21 August 2013

What Do You Do?

I hear it immediately: the hesitation.

The eternal Washington, D.C., question hangs in the thick, swampy summer air like a funhouse specter: "what do you do?" The specter follows the underemployed from networking events to backyard barbecues, from baseball games to Saturday nights-on-the-town. It contaminates the water supply, slips through the useless charcoal filter on the overpriced pitcher, and permeates the bodies of all who travel in certain circles. If you stick around long enough, if you do what you do, you parrot it back in perma-loop, second only to "hello" as the interpersonal greeting of choice.

You are intended to have your response/defense ready for the quick draw: I do something important. I make policy. I break policy. I serve drinks but I intern at somewhere special. I am a student. I have started my own business. I rule a small island nation.

Unemployment and underemployment pull back your sharp-edged words and your confidence. They put you in a conversational de-militarized zone. Off limits.

You are not allowed to be looking or uncertain. Not from a place of weakness. If you are -- which we all are at all times in this town, unless we have submitted to stagnation or retirement -- you are not encouraged to admit this to anyone but close friends. D.C. places a palpable stigma on the professionally undead, for they are known to want. They hunger for job leads, contacts, help, insider info, something, anything, please. They email regularly to tell you they still exist.

So what do I do? I reconsider my career path. I rely heavily on my support network. I write new songs. I visit the museums. I bicycle to Rockville, or to Falls Church, or simply through the National Mall at night. I consider moving to another city. I have lunch with my mother and grandmother. I fantasize about an end to the hesitation. I attend free concerts and outdoor film showings. I interview for jobs. I network extensively. I grab the $5 tickets to the baseball game. I invent new, creative cocktails in my kitchen. This is my life, and I am living it.

I feel it immediately: the hesitation. The desperation. The embarrassment. The scramble to justify existence for this networking event, this backyard barbecue, this over-loud bar, this self-important city.

"I am figuring out what comes next," I offer meekly. "So, what do you do?"

13 August 2013

An Employment Narrative

Looking for work is frustrating. The constant quest of long-term underemployment and unemployment is soul-crushing. All too often, we feel compelled to bear this burden in solitude. I say, no longer. Many have followed the same rotten path that I now tread, and it should not be a shameful one. The time has come for me to come forward with my stories.

Let us begin with a brief summary.
  • I left a good government job in the fall of 2011 to pursue a dream: exploring another country with my wife while she completed a fellowship. In the dream, our sojourn to South Africa would be life-affirming and empowering. I would build unique, emerging-market experience while we lived the good ex-pat life. Reality was far less simple.
  • In August 2012, I wrote a piece about my professional struggles in South Africa for The Billfold, entitled "Things I've Learned While Looking for Work in South Africa." I discussed the perils of South Africa's broken immigration system and the Catch-22 in which I sat: I needed a job to get a work visa, and I needed a work visa to get a job. The piece was published under a pseudonym due to concerns that my frank words might harm my then-pending visa application. I need not have worried.
  • I left South Africa in March 2013 in a cloud of frustration. The South African system had failed me. My employer -- and the used-car salesman of an "immigration practitioner" with whom they had set me up -- had let me down. I was done with the bullshine, so I returned to Washington, D.C., to find the next step.
  • I promptly spent the next five months on a D.C. roller-coaster of informational interviews, job applications, rejection, and the eternal so-what-do-you-do. I am not out of the woods yet, but I am on the edge. And from this vantage point I can see the forest through the trees.
Over the coming weeks I will post a few brief essays about my 2013 job search and what it has taught me. Be warned that I am no guru; I am merely an introspective and curious soul. My frankness in a public setting is designed with a simple message: you are not alone. I am not alone. I look forward to sharing my experience with you.