Life on Overdrive
Copyright 2012 by Anna Kiefer
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, Anna,” the partner said softly. “Take your time if you need to, to gather your things and all.”
I sat there defeated a few seconds longer before rising and shaking the extended hands of the partner and attorney, trying my best to leave stoically. Eye contact, handshake, thank yous.
“We wish you the best of luck in the future,” they said, as the partner opened the door to the hallway and ushered us both out.
I made my way down the hall to my cubicle, the attorney’s heels clicking a few steps behind me as she walked into her office and shut the door. I gathered the few belongings I had let make their way onto my desk. I removed the self-written Post-Its of futile office reminders, the Pepto-Bismol stored in my top drawer, my weekly gym class schedule. I replaced my pointed-toed pumps with more practical sandals ( no need to impress now, right? ), took one last look out my window 35 floors above Times Square, and left, not bothering to softly close the solid glass doors as I had every other time previous.
The news of my termination hadn’t entirely shocked me. The position was temp-to-perm (a practice many law firms utilize when it comes to hiring staff), and I simply wasn’t going to be made a permanent employee. Still, I hadn’t prepared myself for the loss of structure, responsibilities, and income that followed my first full-time job after college. A career job, I had thought at the time.
I was a recent college graduate from one of New York’s well-known and respected institutions. A recent college graduate who had worked tirelessly for four years in a whirlwind of classes, internships (both paid and unpaid), part-time jobs, and volunteer opportunities trying to cement a stable future for myself in a city where countless others had fully-paved roads.
During my short existence in New York, I had worked at a video production agency, investment consulting fund, human resources department, global development nonprofit, environmental think-tank, city newspaper, judgment enforcement agency, four restaurants, two dance clubs, and one securities law firm. Yet, despite my efforts, here I was jobless, moneyless, unmotivated, depressed, and unbelievably scared. I was terrified my life would become one of the premiere episodes of HBO’s Girls, wherein I would be passionately dedicated to an unpaid internship while my parents funded my apartment and NY lifestyle. Up until my unemployment, I was determined this would not happen. When I left the firm, I wasn’t so sure.
In the weeks prior to graduating I had made it my mission to secure an impressive job. A job worthy of my undergraduate diploma. A job others would be envious of. I created resume after resume, each a little better than the last, met with multiple advisors to review cover letter techniques, and attended numerous interview seminars to sculpt the perfect blend of humble self-assurance I was sure would make me irresistible to employers. With the bravado that would make a showgirl shamed, I contacted the city’s best law firms seeking paralegal work. I didn’t have networking to rely on (I was one to believe connections land jobs, if not dishonestly, somewhat unjustly), but I did have a polished resume, likeable personality, and relentless determination.
I ended up taking a job at a securities litigation firm, a corporate environment with high profile clients and a dress code of pencil skirts, tailored suits, and black heels. I was awed by the sleek glass office, the composed attorneys, the fully stocked supply closet, the neat red wells with carefully labeled white tabs. At first, my admiration was evident in each filing, printing, and labeling task given to me, no matter how trivial or tedious. Yet, as the days turned into weeks, my enthusiasm for the firm waned, and I began to see the office for what it lacked - warmth, smiles, and a desire to foster any form of individuality. This dissatisfaction reflected itself in my work, which, although I performed adequately, I didn’t attack with my usual gusto. I grew jaded and restless. The nine-to-five I thought I would relish was monotonous, the interactions with the attorneys were one-sided demands, and the labels I so perfectly crafted were pointless with no one to notice them.
Why was I so unhappy? I had gotten what I wanted, hadn’t I? A steady workday, company lunches, an office key, backed by a full IT team and document managing company to boot. Exasperated, I thought, how is it possible I could be dissatisfied with something I had tried so hard to acquire?
And that was how I found myself on that fateful afternoon in mid-August, stepping out of the office onto Broadway one last time, fighting the steady stream of midtown professionals en route home. Much like a tourist navigating the city’s train system, I was now another unemployed alum navigating my future with a map I couldn’t read to a destination I didn’t know.
For someone who has always prided themselves on having a packed schedule, and excelling at it all, being without responsibilities was dreadful. The weeks that followed were self-destructive, self-deprecating cycles of crying, working out, emailing resumes, contemplating my existence, crying, and working out. (Yet, even then, in the midst of my despair, my sick brain actually thought wow, I lost two pounds.) I imagine my unemployment was like a weeklong divorce – so committed was I to my jobs and school that I was completely lost without them. I wasn’t just mourning the loss of a job; I was mourning the loss of a future I had so confidently planned. It was ironic – I had crafted a future for myself in securities law for my own security’s sake.
Aside from my looming rent check, I was uncertain about anything and everything. I second-guessed my college and life choices, my talents and interests, the home I had made for myself. I made lists entitled “What I Like” and “What I’m Good At” to remind myself just what it was about myself I liked. Mundane tasks like showering and laundry seemed meaningless (what’s the use of clean clothes if I have nowhere to go in them?). I ignored friends’ calls. I slept, a lot. By the time I missed and rescheduled three doctor’s appointments, I had had enough of sulking, even for me.
First, I decided to take a hiatus from resumes and interviews. Luckily, savings, budgeting, and supportive parents would get me through the next few weeks. I decided to revisit the activities I hadn’t had time for in college. I went to the gym and ran on the East River. I cooked. I started writing again. I rediscovered French. I did laundry. I sat and read in local coffee shops.
I was standing in line during one of my usual coffee runs one afternoon two weeks into my unemployment. The line was long and, after I had received my order of a small coffee with skim, I was waiting to pay. The man who had handed me my coffee glanced at the patrons in line and, catching my eye, said rather indifferently, “You’ll get there, don’t worry.” He was referring to the front of the line; to me, it meant so much more.
It took losing my job and a quarter-life crisis for me to realize that suits and skyscrapers aren’t necessarily my ticket to fulfillment. Life isn’t like a ladder, each ascending rung perfectly level and spaced apart. Sometimes the rungs are crooked, or missing entirely, or even break beneath us, as mine had done. But, sometimes, it’s just as important to trust fate, and, as the barista said, “You’ll get there, don’t worry.”
It’s been almost a month since I lost the job, and I’m still uncertain as to my career path. I’ve chosen to take things one day at a time – something I haven’t done since high school. I may head to le sud de France to au pair in the winter, or to grad school in a small town in the Midwest, or maybe to Taiwan to teach English to school children. I don’t know where the future will take me, but, for once, I’m okay with that.Anna is now a software developer and sustainability professional based in San Francisco, CA. She is committed to developing software scalable for sustainability and energy applications. Kiefer has research and program support experience at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York and World Wildlife Fund in Washington, DC. She attended New York University, graduating in 2012 with a duel major in politics and broadcast journalism. She still reads and writes for a living - just code, not prose.
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