A SuperViva Exclusive
Unemployment RulesA tale of life transformation by and about Melea Seward
I disembarked from American Airlines Flight 30 at JFK. It was 7:48 am; I had been in Los Angeles the day before, slept fitfully on the plane in close quarters with my fellow 209 rumpled, navy-blue suited, white-collared, pin-striped, trouser-socked, wrinkle-resistant, mid-to-high-level, Blackberry-wielding ambassadors.We returned to New York with our spoils—information, sales, new relationships, reconnaissance, ideas, spreadsheets, whatever it is that those who broker in the knowledge economy buy, sell, and trade. A brisk walk through the airport to the taxi-stand would have us looking wrinkle-free and red-eye sharp. The scene was sleepy, but bustling. Everyone was heading to Wall Street, midtown, Times Square: work. While standing in the taxi line, I groggily wondered how many of us were passionate about how we spent our time, our lives. It was a scene I had been part of so many times before; but this time, it seemed kind of futile and, well, feudal. I smiled wanly, thinking of myself as a baron or a bishop—giving my energy to a lord in exchange for health insurance, stock options, protection from dis-ease. My taxi, my turn. I tossed my bags into the backseat, got in behind them, impulsively thought, “The Cyclone: Coney Island,” and decisively said, “42nd n’ 5th: midtown.”
Ever feel like work requires you to stifle your personal impulses, goals, interests, desires? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that work must be all wood nymphs and light. But when work impedes, rather than supports your goals, it’s time to shake things up, to look around, to take inventory and take charge.
I had a successful job; some might call it a career, even. I was monogamously employed for going on eight years, my entire adult-post-education-life. I traveled a fair amount to sexy cities, had an expense account, met interesting, smart people, and was the intellectual support staff for academics, theorists, authors. I lived in New York City as the Sociology Editor for a major publishing company. I was able to work in the realm of ideas and had everything I thought to want in a career. For this Midwestern girl with trailer-park roots, I had, by all accounts, ‘made it’.
Excel, as in Microsoft spreadsheet software, allows individuals and teams and businesses to manipulate data into complex matrices and make sense out of seemingly disparate bits of information. You probably already knew that. As a math-phobic Editor, I had only thought of Excel as Microsoft Word’s brightly-colored neighbor. They were buddies; just hanging out together in the same applications folder. My boss had this idea that we should, at least temporarily, be less idea-driven and more market-driven, so all thirteen editors were instructed to take our discipline-specific fiefdoms and lay the next five years of our time and money-to-be-invested and earned, into columns and rows—into one Excel spreadsheet called, My Five-Year Plan. I mapped out the explicit details of my work—the books I’d be working on, the authors I’d be editing, projected book sales, present-and-future projects, my travel schedule…for five years. 1,250 work days—that’s15,000 hours, assuming a 60-hour work-week. At the bottom-right hand corner, a number called ‘projected income’ appeared. I now knew exactly how much my energy, time, life was worth. And I implicitly knew how much protection from dis-ease I would get in return.
Let me stop for a second and say this: everyone should do this. In fact, don’t even finish reading this article, just imagine your life on the trajectory you are on now and map out your five-year matrix. I’ll be here when you get back.
[Waiting: Reading the paper, thinking about what to make for dinner, wondering if I’ll make it to the gym, calculating how much money I would save if I just bought the subscription to The New York Times rather than buying it from the deli every day...] Okay, you’re back. So how do you feel? Hopefully, you feel good, focused, driven, clear-headed, assured.
When I finished my five-year plan, I felt sweaty, clammy, hot, like I’d eaten toxic tuna.
I had a meeting scheduled with my boss to discuss my five-year plan the next day. I went in, strapped myself to the leather-bound chair across from his desk and was open, having no idea how to successfully get through this meeting and simultaneously acknowledge the truth lodged painfully in my gut. I was in the moment; sweaty, but in the moment.
He said, “Your five-year-plan looks good. Ambitious, yet imminently doable.” I smiled. I nodded. I exuded confidence and presence and then I shook my head, looked down, looked inward, and found some authenticity. I took a breath, looked at him and said, “It was an interesting exercise. The spreadsheet helped me realize that I don’t think it aligns with MY five-year plan.” He looked at me, quizzically. And I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think this is how I want to spend my next five years.” And I smiled.
And just like that, I quit my job—with nothing lined up, no job to fall back on, lots of ideas about what I might like to do, but no direction. No plan. I gave myself two months to finish things up and then on to whatever happens after this.
For the next hour and a half, I felt like I finally understood that ridiculous axiom about weight miraculously lifting off of one’s shoulders. Elation receded, though, when I started to tell friends, colleagues, authors, my family the news and saw that look of fear, disdain and worry creep not-so-subtly over their faces when they realized there was no ‘and’ or ‘but’ connecting the ‘I quit my job’ sentence to my next job, step, career choice, opportunity. “What are you going to do?” they would ask. I didn’t even have a narrative yet about why I was unfulfilled or what I was looking for but wasn’t getting. On the surface, my career choice seemed reasonable. Success is often defined as one’s reality becoming aligned with one’s goals. The trouble is, often by the time we achieve success, our goals have changed because we’ve changed, learned, grown. I was beginning to recognize that competency and proficiency and even talent in my job, work, and career were different than desire. Because you’re good at something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should continue to do it if it isn’t satisfying you in some way. Anyone who’s been in a successful, functioning, yet hum-drum relationship knows that. Right?
What I knew: spending all of my energy as the intellectual support staff for others would only hinder me exploring my options. I needed to have the not-knowing experience as an integral facet of the process of discovery. As career changers, though, we’re not supposed to not-know. We’re supposed to take the Meyers Briggs Keirsey Temperament Sorter Strong Interest Inventory until we know, with social-science certainty, the color of our parachute.
I also knew that I had limited resources—some savings to be sure, most of it saved for retirement. But I was 29, and in excellent health—perhaps I could use the money to travel while I shortened my life-span; I’d take up smoking and always walk against the light. I knew that if I got a replacement full-time job out of fear, I would find myself in a new organization, situation, and circumstance, coming home from some business trip with the other ambassadors, barons, and bishops, ultimately filling out my new lord’s 5-year plan.
So, after the two months’ notice expired, I was on my own—with nowhere to be. After a few weeks of leisure, I realized this: work structures your time and your money and your energy and your sleep schedule and your eating times and the route you take each day and those work-imposed habits structure your interactions, the people you know, the things you see, the ideas you think—your experience. And this collection of experiences shape the way you view the world. Alter those day-to-day experiences, and your worldview begins to shift. And when your worldview begins to shift and you’re unemployed, but no lotto-winner, people begin to think you’re crazy. And you start to wonder if they are right.
Human beings quickly adapt to new circumstances. On my way to or from a museum, the park, an informational interview with someone doing policy, law, or non-profit work—occupations I thought I wanted to pursue—I’d squeeze onto a packed train forgetting about terms like ‘rush-hour’ and wonder, “where is everyone going?” I wore the same thing everyday: jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, suede jacket, comfy-shoes and called it my ‘unemployment outfit’. After a month, I wasn’t getting any closer to understanding anything about myself or my future or career choices. I was feeling pressure—a paradox of choice. The multitude of options, of possibilities, was overwhelming. I quit my career and I had limited time to find THE ONE--that one career/job choice that would make me Happy. Doing something less than mind-blowingly perfect equaled Failure. My mission: find meaningful and fabulous work, fast. With the verve and tenacity of an internet dater on the rebound, I trolled the web: Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, idealist.org, Gradschools.com. November first came and went, but my bank balance didn’t swell like it had on the first day of every month for the previous ninety-two, and I began to worry. Really worry. And it was getting cold; it’s much more enjoyable to be unemployed in fall or spring. Hmm…maybe I should move somewhere warm…and cheap. Maybe everyone is right; this is crazy.
So, I decided to create my own structure—a way to shape my experiences, a way to organize my time, my energy, and make my money last. I had to make rules. I remembered that business trip to LA and the red-eye flight and the cab ride to work—stifling the impulse to see the early-morning light at Coney Island. And I thought this: my work-life failed to support my life-life when my personal impulses were stifled in the interest of professional success. So, what if, as an antidote to my unsupportive work-life—in the interest of supporting my life-life—I followed my impulses every day? And then I thought, if I do that, I will be playing host to sexually transmitted diseases, immersed in debt, facing the possibility of a life in prison, and/or maintaining a closet full of bourgeoisie shoes. Well, none of those options had any appeal, but what if I followed just one impulse per day?
The paradox of mandating a directive to follow an impulse, an inherently spontaneous activity, was pulse-quickening. My unemployment rules gave me structure, kept me out of a feudal system, and unprotected from dis-ease. They were scary and simple and looked like this:
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Melea Seward is a former Editor and current writer living in New York City in a domestic partnership with her cat named after a Greek hero. She has come to realize that work, for her, anyway, is a series of inter-related experiences and obsessions and interests, rather than something akin to finding THE ONE. She eventually accepted a full-time job not because she had to, but because she was compelled to. However that passed and now Melea is works as a consultant-of-all-trades, in brainstorming, strategy, experiences, unique events, and more. Get inspired by learning more about Melea Seward.