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As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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Hello, friends. It’s been a year this week since I was furloughed (which seems both impossible and about right). The first few months were a different kind of limbo than the one I find myself in now, mostly because I was hoping to go back to my job at Berklee eventually.

As you know, that didn’t work out, so I’ve been hitting the job hunt hard every week (or what feels like all the time) for months now. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve always appreciated the boundaries of the 9-to-5 office job: I want to have a job where I can work hard, even occasionally go above and beyond, but then I want to leave work at work. I’ve never wanted a high-powered communications director job, because I’ve worked for those folks and I’ve seen what it entails: they are always on call, nights and weekends, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, I never really wanted an all-freelance life, because of the constant hustle it requires. You’re always looking for your next gig, even while you’re juggling the ones you’ve got. And if you swap applications and interviews for projects, the job hunt can feel exactly like that.

I get job alerts from several places in my inbox, so I see them at least once a day during the week. I’m always combing job boards, talking to friends and connections about the kind of work I want, working on cover letters, trying to imagine a different life. I’ve had several interviews lately (yay!) and those require both prep and follow-up, both of which I’m happy to do (and sometimes it’s even fun). But the cumulative effect feels like a lot of hustle for (so far) not much payoff.

Several of you readers have advised treating the job hunt like a 9-to-5, and I’m doing my best to limit the hours it dominates both my time and my brain. I generally take breaks on the weekends, and during the week when I need it or when there’s something special going on. I’m trying to remember that more effort doesn’t always equal more results. But I know I’ve got to keep hustling until I find my next gig.

I’m willing to put in the work, but for today I just wanted to say: the hustle is constant. And it can be tiring.

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computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

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upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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darwins scone stripe journal coffee shop table

One of the most exciting things about the job hunt is also one of the hardest: imagining a new, possible life both before and during the application process.

A certain amount of this is necessary, of course. Before I apply – before I invest the time into combing an organization’s website and writing a cover letter – it makes sense to consider whether the job is a good fit. Am I qualified? Does it sound interesting? Would the commute (when we go back to office life) be workable? Does the organization seem like a place I would want to work? The answer to all these questions has to be “yes,” or at least “maybe/probably,” before I even open up a new Word doc and start trying to find the name of the hiring manager.

For me, it’s sometimes tougher after I’ve applied – or in that strange limbo period between a first-round interview and whatever happens next. Sometimes I try to picture what a day or a week in that job would look like. I always go on Google Maps to check and double-check the potential commute. If it’s an organization where I know someone, you can bet I ask them what it’s like to work there. But all of this is purely hypothetical at this stage. And it can require a lot of emotional effort.

When Kathleen Kelly has to close her bookstore in You’ve Got Mail (more on this in a future #romcomrewatch post), Birdie invites her and Christina over for tea. “Closing the store is the brave thing to do,” Birdie declares over Earl Grey and scones. “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life!”

Kathleen is disinclined to believe her, at that moment (and I don’t blame her), but Birdie’s words have come back to me in many contexts over the years. Going to grad school, changing jobs time and again, moving to Boston, getting married, deciding to get divorced, starting a new relationship – in all of these instances, I have dared (sometimes still am daring) to imagine that my life can look different than it did. Sometimes that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s daunting. More often than not, it’s both.

It can be a real bummer to invest time and energy into applying for a job and then imagining how that life might look, only to find out you didn’t get it. (This has, obviously, happened to me more than once.) But I don’t want to stop imagining potential lives, because the alternative is to just apply mindlessly – or settle – for whatever comes my way. And I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to believe (despite the evidence, some days) that a thoughtful, curious search for a new job is better than a robotic one. I want to go toward work that interests me, even delights me, or at least has the potential to do so. And that only happens, I think, with a bit of imagination (and a lot of Internet searching/letting friends know I’m looking/pounding out cover letters).

So, at least for now, I’ll keep daydreaming a bit about possible lives as I keep tweaking cover letters and scouring job boards. Hey, at least daydreaming is fun.

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cafe lalo table berries teacup

It’s no secret I love a good romantic comedy, and there are a handful from the ’90s and early 2000s that are particularly close to my heart. Nora Ephron’s films did more than anything else to shape my early visions of New York City. (I once spent an entire solo weekend on the Upper West Side pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.)

During the pandemic, I’ve revisited a few of my favorites, and here’s the thing: I find myself less interested in the love stories these days than in the other elements of these women’s lives.

Part of it is simple familiarity: I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I can pinpoint the exact moments when sparks fly between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. I know just how Miles, that sweet film composer played by Jack Black, charms Iris (Kate Winslet) without even meaning to in The Holiday. And my entire family can quote the “leaning” scene (along with the hilarious family dinner dialogue) from While You Were Sleeping.

I don’t have to wonder whether or how these characters are going to fall in love. (Though I have to admit my 2021 self cringes a little bit at the sheer arrogance of a few male romantic leads.) But I am interested, now more than ever, in these women as real people: not only in their romantic adventures, but the struggles they face in the rest of their lives.

I want to know what Kathleen Kelly ended up doing after she had to close The Shop Around the Corner. I want to see photos from Lucy and Jack’s honeymoon in Florence, but then I want to know about their life together: future family holidays, the next step in Lucy’s career. I wonder if Maggie Carpenter was content running the family hardware store for the rest of her life, or if the edgy lamps she sold in NYC – and her love affair with a New York writer – catapulted her into a different career. And I hope – so much – that Iris, buoyed by Miles’ love and Arthur’s friendship and the gumption of a thousand Old Hollywood heroines, never let any man dim her brilliance ever again.

It’s a new month, and I need a new blog series, so for the next few Mondays, I’ll be diving into some of the films I adore, and musing on the other parts of these heroines’ stories: work and career, family and identity. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be fun.

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It used to be a kind of game: I’d sit in meetings, especially ones marked “strategy” or “content,” and mentally (or sometimes physically) take note of every empty word or phrase my colleagues, or especially outside consultants, used to talk about our work. Words like stakeholders, platforms, multi-channel, workflow and especially content. The words ask and creative used as nouns; the word language used as a verb; acronyms like KPIs and ROI and SEO. I’ve even heard a few like operationalize (what?).

All of it makes me itch – it seems like a false, too-easy way to get away from talking about what we’re really doing (writing stories, interviewing people for podcasts, creating websites and brochures) and why we’re doing it (to get students to enroll, to advertise events or programs, to inform and entertain our alumni or other audiences). Jargon is also a way to exclude people: it’s so easy for students or new colleagues or even experienced folks not to know what you’re talking about. It’s gatekeeping language, often used to self-aggrandize or hide problems, and it is bland and impenetrable as tofu.

This is a problem as I continue the job hunt, because most of the job descriptions I’ve seen contain a fair amount of jargon. I can translate it, and I don’t fault them for it, necessarily, but the jobs I’m drawn to tend to be the ones whose posters write clearly and concisely about what the job actually entails. If a job description is stuffed full of hyphenated phrases with no real meaning, I’m wary of both the job and workplace it’s trying to describe.

While communications work in general is a bit more abstract than, say, serving coffee or teaching a yoga class, it does include measurable, concrete tasks along with the broader work of “strategy” and “ideation.” I don’t want to work at a place where people are so wrapped up in high-flown phrases that they’re unable to define what they actually do. We are all human beings who live in a tangible world, and I believe it’s important to talk about our work in human (vivid, interesting) terms. I also believe we should be able to laugh or roll our eyes at ourselves when we do get tangled up in jargon.

Have you run into long-winded, abstract job descriptions in your own searches? (Please tell me I’m not alone.) And other than a well-practiced eye roll, what is there to do about it?

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Hello, friends. It’s Monday again and I’m back at the computer with a mug of Earl Grey at my elbow, watching the fog drift over Boston Harbor and pegging away at the job hunt. There are a few postings today that look appealing, so I’m making a list and diving in, while pausing to acknowledge the Groundhog Day quality of this whole enterprise – namely, search-draft-apply-rinse-repeat.

I keep thinking of that old saw about the definition of insanity. I don’t know if Einstein actually said it or not, but it seems clear to me that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a recipe for at least feeling crazy.

Why should I apply to this job or that job, if the same set of actions last week garnered a rejection or (more) radio silence? What makes me think this college or nonprofit will answer my email, or call me for an interview, when most of the others have not? How do I know which job description, full of industry jargon and careful HR-approved wording, might possibly lead me to a real place with real people where I can be useful, be welcomed, make a contribution (and earn a living)?

I don’t, of course. And while it’s true that getting creative with the job hunt – going to webinars, letting friends and former colleagues know I’m looking, even writing a whole blog series about job hunting – might help, it’s also true that, for many jobs, a resume and cover letter are required. You have to go through the process: find the posting (or look at the one someone sends you), decide whether it sounds interesting, write and proofread a cover letter, go through the electronic steps to apply. You have to sit through the auto-response emails and the waiting (more on that in a later post). You have to, in short, do a version of the same thing, and expect – or at least hope for – different results.

I don’t have a neat and tidy answer for this one, except that it’s got to be done. Grit and gumption (and lots of tea) are definitely required. And for now, I’ll try to vary the process (and my cover letters) enough so that it doesn’t feel exactly the same every day.

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Friends, I am job hunting. And it is the worst.

Some of you know that I was furloughed last spring, then had my furlough extended through the fall as the pandemic dragged on. I was officially laid off a few months ago, and have been slogging through the job hunt ever since. (Photo is of my makeshift standing desk at home.)

Some weeks, that means sending out applications and resumes; most weeks, it means combing through job boards and email alerts, and doing freelance work (like this recent story I wrote for Harvard’s Ed School, where I used to work). And every week, it means fighting the job-search demons in my head.

Everyone I know has been through the job-hunt wringer a few times, but it seems like nobody talks about this stuff, at least not publicly. We gripe to our partners and get networking tips from friends, but I’ve yet to find a real, honest exploration of the toll it can take on your soul. I need a way to wrestle with those challenges outside my own head (and my journal), so I’ll be sharing some of my job hunt woes here on the blog for the next while.

First up, the blindingly obvious: what nobody tells you.

Nobody tells you how disorienting it can be, the sudden feeling of being cut adrift from a paycheck, a workplace, an institution, a community. No one admits–or, in my experience, people rarely admit–how daunting it is to wake up in the morning and have no idea what you’re going to do next. How it feels to have a few tools at your disposal–a newly polished resume, job boards, cover letters to tailor and send–but to know that so much of the search is completely beyond your control.

It’s like chipping away at a mountain with a pickaxe, or like those diggers working to free that ship in the Suez Canal last month. No one, least of all you, has any idea when the daily patient effort–or some totally unrelated effect of an external force–will crack the granite wide open and let an opportunity through. And no one admits how demoralizing it can be.

I’m job hunting, we say, as if it were going to the dentist or walking the dog or cleaning the kitchen floor. Just another item on the to-do list. Something everyone does, sooner or later. While that last part is true, nobody tells you how painful and frustrating it can be, although most of us know. Nobody talks about how it can wear away at your sense of identity and self-worth, not to mention your bank account. And in the middle of a pandemic, few people seem to have any idea what work will look like in a few months. Remote? Hybrid? Fully back in the office? No one can tell me that, because no one else, at this moment, knows.

I’m writing these posts because I need this conversation, but I’m hoping that maybe it will open up a space for others, too. If you’d care to share your job-hunt woes (past or present) in the comments, I’m all ears. Let’s be honest about how tough it is, and maybe share what’s gotten us through, or what’s helping right now.

More job-hunt musings to come.

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love-all-chalk

Like millions of Americans, I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a lot of reading, listening and processing. The┬ámurders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the ensuing protests, and the waves of activism and helpful resources popping up everywhere have all been rightfully demanding my attention.

I’m a few chapters into White Fragility (“like all the other white people,” my friend Ally joked last week). I’m listening to podcast interviews with Black leaders, finding Black-owned businesses to support and following new-to-me accounts on Instagram run by Black folks. (One of my favorites: Black Librarians, which highlights – what else? – Black librarians doing excellent work in their field.)

It’s tempting to think that is enough: that exposing myself to new ideas, information and voices will root out my own biases. It will help, of course, but it is not nearly enough. I keep thinking, too, about a poem I found back in early 2016: Veronica Patterson’s “A Charm Against the Language of Politics.”

Patterson’s poem begins:

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose.

Patterson’s poem talks about pleasant things, beautiful things: spiderwebs, apples, okra, calendula. Racism and violence are not nearly as appealing, but they are real, and we have to stop ignoring them.

If we are to face racism and work to end it, we must name it, and that means naming a host of other things: specific laws and policies that discriminate against Black people; instances of violence and murder (historical and present-day); our own sometimes-hidden biases against (various) people who do not look like us. It also means, for me, naming my own whiteness, and working to understand how it has shaped me.

In conversations with friends and family, I am trying to stop vaguely referring to “everything that’s going on.” If I mean my ongoing anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic and states reopening, I say that. If I mean the sadness, outrage and drinking-from-a-firehose overwhelm of trying to process all this new information about race and racism, I say that. Sometimes I think about Albus Dumbledore, gravely reminding Harry, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

I was taught to ignore or sidestep race, especially the racial identities of brown and black people, and thus to ignore racism (or insist that it had been solved). But we cannot hope to solve a problem we don’t name. So, for me, it starts (in part) with naming.

Where are you finding yourselves these days, in the work of acknowledging and working to end racism in the U.S.? I’m still overwhelmed (and ashamed at how long it’s taking me to catch up), but I’m here for the work. Let’s learn together.

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