1. Become Indispensable or Die a Long and Lonely Death
One bedrock piece of professional advice that is called on quite often is “Become indispensable!” Gurus of every shape and size will religiously point out that one must matter to one’s organization – or forever be one mistake or financial/hierarchical caprice away from the chopping block. So the self-help nabobs will tell you to become an expert on something, to develop clever little software that save everyone time, to volunteer for unpleasant assignments, to learn how to tell what higher-ups really want when they make vague noises in important meetings.
And they are right. I’ve seen this happen time and again in the engineering world. The ones who really want to stick around find ways to become more useful than is required. I never did this, because deep in my heart I didn’t want to be at any of my engineering jobs. I was just there to collect a paycheck and do what they told me[i]. When it came time for layoffs, promotions and pay raises, guess what happened!
This was probably a missed opportunity. At this stage I am pretty well isolated. I have extricated myself from the demands of the rat race, and of my social life in Chicago, but in the process, I have created a situation in which no one really needs me for anything. Sure I can be pleasant to be around, and even fun at times, but I don’t do anything for anyone that they can’t do for themselves[ii].
David Simon always talks about the subjects of his TV and writing as “people the economy does not need.” I am beginning to feel like one of those people. I’m just not needed. Jon Doe stays long hours at his unpleasant, unappreciative job and groans “Well I have to do it, nobody else knows how.” This may look pathetic from an external perspective, but Jon is glowing inside with secret pride. “If I wasn’t here this place would fall apart.” He thinks. Meanwhile, Jon’s friends and family wonder just what Jon’s deal is, and why he’s willing to sacrifice his time with them for more time at the office.
I don’t yet know how to become indispensable in unincorporated life. One can become indispensable not just professionally, but in social interactions as well. This is something I must learn. From my reading about conversation, body language and other human interaction, it seems that confident body language, conversational choices, a warm attentive manner and unique perspectives are all key.
I had a chance at this some time ago – I was pulled into conversation with a woman I would not have had the courage to approach myself. I bungled the interaction, choosing the wrong words and selling myself short[iii], which is what brought on this whole glum revelation that I don’t functionally matter to anyone in any significant way.
Which is ridiculous. I have a lot to offer. I’ve been told I’m smart, I have very unique tastes and contrarian perspectives, multiple hobbies and interests and an above-average grasp of how to use words. I just don’t know how to translate this into “Wow, [I or we] really need to hold onto that guy.”
And yet, an immutable choice lies before me – become indispensable, or die a long and lonely death.
2. Putting Myself Out There – or – The Swift and Inevitable Fall Back to Earth
I actually wrote the above some time ago. Since then I have begun the process of “putting myself out there”. In doing so, the first thing that has struck me, very hard and very unpleasantly, is the difference between being “On Sabbatical” and “Unemployed”.
“Sabbatical” implies choice, refuge, purpose, peace, power. In the early months I felt great. I had saved away more than enough money, I had a number of projects I wanted to work seriously on, and I felt immediate relief from my unhappy job and unpleasant living situation. Explaining to people that I had up and quit my high-paying grown-up job to explore my passions without structure was tough sometimes, but it didn’t matter all that much to me. My imagination was a great unharvested land, and I was setting out, basket in hand, to reap what rich fruits it would bear.
“Unemployed” implies powerlessness, pathetitude, being unwanted and unloved, a statistic, a greasy and rumpled man, drinking nips in the library and pulling discarded lottery scratch-offs and half-smoked cigarettes out of public trash cans. UNEMPLOYED stares back at you from every official form you fill out. It is a ten-letter prison, far too small to hold your hopes, dreams and subtle positive qualities. Here is one who is not part of functional society. Here is one who fell through the cracks.
Is it a matter of the mind? I have recently found myself assaulted by the needling worries and anxieties that I had mostly escaped in the first 7 months. Since I have started “putting myself out there” I have found myself juggling emails and making long, costly drives back and forth to Providence. I got a parking ticket in Boston, I tried to sign up for health insurance and hit roadblocks, and I got a notice for jury duty in my hometown.
I’m right back in the same mode I was in during my actual, involuntary Chicago unemployment in 2011[iv] – going to the library and feeling like an insignificant insect in the eyes of potential employers[v]. I’m forever scanning the room for corners where I can make necessary phone calls without disturbing the other patrons or drawing the ire of library security.
I’m scrambling so hard to get everything squared away and make myself presentable that I’m losing the time and energy to do the passionate, creative writing and music I thought might carry me upwards in the first place.
How did this happen? One day I felt like a brave and burgeoning artist. The next I felt like an unspeakable, parasitic bum. I fell hard, and I fell fast.
I will disclose that I’ve been tempted to crawl back to engineering, if only for long enough to repair my finances enough to do this again. It would feel like defeat though, or at least a very painful compromise. The schadenfreude would flow – FormerConformer bites the dust!
Starting as a writer with nothing but a blog and a review or two on a very esoteric heavy metal website is an uphill battle. But perhaps some positive results will buoy my spirits, and make me feel like I am more than my degree. I would love nothing more than an affirmation that my vision and adeptness can be indispensable, and that I have worth as a human being.
[i] However, I am not a complete lazy asshole. I will go above and beyond for things that matter to me. I used to make sacrifices for my job in college at the student center, the last job I actually enjoyed working. I felt as though I was valued there. In my personal projects, I can often be an obsessive perfectionist.
[ii] Is this why people become parents? Or failing that, workaholics?
[iii] She turned out to be an eminent young writer on the Providence scene. I felt like a colossal doofus when I found that out.
[iv] Except I’m not collecting that comforting unemployment check this time.
[v] I also joined OKCupid, so this time I can also feel like an insignificant insect in the eyes of potential matches.