Luck and Unemployment
This post was a guest submission from Chung-Shen Chang. Chung-Shen graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and has received various distinctions in fine arts. He has worked for years as a graphic designer for various print publications. Despite his accreditations, however, he struggled to find employment from February 2010 to September 2011.
A man wiser than myself once said, “Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity.” I had plenty of time to think about this phrase during my year of unemployment.
I spent a lot of time preparing. I stopped sending out boilerplate cover letters, rewrote my resume, strategically shuffled my portfolio. When opportunity didn’t knock, I went out looking for it. I applied to art school, hoping that higher education would open more doors. I started looking in unorthodox places for work. I called in favors. I went door to door, handing out copies of my resume and portfolio. When I couldn’t find opportunity, I went back to preparing, thinking that I was only ever one resume submission away from an interview, and one interview away from a job. But as time dragged on and opportunity still failed to show, I began preparing less and less each day. It’s much easier to give up when you’re young, single, and don’t have mouths to feed or mortgage to worry about. And slowly the inertia faded from my life.
Being unemployed is a very strange experience, and it is yet so fresh in my memory that I have yet to fully sit down and contextualize it properly. When I look back on the long, strange year of 2011, it seems like a waking dream that I am not fully convinced I have risen from. Being unemployed, for me, was a multi-stage process. After I quit my job, my initial feeling was one of elation and optimism. I had left my previous job confidently, and had been eager for some time to see how marketable my skills really were. My friends and family were all supportive, saying my unemployment was a blessing in disguise. I changed cities, began a new life, and was sure that new scenery would assist my job search. During this period, I even got a few nibbles–a call here, an interview there. Mostly for temporary work, but it kept my hopes up. Eventually, however, this optimism fades, and being unemployed simply becomes routine. For me, the routine went something like this. I’d wake up early, scour the job boards for openings, and send out a flurry of applications. At some point there would be no more positions I’d be interested in applying to, and I’d stop for the day, feeling a sense of weak accomplishment. I’d crawl back into bed before noon, since nothing was on the plate. I’d sleep until the afternoon, get up, and try to apply to more positions. At night I’d feel justified calling up a friend to hang out or go drink, convinced that tomorrow would be a new, better day. As pathetic as this routine sounds, it only became worse as the months wore on. I’d apply to less jobs, sleep longer, and go out less often, ashamed to face my friends, all of whom had steady employment and busy schedules. I began noticing how important having an actual job was, not just as a means of income, but as an element of identity. I noticed how after every time I introduced myself to someone, the immediate follow up question would be, “So what sort of work do you do?” I started noticing how on the news and in the paper, people were always referenced by their name, followed by their job title. I noticed how people politely stopped inquiring how my job search was going, since it was obvious it was not going well. Rationalizations begin to fall apart, and a deep, pervading shame begins to seep in at the edges. The shame slowly began to dissolve my self-confidence, and eventually I began to dread human interaction, preferring instead to lock myself up in my room and sleep. This all happened gradually, but not in a way where I didn’t notice it was happening. I was acutely aware that my life was falling apart, but felt powerless to stop it, despite my best efforts. At some point, giving your best effort seems pointless, and I stopped trying so hard.
The sort of social withdrawal I am describing here has parallels to alcoholism or drug addiction, but without the perceived victimhood of either. An alcoholic is a victim of a disease, lacking some internal failsafe that would otherwise prevent destructive behavior. An alcoholic has no idea how badly he is damaging his own life until an external party, be it family or friends, steps in and confronts him directly. Unemployment is different. Your life comes apart before your eyes, and the more aware you are of it, the worse the condition can get. Unlike alcoholism, where you are overtly supported by friends and family, the unemployed person gradually receives less and less support and sympathy as time goes on. Support from friends and family erodes and becomes irritation and disappointment, both real and perceived. The powerlessness is overwhelming, and very frustrating for someone such as myself, who along with the rest of his generation, was told repeatedly that he was destined for great things. It is much like being buried alive.
By the late summer of this year, I had moved back in with my parents and continued hunting for jobs. I was somewhat more motivated than before, but the routine was still similar. My motivations for employment had also changed drastically. Where previously I had seen the job hunt as an exciting prospect, it now became a lifeline to sanity, akin to a shipwreck victim sending out the daily distress flare until his rescue. In early October, I found out I would have to make an emergency trip back to Taiwan in order to tend to my terminally ill grandfather. I found out I was going to Taiwan four days before I left. Three days before departure, I sent a resume and a cover letter to five companies, part of my daily routine. Two days before I left, I got a call from a woman who had seen my resume from the day before and wanted me to come in for an interview. One day before I left, I interviewed for the job. It was the best interview I ever had in my life. Because of my compressed schedule, they arranged for me to do second-round interviews the same day, and I was amazed at how smoothly all my interviews went. I knew how to answer every question they asked me, and even asked a few good questions myself. By a stroke of luck, my interviewers and I had several shared interests, and we spent a long time discussing our favorite restaurants in the area, our interests in fine art, and a myriad of other things. We just plain got along. The next day, I left for Taiwan. A day after that, I received an offer letter in the mail. The salary was great, the benefits generous, and they seemed genuinely excited to have me on board. Within the space of five days, I found myself employed, at a great job that suited me perfectly.
It’s been two months since my start date, and since then I’ve tried to reflect on the nature of luck. As much as I want to attribute my success in finding a job to perseverance, optimism, and hard work, none of that reasoning seem entirely truthful. Perseverance didn’t enter into it so much as desperation. Optimism was almost entirely gone. And my work ethic has always been average at best. What remains except luck? Consider the fact that the job posting that eventually led to my employment was just one of hundreds I’ve sent out over the past year. It wasn’t a job that was recommended to me, or a job where I knew someone on the inside. It was simply just another distress flare. Consider that had I applied a day later, or had the employer contacted me a day later, I would’ve been unable to interview. Consider the fact that my interviewer and I both happened to have similar interests and backgrounds, and that the CEO of the company and I had coincidentally attended the same art class years ago, which allowed us to chat in a more relaxed, congenial manner. Yes, I was prepared for the interview; I wore my nicest suit, had all my materials in order, and conducted myself very well during the process. But how much does any of that weigh against the sheer mass of luck? I am inclined to say not very much.
That is the disquieting truth at the heart of my experience. The simple, harrowing fact that luck is more important than anything. Luck happened to be on my side, and I took advantage of it. I don’t feel guilty about this. Though luck played a major part, I am qualified for my position and I am immensely grateful for everything that I have received. But this is part of the reason why contextualizing the past year has been so difficult. How close did I come to the precipice? If I hadn’t been rescued, how much longer would’ve I had to wait for the next opportunity? Could I have missed an opportunity earlier? It seems pointless to ask these questions, since there are no solid answers, but they remain on the periphery of my consciousness.
I was incredibly lucky. I was prepared when opportunity came. When it came, I grabbed it and ran. Now I look over my shoulder, wondering if there are any lessons I should take away for the future when my luck runs dry. I’m uncertain if there is a moral to my experience, save this: Be grateful for the luck you have. Luck is very real, yet utterly unquantifiable. The happiest, most successful people aren’t necessarily the most hard-working, or the smartest, or the talented. They are lucky, but more importantly, also the most appreciative of their luck. Being appreciative is something that can be controlled. It is imperative to appreciate your luck in order to recognize it when it visits again.