Of those holding bachelor’s degrees in 2011, 53.6 percent below the age of 25 were either jobless or underemployed. For all but two weeks of the year, I contributed to that statistic. A graduate on an unsuccessful employment tour, I moved from Chicago to D.C. to Colorado to Michigan and finally back to Chicago. Sometimes I was unemployed; sometimes I was underemployed; sometimes I had unpaid internships. I had a total of thirteen interviews across the country, including four over the phone. I purchased four career books. I edited my resume weekly and wrote more than a hundred cover letters.
I flew to New York twice for interviews, once in August of 2010 and then again that December. In the dim evening lighting of the aircraft I studied pages of hypothetical questions and their answers, trying to conjure a person who didn’t feel like me. When I touched down, the fast-paced indifference of the city seemed a reflection of the world at the time—uninterested and unwilling to make room. If the city, or the employer, didn’t care to admit me, I wanted to force it to.
You can’t charm with force, though. When a children’s fiction editor asked whether I had a special interest in children’s literature, a softball question, I opted for honesty and said I was interested in all types of editing. She didn’t flinch, exactly, but she filed it away somewhere bad. I wasn’t sure what adult really preferred to read and edit Stellaluna over a Stephen King thriller, but someone was willing to claim as much, and that person got the job.
Both of my New York interviews were for editorial assistant positions at prominent Times Square-adjacent publishing companies. A New York-based friend counseled against using my Chicago address on resumes, so I used hers instead. I worried my dislocation might seem obvious, that I might break down in questioning, but the topic never came up. The first interview was congenial and unpromisingly easy. The second was carried out by an editor who was visibly bored and clearly had not seen my resume. Both were over in less than thirty minutes.
After moving out to Colorado and settling into a minimum-wage job several months later, I tried my hand at temping, but even there the results were scant. One interviewer said she’d thought I could fill an assistant-type role, but then worried aloud (in a delicate tone) that I lacked the experience. She asked me to take a computer test designed for potential receptionists, which measured my ability to file things alphabetically. The only call I ever received was for a single four-hour stint “inventorying” at Nordstrom Rack.
A month later, I felt particularly optimistic about an interview for a journalism position. When a few days had passed and I’d heard nothing, an ominous wave of defeat washed over me. I would not be getting the job. The next day I called in sick to work, then went to the store and bought an unholy variety of processed desserts. For hours I alternated between eating cookies, sleeping, and watching The Tudors on my laptop. By the time my roommate came home I had deteriorated into a sort of hoodied zombie. “I feel like I’ve been broken up with,” I announced. “By my life.”
This was the horror of graduating circa 2010 with a degree in anything other than computer science. My resume, which seemed to me the objective platform on which I should stand, inexplicably withered from a mountain to a molehill. The reputation of my college, which I chose partially for its prestige, was mysteriously inconsequential. My internships were simply par for the course. My grades were a given. A piece of paper that was meant to convey everything I had to offer professionally was somehow reduced to an accessory. Two feelings overtook me in the wake of this realization: first, powerlessness; then, panic.
Panic maintained a steady presence somewhere in my lower neck region. One day in January, having discovered a second ticket for the expired license on my car (something I couldn’t fix immediately, being out of state), I yelled, hit the car, unlocked it, sat down inside, and sobbed hysterically for about half an hour. Unemployed at the time, my money was a tiny, rapidly decreasing pile with failure (if not starvation) waiting at the bottom.
Powerlessness began to erode my self-esteem after only a couple of months. My conception of four years of accomplishments and risks and explorations was floundering even as it was expected to provide the materials from which I would construct and reiterate a professional self. My life’s meaning had gone on reserve power, running on memories of pre-graduation, when something like a forward progression still existed. Bursts of anger and self-preservation provided a kind of forward momentum as I hunkered down and churned out applications, but the enthusiasm I was expected to deliver never compared with the immediacy of my barefaced need.
Someone declared insanity to be “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”—and this is the job hunt: you apply for jobs again and again, making only slight modifications, and expect different results. You’re forced to have faith that eventually you’ll find someone who will hire you. I often woke up at 2 a.m., heart racing, wondering: “What if I never get a job?” It seemed perilously possible—every application was one of hundreds, and even every interview had a statistically minute chance of working out in my favor. Netting a job requires you to get lucky just once, and what if you never do?
For stretches of time lasting up to a couple months, I went without interviews. It was like deep-sea diving in aimlessness.
In contrast to most of us mystified job seekers, the career experts visualize the job hunt as an obstacle course that can be navigated with impersonal precision. When career guidebooks take on interviews, for example, they’re reluctant to let you do much thinking on your own. Many exist as a sort of cheat sheet: 101 Great Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions, 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, 201 Knockout Answers to Tough Interview Questions (it never comes down to an even hundred). Some guides recommend simple, physical strategies like a firm handshake or unwavering eye contact. In The Q&A manifesto: How to Answer the 45 most Typical Interview Questions (the Kindle Edition), self-styled career advisor Landon Long dispenses with any kind of subtlety: “EMPLOYERS WANT TO KNOW YOU ARE GOING TO GENERATE PROFITS!!!” (He goes on to say that you should appear so profitable that hiring anyone else would be “RETARDED.”)
In college, I would have rolled my eyes at such half-baked advice; less than a year out, I could be found regularly perusing my bookstore’s career section for words of wisdom. Following a string of failures, I began to approach my cover letters with a confusing blend of dread and self-loathing. It was at this time that Martin Yate’s Knock ‘em Dead Cover Letters looked like The Bible, its opening page a gushing sample of testimonials promising nothing short of complete career transformation. A Londoner writes, “I just want to thank you so much for your book. I can really, honestly say that it has influenced my life course!” A Philadelphian proclaims the book “a godsend [that] helped me obtain the job of my dreams eight years ago.” A dispassionate Texan just sticks to results: “I was out of work for four months—within five weeks of reading your book, I had four job offers.”
Adults do not typically need instruction on how to write letters. But then, in almost every other case, writing letters is an elective experience that is pleasant or (at worst) drearily obligatory (if letters are written at all). Cover letters, meanwhile, require you to be simultaneously tedious and self-aggrandizing. There really isn’t much wiggle room here. These are in fact the two elements almost everyone can agree on. You must describe in colorless, adjective-lite detail the work you have done, and you must purport to be impressive for having done it.
For adults with prior work experience, this may not be that difficult: years of legitimate work lie in their wake, satisfying moments ready to be cherry-picked and sewn into the easy fabric of a letter. For the recent graduate, however, work experience is either uselessly cerebral or embarrassingly monotonous. The most valuable labor of the college years is typified by midnight breakthroughs on philosophy papers or experiments in the lab, moments in which lengthy, plodding engagement pays off with a sudden handsome display of mental fireworks. To include this moment in a cover letter would be self-indulgent at best, repellent at worst—the personal self is front and center during such an experience, and work takes the form of a mountaintop being slowly scaled. Intellectual growth is a private achievement for a party of one.
Such job applicants are therefore limited to whatever displays of mental acuity can be gleaned from serving coffee or shelving books. The lucky will also have internship experiences similar to mine. I was (in this sense) among the luckiest of recent graduates—I had two pre-graduation internships that were directly related to my careers of interest. Even with this fortunate set up, I approached the blank Word document with trepidation. The language of cover letters retained a “professional” mystique I was hard-pressed to imitate.
Thankfully, the guides usually offer an index page somewhere in their binding with a list of “key verbs,” meant to help newbies like me transform something ordinary into something impressive. You didn’t move things, you allocated. You didn’t distribute psychology surveys, you administered. By the time I was done, my resume presented me as part machine (generated, compiled), part explorer (navigated, conducted). But my cover letter bragging, mostly a mix of straightforward language arts skills (wrote, edited) and administrative tasks (assisted), gained little from the list.
The career books like to pretend that the job hunt is a rational game, one that responds predictably to certain stimuli. This is like saying that if you have clean teeth, smell good, and say nice things on a date, your date will like you. But you typically go into both situations without knowing your counterparts’ past experiences, pet peeves, sympathies and physical preferences. Knock ‘em Dead Cover Letters won’t help a whit if someone doesn’t feel good about the way you half-smile or sweat through your button-up. My mother, in her pre-interview phone prep, regularly stressed the importance of lipstick. “Wear your hair down,” she instructed. “Try to look cute.” I once developed a cold sore before an interview, and knew even before walking through the door that my chances were blown.
One of the things career guides love to emphasize is the importance of “putting yourself out there.” Knock ‘em Dead uses the cautionary example of a woman who only passively applies for jobs, insisting that you must follow-up on application materials by “making telephone calls to initiate conversations that must take place to get you job offers.” Admittedly, this is sound advice of the dully empowering sort that can easily inspire me. Unfortunately, most companies do little to incentivize Knock ‘em Dead’s advice. The times I did call, I was met with the gatekeepers of various human resource departments, who seemed cross at my calling and endeavored to get me off the phone as quickly as possible.
Imagining the scenario from their perspective isn’t difficult—in this economy, there are literally hundreds of applications per available position; if they set a precedent for rewarding the persistent, they’ll spend hours dealing with a barrage of the enthusiastic unemployed for every job that becomes available. The gatekeeping process often goes so far as to enshroud the actual hiring manager in mystery—I liked to imagine him up in the tallest tower of a castle, feverishly tending to a pile of work while an angry, troll-like figure guarded the door. The career books counsel you to always “address your target by name” on cover letters, but very few job postings even make this information available. When I called one company to inquire, I was told simply to use the words “Hiring Manager” in place of a name.
Again, this policy is easy to understand. If the unemployed get a hold of the hiring manager’s name, they could conceivably find contact information and, taking the persistence message too much to heart, spam his inbox or call his direct line. Still, the sharp dividing line sets up a situation in which the unemployed person is not only unimportant but actively repugnant in her desperation; on the other end, the employer is not only important but inaccessible and godlike. Unlike the dynamic between expert and (potential) novice, in which the job seeker’s inexperience is noted but her person is respected, the servile job seeker now lacks the possibility of unprompted communication with her potential employer, is sometimes blocked from finding his name, can’t expect to occupy the manager’s mind even when she is scheduled to do so, and is unlikely to receive a notice of rejection.
While inequality is built into the position of one who willingly serves (I never felt slighted, for example, as a barista), the job seeker is mired in a system that is inescapable, and it is only by a feat of unusual empathy that she is extended an olive branch of respect. I recall being shocked after one interview for an ideal position as a music reporter—back in Colorado, again—when the interviewer not only called (called!) to let me down, but offered to recommend me as a freelancer for someone else. Even as he was rejecting me, his humanity in taking the time to reach out provided a much-needed and invigorating jolt to my self-esteem.
Energizing though it was, the experience was one of the few blips in an otherwise unresponsive year. When I came on as an intern at a think tank in D.C., many of the other interns were students at universities in the area. But several of us were schmucky degree-holders, feeling comparatively old, immobilized and desperate. Without exception, we came from other cities. Living off a generous but weary parent donation or off our own savings, we worked for free to buy time while we continued to look for paid jobs. The training was minimal and our positions were designed to support research assistants, who were our age. Over the course of three months, I spoke to my supervisor exactly twice. During my exit interview I spoke to the HR person, whom I’d sat next to at lunch many times, about my interest in a position. The research assistant reassured me I’d have a good shot. My supervisor promised to speak on my behalf.
A few months and several applications later, I was supporting myself on just above minimum wage at a bookstore. The think tank had gone into radio silence. Meanwhile, with each application that I sent out, I began to feel a little more annoying.
My status-conscious anxiety wasn’t just an extension of my self-conscious hardwiring or even HR reinforcement; twenty-somethings are the generation that currently dominates the public eye, and quite literally everyone has an opinion on young, unemployed post-grads. In August 2010, the New York Times Magazine published the lengthy feature “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” In February 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Kay S. Hymowitz declared twenty-something men to be stuck in a hybrid child-adult purgatory she termed “pre-adulthood” in “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” Around the same time, Fast Company took a different approach with “Why Bashing Millennials is Wrong,” which cleared the air just in case Millennials didn’t know they were near-universally despised. Even this “defense” was a bit of a double-edged sword. The article’s author accepts all of the accusations against Millennials—laziness, fickleness, the sense of entitlement—she just believes these traits can be positively exploited. One year later, New York Magazine continued the conversation with “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” in which a twenty- something grants that Millennials are “entitled” and “self-absorbed” but points out that at least we’re doing as well as we can under the circumstances. It isn’t a spectacularly rousing argument.
The consensus seems to be that we Millennials just disappoint, humanity-wise—whether with or without jobs. This is hardly the first time civilization has sounded the alarm on the degradation of the young. Even Aristotle was wringing his hands over the young adults of ancient Greece, whose “hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things—and that means having exalted notions.” I get it. Part of the fun of getting older is earning the right to look down on younger generations.
Still, as an unemployed twenty-something, it has been frustrating to be confronted with this flood of feature articles, many of them written by older folks who lack our experience of having grown up as Millennials, in a culture carefully constructed to inspire us. Hazy childhood memories include gazing at “Follow Your Dreams!” posters as a kindergartener, being drafted into Gifted and Talented programs, escaping class to participate in “Young Authors” or “Young Artists” or some similar programmatic nourishment of creativity, and watching television sitcoms and dramas in which the lesson was always some variant of “be yourself.” The “self” here was somehow a perfect whole, the dividing lines of “personal” and “professional” unnecessary. To come of age among this cohort, have a dream, and then subdue it, feels cowardly, yet now we are faced with the consensus that we overrate what was fed to us.
In this way, the Millennials are apparently not unlike Aristotle’s young Greeks. To grow up beholden to the self, promote your dreams over other life goals, study hard, graduate from college, and then be told you have “an unhealthy sense of entitlement” just for expecting to find an entry-level job is one profoundly mixed cultural message. To expect anything less than “self-absorption” from a person attempting to gain employment and thereby start a life is to expect too much. This is why, with all the complaints about twenty-somethings, the relative silence of the twenty-somethings themselves is worrisome. We’ve gotten frustrated and pitched tents on Wall Street, but my generation needs more of a voice in the mainstream.
Lately, that voice seems to be coming from Lena Dunham, a 26-year-old Oberlin grad whose 2010 film Tiny Furniture spawned an HBO series, which hit the pop culture circuit so hard that it had spawned a wave of overwhelmingly positive reception followed by an immediate backlash even before its second episode. In Girls Dunham basically recreates her character from Tiny Furniture, fixating on the young, directionless and creatively ambitious female. Her presentation, along with the relationship pitfalls her character stumbles into, rings uncomfortably true. When protagonist Hannah finds herself cut off from her parents and suddenly needing to deal with the very real issue of feeding herself, she gathers her courage and approaches her editor-boss at an unpaid internship of two years. After announcing she can no longer afford “to work for free,” the resulting conversation is hilariously and depressingly resonant:
Boss: Oh, Hannah. I’m sorry to lose you. I was just going to start you manning our Twitter. You have just the quippy voice for that.
Hannah: Oh, no, no, I’m not quitting. I just um, I know that Joy Lin got hired after interning so I thought that maybe—
Boss: Hannah. Joy Lin knows Photoshop. Now, in this economy, do you know how many internship requests I get every day?
Hannah: I would assume a lot.
Boss: Fifty. It’s about fifty. I practically route them into my spam folder. So if you think you have just nothing left to learn from us…
Hannah: No. It is not that, really, I just, you know, gotta eat.
Boss: Well, when you get hungry enough, you’re gonna figure it out.
Hannah: Do you mean like physically hungry or like, hungry for the job?
Boss: I am really gonna miss your energy. I think this is going to be really good for you.
Much has been made of how “privileged” the girls on Girls are, but the ease with which Hannah is discarded from a job she’s had for two years—immediately following her boss’s assertion that she is an “invaluable part of our operation”—is an apt illustration of the gap between the reality of unpaid internships and the cultural notions surrounding their value. As Linda Holmes pointed out on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Hannah is “kind of following the advice that you hear, which is ‘Know your own value! Know your own worth! Go out and get it for yourself!’” But when she approaches her boss, his response is essentially “I have an unlimited pool of free labor.”
Hannah’s “value” is therefore zero. Not because she can’t work, but because she’s mistakenly bought into a system that countless other young hopefuls have also bought into: that an unpaid internship will lead to a job. But Hannah’s specialization presents perhaps the more pressing problem. Her specific set of skills—writing, editing, identifying artistic merit—are shared by a whole legion of Millennials who “followed [their] dreams” and saw themselves as the Young Artists and Young Authors their third grade teachers took them for. Dream-following therefore led to our whole society of attempted Young Creatives, with supply far exceeding demand. Hannah’s skills don’t make her one in a million—they make her one of a million.
Like Hannah, I bought into this system (despite knowing better). In retrospect, this was embarrassing. But working without payment when I couldn’t afford to was embarrassing even at the time, and for simpler reasons; it was an occupation of last resort. Nobody wants to work an unpaid internship out of college.
Of course, regardless of whether you are getting paid for your work, or doing any work at all for that matter, Knock ‘em Dead and its ilk will refer to you, the reader, as a professional. The career books make this assumption without knowing you, because, like “special” and “nice,” the term has become almost meaningless through dilution. So meaningless that I, an unemployed recent college graduate, was invited to think of myself as a professional.
The dictionary definition of “professionalism” loops back to “profession.” Merriam-Webster’s fourth noun option, first subcategory, describes a profession as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” The second subcategory definition is less restrictive: “a principal calling, vocation, or employment.” These definitions are revealing in two ways. First, to be considered “professional,” one is supposed to be uniquely knowledgeable and intensively prepared—descriptors that apply to very few of the young “professionals” looking for work right out of college.
More tellingly, both definitions suggest that one is primarily “called” to a profession, a description more common to medieval religious awakening than, for example, managing an office. While few would honestly describe their job as a “calling,” Merriam-Webster still slips the word in first, reflecting a cultural insistence that transcends the bookstore’s career section. (A lazy Amazon.com search for “career” returns results like Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type and Career match: Connecting Who You Are with What You Love to Do.)
To refer to someone as a “professional” is thus to say the person exists well within her position and also, preferably, that she is mystically matched with it. The problem with this depiction of professionalism is how deeply personal the experiences of feeling “called” to a role and being effortlessly comfortable really are. Both are born of an internal satisfaction so close to the heart as to resemble falling in love—they entail a recognition, an ease of looking at something and seeing yourself reflected back.
Yet the job hunt, as I gradually realized, requires you to construct a “professional” identity that emphasizes certain qualities—confidence, enthusiasm, assertiveness—at complete odds with what you, as a bewildered, unemployed twenty-something, are likely to be feeling. The interview, in particular, is largely a test to see whether you can divide your personal self from this newly minted “professional” self. Often it begins with an ambiguous invitation to “tell me about yourself,” which is newspeak for “don’t tell me anything personal about yourself.” Once, before I came to understand the expectation behind this question (reiterate your resume), I began with a lengthy preamble about going to a mediocre high school, reading a lot, knowing there was more out there, getting into a celebrated private college, etc. I was telling the interviewer a tale of my personal self, a truncated but cherished narrative of my ambitious nature and very tame rise to glory. It didn’t even occur to me at the time to trot out my professional self, because I didn’t have a professional self to trot out.
Meanwhile, culturally, the personal and professional selves are continuously conflated. Televised representations of professionals span wildly across the board; Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope is a mid-level government employee so assuredly “called” to her position that her love of meetings and paperwork is a constant gag on the show. She represents a professional who sees no division between her personal and professional selves, as the personal favorites on the walls of her office—Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton—are also her professional heroes. Even through a political campaign, the more personal aspects of her identity end up making her a stronger professional.
On the other side of the spectrum, Mad Men’s Don Draper is a professional whose personal life remains, for the most part, a tightly guarded secret from his colleagues. His knack for advertising makes it appear to be a kind of “calling,” but his deeper, darker secrets mean he’s never quite comfortable (though he usually appears to be). What distinguishes Don as a professional is, in large part, his privacy—his personality weakens him professionally, while Leslie’s strengthens her.
Draper and Knope are diametrically opposed in their decisions to involve themselves personally with their careers, yet both are protagonists on shows that privilege the relationship between career and personal life perhaps above any other. To watch either show is to leave the television with an awareness that a career is a major part of life—perhaps the truest love story—but with entirely different ideas of what it means to actually be a professional.
Attempting to first understand, and then cleave, one’s professional and personal selves is complicated by the ways in which the professional self crowds in on the personal self, first dictating one’s feelings and then emanating outward. Among the four “supportive communication skills” listed by Knock ‘em Dead are “grooming and dress,” “social graces,” and “body language.” The online resources provided by the guide include a link to an About.com listing of grooming tips for women. The recommendations suggest that dressing for the office can be a minefield of faux pas. Women should not wear jewelry which is “too large,” earrings should always be “above the earlobe,” perfume is to be avoided, businesswomen should wear a “nice, conservative wrist watch,” and, perhaps most alarmingly, “wearing no makeup at all is almost as bad as wearing too much makeup.”
One identity crisis I didn’t see coming presented itself the January afternoon I stood paralyzed in a Macy’s, staring down a rack of blazers and weighing my options. I’d just gotten the think tank internship in D.C., and the dilemma concerned whether or not I needed to buy a blazer for the position. The weight of the question wasn’t in the uncertainty, but rather down the rabbit hole of implications and assumptions I’d need to make about myself if I indeed needed to buy the blazer. I am not the sort of person who wears a blazer, I agonized. Even the salesgirl seemed to sense my apparently pointless misery as she handed me new options: “Are these not working for you?”
It wasn’t that I looked down on blazer-clad professionals, but rather that the blazer suddenly symbolized everything about an entire adult world that I didn’t identify with and, since I was worming my way into it, felt troublingly alienated from. At no point up until the age of 23 did I envision myself wearing a blazer, and buying one now made me feel like I was walking through the wrong door.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. This was a satisfying enough ambition in high school, and I filled enough notebooks with stories and terrible poetry to imagine I would make good on it, but the idea began to break apart in college. Living off your creativity began to seem like the delicious destiny of either the overwhelmingly talented or the independently wealthy, and I was neither. What I knew was that millions of jobs existed that children never dreamed of, but they had to be carried out by sacrificial adults nevertheless. I would start in one of those positions, I told myself, and then transition into my dream. The other thing I knew—whispered by the same nervous voice that kept me from a degree in creative writing—was that there didn’t seem to be enough space for everyone to realize their dreams. It is telling that so few Young Creatives make their way into the public’s awareness, while those who find success are the ones feeding those very same impulses. Instagram—a type of software that makes even your most ordinary photos look old-timey and nostalgic—was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars. Even Joy Lin knows Photoshop.
Knowing that I was entering the job market as a means of biding my time—that I would “figure things out” once I had a full-time position—didn’t make the transition any easier. How long would I defer what I really wanted to do? In truth, some tiny part of me, deep in denial, understood why I had so much trouble getting a job. Since the age of fifteen I’d seen the adult world as being full of people languishing eight hours a day in a state of detached psychical gloom, people tending less and less to their ever-shrinking raisins in the sun. I would have considered cutting off a limb to get hired, and at the same time, the last thing I wanted was to restrict my jewelry, buy a wristwatch, don a blazer, bury my dreams, and start an adult life.
I went from prestigious internship to temporary bookseller. Antique lamps replaced fluorescent lights, bathing me in a dreamlike glow. I was once again wearing jeans to work, making money in laughably small amounts, and allowed to be mainly a personal self by day. In my off hours, I practiced being a professional through an endless stream of applications and a few interviews.
As the blazer incident taught me, the professional and personal selves are seldom as easily separable as convenience would suggest. The degree of overlap is not insignificant—factors like enthusiasm, choice of earrings, and tone are all deeply rooted in my personal experience and mood, and consequently part of me feels violated in their unnatural appropriation by professionalism. If my professional self was an enacted rewiring of my personal self, how could my personal self remain unaffected? The need to emote enthusiasm professionally had the odd effect of neutering it personally.
Knock ‘em Dead and its brethren are not, strictly speaking, wrong. Their advice is often reasonable, helpful, even (in some cases) precisely correct. But in spoon-feeding you selves that aren’t your self, they erode a sense of identity already pale with rejection. The most useful how-to career guide I could have found wouldn’t have been for cover letters or resumes or interviews; it would have been an instruction manual for getting through the job hunt with my confidence intact. It would have pointed out that interviewers often ignore the interviewee not because of any strong negative opinion, but rather because people are sometimes careless and rude. It would have parted the curtain on the litany of tiny mistakes and offenses the employed person unintentionally commits, to little consequence, throughout her career. It would have drawn upon the largely sympathetic collective outlook of the employed on the unemployed in this economy and reminded me that Americans love a comeback. Finally, it would have questioned whether I was really going to let the search for a job scare me into a new sense of self.
Last winter, I finally threw away full-time underemployment and bit the bullet, quitting my job at the bookstore and moving in with my parents, with the intention of devoting myself full-time to the job search. As I sat at home and churned through dozens of applications a day, I began to experience a dissociation; the more applications I methodically sent out, the less time I spent second-guessing my presentation. Applying to fifteen jobs a day, and contacting five people in an attempt to network, less of me went into the process. I could have examined whether these cover letters were really perfect, or fretted over the likelihood of getting responses from those I emailed, or, quite simply, I could have not.
In the comfort of my childhood home, drinking my parents’ coffee and watching movies with them as they serenely accepted me back into their lives, I could finally see my unemployment as they saw it—a phase in passing, and nothing to panic over. If someone in New York balked at my professional representation, life went on. Dinner still needed to be made, the dishes still needed to be washed. I woke up and went to bed with my personal self, who began to care less and less about the tension with its professional counterpart.
What saved me in the last month of searching for jobs was allowing myself this personal detachment from my professional self. The two didn’t have to entirely mesh or separate; they just had to exist, side by side, in some (necessarily imperfect) form. My work experience no longer became a representation of me, my inability to get a job no longer a reflection of my worth. They were both just facts, disembodied. I did what I’ve done. I knew what they wanted. I could do the job as well as anyone else. If they weren’t interested, they could join the crowd.
After a few weeks, I got an interview. I hopped on a train and rode four hours to the city, slept on my friend’s couch, and prepared the next morning by answering prospective interview questions in my notebook. I had lunch with a friend in the same industry, who briefed me on the job description and explained what would matter to the employers. It was the least nervous interview I’ve ever had. And I got the job.