“There’s something about string patio lights,” I idly thought. Something about the way they criss-crossed over the space like glass stars. And strange how a larger bulb transformed Christmas lights from slightly shitty to magical. A beautiful barrier between silhouettes of tall palm trees and a small group of Venice locals gathered for an open mic.
Get me out… Into the nighttime. Four walls won’t hoooold me toniiiight.
The young musician’s eyes closed tight as he sang the Michael Jackson lyrics.
If this town… is just an apple… then let me take aaaaa bite.
I pulled my oversized denim jacket around my body and closed my eyes for a moment, too. I wanted to savor this Los Angeles night and 4th of July weekend. To enjoy the city I fought hard to stay in but rarely experienced anymore outside of my kitchen counter, coffee shops and job interviews. There was no time or money for it. I felt like a foreigner and almost a fraud.
For similar reasons, the Google doc I created for open mic material remained empty. After having not written anything in 6 months, I planned to use it as an excuse to write something worth sharing. However, every ounce of my creativity was suffocated by as much freelance work as I could find, going on job interviews, following up on invoices and recovering with candy and TV from the three.
A year prior, only a few weeks before being laid off, I posted an article about being settled into my life in LA. Now, I wasn’t sure if it was perfect irony, karma or a cruel joke that life felt quite the opposite.
If they say, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’
Just then the patio lights swayed back and forth, the bulbs dancing to the beat. The singer’s lips remained pressed against the mic, but his eyes opened and darted left to right. Even without partaking in the free wine, my internal equilibrium shifted, and I looked around at the group of strangers to confirm that everyone else felt the same. We quickly consulted Twitter for the answer.
A 7.2 earthquake. The 2nd big quake in 2 days.
My Personal Earthquake
The earth’s tectonic plates are always slowly moving; however, sometimes friction causes them to get stuck at their edges. The continued movement combined with the built up pressure at the jammed edges force the rocks to finally break, causing an earthquake. The spot where they broke underground is called the focus, and the spot above ground is the epicenter. Energy is released in waves that produce the shaking we feel.
I want to say that the epicenter of my personal earthquake happened in July 2018 when my company performed a mass layoff. That would be the easy way out. But it actually occurred 6 months later on the phone with my father. I pushed him to the edge.
“You’ve tarnished my trust in you,” he said over the phone as I sat on my living room floor on a Monday morning. My heart dropped straight down to the focus of the quake and shattered as I realized I had tarnished my trust in myself, too.
As I mentioned in my last article, I received hundreds of rejections for Product Manager jobs due largely to the fact that the role has changed significantly since I entered my career. Companies are now looking for engineers while I am a Marketing major and right-brained creative at heart. I lacked the technical know-how to meet job requirements but was short on experience to land anything more creative. Come to find out, a lifestyle blog doesn’t cut it in a saturated job market.
In the meantime, making money became an urgent issue so I entered the world of freelance work: pitching prospective clients, providing content marketing on a monthly basis and surprising myself by making the most money I ever have through my own pure hustle.
Unfortunately, it also included low rates in an effort to secure work, technical roadblocks that cost me hours and an unrealistic sense of my own output. However, I kept moving forward despite the hangups, not fully recognizing the force of the friction until rocks gave way, i.e. my dad tallied up the number of money transfers to my account.
“Please give me one more month in LA,” I begged. I needed to regain his trust – and my own. I prayed for clarity because I struggled to decipher where passion and perseverance ended and where my ego and stubbornness started. Figuring out an answer to all of it consumed most of my daily thoughts.
10 Life Lessons from a Year of Unemployment
Between crafting clever cover letters and microwaving half-price Halo Top at the end of long days, I learned a few things.
1. Be willing to bet on yourself. And surround yourself with people who would bet on you, too.
“I would bet money on Annie,” my friend, Megan, said over dinner on a visit to Venice. Megan is one of my best friends from high school, and the Navy pilot I described in Doing Something Bigger Than Yourself. As she consumed more wine, the amount she would bet on me escalated. “I would bet all of my money on Annie!” she insisted by the end of dinner.
I decided the next day that if Megan was willing to bet on me, I was, too. I wanted to see a return on my wager. Besides, there was a lot at stake. It fueled me during many moments that I felt like I wasn’t enough with the constant question being, “Would you bet money on your personal success?” The answer should be yes.
2. Work backwards from your ultimate goal with a variety of paths to get there.
If the career that I had dedicated the last 6 years of my life to wasn’t right for me, then what was? Halfway through my journey, I consulted my friend, Jason, on how to approach this question, and he had me start by thinking big picture: What was my ultimate goal? From there, you scale backwards to shorter and shorter term actions.
My ultimate goal: I want to use my artistic abilities to help others. I want to tell stories that shed light on the silver lining of adversity.
My steps to get there included “Work that pays my bills and doesn’t suck my soul” with three options. As I move from option to option, it feels less like failing and more like checking action items off of a to-do list.
Example of my doc: Annie’s Life Goals
3. There’s always a way. As annoying as that is.
“There’s always a way” was scrawled on the first page of the book that I picked up off my bedroom floor while cleaning my room last week. A year ago the bestseller, The Third Door was a new favorite, and I had taken the author’s advice by finding him on the sidewalk before a book signing, pitching him to work with me and being his first hire. Now picking it up, I wanted to burn it, along with memories of completing his remedial tasks for less than a TaskRabbit.
However, I learned something valuable about finding a way on a more micro-level that still helps me today. When faced with a task that I thought I couldn’t complete, he would challenge me to list at least 3 ways that it could get done.
For example: A book shipment needs to be picked up and paid for:
- I could pay and he can Venmo me back
- He could give me a blank check
- I could call and give them his credit card information
He was right; there is always a way.
4. The “starving artist” thing doesn’t work for a reason.
Hemingway claimed that one of his favorite ways to consume art at the museum was while hungry. Apparently when he couldn’t afford his whiskey and lavish meals, he was better able to absorb the art.
I call bullshit.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamored by the starving artist ideology which continues to be fueled by podcast episodes about crowd-surfing entrepreneurs willing to live off Ramen in pursuit of their dream. I bought into the idea that the pressure to survive could push one to create gold. But I’ve learned first-hand that’s not how it works. At least in a sustainable way. While Hemingway may have been able to appreciate great art hungry, I doubt he was able to truly produce it that way. Because Maslow had it right.
When you’re too busy hanging out at the bottom of the pyramid, it’s nearly impossible to make it to the top. Because of this, I’ve determined that what works best for me is a full-time job to fulfill foundational needs, freeing up mental energy for my passion projects.
5. Write down whether each day is a win.
“Annie, get a notebook,” John said over the phone. He was the first person I called following the “one more month” promise with my dad. “And each day this month, write down whether the day was a win or a loss and why.”
A small, orange notebook with a pink felt tip pen was waiting for me at the gym that afternoon with quotes on grit written on the first page. Every day that month I followed his instructions, and I realized that if you start the day knowing you want it to be a win, it typically is, whether that means applying to five jobs, feeling good about an interview or simply working out with friends.
6. All we have is our word and our time.
Setting my pride aside and leaning on the LA community I had spent 4 years building became a top priority. At the top of the list of people to reach out to was my friend who I respected as an artist and who provided valuable advice at the beginning of my unemployment journey. Fortunately, he was in need of an assistant so I met with him at his studio to discuss the details.
“So when can you have a proposal to me by?” he asked me on a Thursday morning. Fear and optimism led me to providing an unrealistic date. Then, apprehension, anxiety and catching up on other over-promises caused me to miss the deadline… twice.
“This isn’t going to work out,” he said in an email the morning of the second missed deadline. “All we have is our word and our time.” The sting of it has remained not only because of the shame, but because it’s true and something that I still struggle to practice. However, upholding my word and respecting my time has become a key part of regaining trust in myself.
7. You still have to put in the reps.
“You look like you’ve lost weight,” my weightlifting coach said, staring at my quads. Most people would covet this remark and take it as a compliment, but I knew better. After missing a snatch at a weight I once considered light, I went into the hallway to weigh myself. Something I don’t do often.
I gained 5 pounds but had clearly lost muscle. The worst combination for an aspiring weightlifter. I was embarrassed to admit that not only was enough protein difficult to afford, I didn’t feel like eating it. The only thing that sounded appealing was coffee and Hot Tamale candies.
After missing another rep, I laid down on the gym floor, pouting. “I give up,” I said.
“I know it’s a difficult time,” she said. “But you still have to put in the reps.”
I’ve realized that this applies to anything you’re trying to repair, from friendships to diets to finances. Almost nothing heals overnight, rather requires one good morning text, one protein shake and one bill at a time. No matter what, you have to put in the reps.
8. Sometimes you have to be a f*ckboy.
“I’ve been spending too much time on each application,” I said on the phone to Cody. “It’s a numbers game… I need to be more like a guy.”
“Yes, ‘be a fuckboy’ is the new strategy,” he agreed.
Dating 5 different dudes and swapping out whose photo is on the fridge when each comes over? Not so great. Applying to every possible job and acting as enthusiastic as possible? Acceptable.
9. “Friendship isn’t about who you’ve known the longest. It’s about who walked into your life, said ‘I’m here for you’ and proved it.”
Cards, cameras, laptops, job referrals, proofreading, coffee, gummy worms, long walks, ‘Fuck It Fridays’, phone calls, inspirational quotes, protein smoothies, yoga passes, homecooked meals… I’m tearing up as I type this list, and it’s only a fraction of the kind gestures.
People showed up, and many of them have turned into my best friends. I wrote on my bedroom whiteboard that my goal for succeeding was being able to return the favor.
10. When you feel your lowest, and you want with all your heart to “settle”, trust it’s because bigger things are in store.
“Sometimes we have to reach rock bottom before things get better,” the Uber driver encouraged me as my tears poured down in the backseat. I was late. The resume I customized for the interview was accidentally sent to the wrong Kinkos, and I wasn’t able to make it there in time. The only resume I had included extracurriculars like my gym’s podcast I helped produce which seemed completely irrelevant to the job.
How do I always mess things up even when my livelihood depended on them? And if people won’t hire me for retail or administrative assistants how will I get this job that I actually really want?
“Oh, you go to Paradiso?!” the interviewer asked me, looking down at the resume moments later. “I used to go there!” I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
The Earthquake Aftermath
The string lights cast a subtle glow over the crowd’s faces as I looked at them from behind the mic. Sand still stuck to my toes from the beach where I had enjoyed time with my friends moments before, and I pushed my matted wind-blown hair aside. I had something to say.
“The last time I came to this a month ago, I was so close to having to move back to Arizona. And I was in such a bad place,” I confessed. “But I came here that night, and I saw everyone share their passions. And it reminded me why I love LA, and it lit a fire under my ass.”
The aspiring songwriter who tearfully read a poem about her stuttering. The basketball player who shared a piece about heartbreak. The three-person band who continued to play despite the 7.2 earthquake. They refueled something inside me to keep going.
“I hustled and hustled since then,” I continued. “And I actually got a job that I’m starting tomorrow.” The one from the 2019 Uber Meltdown, just as I hit rock bottom.
We all experience personal earthquakes regularly at varying magnitudes–from loss to breakups to family feuds. Once the trembling stops, we look around and survey the damage. Sometimes picture frames simply need to be readjusted. Other times, items that were unsteady to begin with fall and break. We stop to wonder if we want to replace it – or if it’s time for something new instead. And sometimes the big ones rock us to our core and force us to question everything, from our existing foundation to what the future holds.
At the end of the night, the band treated us to their soulful MJ rendition again.
If they say Why? Why?
Tell them that it’s human nature…
Scientists have found no way to predict when earthquakes will happen. For similar reasons, as I pick up the pieces of my life, I find myself consumed by fear when I wake up, wondering when the next one will happen. However, I do know we must accept the risk, prepare accordingly and know that we’re not alone. We are all facing personal quakes at any moment, whether we’re at the epicenter of our own or helping in the aftermath of another’s. It’s human nature.