Merely a few months ago, the term “laid off” conjured images in my mind of a handsome man coming home, briefcase in hand, to his wife cooking dinner on the stove. His children were playing in the yard, oblivious to the terrors of the world. The man, saddened by his bad fortune, told his wife “I got laid off.” They embraced and soon he was employed again and doing better than ever. I assumed that’s how it went. I assumed that’s what the picture looked like. I had no idea I could be so wrong or that I could be so naïve.
Today, the picture I have in my head of what it looks like to be laid off is far from the Norman Rockwell scenario I envisioned. I’m a 24-year-old millennial who graduated from a four-year college with a degree in journalism and marketing. I had several unpaid internships, participated in extracurricular activities, and managed to graduate with honors. I think I did everything right. I was employed right out of college, but two weeks before the 2013 holiday season, after only being in the work force for 18 months, I was let go.
The story of how I was laid off is almost too ironic to share. My company of three had just moved into a new office, on Friday the 13th, and I was unpacking my desk. That morning in a meeting, I told someone that I had a lot of job security, and I even told my dad that afternoon that I was expecting a raise and Christmas bonus. The picture I had painted of my life was one of bright colors and birds chirping. There wasn’t a rain cloud in sight.
After being laid off, a process that took about 20 minutes, I drove off in my newly leased Jetta (because I was able to afford it at the time) and into the complete unknown. My boyfriend took me for pizza, some of the best pizza I’ve ever had, and I suppose I fantasized about the next chapter of my life. The new picture I made in my mind was even brighter than the last. It was framed, hanging in some famous museum—a story of triumph and success. Little did I know, the painting wouldn’t look like I thought it would.
At the holiday parties that followed, I timidly told people I was looking for work. I quietly told friends about my dilemma in hopes that they would know someone hiring. I didn’t want to go out with my friends and tried to retreat into some kind of hole. It’s embarrassing being resourceful, applying for unemployment insurance, when everyone else is spending their hard-earned dollars and building their 401K.
In retrospect, I wish I had had the confidence to say to friends and family, “I don’t know what I’m doing next.” There is no shame in that answer. It’s just not what people want to hear. And as a hard-working human, my goal is to please. My goal is produce the best work, with the best attitude, as efficiently as I can. My goal is paint the best picture and to live up to that painting, no matter what obstacle stands in the way.
Five months later, I’ve been on more than 30 job interviews, written close to 500 cover letters, and sent out close to a thousand emails about potential jobs. And still nothing. No one wants to hear that. The job market is tough (in case you didn’t already know) and companies aren’t hiring. That’s the truth. It’s ugly, but it’s true.
I applied for unemployment insurance, went to the humiliating meetings offering advice on how to find a job, sold clothes on Ebay for extra cash, and started trying to freelance. I leaned on the support of my friends, family, and significant other more so than I ever have my entire life (don’t worry, they can take it). I won’t call the last few months my best, but they haven’t been the worst either. If anything, my painting now isn’t bright colors, but stronger, deeper ones; colors that convey perseverance and a formidable spirit.
The truth is, the Norman Rockwell painting of a young girl out in the world finding her perfect job and cookie-cutter life, doesn’t exist. The painting of a young girl not knowing what to do next, does. Maybe that painting is better; maybe it’s the more powerful of the two, the one with character and a backbone. But at the end of the day, it’s not the one we want to look at. Because the truth is harder to hear, it always has been, but truth is the essence of life, and trust me, it’s a lot harder to paint.