In times like these, possession of extraordinary qualifications, like an advanced degree or specialized experience, can seem less like a blessing than a curse. As Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman, recently testified before Congress, the economy still suffers from persistent unemployment; and with persistent unemployment, there’s underemployment, and over-qualification. A peripheral colleague with a master’s degree from a prestigious, and extremely expensive, university just competed against literally hundreds of other people to land a job as an administrative assistant. “You do know that you need a master’s to _____” – fill in the blank: use the scanner, make photocopies, etc. – has become a sarcastic comment I’ve heard more than once from the educated and underemployed.
When I was living through the dot-com tech bust trying to find a full-time job I waitressed, worked retail, and temped to fill in the gaps. When I found full-time work, on three occasions I took a pay cut at 10k apiece – not my expectation equipped with my MBA, or my idea of success.
Sometimes it was enlightening; I was forced to evaluate what was really important. But most of the time it was just miserable. I operated in survival mode. I was so consumed with the now that moments of enlightenment felt like things I’d only have the opportunity to act on once I gained some traction of stability. I shortened my projections into the future down to months – did I have enough to pay rent or didn’t I? As I shortened my projections of the future, I changed my definition of success. I couldn’t judge myself from where I thought I should be, but from where I was, and I persisted from that point.
I did what I learned to do with clients in social work school – I met myself where I was at. I rose with the alarm for each day, got dressed, and did my best to job hunt or survive another day feeling like a throwaway organizing files in some windowless room of a temp job. Each day I’d have to remind myself that I had done what I could do for that day and make peace with the vast difference between ideal and good enough. Meeting yourself where you’re at is not a concession, it’s just one more step in figuring out fulfillment.