I am reading a really great book. A dive in and stay there kind of book. Only I am not, as it were. I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for days now. Why? Because I am in A Quandary.
I am loving the book when I’m reading it (a review will be forthcoming, of course) but my brain is so tangled up in other things that I can’t concentrate for long. Seriously, people, I have been reduced to playing Chuzzle. In Zen Mode. You know, the one that you can’t win because it never ends. (That said, I discovered if you play long enough you get badges. Why badges are necessary in a game that cannot be won is beyond me, but they’re cute.)
We’re coming off the holiday season, which this year has been insanely overstimulating for me… the low-key holidays of my past have been replaced with Sudden Influx of Large Boisterous Family. I do appreciate the bounty, but I am an introvert. There have been mental adjustments.
That’s been distracting, but it is not the Quandary. With the coming of the new year, I have been forced to reassess my life. I had a job interview a week before Christmas, and, while I didn’t get the job, it did get me pondering. Particularly when the interviewer brought up the infamous “So where do you see yourself in five years?” question.
There are several ways to answer that question. You can be obsequious and suck up, presuming you will be there and be Making Great Things for the company. You can speak to a broader career initiative. You can be honest, if you want. You can lie through your teeth. Whatever gets you the job, right?
I suspect that most people have no real idea, and even if they think they do, five years is a long time. Heck, I’ve gone through about half of the major life changes list in the last two and a half years. I’m certainly not the same person I was before then. No matter how well-prepared I am, the question always results with a deer-in-headlights moment. It’s a scary question.
The last two weeks, I have been thinking about that question outside the limited context of the job market. Unsurprisingly, to me, I found that I have no real answer. I have some vague proto-ideas, but nothing concrete enough to give me a place to land. At the same time, I am reaching the age where jumping around trying to find oneself is simply tiring. Whatever I want, I want some sort of stability.
I don’t have a particularly good history in the stability department. I’ve moved ten times since college, five in the last two and a half years. I’ve had many and various jobs, and I’ve been unemployed almost half as long as I’ve been in the workforce, for various reasons. It’s always something different. Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, other times I just got (un)lucky. To be in the job market means to put your work life (and often the rest of it by extension) in someone else’s hands.
And we’re conditioned to accept that. I remember, as a kid and a teenager, feeling like I was just filling out the life checklist. I went to school and college was expected. I went to college, and a Real Job was the next step. That’s about where I faltered, right out of the gate, and I’ve been stumbling through it ever since. The only thing that’s remained stable is the idea that this is how it works. Objectively, I know there are many alternatives, but the default programmed into the hindbrain is: There is only one path, and you fail to follow it. I keep trying to climb back into the lane and it works for a short while, until I fall out again.
That conditioning is tricky. We ask each other “what do you do for a living?” We are “making a living.” The implication is that if you don’t have a career, you are not living. If you don’t follow The Plan, you’re not alive.
There are so many things I haven’t done because I was looking for a job. The hindbrain constantly tells me I cannot participate in this or that activity because I don’t have an adequate response to “what do you do?” It actively tries to shut me down; obviously, without a job, without a living, I am not a real person, I have no right to do those things.
Over the last two weeks, however, I’ve been wondering: if I keep doing everything according to The Plan and it still doesn’t work, maybe it’s not me. Maybe the plan is faulty. Maybe it’s only designed for certain use cases.
Maybe I don’t know where I want to be in five years because I’m looking at the wrong map. I’ve sort of come to this conclusion before, but it’s always been in the context of This is How It Works. All the changes I’ve tried to make have been limited to finding that One True Career, of finding the slot that I fit into.
I’m wondering if I need to stop looking. If I need to work from the assumption that I am not going to get a job, as society would see it. Then I have to figure out how to live from there. If I find a job in the process, great. If not, I need to find out how to live without The Plan. And that’s going to be hard. I barely know where to start even thinking about it.
It may take more marathon Chuzzle sessions, but sometimes trying not to think is the best way to figure something out. If I need to think outside the box, first I have to get my brain to accept the fact that there is no box.
I don’t need a box to finish that awesome book, but I do need to make some decisions. They may affect my reading time, but hopefully only to make it better. Wish me luck.