One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is that people seem much more composed from the outside than they generally feel inside. In part, this is an element of the social contract; we try to make the world a better place for the people around us by hiding our own dissonance, much as we silence our cell phones when attending the theater. Another part is an after-effect of perceptual difference; the outsider observing only a surface posits an interior, and in general when we project onto others, they fulfill some fantasy that we have for ourselves. And, part of this is that we aren’t always honest with the people around us about how much we are struggling.
This is not going to be one of those times.
There’s a narrative that I am capable of telling about myself. It starts with being one of the best and brightest in the relatively small pool of the particular semi-suburbia that I found myself in during the 70’s and 80’s. There were awards, accolades, even stories in the local newspaper. When it came time for college, it was Ivy league, all the way, finally a chance to test my mettle against the best and brightest from around the world. For me, as for many, I was totally wrong going in about what I was going to be doing coming out, but the most exciting, challenging thought I could find was coming out of critical theory, so I went off to grad school – on a fellowship, of course, for the best and the brightest. From grad school to game development (1st job as a lead designer – no one does that) to publishing (running a portfolio of tens of millions of dollars worth of development), to working for the top entertainment company in the world, jet-setting every couple of months from Boston to China. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve taken on additional responsibilities, earned raises and promotions in most cases, won the respect of the best and the brightest who were around me, and constantly worked to get better at everything I did.
It’s true, you know. I’m not making any of it up.
But it’s just one story. I’d like to think that when other people see me they see that self up there. I know they don’t. I know they see some variant that tells stupid jokes or snaps to judgment; they remember me being cool under pressure or dropping a comment full of condescension; they remember some random story (“the redemptive narrative of the Wii”, “the black hole of personality”) or me making a fool of myself at team meetings. No one gets the full picture, and generally, I don’t tell that story up there to the people around me. It’s self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory, and while factually true, is probably misleading. I’m not the kind of person who likes to toot my own horn.
So, there are many stories. My mother was a psychologist; I’m remarkably well-adjusted in spite of that, but there’s something about someone consciously testing your development that can make you self-conscious about these kinds of things. When you’re looking for work, you intentionally hide all of the baggage; well, you don’t so much hide it as you put your best self forward, sort of like dating. You go to an interview well-groomed: nails clipped, head freshly shaven, spotless clothes. You wouldn’t bring your mother into a job interview any more than you would on a first date.
But, if looking for work is analogous to dating, it’s the worst kind of dating imaginable. You get, basically, a series of chances to get rejected; failure is the most likely outcome at each step. Your resume might get ignored; your e-mail might end up in a spam folder; the phone interview can go poorly; you can rub someone wrong at an in-person; the position can go away; the salary can be below what you can live on. The more diligent you are about looking for work, the more consistently you get rejected.
And that tilts the story in a different direction. Let me tell you the other story. It’s not pretty.
There’s a narrative I’m capable of telling about myself. It starts with depression, a trajectory that arcs to me trying to commit suicide when I was eighteen. I failed. I couldn’t even get suicide right. I went off to college because I wasn’t capable of doing any real work. My dreams of being a research physicist died when I got lost in week 2 of the advanced physics course and failed both the mid-term and the final. I would have been a mathematician instead, but I couldn’t hack that either. So, I went with English because it’s just advanced bullshitting. I wrote a book of poetry for a thesis because that was way easier than writing a research paper. I couldn’t get into any of the good graduate schools, so I settled for a state college, where my dad may have had some pull in getting me a fellowship. That fell apart when I couldn’t get the dissertation done, so I got into games through someone I met on the internet. That studio closed in under six months. I was lucky to get solid work where the cost of living was dirt cheap, but I couldn’t make that work either. I had two projects cancelled and pissed people off so badly that I was called to the GM’s office for disciplinary reasons more than once. Taking refuge at a second-rate publisher, I worked on one halfway decent game, pushed a lot of crap out the door, and then had to leave when they promoted the business development guy over me. After months of trying to find another gig, I signed on with some friends, only to crash two projects and kill the studio.
It’s true, you know. I’m not making any of it up.
I don’t think that people see the second version. They’re too polite; or, I’m too good at hiding it. If you look at the pictures on Facebook, or you run into me at a conference, you don’t see the self-doubt. One of the problems with depression is that it is invisible. When people look at my resume, or interview me, and they don’t see the first version, I see the second. I live the second. Asking to be allowed a chance to demonstrate what I am capable of inevitably leads to people telling me that I’m not good enough – not as qualified or likable or successful as the next person. That becomes the reality.
Rejection sucks. There’s just no way around it. It’s always personal.
If that weren’t enough, unemployment drags at the soul. When you’re not working, you’re draining your resources, watching the bank account dwindle, leaning on friends and family, unable to contribute; you are a cost center, a negative number. Sure, I try to keep busy, do small things around the house, tackle projects, read books, play games, but none of it matters, ultimately. None of it adds up to anything. It’s no way to make ends meet. In spite of all the privilege I have enjoyed (and my blessings are too numerous to count), I have always believed in doing my part, carrying not just my own weight but as much as I can for those around me. Not working makes that an impossibility at best, a lie at worst.
People who have jobs are normal. They’re productive members of society. They’re tax-paying citizens. Anybody who thinks that unemployment benefits substitute for the lack of that identity is fooling themselves. No one wants to be dependent on benefits. Especially in our American narrative of self-sufficiency and progress, not working means not being, not mattering, not holding value. Not having a job means you’re useless, lazy, irresponsible, a drain on society. Every time I fail to convince someone to hire me, that negative value just goes higher and higher.
By the time you see this, I will have moved on. I’m going back to being that first version of myself, or at least as close as I can get with humility and hopefully some grace. I’m still going to put this out there, because I think we all struggle with some version of this. We all have our ghosts that haunt us in the dark moments of the soul.
For those who are struggling, you are not alone.
Those people around you who look so composed and well-adjusted, they’re just as scared and nervous as you. It may not show up in those pictures on Facebook, or that quick chat at a conference, but it’s there, under the surface, even among the best and brightest and most successful, even in you.
Persevere. It will get better.