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Making Yourself Unemployable

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I was at the bank today, dealing with a young, freshly-hired teller. It got me thinking about how my life could have been with just a few different turns.

I used to find big, comfy jobs very seductive. I remember getting hired at Fido in 2002 and thinking “This is a big brand, a well-paying job, this could really work for me.” The idea of finding your place is seductive and it’s very easy to get lulled into a sense of having “arrived.”

I thought about this as I chatted with the teller. I could have been her. She looked really happy working here. She had been chosen among numerous applicants. Her employer puts her in a kind of prestigious position. I remembered applying for bank jobs before, and how it made me feel to possibly be a part of that team.

That isn’t what happened to me, though. Laziness set in. I almost got laid off repeatedly because I hated it. This is what happens to most people, I’m guessing. They slack off and coast and, as a result, stop getting promoted. They get put into a position where they’re no longer advancing. They settle.

The thing that kept me out of this was being on the web in a really significant way. I saw alternatives (podcasting at the time) that were different from what I was doing or what my parents taught me, a different form of upward mobility that relied on my wits and ability to create content and compete. This helped me let go of the safe job. I eventually reached what some people would call escape velocity and got out for good.

I wonder now about how I could have done it on purpose, instead of just floating around on a sea of chance, and I think that one way to have done this is to make myself unemployable on purpose. But there is an inherent conflict here inasmuch as one of the things that keeps one moving is tension, but the more broke and down on our luck we are, the more we will search for an easy liferaft (like a cushy job).

What is the solution here? Is it to purposefully put restraints on yourself so that you can try harder? Is it to put yourself in a comfortable position so that you feel the liberty to do riskier stuff (and land on your feet)?

I think that the answer to these questions lies in a definition of risk that changes for each person. To one person, starting a company is infinitely risky because they aren’t comfortable with what they assume it means– a misunderstanding of risk in which we assume that certain projects are way more dangerous than they really are.

This weekend in Vermont we spent a few hours hanging out by the river and we were jumping into a deep section of it. Some of us were obviously more comfortable with this than others. Some needed to see someone else jump before we were willing to do it ourselves. This is natural, environmental feedback that tells us that something we do is safe instead of dangerous. Without it we are ignorant of the true danger of any situation and, as such, we make it seem bigger than it really is. This applies not just to jumping in rivers, but to everything. We don’t know how deep the water is, so we don’t risk it.

So maybe the solution is environmental. One of the people I read the most about when I was young was Shannon Larratt, who founded BMEzine.com in the nineties and was largely unemployable because of his tattoos and huge lobes (far bigger than mine), but who was simultaneously highly employable as a programmer. I think this became my water depth– so the place from which I chose to jump was very similar. I saw that the jump was possible, so I did it too.

So if you are young and looking for career advice, I think my best advice may be this: Find people that do not do normal things. Be traditionally unemployable but have many friends and associates who are working doing extraordinary things. This will give you alternative paths to follow than what your parents surrounded you with early on, possibly helping you reprogram yourself. The result of this is hopefully new neural pathways that you can follow yourself. Good luck! :)

* Filed by Julien at 2:08 pm under challenge, taking action


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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26 Responses to “Making Yourself Unemployable”

  1. Michael Bigger Says:

    That is basically how I got from my hometown LaTuque, Qc to working as a trader in New York. If I had followed the well known paths I would have become a nothing. As a kid, I was thinking if I were 70 years old today what accomplishments would I be proud of. Then I just focused on achieving these things. I am 47 years old and I am still asking this question. Soon I will have to think about it from an 80 years old perspective.

  2. Mars Dorian Says:

    that’s a beautiful post. Being unemployable means accepting your own, true destiny. It takes insane courage in the beginning, but once you taste it, you want the whole fruit.
    Not everyone is cut for it. The young woman seemed happy to be a teller. Everyone has a part in society.

  3. Rick Says:

    “Be unemployable” – that’s genius, and a genius way of putting it. I know too many folks who both need this and will have no clue what you’re talking about. Good post.

  4. Sophie Davis Says:

    Mars, I think you raise a very good point. Once you taste the freedom of being the master of your own destiny, you own free will, you can never go back. Maybe you can, but going back causes mental (and maybe physical) pain.

    Everyone can choose whether to follow the path or follow their purpose. It’s up to each and everyone of us to choose freely. We have to be careful about the consequences though.

    It makes me think of Neo in the Matrix. He has to choose between the blue and red pills. Once he chooses, he can never go back. That’s a huge risk to take.

  5. Brian Frank Says:

    Wow. I was actually thinking about this today: i.e. a few different turns (as everyone does). Coincidentally, I started working for Fido in 2000 and I can relate… I’ll remember your river analogy: it’s a good one.

  6. Michael Bigger Says:

    It was not easier, it was different and legal.

  7. Molly Flatt Says:

    Fantastic. The thing to hold onto is that – whatever the outcome, the struggles and mistakes – when you make those choices to do something mad, scary, disruptive, when you jump into the river – you never regret it in the end.

  8. ScottBreese Says:

    Wow, so I’m looking at this from the other side of the fence. 4 years ago I made myself unemployable – by moving from job to job a lot, because I knew after working in my first “real” full time job that I needed to be running a business + needed to learn about money as I was spending it all before I was even getting it. So I focused on learning new skills/ learning how things worked and went from £13000pa – retail, to -£15000pa tele marketing, to £18000pa and potential earnings of £70k. When I hit that job (a 2yr old sme in recruitment) and I had to build a new sales desk in IT (SAS) from scratch. I knew I could run a business day to day and my heart told me that I cared enough about people to make it a success.
    Around that time I told myself I was never going to be employed again (mistake) and spent the next 3 being unemployed/freelancing “here & there” and failing to get anything of the ground (bad genes really suck!) but I can tell you that I now have no choice… nothing. Ok, I’m now putting in real “effort” into freelancing to fund my first business but If I hadn’t of committed, and trust me, many many times I nearly applied for jobs or went into recruitment businesses with my CV, but I could never bring myself to do it. (I whole heatedly believed, I was worth to much)
    I have lost time – 4+years, because I didn’t execute but that just tells me I wasn’t ready, so I kept learning/growing and just made sure I learned something new every day and focused on changing my mindset and approach to life & money.

    So for me, when I made myself unemployable I was selfish (girlfriend has helped me so much/I have no family) and arrogant, oh, and I also learned this year that I have bipolar disorder and that definitely made it easier for me stick at it, regardless of the dangers. But I’ve over come all that and that was the only way “at the time” I felt I could make the necessary big impact’s that were needed.

    I‘m an extreme and without bipolar I probably wouldn’t have done it and without a partner that believes in me 100% it also probably wouldn’t of happened, but that wasn’t the case. I followed and continue to follow my heart and it’s telling me that I will have an impact on the world through business and people. And I will. (there goes the bipolar again)

    Scott

  9. Lynette Young Says:

    That’s the running joke around my house – my husband and I are both unemployable. A huge factor for being able to pave your own way is a partner/spouse/family that understands. Sharing a life with someone that continuously drills the idea of ‘getting a real job’ can take the wind out of anyone’s sails. Being surrounding by people that understand the ebb and flow of being out on your own is vital.

  10. Andy Fogarty Says:

    It’s so important to have those friends and peers that don’t take the “normal” route. Not only do they show you the many alternative paths that are available, but they’re also an incredible inspiration is you start to doubt yourself.

  11. blork Says:

    I started writing a comment (mostly a rant against cookie-cutter suit jobs) but when it hit 700 words I realized it’s not a comment, it’s a blog post! (I will refine and post it on the blork blog soon, I hope!)

    :-)

  12. steve garfield Says:

    I enjoyed reading Dan Pink’s Johnny Bunko:
    http://www.danpink.com/johnny-bunko

    It’s a good guide to help people understand that there is no plan.

    I was always interested in media, but told that I could only do it “on the side.” That sideline finally made it to full time.

  13. Anne Wiltshire Says:

    Phew. I feel a lot better now. I took a year off for maternity leave and in the past year have been immersing myself in social media. I work from home a few hours a day and would love to keep it that way. My husband is recently unemployed, but is trying to start his own business as well. I often have the thought that responsible me should go back the the 9-5 world but I just loathe the thought. Isn’t there a way I can have it all? Work in a new field? From home? Travel occasionally… it’s a long list. This makes me feel like it can be done. Thanks for a great post.

  14. Ryan G Says:

    One of my greatest motivators is my friend and business associate. He left the confines of his cushy job with Vanguard several years ago and got into the eBay business QuickDrop and lost a lot of money. Now he has another business with the same partner. He tells me all the time, “Ryan just hang in there man. It can take 5 or more years to get your business off the ground but one day you will look back at all this and laugh.”

    I can only hope. I believe in what I do. The idea of being employed again seems like a step backward or sideways for me. When I went into business for my self 3 years ago, I didn’t know what to expect but I knew it would be a tough road. My first year was a major success but since then it has been a struggle. I can’t fancy the idea of changing course though, despite how difficult it has been lately.

    I appreciate your insight Julien and the insight of your readers. Makes me feel a little less lonely out here in the realm of solopreneurs. Thanks everyone.

  15. Jeff Maystruck Says:

    I feel as if I am about to hit a profitable escape velocity, I have escaped the traditional job but it has been a difficult couple of years. You spend money differently, you look at things in a different light, you’re molding your entire life around the way you want it to look. Still I think it’s scary as shit, I look at my friends with comfy jobs and tell them they are SO lucky to have the opportunity, in hopes that in 5 years time I’ll be the lucky one. I’m probably preachin’ to the choir, as they say but anyone who has made it as an entrepreneur has worked their butt to get there, I’m finally understanding what that means.
    Thanks for the post, it’s nice to know others out there that understand where I’m at right now.

    Cheers!

  16. marko Says:

    Great post!
    “I wonder now about how I could have done it on purpose, instead of just floating around on a sea of chance, and I think that one way to have done this is to make myself unemployable on purpose….”

    I’ve always loved this concept of the POTENTIAL paths we create for ourselves via our actions. I’m NOT convinced that we can ever see all the branches to these potential paths….but they are always there. New ones keep popping up all the time. A single TWITTER post can offer us a branch in the path if we respond and it yields results. If we don’t respond, that potential branch dies.

    It’s CRAZY how the simplest action can both close a path or open new branches on a new path.

  17. Aimee Davison Says:

    I’m going to talk about this post in my blog tonight. I’ve always believed that in your professional life you get both what you expect AND accept. Settle for less and you’ve settled. (unless you’re accepting less temporarily in pursuit of a greater goal ;)

    I will argue, though, that it’s less about being unemployable in a traditional (or submissive) dynamic, but more about not settling in a job beneath your abilities, goals and desires (or dreams).

  18. Christa Avampato Says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m in this exact position now and it was so helpful and hopeful to read about your journey.

  19. Neil Gorman Says:

    While I really believe there is some wisdom in this post, I’m going to write a dissenting opinion.

    I 100% agree with that everyone should always be on guard against too much comfort. Becoming too comfortable can, and more often than not does, turn into the death of ambition.

    However, I don’t think that just quiting a day job necessarily makes a person more free, or in more control of his/her own life.

    I say this because I’ve lost jobs. For me loosing a job meant (after the savings ran out) that I needed to hustle and find some way of making money.

    If I could make something happen before the savings ran out, no problem. But if the savings ran out before I could make something happen I became willing to take damn near any job that would put some money back into my bank account.

    i.e. desperation (tension) lead to me taking steps back rather than taking steps forward.

    Here is what I believe: If anyone is going to take the plunge and quit their job they should prepare.

    Work on your passion nights and weekends.

    Save as much money as you can for as long as you can. (It would be ideal to have a year’s worth of your salery saved).

    Pay off your debt.

    Then make make your next bold move.

    Action without preparation is to step into oncoming traffic wearing a blindfold.

    -N

  20. Ramblings of a Woman Says:

    I spent a lot of my adult life as an entrepreneur, long before internet marketing became so big. They were more traditional service businesses and I enjoyed them.
    A couple of years back I got the urge to find a ‘real’ job with a strong company, and had a couple, finally winding up in a very prestigious position at a global beauty company. I worked there for 2 years and loved the paycheck the company car, the prestige.
    About 8 months ago, however, something just wasn’t feeling right, but I kept on doing what I was doing. I continued to ignore, or rather stuff those feelings deep inside. This job was not who “I” was and it was creating deep confict within, but I wanted to deny it and ignore it.
    It finally came to a head in July. I had a mental meltdown, lost it in front of my boss, went straight to the doctor and begged for him to help me!
    I am currently on medical leave from said large company, but I don’t know that I will really be employable by when I am better. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if I WANT to be employable.
    I have found the best person I like working for is ME. So, while I am on medical leave, I am blog writing and exploring all options available to me to create the next chapter of my life that IS in line with “who I am”, and begin to live my passion in peace.
    Thanks for a great post!
    Bernice
    http://bernicewood.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/is-your-brain-on-overload/

  21. John Says:

    Julien, So well said. If it were not for the teller jobs, we would not have the launching spot or the contrast from which to see how misirable and I might add, falsely secure those jobs really are.
    Cheers, John

  22. Kevin Miller Says:

    Got this blog sent to me by John Bergquist. I lead folks to ‘free agency’…self-employment. So I dig what you wrote here in a big way.

    Made me think about our societal quest for STATUS. Having a Porsche means nothing more than you were able to qualify for a loan. Nothing more.

    Conversely, being a great spouse or Dad…you get zero kudos from society.

    Having the bank job provides status. Working from home with lots of free time to devote to worthy things and making 6-figures or more doesn’t provide the image of status most folks desire and crave.

    Course you can go apply and get a Porsche to showcase your status…

    Ultimately comes down to what’s most important to you, eh? Living a life of purpose and consequence…or impressing others.

  23. James Says:

    I declined a 80 000 dollar ride to McGill to do a Phd and was as unemployable as it gets….rather than continue grad school I started to teach myself copywritiing and now work at a little agency..now I have time to write what I want and won’t be slaving away at a dissertation for the next 5 years…..thanks for this blog it’s awesome

  24. Jonathan Hookom Says:

    So. I didn’t hear about the job that your risk lead you too. Thanks for the pep talk. Interesting idea however about our perceptions that people from say, so called, alternative life-styles are dead beats and do not actually work. It’s good to keep your opionions to few if any I suppose at any thing in life.

  25. Jonathan Hookom Says:

    so, I was nice and figured that some Mark Zukerburge? , still nice, type-person might be a good guy. Now, because cost too much, proper use of dip-shits “too”, ass holes… This guy is an asshole that lived off his parent money, would suggest never did anything and gave shit to a teller “” that deals with more money than a convenient store and a grocery store, ha ha if you like the latter, i.e. 10,000 a day; now, ass-hole,!; if you prefer that to asshole, has never worked a job in his life, and this… sick of grammar… is going after someone who is earning 2.00 per hour more than minimum wage, so they can get up. That is the basis of his argument; and he wants to make himself unemployable; where I have worked over 45 jobs and am unemployable because I have too much experience, Jimmy Hendrix “applied”, didn’t go to war like Elvis; Modonna…
    I,however, was stating my civil rights, like Jimmy I would suggest, and supporting little fucks that look like my father make their ow little business on their parent money so that they might hire me one day. The reason this post exist is because he is a do nothing play with terms like unemployable and call his Jesus wife father four square mother of a wife of a girlfriend something worthy of strife. I was trying to be nice.

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