Sometimes I just had to have a plan for the week, or the day, or the next hour.
Setting small, realistic goals was key to moving forward in a productive way, and not staying paralyzed by fear and anxiety. For example, I set goals for how many jobs I would apply for in a week and how I would make enough money to get by, etc. I made spreadsheets keeping track of the jobs I applied for, as well as a strict budget.
Having daily goals made me feel like I was accomplishing something, even if the results weren’t necessarily tangible at the time. At the end of the day, I could say, “Well, I did everything I set out to do today. Good job, me!” instead of “Ugh! I still don’t have a job! What’s wrong with me?!”
A journey is made up of small steps. I had no idea where I would end up, but I kept moving and that saved me.
4. Relish the journey, regardless of the destination.
As mentioned in takeaway number one, not having a clear destination can be overwhelming, especially in a culture that is always leaning forward into the future. Perhaps the hardest part of the unemployment journey was settling in instead of looking ahead.
Being at a crossroads is a moment of opportunity. It’s at that moment when you feel like you don’t know anything, that you truly know. You know then that all those notions you’ve had about what you need to feel happy and successful are illusions.
I may not have had the fulfilling career, the loving partner, the adorable puppy, or the reasonable, plant-filled apartment I wanted, but I was alive! Being starved of the things that I thought were important made me take stock of all the things that really mattered and let go of the things that didn’t.
Every day, I wake up. I have an amazing, healthy body that is capable of some really miraculous things. I have an active intellect that enjoys reading and learning and doing things. I love a lot of people and activities and have regular access to many of them. I have a bed to sleep in, food to eat, books to read, and time to exercise regularly. These are all pretty amazing things!
Even when nothing seemed to be working in my life, there was so much that was working. This sense of having some unshakeable core to my experience made moving forward so much easier, and way less scary.
It gave me a wealth of patience to seek out and wait for the right opportunities, and leave behind the wrong ones. It gave me the liberty to dream up new possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before instead of putting pressure on myself to adhere to old, tired ideas.
It made me realize that being “in between” was, in a way, a blessing. I had the freedom to pursue opportunities where, when, and with whom I wanted. Settling into the journey forced me to treat myself more kindly and give myself the time and space to craft meaning in new ways.
Feeling suffocated by the seeming lack of direction in your life? Go for a walk and feel the wind on your cheeks.
Received another rejection letter and want to cry? Get out that new recipe you’ve been wanting to try and listen to your favorite jams while you cook.
Need a mental health day? Take one. Read. Go to the gym. Learn something new. Meditate. Celebrate your successes, job-related or not. Because if you can find peace in the midst of what feels like a total breakdown, you can find it anywhere.
Photo by Hartwig HKD