How I Kept It Together When My Career Fell Apart

About 1,460 hours ago (who's counting, though), I lost what was essentially my dream job in the midst of a massive corporate restructure. I had worked as a copywriter for one of my favorite magazines for a little under two years, when suddenly I was packing up my desk and offering up free cans of seltzer from a case I had recently stashed next to my collection of old Nylons and motorcycle boots.

Cut to a few days later, and I couldn't think of a reason not to wear my ugliest pajamas for most of the day while trying to line up recruiter meetings and freelance gigs. I also Googled variations of “what to do when you feel like garbage and your career is a sham” and noticed there were versions of the same advice everywhere. The cheery bullet points all seemed to have good intentions, but did any of them actually work? I had nothing else to do, so I decided to give them all a shot. Here is my story (cue Law & Order music).

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Take some you time. This was first said to me by the HR lady explaining my severance, and at the time I'm sure I stared at her like Aubrey Plaza in just about every Parks & Rec scene, ever. I didn't have any choice but to take some “me” time. It's nothing but “me” time from here on out.

The truth is that my boyfriend and I had been planning a two-week road trip of the entire West Coast, and we were booked to leave in a few days anyway. I decided to take that advice, and take a little “me” time in the form of the Pacific Coast Highway, wineries, tacos, camping in the desert, and PB&Js made on the side of the road.

Because we had been planning this trip for so long, I was able to put my current situation out of my head and really enjoy it. Not only that, but it served to remind me that your life is way more than 40-plus hour weeks in front of a computer, pre-packed low-carb lunches, and happy hours.

Verdict: Do it! Obviously, you don't need an epic road trip to realize that you are not your job, but this cliché advice did the trick. Stay in an Airbnb someplace random for a weekend, go on a day trip somewhere with a friend you haven't seen in a while, get out of your bubble. I returned to the city feeling adventurous and full of energy, ready to get out there and figure out what my life had in store next. At the very least, eat some tacos. I think the tacos really helped.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
When I woke up that first morning with nowhere to go and no one needing me, it was a strange sense of emptiness and freedom. I had not not had a job since I was 14 (trolling the local ice arena for minimum wage on the lookout for kids making out totally counts), and the notion of not earning money throughout the week was painful. I needed to schedule something, anything, and I remembered that part of my severance included regular meetings with a career coach. I had rolled my eyes at the time, but, why not? I booked a meeting asap.

I got dressed in my best business-y jacket and pants combo and trekked to Midtown Manhattan, where I sat in a fluorescent-lit room with no windows and listened to a lady twice my age attempt to explain the internet to me. She was perfectly nice, and I wanted it to surprise the hell out of me and be helpful but I just felt...mildly emotionally and physically devoid of any joy or happiness whatsoever. She kept mispronouncing fashion brands or asking me how I felt about companies like “Refinery21” or “Forever29,” and the feeling that crept over my body was similar to that of maybe trying to explain Snapchat to your grandma, but without the delicious hard candy.

One nugget of a gem I got from her: Spend more time on your connections than on job boards, and instead of asking your connects to look into job openings, ask for introductions. A large percentage of job opportunities come from recommendations or friends of friends — as hiring someone through those channels tends to give employers a sense of security.

Verdict: Meh (LinkedIn stalk the career coach first!). But looking on the bright side: It got me out of the house. Twice.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
When I was 22 and a fresh young duckling who had just moved to the city, for one year I decided that due to my relatively conservative upbringing and Catholic college experience, I would say yes to every experience offered to me, excluding hard drugs and impromptu games of Russian Roulette (luckily, that one never happened). This proved to be an exhausting and ill-conceived idea. I don't regret it, but man, I wouldn't do it again.

This time around, I decided to say “mmmokay” to every single career opportunity offered to me. I figured that “why not?” attitude could prove to be stressful at worst, and at best, a way to learn a little bit about myself during this time. I figured at some point in the future, I would be strapped to a desk five days a week once again anyway, so why not make the most of this time?

This mentality was how I found myself writing 100-word clickbait stories about cute pandas at $5 a pop under a pseudonym, agreeing to work as a PA at Fashion Week for a day (it fell through, but with an open-ended invite to work the next one), unethically reviewing Amazon purchases for products I didn't use, and attempting to interview an old friend who now lives on a furry commune in Pennsylvania. Oh, and starting a trashy romance novel to eventually sell on Kindle.

Verdict: Yes! Do I recommend this mentality in moments of existential crisis? You betcha. Monotony tends be a side effect of the typical day job, and so in moments of this kind of freedom, I say keep the “mmmokays” coming.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Any time you go through something traumatic, it can be shocking to see who shows up for you. I am unfortunately a member of the Dead Parent Club, so a career setback is not the worst thing I have experienced, but hardship seems to show you who your real friends are. I didn't intend to start to have long phone calls with my sister every day, but that's what happened.

My sister and I have had a tumultuous relationship over the years, and although we are in the best place we have been right now, I was shocked and touched when she started checking in on me daily, keeping track of interviews and freelance work, and giving thoughtful advice. I hadn't really been asking for help from anyone, instead choosing to stay kind of isolated and in my head. The sweet gesture of hearing from her regularly started to really help, and so I started checking in with her every day, as well.

Verdict: Do it — but make sure you choose a person who gets you, who won't BS you or Pollyanna you when you need a dose of #realtalk. My sister is someone who herself has overcome a lot of hardships, and is currently going through her first pregnancy. I now look forward to talking to her every day, not only to get advice but to hear about her day and what she's up to. Having the breath of energy and positivity through the phone at least once throughout my day has truly been helping, reminding me to not be selfish and look outside myself. Those good vibes go both ways.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
One piece of advice that kept coming up over and over was to “make looking for a job your job” and to “schedule your day out as if it were your job.” One thing I have learned in this experience is that when you're busy, there aren't enough hours in a day. When you're not busy, there are about 1,200 hours in a day. Although you can indeed dedicate a lot of time a day to finding a job, there are just only so many available job postings out there. Then you have about 16 more hours.

What did I do? I started blocking out hours of my day dedicated to different activities, making sure they all moved me forward in some way. I set my alarm every morning for 7, and was out the door on my way to yoga by 9. After yoga, I scheduled in different kinds of writing into blocks on my Google calendar, varying from pitching websites and magazines, to working on my novel, to pieces I just felt like writing. I would then block in an hour for lunch, and an hour in the morning and evening to check job boards and apply to anything that seemed interesting.

Verdict: 100% helpful. Not only did this make me feel productive, it did feel as though I still had a job. I was up and dressed, usually in workout clothes but also in eyeliner, with a small lunch packed and things on a to do list. I strongly feel that scheduling out my day kept me from completely losing my shit, having always been a creature of structure and alarms and lists and habits. It helped my ego feel busy, and it kept the lazy Netflix-watching, ugly-pajama wearing lazy troll that lives inside all of us at bay. At least for now.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I have always been fortunate enough to have a pretty kickass group of female friends — we often get through hours of brunch or drinks without even mentioning dating or dudes, something Carrie Bradshaw certainly couldn't boast. They are a collection of food stylists, photographers, retouchers, designers, you name it — and they all inspire me.

Luckily, most of them are also freelancers, as well. One particularly tough day, when I was just watching my bank account sink like the Titanic, I got myself out of the apartment for some free fun with a few of them. We packed snacks, visited an art exhibit, then sat out in Central Park listening to music and chatting. They are all extremely hardworking, and could offer great advice. This reminded me that surrounding yourself with people you admire makes you want to work harder, so I promised myself I would do something like that at least once a week.

Verdict: Yes. Come for the socializing...and realize that the networking benefits are also pretty killer. This also inspired me to reach out to people I don't really know, to pick their brains. Acquaintances, old bosses, or other freelance writers I only knew through social media seemed only too glad to offer advice around making the freelance life work. I have ended up having some truly fascinating conversations with people in person, over email, Gchat, text, and phone, whom I never would have reached out to otherwise. Their words made me feel renewed and ready for the next thing to cross my path.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
If you have ever crossed paths with a 55-year-old watercolor painter who recently has taken ayahuasca, your aunt who always offers to read your tarot cards, or your high school drama teacher, then you have heard about The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It is a book basically teaching you the lifestyle of becoming a true artist — I have not taken much away from it besides the concept of “morning pages.”

Here's the gist: Every single day, as soon as you wake up, you just write for three full pages, then you stop. The concept behind this is that you will rid your brain of all shit and nonsense, and what will result is a mixture of your ultimate truth and also things to let go of. I figured, since my art is writing, I would adopt this and see what came to fruition. Turns out, it was a whole lot of complaining. Also apparently, I really don't eat as many bagels as my true self wants me to.

Verdict: Skip. All in all, I had a hard time writing nonsense or journalling every day when I felt like I could be doing something else. I gave up after a week because I found myself mostly writing about how I wish I was pitching more, or working on my book more, or basically anything except writing these three pages of nonsense every day. So that's what I ended up doing, giving it up. However, I do think there is something to getting rid of all the leftover bullshit in my head when I wake up. Unexpected upside to writing as soon as you wake up — you remember way more details about the random dreams you had the night before.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I am not going to tell you to visit the self-help section of your local B&N. I am not going to tell you to breathe because, fuck whoever tells you that. Self-care is different for everyone, but it's important to figure out what those few things are that make you feel less insane, and make sure you take time to do them.

Regardless of the fact that I was in a career purgatory, I decided to take this time to list a few things in my life that truly make me feel nourished and taken care of. Not the most unique of examples, but those two things for me are therapy and yoga. Going to someone I really trust a few times a month just to sit in a room and talk to another human about my existence heals me in ways I can't describe. It took many years for me to discover that, and I didn't want to let it go if need be. I also have a great yoga studio right on the water, and going there in the morning before I start work for the day reminds me that I am not just what I do. Perhaps inspired by yoga or a half-assed continuation of morning pages, I also started listing five things I am grateful for in a little notebook. Even if sometimes all five of those things are about my cat, that's a good reason to keep trucking along.

Verdict: Do It. Self-care is not lame, it's not eye-roll-y, and it doesn't take you away from being a sarcastic semi-goth badass who watches The Craft too much. It just means you deserve as much love as you give other people.

Bottom Line: I learned that taking care of your well-being and your bank account are very different things, and one often affects the other in non-linear ways. I've learned to not attribute how much money I have in the bank to my self-worth as a person, but also to never stop the hustle. Pay attention to what feels good and productive, and check in with yourself to see if what you're doing is in line with where you want to go.

It's okay to be mad and pouty for a bit after suffering a career slump, but remember that you can't grow if you are constantly on an incline. It's the dips that show you what you're really made of, that scrappy badass who will work to get what she wants. And if you don't know what you want? That's fine, too. It will all come to you in time — and maybe not from a career coach.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
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