Meaningful Work and Mastering the Art of Underemployment

I was out of work a long time.

Not totally out of work, I always had a little work but I was most of the way out of work most of the time.  This makes me either a good person to talk to about finding a job or a horrible one. If I am a good source of advice, it’s because I tried a lot of things that didn’t work.  I have first-hand experience with a lot of failed attempts at getting a job, and practical knowledge of how looking for a job can lead to loss of motivation, damaged ego and malaise.  If I am horrible on this it’s because till recently I didn’t have any success worth talking about.

But, good or bad, my advice is this: if you’re having trouble finding a job, try to find some meaningful work.

It might sound as if I’m putting the cart before the horse.  If you’re having trouble finding a job, how are you going to find work that is meaningful?  I think people (including me) get confused by vocabulary here and forget that there is a difference between having a job and having work.

Right now it is tough to find a job.  10% of the population is unemployed, more are underemployed (working less than they’d like) yet more have given up looking for work are counted as “retired.”  It may be cold comfort but if you are unemployed/underemployed/on furlough/forced into retirement, you are in good company.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is there’s plenty of work.  Even in the best of times, companies, schools and governments have work that they can’t get to, that can’t be made a priority or that they just don’t have enough staff for.  There is always work to do.  Now, in a recession, when companies are laying off people and asking fewer people to take care of more responsibilities there is more work than usual.  Companies can try all they want to work more efficiently but, somewhere along the line, there’s work not getting done.

This is where poor schlubs like me (and at some point probably you, too) come in.

The unemployed, underemployed, etc. do the boring repetitive, unrewarding and thankless work of trying to find a job for free.  They are/I was stuck doing that work for free until I could find some job that would pay me to work for money. Unless.. They make their own work by looking for something meaningful to do, whether or not it pays.

This idea was introduced to me by Brooke Allen, the man who started a newsletter called “No Shortage of Work.”  His ideas helped me in two different and important ways.  First, it gave me  something to do with my time besides pining for jobs I didn’t really want and waiting for rejections that felt inevitable.   The importance of this cannot be understated.  People who are out of work often report depression, say that they spend less than two hours a day actually looking for jobs and end up beating themselves up about the work they are not doing.  Second, it helped me in a more concrete way, by finding meaningful work I was able to gain experience, expand my connections and learn new skills.

There are a lot of ways to approach the search for meaningful work.  I didn’t figure out how I wanted to do it right away, but one of the first things I did was start devoting more time to this blog.  I was often asked if I was blogging to make money but, after a little time dealing with ads and reading a lot of material from pro blogging gurus, it didn’t seem to be a feasible option for me.  Even when it was dealing with things like graffiti or emerald mines, I felt this blog was helping me professionally.

Whatever I blogged, I was always learning about:

  • Writing
  • Learning To build and manage a website
  • Making Connections with bloggers, readers and interviewees

It also lead me to meaningful work elsewhere: writing for Site Sketch, lecturing on social media, and creating media for others (like Try for Dry and the box project you will see in an upcoming post)

But I also worked for free elsewhere when I could.  Fundraising for the Neofuturists, and working on social media promotion for Marketing to Moms.  And this does not include the people I tried to work for where it didn’t work out or I couldn’t spare the time ( like the Witzig Group or enie Marketing)

Anyway, for a lazy bum with no job I actually worked a lot.  Sometimes, it was for a little money but usually for no money.  But not for nothing, because meaningful work is valuable. Experience means learning skills and honing talents, having colleagues means your connections and professional network is growing even if you’re not a schmoozer.

It took me some time to get the hang of working for free and more time to get good at it, but once I stated I found myself happier, more engaged, making more money (though still not very much) and eventually choosing between multiple offers for full-time employment.

The job I have now is a place where I originally worked for free.

It is important to note, I am not at a happy ending. I am too young and scattered to be thinking about endings. But, in the 6 months after my conversation with Brook Allen I started on a path toward meaningful work that has been a happy beginning.