Escape From The Job Jungle

October 17, 2013

At first, I was sure I'd find a job. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a well- branded college, I did hard time in the internship gulags for four consecutive summers, and according to, there were hundreds of job openings in New York City. All I had to do was pick one with the words "assistant" "junior" or "associate" in the title, upload my resume, and go back to watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. A few days later, employers would swamp my inbox, promising me big stacks of money and a swivel chair of my very own. That's how the Internet works: you click what you want and you get it.

I applied to 53 jobs in July, according to the tally marks I carved into my parents' dining room table while playing the harmonica. But the big sack I bought to hold all my salary never filled up, and I began to suspect something just wasn't right.

I googled "economy," and found all sorts of disconcerting information.

Especially this one: the unemployment rate among recent college graduates was 9.6%. Also, according to a recent study from the Buzz Kill Institute, the longer it took me to find a job, the more scarred I'd be for the rest of my life. Then I stumbled upon an article by Thomas Friedman, who insisted that nowadays, people have to invent their own jobs. So I invented It's like, but instead of finding true love, you find an archenemy. It's a speed hating service that helps you find loathe at first sight.

It was a brilliant invention, but none of my friends in finance wanted to invest, and NemAssist never started up (thanks for nothing, Tom). Back at square one, I decided to write up a list of Four Strategies for Finding Work. I crossed out "Online Applications" and "Entrepreneurship" and moved on to Strategy 3: "Loco-Motion."

Loco-Motion is when doing something completely insane moves you forward in life. You hear the success stories all the time: "I hired a plane to skywrite my resume above the beach in South Hampton. Two days later I started at Morgan Stanley." So I called the Drug Policy Alliance and asked for the e-mail address of the director. Then I sent him a long rambling e-mail about my history thesis on Reagan's war on drugs. The next day, I had my first interview.

I didn't get the job, but I started to believe in the power of Loco-Motion. So I tried it again, except this time I called Google and asked to speak to Larry Page. The sound of the phone hanging up is still ringing in my ears.

I wrote "50/50 odds" next to Loco-Motion, and moved on to Strategy 4: Networking. For the whole month of September, I spun an intricate networking web, like some kind of exotic Jewish spider. I talked to 28 strangers. Friends of friends of friends. They worked at HBO and ABC, Time Inc. and the Daily Beast, BBDO and Dentsu, Penguin and Simon & Shuster, and more. Assistants steered me through cubicle labyrinths and deposited me on plush couches in big offices. No one had any jobs to offer, but everyone had advice, which I jotted down diligently in a legal pad. On the way out, I'd look around at all the lucky workers, entranced, like a little boy at an aquarium, his face flush against the glass.

I liked networking, but it didn't seem to work. By September, it still hadn't landed me one single interview. I did pick up two part time gigs as a writing tutor and a manager for a small theater company, both procured through Strategy 1, which actually had 2/55 odds in the end.

On September 8th, a switch flipped on inside me. My mood plummeted from "cautious optimism" to "nihilistic despair." On that day, for 20 of my 23 years, I'd been sitting in a classroom. Now I was sitting in a La-Z-Boy in a bathrobe. What really pushed me over the edge that day was an article in The Atlantic, which claimed that I belonged to a "Lost Generation." At first I assumed this referred to young adults who were severely disappointed by the season finale of Lost. It didn't, but that was the idea that stuck with me. Maybe life is just like Lost: you invest so much time and energy throughout so many seasons, and it all adds up to nothing.

And then, a fly landed in my networking web. I hurried over to inspect the body -- it was a full-time freelancing gig at an ad agency. Could I come in for an interview on Thursday? I checked my schedule. Thursday was free (and so was every day after Thursday).

As I sat and waited in an awfully swank lobby, I started flipping through that legal pad I'd spent my summer filling up. As the snippets of wisdom fluttered by, I realized how well networking had prepared me for an interview. Four ad execs had poured their brains out to me. I had prepared answers for any possible question, even those horrible HR-type ones like "what is your greatest weakness?" ("You mean besides being a perfectionist? Kryptonite.") That's the thing about networking -- it's the only job-getting strategy that actually makes you more employable.

Flash forward to December 9th, and I'm in a swivel chair, spinning round and round in the sickly white light of an office. After three months of freelancing, my boss, Jack, had just offered me a job.

Lucky. Unbelievably lucky. That's how I felt as I swiveled. Also, a little dizzy. Also, a little guilty.

I started thinking about all the other 20- to 24-year-olds out there, still stuck in the search, bleeding out in the job jungle, their ankles shackled by debt with miles and miles to go till the next interview. Can they all network their way out of there? Will throw them a vine? Can they find a part-time path to prosperity? Will Lady Luck bail them out?

I'd hate to play the odds on that one.

« Back to Collected Works