With New Years having just passed under our nose, the time of year where we all take a good our look at ourselves has come around. Rather perversely after a season of gluttonous self-indulgence, we punishingly examine ourselves and accumulate a pile of shortcomings that we resolve to change. This year, I found the idea of choosing a new years resolution positively comical. Self-improvement is very much an in vogue, all-year round activity and that practise of waiting till the beginning of the year has become obsolete.
As someone unemployed this was particularly pertinent. Prepping myself each day with a series of daily resolutions as I enter the intellectual pageantry of job-seeking, the bid to make myself ‘worthy’ has become an unrelenting endeavour. With each job-spec highlighting my shortcomings, waiting till the beginning of the year is a luxury I cannot afford.
Since my search began, it is practically all I can think about. As a young person finished college, finding a job has become my de facto purpose in life, an unspoken, mutual understanding reached by society at large. The discussion is not whether I should look for a job, it is a forgone conclusion. Until I find a job, I am somehow incomplete. The pressure feels immense at times. Days of unemployment stretch ahead of me like an indeterminate prison sentence, each job application like a parole meeting.
Society has come define work as virtue rather than a means to an end, and being educated and unemployed is tantamount to a sin. Friends that have chosen to enjoy the time between jobs rather than fill the void say they feel they are not “allowed” say there are “doing nothing”, even if it is the truth. Gaps on your CV, the ultimate faux pas, prompt suspicion and demand explanation.
In modern times we have become so fixated with work it has fused with our identity, leading us to vilify those that are unemployed. This was touched on in a piece in The Atlantic where the author hypothesises a world without work by taking a look back on a time, surprisingly not long ago, when work was interspersed with play and free time was not equated with idleness.
I have grown fed up with feeling unsuccessful because I do not have a job. Or more accurately, I have grown fed up with employment and career advancement being used as the sole benchmark of success. On some level, society has reached a consensus that friends, family, good health and happiness are the most important things in life, but it remains confined to an idealistic plane of existence, reserved for late-night discussions over glasses of wine rather than how we actually define or live our lives.
In recent years, choosing a career and finding one’s purpose in life have become one and the same. And while that is certainly for the better, their ability to be mutual exclusive from one another is too easily forgotten. Success is broadly defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose”, but in our modern-career driven lives we have demoted it job success. The gendered phrase “the successful businessman has been drilled into me since I was a child, but does one ever hear of a stay-at-home mum being described as successful? Even a Google search of “successful mother” brings up webpages overwhelmingly referring to “career mothers”, as though raising children is no achievement in itself. Would we ever describe a father as “successful” if he gave up a career to mind is children?
Looking for a job is exhausting and demoralising. The finish line is always the same distance away, you either get the job or you don’t, and it is easy to let the search consume you. Perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that those with jobs seem to be miserable all the time too, while at work but even more so on their downtime. A famous study of Chicago workers in 1989 led psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre to describe this as “the paradox of work”: their results showed that workers wished they were somewhere else when working, but still reported feeling better and less anxious at work than anywhere else.
If I am potentially going to be miserable either way, it seems that using employment status as the watermark is a rather skewed way of defining success. Beginning this 2017 I intend to rectify that. I am going to redefine success. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job? No. Does that mean I’ll stop looking for a job that I deem to have purpose? No again. But it does mean I will stop myself from using a formula of success that favours work over happiness.
I will define my own purpose and I will define my own success.