The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”

Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.

Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support.  (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) . . . .”)

While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.

I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “The Audacity of Hopelessness

  1. Good article.

    But I wonder why we continue to seek out the same resolutions to our challenges, only to find ourselves facing that same challenge in the future.

    Due to advances in technology, companies wanting to be profitable, etc., jobs will continue to decline. From what I can see, the pendulum has swung back in the other direction; we are again becoming a society where self-reliance will be the norm.

    For sure, the employer-employee relationship will continue but on a much smaller scale. For the sake of our individual and family survival, we can no longer continue believing that being an employee, only, translates into security.

    If we are to prosper as individual’s and as a society, we must indeed become a nation of Plan B’ers. But plan B must be completely different from plan A.

    • Everything you say makes sense to me, Kevin. One thing I’d add–along with the self-reliance, I hope we develop new forms of collaboration/mutual support, because in my experience, going solo can only take you so far.

  2. I like this piece a lot because it reminds me of my own blogging trajectory. I got divorced, which never feels like a success, yet I found a way to take a difficult situation and find something beneficial and empowering in it. Instead of remaining in the shadows of anonymity, you started writing about your difficulties with unemployment and the ways in which you were learning from them.

    I like the word acceptance because hope may be too rosy and hopelessness is self-defeating, To me, acceptance is about acknowledging where you are at in the moment and making peace with it, albeit with the desire to transcend it as well.

    And sometimes a little angry sarcasm is exactly what you need to accept your lot for now.

  3. You are exactly right, Amy, and my path is a perfect example of the benefit of hopelessness: It was only when I gave up trying to maintain my career in New York that there was room in my brain for the idea of moving to Turkey to take hold.

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