The Truth About Overcoming Transitions In Your 20s
I had never quit a job without having another already in place. Every resignation has led right into another opportunity. That’s how I was raised—to never quit a job without having another. I was raised by a family who was honestly happy with me doing whatever it was I loved—just as long as I worked—and as long as that work sustained me.
So I did. During high school, I worked. While in graduate school, I worked. As soon as I finished my graduate program, I worked. Days after moving back to Boston for the first time, I started working, again. My life had been a series of leaving one job and immediately starting another until the end of my third year of teaching when I knew I
wanted had to try something different. That year I resigned from my job without a job.
And then the fire happened.
Walls destroyed, ceilings destroyed, floors eventually destroyed too.
Three days later, I had an uninhabitable apartment, a large suitcase I filled with as much as I could pack, and no consistent place to live. For the next month and a half, I crashed on friends’ beds, couches and floors across New York City from Brooklyn to Washington Heights.
Being jobless and homeless* in New York City forced me to learn a lot about myself and a lot about transitions. Here’s some of what I learned:
Degrees won’t save you
Fires don’t care if you have degrees—they just burn and spread. Far too often we are told that these $70K+ pieces of paper come with some sort of protection. They don’t—couch surfing across New York City never made this more clear to me. Sometimes life takes drastic turns and leaves you tasked with trying to get your head back above water. Everyone has these challenging transitions throughout life, no matter where they went to school. Being unkind to yourself because you may not like your current situation isn’t going to change it. I had to unlearn the idea that having degrees exempt me from struggle.
Letting your job define you is exhausting
I never really realized just how much I identified myself by my job until I didn’t have one. Questions like, “So what do you do?” became immediate triggers for anxiety and shame. What do I do? What do I even want to do? How could you let yourself be unemployed living in New York City, Alexis? What are you doing? What are you doing?! Whatareyoudoing? Early on, I’d sometimes default to answering with what I used to do and say “I’m an educator.” Other times, I’d stutter and stumble through basically sharing that I had no job. Being unemployed in itself was already stressful, but being jobless and homeless at the same time almost felt like my fault. It's very easy to define yourself by your job and then to be disappointed or disoriented when things change. So don’t. Instead I’ve learned that taking pride in the quality of my work and how I navigate through transitions are far healthier ways of identifying myself, whether I get a paycheck every two weeks for that work or not.
Strong people can ask for help too
I’m considered the strong one to many of my friends. The one who gets the job done, regardless of my personal situation or feelings. The one who manages to make it through, despite circumstances. And for the majority of my life, I’ve worn it like a badge of honor. My mom was my strong one; my grandmothers have been strong ones for as long as I can remember. I’m supposed to be a strong one too, right? Having strength, however, shouldn’t disqualify you from sometimes needing help too. Many people I knew in New York City didn’t even know my apartment building caught on fire, never mind that I was homeless. And why didn’t they know? Because I didn’t tell them. Those who I stayed with were friends who checked in on me and then offered me a place to crash. Planning to stay at a friend’s house longer than a week seemed too much to ask, yet making new living arrangements every week was exhausting. Some days I didn’t know where I was going to stay; others I planned to take showers at my gym because I was still working out my living arrangements. But it didn't have to be that way. About a month after the fire, friends of mine reached out to me about staying at their apartment. At the end of their message, one of them added, “and if you ever need a place to stay, you know you can stay here as long as you’d like.” They gave me a spare key, and I stayed there for the remainder of my time in New York. Now these same friends may or may not have been able to support me in this way if I’d reached out to them earlier. What I do know to be true though: it’s hard to get help if people don’t know you need it. Even if the answer may sometimes be no, ask for what you need. Not everyone will be willing or able to help you on your journey, but I guarantee that there are more people who want to see you win than those who don’t.
Work while you wait
Although I had much less control over where I lived during this period, I could control how I spent my time. So every day I’d wake up around 8AM, go on a run in a nearby park or workout at the gym I’d already paid a yearly membership for, check my emails for any any pressing information regarding my apartment, call my mama, look for jobs, and work on season two of First Year Project, whether it be interviewing someone about how they survived a major transition or putting the final touches on the bi-weekly newsletter. Keeping a consistent schedule made me feel some sense of security. It made me feel safe, and also forced me to practice working while I waited. Reading this newsletter one day, I came across the idea and this quote from Thomas Edison: “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” Working on projects that mattered to me not only helped me get a better sense of what I wanted to do moving forward career wise, but the practice also empowered me. I felt like I was doing my part, despite dismal circumstances. I was showing up—some days more than others, but still. It felt like progress. And it, in fact, was progress, as the same projects eventually led to a job, the launch of First Year Project’s second season, and shirt collection. That wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t created my own consistency in the midst of chaos.
Do I have everything figured out yet? Absolutely not. I’ve had to make sacrifices like moving back to Boston and starting over. It’s new and scary, and sometimes intimidating and uncertain. And I understand the necessity of struggle. I believe it, I tweet it, I share it. That still doesn’t make going through it any less painful. But I’m still choosing to bet on myself, and it may be the right time for you to bet on yourself too.
*I’d like to acknowledge my privilege in never having to live on the street and having the option of going back home, even if home was a few hours away. This situation could’ve been worse, and I understand that not everyone in these kinds of circumstances has stable alternatives.
Alexis is the creator, host and producer of First Year Project, the podcast sharing the stories behind the good, bad and integral aspects of first year experiences. Visit firstyearproject.com for episodes and visuals from Season 2 and to purchase the WORK WHILE YOU WAIT long tee collection. You can also listen to episodes on iTunes, Acast and Soundcloud.