Give or take a few holidays and weekends (though after a couple weeks every day felt like Wednesday), that’s how long I’ve been out of work since being laid off in March. Last week I started a contract position in downtown St. Paul–an interesting project with good technical challenges to chew on, and a much-needed boost to the cash flow, but not exactly a return to full employment: the measure of my success will be how quickly I program myself out of a job.
The return to a schedule regulated from the outside is a little jarring. Summer was long and timeless, dedicated mostly to supervising the kids, going on adventures as part of my book project, and going through the motions of the job search. Now I’m expected to be at a particular place at a particular time, as are the boys, and my summertime routines of grocery shopping, meal preparation, and laundry have been disrupted. In some ways, it’s a relief not to have to plan out each hour; in other ways, it’s a hassle to comply with the bus schedule and meeting appointments.
During those 26 weeks, I’ve been able to do some thinking and reading, a little writing and picture-taking; I’m still digesting the lessons as I move into the next phase of my career. A few things that I’ve noticed and hope to unpack:
- Unemployment is not a vacation. The open-ended nature of unemployment makes it hard to focus attention on projects that have a longer duration than a few days. Should I start on something that might be interrupted by a job offer? Can I afford to be too far from the phone and e-mail in case one of those job applications, interviews, or phone calls pans out? Is it wise to pass on a job interview that doesn’t sound like the kind of gig I’d like, just to work on something that isn’t focused on finding work? Budgeting time when you don’t know how much time you have is impossible.
- The eternal values are truly valuable. Friends, neighbors, family: those are what count. The high points of the spring and summer–field trips with the boys, my birthday camping trip, our kayak and canoe voyages, National Night Out with the neighbors–all revolved around important people. And the private pleasures that sustained me–walking the dog, reading, writing–exist outside of the workaday economy. I find that I have a lot less patience now for the bullshit of the work world–the buzzwords and one-upmanship and petty politics–than I had before (and I had precious little patience for it before), because those things are all in service to very fleeting and ephemeral rewards.
- Loyalty to institutions is overrated; loyalty to people is what matters. The corollary to the above is that we are far too willing, as employees in the modern economy, to give our employers far more loyalty than they deserve. Modern corporations, by and large, are not loyal to their employees; there are exceptions, but that they are so rare is what makes them exceptional. I’ve seen people who were dedicated and loyal employees get the ax in the first round of layoffs; and I’ve heard employers continue to spew the corporate loyalty lie while they trim their work force. One’s obligations to one’s employer ought to extend no further than the employment contract. Our loyalty should be to the quality of our work, to our ethical obligations to offer value to our customers, and to our co-workers when working in a team; and before that, our loyalty belongs to our families, friends, neighbors, and personal integrity. Corporations deserve no more loyalty than they actually extend, which lately has been very little.
- Bill Holm and Carol Bly were right. About pretty much everything, but most importantly about the value of bold failure, the ethics of generosity, and the morality of poetry and music. I read a lot during my unemployment, and by far the best–timeless and urgent at once–were by these two cranky Minnesota treasures.
There are, I’m sure, many other things I’ve learned in the last five months and twenty-nine days, and I’m sure these lessons will change over time. The human mind is amazingly elastic, and oriented toward optimism (listen to this Daniel Gilbert presentation for some interesting insights into the psychology of happiness). I expect to keep some of the cynical edge I’ve acquired, and hope too to sustain the lessons in generosity; I’m hoping to pick up more new lessons as I enter this next phase in my career.