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Such a simple question.  Such a complicated answer.  Especially when you are not working…full-time.

For an extended period of time—well over two years—I was long-term unemployed, not working and actively looking for work.  Any kind of work.  Any kind of full-time, part-time, any kind of work. I dreaded when I met someone new and they asked me that simple little question. How can such a simple question stop a grown woman dead in her tracks?  I did anything I could to shift and turn the conversation to a more appealing and interesting topic.

Why?  Because people look at you oddly.  They don’t think they do.  Nor do I think they think they do.  I think they also don’t intend to do what they do. It’s not pity.  It’s just a look.  The look.  Like oh.

And heaven forbid they discover you’ve got degrees plus a lot of work experience.  There it is.  The look.  Again.  Like oh.

I think part of it comes from being the overly sensitive recipient of this question and feeling judged because you can’t make it happen (even though it is totally out of your control – it would really be nice if life were like a situation comedy and you could wiggle your nose or snap your fingers and make someone hire you).  Not to mention the media falsely promoting that most unemployed workers are lazy, uneducated, seeking benefits (yeah, you’ll get rich very quickly on unemployment income – NOT) or simply not looking for work.  Try telling that to my college educated, degreed and experienced friends who were looking for work right along with me.  Our little band of professional but long-term unemployed misfits trying to make our way through a maze of job searches, multiple resume revisions, career fairs, no responses to automated resume submissions, applying for multiple jobs to only receive an occasional call for an actual interview, the “we’re very impressed with your skills and qualifications but we selected another candidate” rejection letters, etc.  I personally have a sneaky suspicion, and my gut feeling is, that a huge percentage of the currently unemployed and long-term unemployed are college educated, experienced workers who actually want and desire to work…but what do I know?

The question is “What do you do?”  I didn’t like answering that question.  But I didn’t lie.  I met it full on.  I cannot say that I embraced it.  Rather I learned how to respond to it.  Like my job search took me a very long time, it took me quite some time to learn how to respond to this simple question.  My responses ranged from head down, eyes randomly staring off into space while mumbling:

  • I lost my job due to downsizing.
  • I’m not working at the moment.
  • I’m currently transitioning and between jobs.
  • I’m a consultant (I said this a lot, even when a freelance project had ended weeks ago and I was hanging around while hoping and waiting on the next project to appear).
  • I’m a consultant (I said this a lot, when I was working various part-time odds and ends jobs just to keep myself busy and earn a few coins).
  • I’m a substitute teacher (a job I was eager to do but once I started it realized I did not enjoy it, nor welcome it, and it only made me appreciate real teachers even more).

The saying is “Never let them see you sweat”.  So I didn’t.  But in my head, this was me most of the time because I was floating down some river without a paddle and not knowing how to get off or what to do.  Although I had some of the best laid plans (I’m a girl who always has a plan and needs to be busy) they never worked the way I wanted and this pretty much summed up my life the entire time I was looking for work:

Question mark2

Finally I learned to just be me.  Yes, my circumstances and situation had changed (um, quite drastically and significantly!).  However, I—the core and the essence of me—had not changed.  I returned to me which meant I began to lift my head high and look people in the eye as I adopted a more proactive stance with my response to this question:

  • I’m actively looking for work (I purposely kept it vague and didn’t say I wasn’t working or between jobs).  My background is in healthcare, hospital and consulting firms.  Please do keep me in mind if you hear of anyone that is hiring? Or I would say “Sure, I would love to talk with your friend or neighbor or cousin or hair stylist or your sister’s boyfriend or whomever it is that you want me to talk to” in response to them saying oh, I think so and so might be able to help you.
  • I’m actively looking for work and I’m interested in working for a non-profit organization, preferably in or related to healthcare, and the opportunity to work with and help people.

I also finally learned that sometimes “What do you do?” is really just a very simple and innocent question about what you do.  People you’ve just met genuinely want to know more about you and that is simply their motivation behind asking it.  No harm, no foul.  Yikes!  I had to stop being hypersensitive, paranoid and feeling judged by this simple little question.

Another lesson learned is that networking comes in all forms.  The typical professional contacts.  The family contacts.  The friend contacts.  The extended friend and family contacts.  The newly met people contacts.  It really boils down to relationship building.  Whether they are current or new contacts. Whether they are in your professional circle or not. You never know who knows whom and what kind of leads or potential conversations it can turn into.  I learned that instead of shrinking back while shutting down emotionally and closing myself off that I needed to open myself up and respond to this question with my normal grace and confidence knowing that the right opportunity would come my way as an answer to my numerous prayers for a j-o-b.

I learned that the label of unemployment is unfathomable.  It binds you up in what feels like the bottom of the bottom of the pit.  Then to have to try to answer a question to explain the what, the why, etc. to people you’ve just met who don’t know anything remotely about you or your circumstance.  And get the look.  Like oh.  I can’t even…

I also learned that this simple four word question is one of the most humbling and gut wrenching questions anyone can ask you when you are unemployed.  It kicks you….deep in your soul.  It brings you to your knees.  It pierces you like a knife through your heart. Basically, it slays you.  It wrecks you.  It tears you apart and beats you down.  Because you are consumed with working and it is yet another in-your-face reminder that sadly you are not.

It took me a while to realize it wasn’t always about me trying to stay happy while sometimes feeling like such a Debbie Downer regarding my situation, hoping to speed things up so I could provide a “real” answer to the question, or try to pinpoint how I could transform or reposition myself and my skills to transition into something new (or even figure out what it was that I wanted to transition into).

I am happy to say I’m working now – full-time.  It was a long time coming but well worth the wait while believing I Thessalonians 5:16-18.  God is still in the business of answering prayers…and it continues to happen on His time. Not yours.  He heard my every prayer, saw my every tear, felt my despair (and desperation).  Just as He hears, sees and feels yours too.

If you are currently looking for work, I hope you learn this lesson much more quickly than I did.  I want to encourage you!!!  Stay strong.  Don’t let this question, these four little words, get you down.  Hold onto faith.  Keep praying. Keep believing.

Your day is coming and in the meantime you too are able to look the person in the eye, answer the question with grace, confidence and your head held high.  I hope your day comes real soon and you are blessed with a great job!

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord.
“They are plans for good
and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 
12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 
13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 
14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord.
“I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes.
I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you
and will bring you home again to your own land.”  
~ Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NLT)