In a recent article about unemployed Canadians who have given up on finding work, I mention that I was once out of work for several years.

I mentioned it because I wanted people to know that I understand what it’s like to be out of work, and wanted to talk about the steps I took to turn things around. But after devoting three paragraphs to the subject, I realized it was taking up way to much space in an article that was supposed to be about something else, and decided this topic should be an article of its own. This is that article.

In 2002, I moved back to Toronto after more than a decade in Montreal, where I had always had fairly regular work as a journalist and was a columnist for a daily newspaper. I figured I would have no trouble finding work in Toronto.

There is no way I could have prepared for how wrong I was. It was the beginning of five years of unemployment.

I moved during a time when print media was beginning its decline as readership shifted over to digital. Everyone was cutting down on freelancers, and competition for the remaining positions was fierce. There were so many more writers in Toronto, and they were so good! I was literally blindsided.

I found some limited freelance work, but nothing that paid the bills. I worked as a waitress. I was terrible at it. I worked in theatre, and anyone who has ever worked in theatre knows that the majority get paid in love. But, anything to meet new people and stay busy. After a year, I started to panic.

So, I enrolled at the University of Toronto and studied music history (I was a music journalist, so this made sense. Also, I was going with the “just get a degree” idea), I earned a yoga teaching certificate. I found more part time work. But I still couldn’t find bill-paying work.

I got discouraged to the point where it affected me physically. Every time I got a rejection or didn’t hear back from yet another email, resume or application sent into the great abyss it was like a punch to the stomach. It was like a world of doors slamming in my face one after the other. One day, I got yet another dismissive note from a magazine to which I had sent a letter of interest and I started bawling in the middle of the street.

That’s when I realized I had to change my approach completely. So I did.

Within three months I had a great contract. Two years later, I had more work than I knew what to do with, and had to hire an assistant.

Here’s what I did:

I made a vow to live mindfully. It began with this. I did my best to pay attention to every moment and live it. To stop procrastinating and to make the very best possible use of my time. I stopped wasting time. I made a massive effort to be punctual*. I focused on the present, which brought clarity to that present and helped me to understand what steps I needed to take.

The steps:

I accepted that what I was doing wasn’t working. Someone who may or may not be Ben Franklin or Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Nobody was responding to my queries, applications, or resumes. So, it was time to stop sending them out in their current form.

I changed my perspective. The world had become a dim, gray place full of “No,” and the job search had become a dreaded, pointless, soul sucking chore that I kept up with no expectation of success. I decided instead to look at it as a problem to be solved, like a puzzle.

I acknowledged my weaknesses and worked to strengthen them. I am a terrible interview. I get nervous. I trip all over myself. I say stupid things. I’m awkward. I forget what I’m trying to say in midsentence. I tried to fix this and find workarounds. One of the simplest solutions turned out to be over-preparation. Another solution? Props.

I tried different actions. After five years in Toronto I had gotten to know quite a few people. So, I reached out to every single one of them in a brief-ish mass email. In that email I explained my situation and that I had made a vow to make a change. I asked for help and offered any help I could provide, should the opportunity arise, in return. I outlined my skills and asked people to please let me know if they heard of anything for which they thought I might be suited, or to pass on the names of any contacts that might be useful. One of those people hired me as a dogwalker (not listed as one of my skills). Two of them gave me the names of contacts who later hired me for writing and editing contracts.

I should add that I recently received a similar email from someone else, and found that person work.

Taking these steps changed everything. It’s not perfect. As a freelancer, I still struggle between contracts, but it is much, much better.

The changes you could make in your own life will be different, but, if you are looking for work and not finding it, ask yourself what you could do differently. I bet you’ll be surprised at what you come up with.

*While briefly successful, that one thing has not continued to this day. I am perpetually late and perpetually apologetic. Don’t be late. Do as I say, not as I do. See also: don’t swear on social media.


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