Waking up with nothing… is it really exhilarating?

Up in the Air (2009)

1st month: Couldn’t get over the fact that I finally graduated.
2nd month: Glad that I was really a doctor (of philosophy).
3rd month: Slapped in the face: PhDs don’t mean as much nowadays.
4th month: Became an uncreative slob. Remained hidden from society.

I’m jobless. I’ve been at it for about four months now.

When I finally graduated, I thought that I had all the time in the world to do everything I ever wanted. On the contrary, being jobless and financially bleeding made it hard to get motivated. I realized that my most creative endeavors were when I was busy with some form of routine.

During the lulls of my previous job, I would sneak out a blog article, experiment with video, or do something out of line as a form of escapism. Usually this personal innovation time off (aka Google’s 20% time) later became extremely useful for me (e.g. watch social cyborg project trailer).

Being too free felt as if I had a limitless blank canvas… at some point I realize that I needed some constraints in order to kick off creatively (see Boring + Boring = Pleasant?!). Now I feel like I have nothing to escape from… a prison without walls (see Kerala’s open prison).

I recently watched Up in the Air (2009), where George Clooney’s jet-setting character was designed to expertly lay-off employees across the country. In our bleak economic climate, that translated to a lot of business (and air miles) for him. To every employee he laid off, he’d say the following, “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s *because* they sat there that they were able to do it.”

It’s a chance for rebirth.
As they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Serendipitously, I discovered a short film entitled Lemonade (2009), which was about ad-folks whose lives had changed for the better since losing their ad jobs. When 37 year-old copywriter, Erik Proulx, was laid off from a large agency in Boston, it was the third time he’d been terminated in less than 10 years. He started a blog, Please Feed the Animals, to serve as a support group for other unemployed ad professionals. According to his movie’s synopsis, some 70,000 advertising professionals have lost their jobs during this recession.

As enlightening and delightful as it was for some to discover their true passion, I believe that most of us have not located our pleasure centers, and might never will. Understandably, it’s not that easy for everyone… we’re scared.

Before I entered university, I was actively being the life of the party. In the early 90s, when the Internet was first publicly accessible in Singapore, I started a web publishing business to combine my trifecta interest in what my dad appropriately dubbed ATM (Art + Technology = Money).

My mantra was to make friendships productive, by calling upon classmates, training them in basic HTML coding while working with them on building client relationships. Related side projects were born from this, including online music communities Substitute.com and FrontalLabs.com.

I sometimes do wonder if all this education had ruined my drive… after all, the more I generally knew, the more I felt paralyzed. The realization of how little I was relative to my peers humbled me to the point of fear and self-loathing.

Almost sharing my dilemma, Lemonade’s producer Erik Proulx recently responded to a lady named Lisa, who had been laid off in 2008 after a 14-year career in broadcast journalism. She sought an answer to her plight, so he told her “[d]on’t be the person out there looking for the job. Be the person out there doing something interesting.” What followed from her were a series of “but, but, but” responses, a situation we’re all too familiar with. Paralysis.

Seth Gordin's Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? Digging deeper, Erik quotes Seth Godin’s Linchpin (2010, currently #1 Amazon book on careers), where Steven Pressfield’s “the resistance” comes into play. According to Pressfield, the brain naturally wants to retreat to the comfort of normalcy and inaction. There are so many reasons to not do something. But the biggest is that the voice that asks “what if?” is usually drowned out by the voice that screams “it’s too scary.” Erik and Gordin both believe that the answer lies in a high tolerance for fear, where you have to see failure not just as a possibility, but a certainty.

As Erik puts it, “If you’ve failed at something, it also means you attempted something. You’re alive.”

Ironically, while I started by explaining how I had become routine-less while being jobless, I realized that there was a larger routine at work. I believe that I would get back into the game if I changed something in my life… such as moving somewhere else. Nine years in a place without family nor friends (most have left Buffalo) isn’t socially conducive to me in any way. After all, we’re more mobile than ever.

I remind myself what I’ve shared with friends before, that we have to keep experimenting until we find our groove. Then when we’ve worn that out, we have to find yet another beat to dance to.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Richard Nelson Bolles preached career self-reliance, or at least career self-direction, in “What Color Is Your Parachute?“.

“If you don’t take time to figure out what you want to do with your life, you will be at the mercy of all those forces out there today,” Bolles explained.

Job-hunting, or more ubiquitously, finding our passion, is a continuous, never-ending process. We have to keep being curious about ourselves. It’s not a luxury anymore; it’s a matter of survival.

Aside: As a segway, Tara Hunt investigates the conundrum of love vs. greatness. I think it’s great that there isn’t a best option. We chose our own beliefs, and the bottomline is to always work hard at it.

Update 1: Carolyn Lim suggested I watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. It’s aptly titled “How to live before you die“.

Update 2: From an email conversation, I’m reminded of a book title which fits what we’re experiencing. For folks like us whose lives seem to be in limbo, my favorite line has always been from the title of a book about earthquakes: The Myth of Solid Ground. While it’s an intriguing book which discusses “earthquakes, prediction, and the fault line between reason and faith”, the title also seems meaningful to how we are now living in an era where everything seems less constant than ever before.

Update 3: Friends are sharing their interesting personal stories on routine-breaking and joblessness via Google Buzz.

  • http://and.thirdly.org echoz

    This is so true man. I face this from time to time. What a paradox everything is.

    Good luck with whatever comes next!

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      Glad you picked that up. I was worried that I was writing in circles. :)

  • http://www.tedchenphoto.com tedchen

    “Up in the Air” is a great movie for its time – hope it wins at least one Academy awards. Anyhow, I know how you feel about the job market, and I only have a M.S. Although I've had paid freelance gigs, I've not had a permanent job with a stable salary since I graduated last year.

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      You being “up in the air” certainly helps me gain some perspective. Plenty of friends who graduates aren't in permanent positions, yet we are able to survived. Our perception of work, life and relationships are shifting… I'd like to call this “The myth of solid ground”.

  • http://www.np.edu.sg/ Ee Chuan

    Hi Kevin

    There are opportunities in the education sector in Singapore. Singapore will benefit from having one of our own back to contribute to it being a global city!

    Take care and all the best in finding your passion :-)

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      Hey Ee Chuan. I'm looking at Singapore as well, so if you happen to see anything which fits my bill, there will be folks like me willing to take the spot. :)

  • nelson

    come visit indianapolis!

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      If I do find a job, I do plan to road-trip across the States in a blaze of glory before getting back into the grind. If it works out, I'll see you in Indianapolis!

  • mhward

    Hey Kevin, I was so pleased when you got your doctor hat, and I'm sorry that things are tough right now. You are a really lovely person, and you h ave worked really hard, and I'm sure that you will find your niche somewhere. It isn't true that nice guys always come last. I'm sending good thoughts and wishing I could do more.

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      Mary, thanks for the concern. I wrote this was to pull myself, and my job-hunting friends, back up. Some of my friends are sharing their personal experience with routine-breaking and the joys of joblessness via Google Buzz: http://www.google.com/buzz/brainopera/F52uC9f7A

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

    DanBrown's Open Letter to Educators fits one of my problems of academic inflation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P2PGGeTOA4 (via @halavais)

  • http://faelge.wordpress.com/ sami

    With the passage of time one get experience and the doors of knowledge keep on opening for the person, it depends on how people use that experience.