Stories From Unemployment – 4

Graduation Cake Guy image by CarbonNYC.  Click image to see his entire photostream.

"Graduation Cake Guy" image by CarbonNYC. Click image to see his entire photostream.

Earlier this week, I heard a news report stating the last time the national unemployment rate was this bad was back in the early 1980’s.  I graduated from college in 1983, at the height of the Reagan recession.  I had no interest in pursuing a graduate degree, and there were very few recruiters who visited our campus that year.  Consequently, I found myself at the end of my senior year saying goodbye to my friends and heading back to my parent’s home with no job prospects and no idea what to do next.

My time back home only lasted about a week before my mother was counseling me, “Douglas, I love you, but there’s nothing here for you anymore.  You need to go back to Alfred.  Get an apartment.  Get a part-time job.  Take some art course if you’d like, but keep in contact with your profession there.”

And that’s just what I did.

The Fifth Year of College

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about that extra year I spent at Alfred University.  I supported myself working at the sub shop, selling some short-run custom pottery pieces, and working as a lab assistant.  I even did some substitute teaching in my old high school during the Christmas break – the horror.

When I graduated from high school, I had a dual college prep / art major.  I decided to pursue a degree in engineering for the financial security that career offered.  You can always be a full-time engineer and a part-time artist, I figured, but it doesn’t work so well the other way around. The price of that promised security was four solid years of math, science, and technical course work that left me feeling empty in spite of my academic success.

I made it through my college years by taking every art option I could.  I even discovered a model design and mold making elective that could be counted for either art or engineering credit.  Wally Higgins, the instructor of that industrial pottery arts course, didn’t fit comfortably into either school.  His class was considered too rigid by the artists, too low-tech by the engineers.  I was drawn to him as a kindred spirit.  I even took my senior thesis under him.

When I returned for my fifth year, Wally accepted me as a lab assistant, and helped me get into a number of upper level art courses most engineering students couldn’t access.  I took advanced drawing, neon, sculpture, and glass courses.  Here at last was my opportunity to unleash my creativity.  I should have been in heaven.

Instead, I was miserable.  I judged myself a failure.  All my college friends were either working or enrolled in graduate school.  Why didn’t I work harder to find a job?  Why didn’t I apply for grad school? I allowed myself no satisfaction in my art work.  I’m an engineer, I thought.  I don’t belong in these classes.

The only accomplishments I valued were the dozens of job applications I generated over the long winter months.  But even that work was frustrating: I rarely received acknowledgement the letters had been received.  It was seven months before I got my first job interview.

The tide finally broke my way in May of 1984.  I landed two job offers, and left with great relief for my first job choice in Syracuse, happy to have the long year at Alfred finally behind me.

It took several years before I realized just how badly I had missed the opportunities of that fifth year.  I was supporting myself and doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, but my self-judgements turned a potential heaven into a hell.  No one considered me a failure but me, still that was all it took.  I cut myself off from the support and friendship that was mine for the asking.

I looked past all I had, and focused on what I felt I lacked.  I reaped the bitter harvest that I sowed.

All This Has Happened Before…

And now, twenty-five years later, I’ve been tempted to fall back into the same trap again.

I learned Friday from the hiring manager for the job I wrote about in the last post that his company just went through a down-sizing earlier that week.  They’re filling that position with an internal candidate from another division to avoid one more lay-off.

He was very kind to call me, and I felt well-treated through the whole experience, but as the weekend dragged on the stormy weather outside mirrored my internal frame of mind.  Now what do I do? I brooded.  There are other applications out, but no real prospects on the horizon.

Thankfully, the quote in my planner Monday morning helped me start to turn my thinking around:

I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow.  It is dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us. — Dorothy Dix

When I stopped and took stock of all we have, instead of what I lack, I couldn’t help but feel deep gratitude, and peace, and hope.

I enjoy the support of my family and we’ve grown closer over the past month than ever before.  We’re making ends meet financially with the full family’s cooperation and a little assistance from the government.  This experience has also helped me to see how many good friends I have, far more than I would have guessed before the lay-off.

For the first time since I took that first job in Syracuse, the possibilities for my career are wide open.  I limited myself during that fifth year at Alfred by thinking of myself as an unemployed engineer.  In fact, I further limited myself by thinking of that time as my fifth year of college instead of as the first year in my career.

And the world I experienced mirrored the internal thoughts I held closest to my heart.

So, some changes are in order.  This will be the last post titled “Stories From Unemployment.”  I’m excited for what the future holds, and unwilling to carry the “unemployed” label anymore.  Any suggestions you have for new titles for this series would be appreciated, but please don’t suggest the dreaded “seeking opportunities elsewhere.”

Where will my career go – writing, consulting, free lancing, teaching, full-time employment, or some blend of each?  I don’t honestly know at this point.  I’m on a journey of discovery. But I’ll find the answer with the help of my friends and our extended network.  These relationships will show me the way.  They’re the most important asset I have on this journey.

Ultimately, our relationships are all we truly have, or need.

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Stories From Unemployment 3

This post is dedicated to my friend David.  I hope you realize how many friends you have in your “network.”

In Praise of Networking

Exactly one month to the day now since I was laid-off.  I had my first phone interview last week regarding a great local job with a Fortune 500 company.  The position looks like it would be a natural career progression for me.  I’ve been very careful not to let myself get my hopes up, but I can’t help being honest here:

I would love this job, I would rock in that position, and it would exceed all my job search goals: a growing company in emerging technology with better pay and benefits, and they’re located a mile closer to my house.

If I do end up getting this job, it will be because of networking.  I have to admit, I’ve never been comfortable with the term “networking” before.  I always viewed it in negative terms; I thought of it as pushing myself on others to get what I wanted, like a sleazy used car salesman.  I don’t know anyone important and I’m not good at networking anyway, I thought.

But the experiences of the past month have shown me just how wrong I’ve been concerning networking.  It’s not using others to get what you want, it’s really a two-way street.  Neighbors helping neighbors.  Friends indeed helping each other out.

The phone-interview job is a good case in point.  I wouldn’t have even considered applying for it, having been disappointed by the same company on three different occasions in the past four years.  But two friends separately encouraged me to check out the company’s job board, and this position had been posted just two days prior to my search.

One friend made some inquires and learned who the hiring manager is.  She convinced a former colleague to put in a good word for me and to give the manager my resume.  Two other friends that work for the company took my resume to the site HR group.  They even gave me advice on everything from salary ranges to places to research the job’s and company’s details.  Without their help, I never would have gotten the phone interview.

I realize now that I was too proud, and too weak, to allow others to help me.  I can do it on my own, was my unconscious motto.  I didn’t believe others would be willing to help me.  I cut myself off from experiencing true friendship.  I don’t deserve their kindness, was my underlying fear.

But as my network of friends has reached out on my behalf, something miraculous is happening: we’re all being blessed in more ways than we could have imagined.  It’s the pay-it-forward principle – you always receive more than you can give away.  They’re blessed for being a blessing.

Even me, in my current “weakened” position, am finding that I have a great deal to offer.  And as I share what I have, my optimism, my gratitude, and my faith, it’s returned to me a hundred times over.  I can’t begin to express how wonderful the lessons of this past month have been.  My real priorities have become clear.  I will never fear networking with my friends again, nor doubt how many friends we truly have in this big, wide world.

One final “networking” story:

We received an anonymous card in the mail postmarked “Zanesville, OH.”  It contained an inspirational message and $45 in cash.  It was signed, “Praying our blessing forward!  God Bless!”

Thank you my friends.  You gave me a chance to be a generous father to my children, who each had a need for part of that money.  I shared your gift with them.  It was exactly what they needed, and exactly what I needed too.

God bless you, too.

Friends

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

It’s Friday morning here in China and we’re nearly half-way through our trip already.  It’s true what Gretchen Rubin noted in her one minute movie, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

Yesterday we visited a long-time supplier (at least for China) in their new factory in Jiangmen.  My friend KM works for this company.  He was one of the first people I met on my first trip to China, and we’ve grown close over the course of the past few years.

KM and his family live in Hong Kong, but he spends much of each work week at his company’s pottery factories in southern China.  KM is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese as well as English, and he has a wonderful talent for photography.  Many of the pictures I use to highlight these posts have come from KM’s Picasa account.

When I was travelling more frequently to China, I could always rely on KM.  We spent countless hours together, working at the factories as well as travelling between sites and, of course, eating (most Chinese companies insist on taking you out to a fancy lunch and dinner when you’re visiting them, but that’s another post).

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Over the span of my visits, KM and I grew to respect each other, and out of that respect our friendship grew.  We found many similarities despite our different cultures.  We share many of the same struggles in our work and our home lives.  We both enjoy travelling and hiking.  We’ve even worked for the same company at different times in the past.

On one of my early trips to China, I got very sick with bronchitis and couldn’t continue on my agenda.  KM rearranged my airline reservation and helped to get me to Hong Kong and safely home.  On my last visit, he arranged a hike for us in the mountains of Hong Kong; it was blistering hot and the trail was steep and difficult, but the view was amazing and I loved every minute of it.

We’ve kept in touch over the past year and a half via e-mail, but written words can only communicate so much.  A lot has changed in the past 18 months, and I was really looking forward to catching up with KM yesterday.  Unfortunately, while we were physically together for much of the day, the schedule of the visit and the number of people involved in our meetings prevented us from having anything but superficial conversations.

KM self-portrait

KM self-portrait

I went to sleep last night disappointed with myself for not making more of an effort to connect with my friend.  I was still reflecting on that disappointment at breakfast this morning as David, my friend and coworker who’s visiting China for the first time, was telling me about his experience at the Chinese foot massage.

“Those girls were chatting up a storm all evening, talking about the same things that the girls back home do.  Then the one that was doing my feet said something to me without gesturing or inflection, and I did what she wanted.  Our translator was surprised and asked if I understood what she said, and I told him that after so many years of being married, you just know what a woman’s thinking.”

And then he said, “People really are the same, no matter where you go.”

I’m frequently asked back home if I like to travel to China, and my answer is a guarded “yes”.  There are many pros and cons to a business trip like this, but the final deciding factor, the icing on the cake, is the friends I’ve made here. 

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Image by KM Cheng, Hong Kong

Everywhere I turn, I find good people here.  Hard-working people, fun-loving people.  They have the same hopes and dreams and worries that we all do.  Yes, there are a few bad people over here who have put melamine in the milk or lead in the toy paint, but then again there are a few bad people back home who made predatory loans that have caused some major economic troubles.

People really are the same, no matter where you go.

And I’m grateful that KM understands, as I do, that our friendship will continue.