Looking back at the past 20 years or so of my professional life, I can see a discernable pattern. Generally, long stretches of work and productivity are followed by prolonged stretches of no work and lack of productivity, at least in the conventional sense of the word. (There’s also the school of thought that the only patterns in life are ones that you make up yourself to fit a self-narrative. But for argument’s sake, let’s just say I see a pattern.)
This all began after I finished graduate school and started looking for work in the field of international relations.
I was on the job market for the better part of a year, and I can vividly recall all the pent up energy of a young man, fresh out of university, wanting to enter the workforce and make a difference. Then came the excruciating frustration of being turned down again and again until those aspirations had somewhat dimmed.
Eventually, I received a job offer with a non-profit organization that was the perfect fit for me. I wound up working there for the next seven years—a formative period in my career during which time I was able to climb up the ladder and become a director in the organization.
By then, I was ready to move on to something else. This coincided with my divorce, and being the type of person who can’t always compartmentalize one part of my life from another, I was due for a major rupture. I decided to leave my job to take up a one-year research fellowship in Japan.
Think of this fellowship as a paid sabbatical. Neither a vacation nor a full-time job, it gave me carte blanche to pursue my research on my own time and to explore Japan and other parts of Asia at my whim. It was divine. To top it all off, I met the love of my life—and current wife—during that year in Japan.
But circulating back to the States was not so easy. The fellowship year abroad—meant to be a career-booster—actually kept me and my other colleagues on the program off the radar screen back home. Most of us struggled to land jobs after reentry. For me, that process took almost two years, during which time I pieced together an income from teaching and consulting gigs and a short stint as an analyst on Capitol Hill.
For all intents and purposes, though, I was untethered to a steady job and in a state of professional limbo. I was in what you might call the wilderness.
The wilderness can be either frightening or exhilarating, depending, in my opinion, on two key factors: the type of person you are and your circumstances.
If you are someone who can take uncertainty and risk, then the wilderness is not so intimidating; if you require stability and predictability, then the wilderness is an understandably fearsome place.
If your financial circumstances are such that you can afford to be jobless and not starve to death, then it’s not so daunting; if, on the other hand, you have mouths to feed, rent or a mortgage to pay, and debt collectors at your doorstep, then the wilderness can be a deathtrap.
Some people are so fearful of the wilderness that they instinctively hedge against it, so that in the event they lose their jobs they can move on to the next one expeditiously. And if they do find themselves in the wilderness, despite their precautions they work harder than the rest of us might to get out. They almost will themselves to landing another job, and they generally do.
For better or worse, I happen to be the type of person who is not freaked out by the wilderness, and I’ve been lucky enough to have just enough resources and less cumbersome baggage to wander through it relatively unscathed.
The wilderness, to me, has great allure. In life and work I crave freedom—freedom of choice, of creativity, of movement and, above all else, of time. The wilderness offers unbridled freedom. Do what you want when you want. There is no authority to tell you what to do on their timetable. Sometimes when I’m years into a job, I long for the freedom of the wilderness.
That said, the wilderness should not be taken lightly. It’s not a walk in the park—it’s a walk in the wilderness. It always exacts a toll, be it financial or reputational. The question is whether you ultimately come out of it stronger and with more direction than before.
Indeed, it can be an incredibly rich opportunity to explore your interests, to learn, and to take a breather from the rat race of work to take stock of what you’ve done and what you wish to do. Used wisely, the wilderness can be one of the most important and productive periods in your life. It can help set you up to be even better and more effective in your next job, as you have the energy and perspective to take on new tasks and responsibilities.
But used unwisely, the wilderness can be a punishing place. Wandering through it aimlessly and indefinitely saps your stamina and leads your mind to question the choices you’ve made in life, your ultimate purpose, and other banal questions that you normally avoid. The tyranny of the wilderness is that all that freedom and lack of structure can be self-generating if you’re not careful. If you don’t have a destination in mind, the wilderness is limitless.
Some people emerge from the wilderness triumphantly. They see a mountain off in the distance and they set out for it unswervingly. When they reach it, they climb its peak and never look back. These people become successful at whatever it is they settle on and they have my utmost admiration (I also secretly loath them and will not be sending them holiday cards this year).
Others don’t see any white peaked mountains on the horizon but they do see hills and they head for them out of desperation for a job that will at least pay the bills yet may not be their calling in life. That can be enough when you’ve been out of work too long. But being on a hill can also help you see farther, and sometimes you can see the mountains from that vantage point.
And then there are those who don’t see mountains or hills even though they search for them desperately. The harder they strain their eyes the less they see. They’re so focused on the horizon that they don’t see the ground beneath them. Life becomes a perplexing quagmire. Sometimes, however, there is a swell in the ground or it becomes a series of bumps that eventually leads to higher ground. It’s an uncertain path—harder and more frustrating to be sure but better to take it than to continue wandering aimlessly.
These people—and I would include myself sometimes in this category—need to set achievable near-term goals, accomplish them and then keep doing that over and over again until something lands. Focus on things you enjoy doing but that also might have some potential professional application. Binge watching TV, for instance, is not the same as taking a course on script writing. It’s also important to redirect your existential questions outward, toward people who can provide honest advice and can be on the lookout for opportunities that you fail to see yourself.
Whether you are climbing a mountain, scaling a hill, or walking up a slight incline, the main ingredient you need to keep on track is discipline. You cannot get far if you become distracted, lazy, or are so demoralized that you let yourself drift. By discipline, I mean the near daily practice of staying focused on your bump or hill, seeking advice, and setting goals, however modest. This will help you not only to survive but possibly even thrive in the wilderness—to someday find that mountain and reach your personal zenith.
For more insights on the wilderness and getting yourself out of it, I highly recommend Russell Max Simon’s blog, What Really Matters.