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LD On The DL: The Lessons Of Unemployment

I want there to be a compelling narrative about my year of unemployment. In a style evoking The New Yorker's Talk of the Town, I want to write an expertly crafted column which uses evocative language, action verbs, and complex sentence structure that together weaves a glorious tale and concludes with a satisfying, concise ending. This ending would bring the piece's lessons to a natural, obvious conclusion. We'd learn a little about me, and you -- the reader -- would glean a little greater insight into the human condition. In my mind, it's glorious. Pulitzer-worthy, if they gave Pulitzers to obscure blog writers at industry magazines. There's just one slight problem. To describe this past year as ”compelling,” or to pretend a single narrative of it exists, or to even suggest there are grandiose life lessons that might be learned would require me to write a work of fiction.

Only a fictional account could smooth over a year of confusing lessons, divergent plot lines, and strange experiences. I've written fiction before. Trust me when I say it's unreadable. That leaves us, then, with the truth. So what follows are the small lessons I learned from a very tumultuous year.

The first lesson I learned: stay busy. How one accomplishes this can vary. I chose to work part-time for a technology company that ran and serviced equipment used in focus groups for market research. Much of what I learned -- sitting in the back room, behind a one-way mirror, with marketing executives routinely mocking participants in the front room -- I can't legally discuss. (Though, go long on diabetes medication and supplies. Big pharma certainly is.) Nevertheless, it kept me busy. The job provided a minimum amount of structure to an otherwise orderless existence.

It also exposed me to corporate America. I feel like our world and corporate America are somehow separated; we don't cross-pollenate very often. So when I brought to this part time job my vast amount of skills and work ethic, hard earned from a lifetime in production, I was surprised to find myself the most competent person in the room. Not only did I know most everything I needed to know already, because the technology we use is way more difficult, my client service skills and cool demeanor came in handy when things went badly. After all, if you can think to jump a lighting console's blown fuse (because the technician ported the multi-knuckle into the 208V PD by mistake) with the foil found in a cigarette pack which saves the wedding reception lighting, you can handle anything corporate America will possibly throw at you. I liked the structure this (extremely) part time job created, but I really enjoyed the validation I received from putting my knowledge-base to work in a different environment.

So whether you volunteer for Toastmasters, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, a religious organization, a theater program for at-risk kids, or find part time work nestled behind a one way mirror, do something. Flex those skills, learn some new skills (for example, I'm now pretty fluent on Adobe InDesign), and get out of the house as often as possible.

Being a writer I thought I could write a resume`. How hard could it be? It turns out very. I learned this second lesson slowly, but I'll never forget it: hire a resume` writer. No matter how skilled you are at whatever you do, you do not speak or write Human Resources (HR). Nobody but HR people do. For example, below is a part of my resume` written in English:

Event professional with more than 12 years of experience emphasizing project management, production design, vendor relationships, contract and budget negotiations, and on-site leadership.

Here's the same passage written in HR by a professional resume writer:

Highly organized professional demonstrates key abilities in project management, leadership, marketing coordination, event planning, communication, business development, organization, training, and problem solving. Effectively contributes towards organizational achievement, leads cross-functional teams with positive determination, thrives in demanding team environments, professionally deals with increased challenges and responsibilities, and performs extremely well under pressure.

Honestly, I don't even know what “... leads cross-functional teams” means, much less how I did it with “... positive determination.” The first paragraph -- my own resume -- got me nowhere for eight months. The professionally written paragraph and resume` got me an interview in a university event department in the New York area after three weeks of use.

HR is more than a language used by a strange, little understood sect of humanity. What makes HR a really complex language are the formatting requirements only other HR people know. In English, a resume`'s formatting is straight-forward. The fonts are simple, the formatting is not complex, and experience goes in reverse chronological order. Unfortunately HR departments aren't bastions of simplicity, and neither is their language.

Certain fonts show you are forward thinking and certain font families pair nicely with certain jobs. Since you don't write HR, you will not know what those fonts are. Certain formatting is expected but can trend in and out of fashion like clothing. Since you don't write HR, you will not know what the current formatting trends are. Sure, your experience still goes in reverse chronological order. However, since you don't write HR, you will not know what to put before your experience, after your experience, and in what order or to what amount of detail.

The irony is to get in the door, you have to speak and write HR. To get hired by your probable supervisor, you need to speak English (and maybe also Spanish.) It felt like a huge waste of money to hire a local resume` writer, especially at a time when I counted my pennies. In retrospect I should have pursued it much sooner. I don't speak HR. I never will. It was foolish of me to pretend I could. I don't pretend to speak German and expect to be taken seriously. Maybe this step is unnecessary if applying for jobs at smaller firms without a HR department. However, I felt it unwise to limit myself in such a tough economy.

Despite my snazzy, new resume`, I landed my current position through my network of professional contacts. This method is effective, but I also learned incredibly frustrating.

One, while my peers did want to help, most did not know the people actually doing the hiring. Everyone knew someone somewhere, but rarely did anybody know someone in HR or in the correct department. I applied to more jobs at Bloomberg than I care to admit. Fortunately they do not consider it stalking, another oddity of HR departments no doubt, because otherwise I'd be in jail. Knowing several very helpful and very friendly people throughout the company ultimately wasn't useful. None of them worked in HR or the department I would eventually work in if hired.

I also had to constantly remind people of my employment status, which I'm sure frustrated everyone else. My friends have lives with more important things to worry about than my job status. The responsibility fell solely to me for continually broadcasting my availability so when a job did arise it triggered a, “Oh, you know a friend of mine is looking for work.” Not a day went by where I wasn't reminding someone, somewhere of my employment status. You get over the awkwardness of it after a few weeks.

Another frustration was timing. The best, most connected person in the world still has to wait till a job in their network becomes available. Sometimes waiting was all I could do, which felt somehow lazy. I did as much proactively as possible, but I also came to understand I just had to wait. Letting go of that control I liked exerting over my future took some practice.

I posted on Facebook a few days ago, “I got the job.” The outpouring of support and kind words felt incredible. I am really grateful for my network of friends and colleagues. I'm also pretty sure they're grateful not to hear about my employment status anymore.

I'm surprised by the recent turn of events my life has taken. Though I did some design work this past year as a freelancer, I reluctantly got used to thinking those days were behind me. The jobs I applied for were in different parts of the economy. Suddenly, it now seems the best is yet to come. The speed with which everything changed has left me a little nonplussed. That's probably the most difficult lesson to accept: one phone call, one email, one text, and the course of your life can be drastically altered. It's just that easy, or maybe the status-quo is just that fragile.

I realize advice is repackaged nostalgia, and I don't wish to romanticize this past year or the difficulties unemployed people face in our changing industry. For me losing a job, recovering from a debilitating back injury that required surgery, sending upwards of 500 job applications, and constantly wondering about my future were exhausting. It was a year filled with mixed emotions and constant questions, often without satisfying answers. As my production employment “rumspringa” concludes and I re-enter the workforce, I say goodbye to this bizarre period of my life with the same range of emotions that characterized it. Tomorrow my new job will start. A new story will begin, and new lessons will be learned. Unlike the conclusion of this story, let us hope there will be a more compelling narrative and conclusion to tell. Let us also hope I don't have to tell it for many, many years to come.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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