The first time I was unemployed, I became an incredible basketball player.
Several players, in fact: a playmaking point guard, a high-flying forward, a 7-foot defensive specialist. Not real ones, of course — these were all versions of me that I created in NBA Live ’99 on the GameCube. Eventually, my team of avatars played for the NBA championship, and it felt — well, kinda awesome at the time.
That period in my life was hardly the most productive or rewarding one I’ve experienced. As I’ve reflected on why I spent so much time playing video games, when I could – should – have been doing so many other things, a few reasons occur to me.
A lack of urgency: My wife and I had very few bills at the time (we were living with her grandmother), and she had a full time job as a teacher. So, from my (mistaken) perspective, I could wait for the perfect job to find me. But here’s what I didn’t know:
- My wife would become pregnant while I was unemployed.
- It would take me 9 months to find a full time job, never mind the “perfect” one.
- Eleven years later, we would still be paying off the student loans that we thought would be “easy” to pay off once I got a job.
I should have felt urgency. I should have been doing much more with my time. There were ways I could have been making money that I didn’t even consider, and there was a tremendous amount of unpaid work that I could have been doing. (More on that in a minute.)
A lack of direction: At the time, I knew that I had received a tremendous amount of satisfaction editing my graduate school newspaper, but I didn’t really know how to translate that into steady, paying work. I didn’t even know how to begin answering that question. I had a feeling that my “sweet spot” was the intersection of technology and creativity, but I didn’t seek out further training that would make me more attractive to potential employers, not did I look for ways to earn money with the skills I did have.
A false understanding of work: If you had asked me, I would have said I was “looking for work” – as if there wasn’t work all around me waiting to be done. What I meant by “work” was “full time, fully compensated employment by a corporation, in a position that led to a recognizable career.” I completely overlooked many other, valid opportunities for work:
- Volunteer work
- Part time work, whether in my desired career path or just to pay the bills
- Freelance work
- Personal work, such as writing or self-improvement
- Family work
While I did a bit of all of these, I saw them as the grown-up equivalent of “extracurricular activities,” after-school clubs that look good on college applications. I didn’t understand that mowing the grass for my wife’s grandmother, coaching a youth soccer team at my church, or working part time at a crisis pregnancy center were all chances to be faithful in little things, while waiting for greater things to come.
Making the Most of My Second Chance
Fortunately (ha!), I got a second chance at unemployment, eleven years after my first experience.
Urgency: This time, I was (or had been) the primary earner in our family, which had grown to include three kids. My job loss was not just a personal crisis, but a family crisis as well. I hustled like I rarely have in my life, and I stepped up my networking (both online and off) to increase my connections. While I now had a much better idea of what I wanted to do – and what I could do – (maybe even because of this), I pursued many more leads than during my first unemployment experience.
Direction: Thanks to work I had previously done in thinking through my strengths and passions, I had a much better defined idea of the kind of full time work that I wanted. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, I knew what skills I needed to improve or obtain, as well as how I could begin building a portfolio of freelance work.
Work: Even though I was “out of work,” I was as busy – or even busier – as I had been while fully employed. I didn’t let unemployment be an excuse to withdraw from life. I actively sought out opportunities to serve, learn, and (yes) work, even if it didn’t pay as well as I hoped. Just a few highlights of my unemployment:
- I spoke to a few hundred aspiring college professors at InterVarsity’s Urbana conference.
- While writing for the Emerging Scholars Blog (which I had founded and then handed off to Tom Grosh), I scored my biggest blogging “hit” so far with the Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament.
- I volunteered to teach 5th & 6th grade Sunday School.
- I took online classes from Treehouse, as well as the Perspectives course through my church.
- I began attending Cincinnati’s Job Search Focus Group, where I not only received encouragement but also made connections that led to a freelance job.
- I began a small freelance business doing web and print design.
- I attended a three-day spiritual retreat, which helped me see beyond my immediate problems.
- As much as I could on a limited budget, I tackled some long-neglected home improvement and landscaping.
- I increased my share of the childcare and household chores.
- And, yes, I did play video games, but this time with my son and daughters.
All in all, a much better use of my time than my short-lived electronic basketball career.
Photo credit: Buddhima W.Wickramasinghe via Flickr
- As it happened, a great organization gave me a great position, but how was I to know that? ↩
- A year later, I started delivering pizzas as a second job and discovered that it was a pretty decent way to make money. I immediately regretted all the semesters in college that I didn’t deliver pizzas. ↩
- “Technology married to the liberal arts,” in Steve Jobs’ words. I was right, but didn’t take any steps toward improving my prospects in that area. ↩
- By the way, if you are looking to learn web development or design skills, I highly recommend Treehouse. ↩