Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Unemployment Made Me Who I Am

Yes, it's grim out there. The best you can say about the latest unemployment figures is that they are only slightly less bad than some feared. But they're not good. In fact, nothing about being unemployed is good, trust me, I've been there. But if I can get through it, and I did, you will to.

Unemployment and I are old acquaintances. I first joined the ranks of the underworked in the mid-90s, when I quit the job I had as managing editor of a small magazine for college students. The irony is I quit because I felt I was underpaid, but I quickly learned how much less payment was out there. Month after month I watched my pitiful savings dwindle as I "freelanced" articles. Eventually I found salvation in the form a traffic accident, as I totaled my car and lived off the insurance money. Now that's financial planning.

The depression that accompanied this period was horrific. I lived in Boulder, Colo., one of the most beautiful places in the nation, but I couldn't enjoy any of it. Life suddenly became very circumscribed, as I feared going outside lest I spend money. This period lasted almost a year.

Eventually, though, I kept plugging away and got another job as an editor, and a better job at that. This one paid $8 an hour! But I got to write, and had enough money for the occasional beer.

By the time I was 28 I was working full time as a financial journalist at a small newsletter in New York. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to do. I felt constrained, again. It was 2000, and my peers, it seemed, were all out making mega-bucks working for .com firms. They had cool things called stock options, and foose-ball. And here I was, such a free spirit, I thought, wearing a tie to work every day, and making in the low $30,000s. What a salariman. I saw a possible ladder here, but I didn't want to climb it. So I quit again, this time to take an internship at National Public Radio's "On The Media." Now that’s cool.

Due to cheap rent, generous family and some frugality I had managed to save a nest-egg of just under $10,000 while I had been working. I watched it slowly dwindle to nothing as my internship went on and on. Making matters worse I didn't get the job, either. I had gambled and failed. Then the recession of 2001 hit, and I was caught short … again! They say wisdom is recognizing a mistake as you make it again. Well, I say that, I don't know if they do. But it's true.

Once again, I had no money, and now lived in an even more expensive city, New York. Then, the depression came on once more, as I realized what a fool I had been to quit a job that paid, because it hadn't been quite cool enough. Quickly, though, I learned you can't eat hipness, which might explain the recent craze for "skinny" jeans.

I spent most of my time in the summer of 2001 sitting in my hot studio apartment, under-using my air conditioning because it cost too much. Sometimes I would go out to a local bar in Hell's Kitchen in New York -- Rudy's -- that had, and has, free hot dogs. Possibly the same hot dogs, too.

Eventually, I broke down and begged my dad if I could work for him, doing anything. I had vowed years before that I would never do this, but my pride was gone. And of course I am extremely lucky that I had just such a fallback position. I do realize this.

My father had to let someone else go to hire me, but he did. This is when blood truly is thicker than not only water, but than anything. I saved up a few pennies, and then blew it all, once more, in a pointless and disastrous trip to Burning Man, but still, overall, things were looking up. I had fought unemployment, and it won. But as I slowly picked myself up I learned a lesson: I will never fire myself again.

I also learned another lesson, this one about love and self worth. You see, around this time, in late 2001, I went on a blind date with Randi. We met at a small, local bar, and had red wine. Conversation was easy and fun, and she had the most beautiful eyes and the kindest, sweetest face -- and still does. We then went on another date, and another. Even though I was broke, and felt like a loser who had missed his shot she still appreciated and wanted to be in my company. She liked me for who I was, and told me it didn't matter what I did. The lesson was clear: some people, the people who matter, care about you no matter what your career. And believe in you, no matter what.

Eventually I moved on from working for my dad, to working at a local cheese market. I was hungry to write again even if I wasn't physically hungry due to the copious amounts of free cheese I consumed during this multi-month stretch. I called my old newsletter back, and they invited me in for an interview. I put on my sharpest suit, the one they hired me in, and was told that they didn't actually need me. Crushed, I bowed my head in shame, feeling the fool. And old.

Eventually I got a job from the cheese market selling musical equipment, and from there, another job, at last, writing for a financial newsletter. I threw myself into the work this time. I was 30, and was tired of being my own worst enemy. It had been over two years since I'd last had a real writing job and I vowed to never take what I do well for granted ever again. And I vowed to never leave a job without having another one lined up.

From there I eventually upgraded to Forbes, and then Not a moment too soon, either, as this second newsletter folded and few noticed.

For those unemployed folks supporting families my heart goes out to you. Everything suddenly is made of dollar signs, and you start mining your savings. It's not fun, but going through this grew me up the hard way. Twice.


Holly said...

Thanks for the wise and heartwarming post, Dave! I'm glad you and Randi were able to find each other despite that difficult time.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Holly,
As they say, nobody knows you when you're down and out. But the people that matter do.


Anonymous said...

i really enjoyed reading that post. thanks for being such a positive dude.

David Serchuk said...

Thanks Anonymous, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes writing these things makes me feel more positive about stuff than I did at the time.


Anne Stesney said...

I could completely relate to this post. In my early 30's during the .com boom, I was so cocky. I honestly felt I was doing my employers a favor by showing up to work. What an idiot. These days I try to focus on being a good employee and coworker. The bonus is that I tend to enjoy my work a lot more too.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Anne,
Thanks for your comment below. I believe a good humbling can be beneficial. At least it was for me. For one of my bottoms during this time may I link you to this story?


otherone said...

good post. also: free cheese is always good.

David Serchuk said...

Thanks otherone, yes the cheese was truly the best part!