Self-Care Roundtable: Unemployment and Job Hunting for Artists

<> on February 5, 2016 in Washington, DC.
February 5, 2016 in Washington, DC.

At the start of 2016, a number of friends and cohorts embarked on the difficult process of job hunting. Some are struggling through unemployment and depleting savings. In the conversation below, two former interviewees going through this process share their thoughts on the topic in relation to their well-being, and the pursuit of writing.

What is the worst job you have ever had?

T: Hands down, teleperformance. I still have PTSD about talking to businesses on the phone, and somebody’s life is being ruined because of my issue. I hate that.
J: What did you do exactly?
T: I worked for an outsourcing company of AT&T and I was a customer service rep. So basically, the person you call when you’re too lazy to look up the answer on Google.

Customer service jobs are so grueling.

J: For me, I can endure customer service if I’m paid well and have some stability.

Was it worth what you were paid?

T: No way. It was $10 an hour but if you really wanted to make money, you would have to bonus, and the bonus structure meant that every customer who got a survey had to give you a certain response.

[To J] What was your worst job?

J: Probably at a bakery right out of college. Management was so horrible. They took advantage of their employees because they knew a lot of us were students or paying off our tuition with that job. I like the people I work with at my current job, so that makes it a little better.
T: I know what you mean. I wouldn’t have to talk to the customers at my old job again, but because of the bonus structure, managers and supervisors got so pissed off if you didn’t meet a certain goal because it also affected their bonus. I would get yelled at for things that had nothing to do with me because the team wasn’t doing something.

When you parted ways with your last employers, what were your initial expectations and have they changed?

T: My expectations are always absolutely nothing with job hunting because all the jobs I’ve had came to me in unexpected ways. Ironically, the only job I’ve ever gotten just by applying was teleperformance. Every other good job, I either had to know someone, or someone talked to them for me.

How do you feel about that?

T: It’s annoying. I cannot stand the hiring process. I think there’s no evidence to support any of the processes being reflective of how someone would do at a company. It’s why people tend to hire someone they know. If everyone is writing their resumes and cover letters a certain way to get into a company, then everyone could be lying. I just wish that instead of resumes, cover letters, and interviews, people would say, “References only.” I just feel like we’re wasting time.
J: I agree with you. I don’t feel there is any integrity when it comes to hiring people. Certain publications often have several positions open in different editorials and I’m pretty sure HR knows you are applying to all of them. Sometimes I doubt whether they look at anything I send. Many people I know have been job hunting for months, so I was emotionally prepared to do certain things, like keep my current job.

One of the most challenging things for me with job hunting is setting up a routine in the interim. I suddenly had a lot more time and was unclear about my sense of direction.

T: Immediately upon stopping work, I knew I had to watch myself in terms of not doing anything with my time. It’s so easy to just spend my day watching TV.

One of the primary tips about job hunting is to make sure not to stay home every day. It’s such a trap [to J], but I feel like that isn’t such a trap for you. You’re very rigorous about staying active.

J: If I’m not active at all then I become really anxious, and I don’t want to be in that state. It’s really difficult in the morning because generally you start with your job. So I set up a morning routine where I wake up and breathe for several minutes. Then I’ll go to the gym, go running, or go to yoga class.

I think that’s much more preferable. When I’m hit with anxiety, it can immobilize me.

J: There was a week when I couldn’t do anything.
T: That was me this week. [Laughs]
J: I think you need to have one of those weeks. I was much better after that week passed.

What have you done with your resumes?

J: I make it look nice and chunky now. It used to be very simple. I didn’t know being fluent in Korean would be useful in any way.
T: I have like eight drafts of my resume. One thing I tried recently was changing my emphasis from the places I’ve worked at to the things I’d done. Maybe it was detrimental to focus on companies no one had heard of before. To be honest, no matter what I do with my resume, I will always feel arbitrary about the changes. For every advice you find online, someone else recommends the exact opposite.

It’s definitely hard to figure out what to leave in and out.

T: It’s so subjective.
J: I have a friend in Korea who works in HR, and sometimes she’d skip some applications just because she was having a bad day.
T: The thing that annoys me the most is when companies want to hire within but post the job anyway.

I think they’re often legally required to.

T: If you already have somebody in mind, please save us the energy and time.

If that’s the situation, they should reject applications immediately upon receipt so people can move on.

J: The post-interview stress is a different kind of stress entirely. If you never hear back, I don’t dwell on the hope.
T: The lack of response is the very frustrating.

At the same time, we know there are so many of us inundating these places with materials that it’s impossible to get back to everyone.

T: However, it’s still dehumanizing. It always makes me wonder if race or gender played a role in the silence, once they looked at my Linkedin profile.
J: It’s funny. I recently applied to a women’s publication and I noticed that the staff was all white. I thought maybe it was just this publication so I looked at all the other publications’ staff pages, and they were the same.

Speaking of Linkedin, what have you guys done with your web presence for job hunting purposes?

J: I’ve deleted a few things on Facebook.

Can strangers see it? You can change your settings.

J: I don’t know Facebook.
T: [Laughs]
J: In terms of Linkedin, I buttered it up quite a bite, but I haven’t gotten any opportunities from it.

I was only recruited once, and I was suspicious every step of the way. Turned out it was a real person. [Laughs] Have you tried Googling yourself?

T: My name is very common amongst white women. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m pretty buried as far as an online presence.
J: Whenever I Google myself, [this Korean idol] is the only result that comes up. I don’t have a huge web presence but I’m working on that.

I do get nervous sometimes about what might surface online as far as my work. But I don’t want to over-police myself either.

T: You still want to show your true self.

No one enjoys rejection, but I’m cognizant of showing who they would be working with at the same time.

T: Fitting into work culture, to me, is something that goes through a hiring supervisor’s mind. That’s where I think there’s danger of racism or sexism playing a role in hiring. When you say fit in, do you mean hiring people who look like you, or is it a personality you’re looking for?

After working for nearly three years straight, I did also have the time to do things that were impossible under a regular work schedule. Did you see that as a silver lining?

J: Outside of job stuff, I do have more time to think about my direction.

Which is not always pleasant, but an important thing to do.

J: It’s really grueling, but once you realize this is the chance to make your life better, I do think it’s helpful.

[To T] For example, you probably wouldn’t be volunteering right now if it wasn’t because of job hunting.

T: I’ve thought about that. Volunteering has been pleasantly helpful as far as improving my mood. There’s the altruism aspect of it, but it just feels good to have something to do other than applications, which becomes so exhausting when you don’t hear back from anyone.

Do you both have student debt?

J: For me, no. It would’ve been really hard for me to get a loan approved as an international student.
T: I consider myself pretty lucky because I had free tuition. I just had to pay room and board.

You had a scholarship?

T: Yeah, the Tisch scholarship.

You’ve never told me that before!

T: [Laughs] Because I still owed $60,000! I come from a low-income family, so this is a lot. Balancing desperation with optimism is important to me. One mistake I made after graduation was moving home out of desperation. I prefer the gritty optimism of being in New York and still going after things that I want.

Do you think baby boomers have certain misconceptions about job hunting in the current climate?

T: Categorizing millennials as entitled people makes me constantly evaluate myself. It pisses me off because you must have a certain degree of entitlement to experience social mobility. You have to believe you deserve a good job in an industry where you want to succeed. But there is another type of entitlement assigned to millennials that we don’t want to do the work to get there.
J: My dad always says, “You guys are always looking for shortcuts.”

My parents were often confused as to why I stayed at my previous job for so long. They felt I was clearly not being paid enough, when in reality I averaged a very solid salary for that industry, at this time.

T: There is the perception that taking certain steps will guarantee success, but that’s not the case anymore.

Maybe it is, but it only caters to a small fraction of the job models out there.

J: My dad worked for a really big company where there was a very specific step-by-step structure. People who went through the same structure did in fact do well, so I think it’s a cultural thing as well.

Has job hunting made you think about what you want to do in life?

T: [Pause] I think about steps to take to get to where I want to be. I’ve known since I was 15 that I wanted to move to New York. The hard part is there are so many writers out here that you constantly evaluate whether you measure up. Practically, you have to have money and no one wants to pay you for writing these days. I’ve never needed time to think about what I want to do, but I did with regards to ways to support myself that won’t damage my mental health.

Have financial difficulties changed your level of contentment when you are working on your art?

T: [Pause] Sort of, but I’m trying to get out of the headspace of desperation which leads me to do things that I hate. No dollar amount will ever be worth more than mental sanity.
J: That’s a really good outlook. As I’m job hunting, I am figuring out what I want to do with writing. I know I don’t want to write about Justin Bieber’s butt, you know what I mean? I wasn’t proud of a lot of the stuff I was writing. Now, I’m trying to think about how my writing can help someone.

I actually think I disagree. Despite what I’d written to make a living, there’s still someone out there who wanted to read it, and I shouldn’t judge them for liking what they liked.

J: I think our experiences were different because my articles didn’t get a lot of hits, so I really felt like I just wrote it for $8.
T: Same.

I know what you mean, but I never feel bad for doing what I needed to do to pay my bills, so I could do the work I really want to do.

J: I think my parents would like me to go to grad school.

Are they going to pay for it? [Laughs] If the answer is yes, you should definitely do grad school.

J: [Laughs] No. [To T] Do you think about grad school?
T: I’ve been thinking about grad school ever since I graduated. I’ve filled out so many half-assed applications only to wonder, “Should I just keep trying to find work?” A former professor refused to write me a recommendation letter for grad school because she felt I was using education as a crutch. I resented her for it, but I took what she said to heart. Am I considering grad school because I want to, or because education is comforting for me?

I think a lot of people grapple with that. There were times where finding a new job or opportunity wasn’t necessarily about that, but about taking certain anxieties away from me. Now I can see the difference.

T: The good news is our brains are getting more cognitive growth as we get closer to 30. Maybe by then, you will have less compulsivity. To your point, grappling with the real reasons I do things has come up a lot during this period.

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