my ongoing struggle with career anxiety

the state of the “month of writing”

The project I’ve set for myself–spending this month focusing my considerable free time outside of my rather meager current student load on writing rather than job hunting–has been an interesting experiment thus far. For the first week-ish I pumped out more content that I ever have before, and several times I looked up after typing for 4+ hours straight and realized I had skipped a meal because I’d lost all sense of time. I enjoyed being able to enter that state of flow, and spending a significant amount of time in that state on several consecutive days got me on a bit of a high. I felt good, and I felt like a writer.

Then this week, I unexpectedly heard back from two tutoring agencies that I had applied to before I made this commitment. As per my rules for the month, I did follow up on these previous applications. The first was an utter waste of my time, but the second started as an invitation to schedule a phone interview, which took place Wednesday, and ended in me being offered a position yesterday after my in-person interview.

It’s still just another place to tutor, not a full-time position exactly, but it would be the highest end and highest paying agency I’ve worked with, which would allow me to support myself with relatively few students and turn tutoring into something like a serious professional career, if I wanted.  I haven’t been given any students yet–first I have to write a profile for their website and give them a professional photo to go with it. Even after that, it will take awhile to build up a client base, so realistically I’m probably looking at ramping up to a decent client list by January. Even so, it’s an exciting opportunity. I could reasonably work 4.5–6 hr days and make enough money to support myself while continuing to write and seek freelance work, and I would take on students for a full school year commitment, meaning waaaay less time hustling up work. All-in-all, it could reasonably take me from living on the edge financially to a fairly stable job within a few months, if all goes well.

There are some downsides though. Many of this agency’s clients are wealthy and live in areas inaccessible by public transit, so I may end up needing to buy a car to really make a run at this. I have never owned a car and have thus far avoided in-home tutoring precisely because of travel time eating my profits, but this agency pays well enough to make travel potentially worthwhile. I don’t have to make any decisions on that quite yet–hopefully I’ll be able to get a student or two in an accessible area to establish myself with this agency before I make that kind of big commitment. Additionally, committing to students longer term, including potentially adding home school students to work with during normal business hours, would mean that if a worthwhile full time opportunity did fall into my lap, the logistics of me taking it would be significantly more complicated than they are now. Neither of these are insurmountable problems, but they are things I need to consider carefully.

The problem with all of this is that thanks to the job stuff, I haven’t really written anything in two days. I did rework my “should you quit grad school” post a bit to try putting it up on medium, but that took all of an hour and was mostly something I did as a failed attempt to make yesterday feel like less of a waste. The problem isn’t so much the actual time the job interviewing took up–the phone interview took 20 minutes out of my day Wednesday and the real interview only ate up the first half of the day yesterday including prep and travel time. The bigger problem is what thinking about all of the crap detailed above does to my brain.

At this point, I have about a year of “oh god am I ever going to be able to support myself”-anxiety built up, and the practical effect of this is that dealing with job shit, even when it goes well, takes up a disproportionate amount of my mental energy. My anxiety spikes and I get grouchy and headachy and exhausted. I’ve had a much easier time writing since I started this plan because I haven’t felt as conflicted as I normally do about using my time that way. Since I’d decided to make writing my job for the month, I made myself a safe space to block out the “oh my god how am I going to keep paying the bills” panic for a bit and let my brain actually focus on my work. I don’t even have words to express what a goddamn relief that was.

But in the past few days, that safe space evaporated, and so did all my will to write. Wednesday, I felt so crummy between working myself up over the goddamn phone interview and some miscellaneous personal crap going on that I flat out gave myself the day off from writing, and instead sat around knitting and watching downloaded TV shows. Yesterday, I really intended to write but by the time I got around to it I had less than three hours before tutoring, which I [unreasonably] told myself wasn’t long enough to start a “real” post, thus justifying the pathetic rewrite attempt as my only writing work for the day.

the staggering impact of career anxiety

On one hand, all of this illustrates pretty clearly for me that taking a month off from constantly pursuing career stuff was a damn good idea. At the beginning of this week I felt pretty awesome, and after two days off from my plan, I feel pretty much like shit and would really like to just go back to bed rather than attempt to get shit done today. If anything, this should make me more confident about the importance of this month off, and I should submit my profile and picture to the new agency and then try to put them out of my mind until I get offered a student, which could take some time.

On the other hand, this has made me realize the full extent of how much constant obsession with job-related worries has been compromising my mental health, and that’s frankly pretty goddamn terrifying. If I can’t find some way to reign this in, how am I ever going to function well enough to find decently paying and consistent work, or to do it to the best of my ability when I do have it?

Even scarier, how can I make realistic and healthy choices about long-term career goals when I spend all my time living inside a fog of anxiety? I was talking about career shit and specifically my continuing sense of loss and shame over not being a “scientist” anymore with my therapist on Wednesday, and that made me realize exactly how little clarity I still have about what I want to do with my life. For instance, for awhile, I’ve been saying fairly firmly that I don’t want to go back to grad school, but I really have no idea if that is a rational decision I am making given my own strengths, the state of the academic research system/funding, and the time commitment that path would require, or if it’s a decision made largely out of fear and shame over my previous failure.

I used to have a plan, a path. Those goals allowed me to prevent my constant guilt and anxiety from consuming me, because I could always come back to telling myself that I needed to be doing X, Y, Z to get where I needed to go. I still HAD guilt and anxiety about whether I was doing X, Y, and Z well enough, but the anxiety could be relatively focused, contained.

Ever since my plan blew up in my face, I’ve felt terrifyingly unmoored. I have a free-floating sense of anxiety about everything. A few times I have started to construct at least short term plans, and the anxiety subsided a bit, but nothing ever seems to go well long enough for me to really feel grounded. And fuck is that exhausting.

I know that the only way out is to muddle my way through the fog. I need to go to therapy and chase a variety of opportunities that excite me and pour my heart out on the page and trust that eventually I will stumble on to a patch of solid ground that I can start to build from. In the meantime, I get to just keep clinging to the things I have that are constant–my amazing and lovely girlfriend, my kick-ass friends, my family–and let that be enough for now. But god damn it, that doesn’t feel like enough. I am not patient, and I hate living through this uncertainty. I want answers, and soon.

looking to history

I’ve felt unmoored and lost like this before several times, most recently after I left my abusive ex. The despair and pain and shame and sense of failure were all deep and biting, and a major thread of my life plan had just been torn away. It was a worthless thread that needed to die, but I didn’t understand myself without it. I needed to somehow make sense of what had happened, to re-write my story in a way that I could own and accept.

During the days, at that time, I did everything I could to throw myself into work/school. In my free time, I either hung out with supportive friends, or I read. And god did I read. Novels, memoirs, self-help books. I consumed stories about recovering from losses, about mental illness, about abusive relationships, about how to build healthy relationships. I went to both fiction and non-fiction, but ultimately it was a rather amusingly scholarly approach. I got out of my own head and into others’ views on similar problems in hope of understanding myself better and finding a better way forward. And in a way, it worked. I changed my thinking about relationships drastically, and I reframed my own history in my mind. I didn’t fully heal or even fully forgive myself–that’s been a long road–but I built myself a path forward.

This time the wound is different. My relationship with my ex dominated a large part of my life, but without him or any other relationship I still had my career goals, my academic loves and sense of purpose. I can’t tell you which shitty situation did more damage to my soul, the shitty relationship or the failures of graduate school, but it does feel like the latter has done more damage to my life.

This time I have attempted to use several old self-help strategies, but writing has been the most successful, and I’ve had only moderate success. Books have played a role for the purpose of escapism primarily, which has value on its own but doesn’t help me process and rebuild. Maybe I need to try the book angle again, though I’m not sure I know where to start on “stories about finding your career/purpose” or “stories about building a new sense of identity” that don’t involve mystical bullshit about “callings” or other useless bullshit. And anyhow, the books only provide a context and some starter ideas for re-thinking things, not a magical hidden solution–I still have to do the work of thinking things through.

moving forward

I think that, perhaps, adding a scholarly approach to dealing with career anxiety by making myself something of a reading list, is at the very least worth a try. But otherwise, like I said, I’m largely on the right track. Keep trying, keep writing, keep hold of my remaining anchors, muddle through. God damn do I hate that answer, but that’s just it. Life isn’t easy. Later I’ll look back on this and talk about how much the muddling taught me, right? It will get better, I just have to keep moving forward.

Edited to add: Book recommendations welcome. Think broadly… fiction or memoir can be relevant if the themes are at least tangentially related. Again, the goal is more “interesting things for my brain to mull over” than “all the answers written out for me.”

5 thoughts on “my ongoing struggle with career anxiety

  1. Oh Keelie, I don’t have anything constructive to add but I will say that reading the things you’ve published in the last couple of weeks has been really helpful and interesting. If I’d been able to read what you’ve written about leaving grad school a few years ago my life would be so different now, so I wholeheartedly second everything you said in those two posts.

    Also wanted to say that it really sucks how few stories our society has about how to be and exist without a job, a calling or a career, and how few stories it has about how to find those things if they don’t hit you aged 5. Seems we’re still stuck in the past of ‘get job in mail room, work way up to CEO, have job for life’ when none of that is relevant any more. Worse is the insecurity and pride that leads people to hide the ‘no srsly, I had no idea what I wanted to do, this thing I love was 95% luck’ behind ‘Ahaha, suckers, I had a plan all along and it’s your fault you don’t know what you want to do!’

    Hugs and cake for your struggles. As with all these things, be kind and generous to yourself, as much as you can, and don’t beat yourself over the head for needing time to recover from the reminders of the painful stuff.

  2. Thumbs up on that last comment. Quite honestly I’ve been facing some similar personal dilemmas. In my case I am still struggling to stay focused on my graduate school obligations. While I am temporarily in an okay spot with finances, I also am in a very undefined spot with my career, unsure of both what my next job will be and whether I will feel enthusiasm for my chosen subject once I can distance myself from my degree. Weirdly it is calming for me to see posts like yours, though I certainly am not saying that in a “gosh I’m glad you’re having such a hard time” way… All I mean is, I can sympathize. Personally I’m trying not to think too much about the bigger picture right now. I have my immediate tasks, I’m keeping an eye on my finances, and for the moment at least I am not going to do myself any good by worrying about the broader path my life is taking. So I’m trying not to worry about it. Just deciding to “not worry” does not come naturally to me, but I’ve found that listening to audio books when I get too anxious helps distract me, and then I can focus better on what I can get done. Maybe searching out career-related books is the right thing for you to do at this moment, but I wonder if you might be happier by avoiding them until your trial month is over?

    1. Yea, you are right… Actual career books should probably be read after this month is up. Good point.

      As for the rest, I’m glad I could share something useful, even if it’s just lamenting a common problem.

  3. *…The audio books I’ve been listening to are definitely of the non-career type. Personally I think Jane Austen is pretty great.

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