Alex English
Nov 22, 2018 · 11 min read
Sunset over Linda Mar beach in Pacifica, CA during the recent wildfires (and smoke).

Since December 2016, when I graduated from business school, I’ve been underemployed. I never know if I should say unemployed, since technically I have done lots of contract and consulting work. It definitely feels like unemployment.

[I considered titling this post “10 things I learned while being poor” but then realized I have been far from truly poor, and that such a title would have been utterly offensive and inappropriate. I have a lot of advantages from my upbringing, social safety net/work, demographic (white, male, gay), and the lack of a destructive addiction.]

I never thought I’d be in this situation — my career on pause. As you can imagine, I’ve experienced different phases of mental grief processing about it. The worst anger ever. Darkness, sadness, depression. Feeling sorry for myself, feeling worthless and unwanted. And then, hopeful.

See, when you feel like you’re at the bottom (even if you aren’t), it can be thrilling to imagine that anything will be an improvement, a boost, an upward movement. The brain can do amazing acrobatics and pivots when it feels freed from the standard model and forced to rethink assumptions. Like: human worth and fulfillment is tied to a job title.

This period, now going on two years, has taught me some invaluable lessons about life, much of which I feel richer for, even if my bank account doesn’t reflect this richness.

(#1) Joy and happiness don’t require a lot of money.

Money helps, of course, and makes things easier, but this is tangential. At our core, we want and need human interaction, to be felt and heard, understood.

My family, my friends, and my relationships have brought me more joy and fulfillment than any salary could have over this period. Having time is also a luxury one doesn’t often get while fully employed, and this richness of time allows for a whole other set of pursuits — reading books, exercising, sending hand-written correspondence, or being present and alive to enjoy a great sunset or conversation over a glass of wine.

There were periods when the stress of having $4 in my checking account manifested as knots in my upper back or neck. And that sucks. But it does get better, I learned. Chocolate, wine, and weed help.

[I’ll also say — and this is something I learned long before now — that “mo’ money, mo’ problems” is totally a thing. Having a lot of it tends to create new conundrums and challenges, all distracting from what’s really important.]

(#2) Stress will kill or seriously injure.

I’ve always been the kind of person who creates their own stress. I’m self-critical, so most of my anxiety about my lack, my inabilities, my value, are self-imposed.

That said, cortisol and its stress hormone brethren do terrible things to our bodies, and should be avoided as much as possible. In an episode I’m convinced was partly stress-induced, I was hospitalized last November for five nights with pericarditis (inflammation around the heart). It was a terrible experience, one in which I felt trapped and completely helpless. I was desperate enough to cry several times in attempts to move my nurses and doctors to let me OUT!

Luckily I have health insurance through, so of the $85,000 billed to my insurance (funny money honestly), I was only responsible for $650. It was still (1) a bill I wasn’t anticipating, and (2) a warning to take a gentler, more compassionate approach with myself.

To do this, now, I go to yoga regularly — the more meditative, the better — and I let things go. I don’t dwell on the past. I forgive myself and forgive others. I hug myself, compliment myself, and build myself up.

And I talk to myself with phrases like: “everything will be OK,” “tomorrow is another day,” and “the universe will provide.”

Some would say you have to be disciplined and develop mental toughness to be successful, make change. While that is true too, self-care is equally important. They’re not mutually exclusive, even perhaps reinforcing one another.

(#3) Gratitude is most important precisely when you feel lack.

We’ve all been taught to express gratitude and thanks only after we’ve received, but this is all wrong. By that logic, we would reserve gratefulness in times we feel lack, of not achieving, of being given opportunities or material wealth.

In reality, we all, as modern citizens in modern societies with lots of science, technology, and a high general quality of life, have plenty to be grateful for every day. Even at extreme low points, there is goodness in life to appreciate.

It’s been said that “you can’t feel lack when you’re expressing gratitude.” Thus, to head off feelings of lack, you can make gratitude a habit, and focus on what you do have.

A very wise friend suggested that I start a gratitude journal to jump-start this habit, and it has been eye-opening. Per item #1, most of the things I wrote for years in that journal were people. Sometimes they were things, like a favorite pair of pants or a ring I bought that I loved. But mostly it was people in my life that make me happy.

I’m getting prickly-nostriled just thinking about it.

And then, filled with gratitude and joy after noting what you’re grateful for, you suddenly feel less lack, and more richness, whether your bank account has $4 or $4,000.

I’ve tried to spread this gratitude and love by communicating with those people, telling them how I feel, and making sure they know how important they’ve been in my life.

Or recently, after going on only a few dates with a very special guy, telling him that our time together has been soulful and blissful, something I have so wanted, been ready for…

A former version of me wouldn’t have done such things so readily.

(#4) Resources are fluid, “ability” is relative.

When I look back at the last two years, I have to laugh.

While I felt so much money-related stress, frustration at my situation, and anger toward hiring managers for not seeing my value and brilliance, I was actually doing a bunch of cool shit.

Despite not having a regular income, I was able to keep my health insurance, get massages and acupuncture, indulge in regular personal fitness training, take trips to New York / Connecticut, Northwest Arkansas / Tulsa, Atlanta / Western North Carolina, and South Florida (Fort Lauderdale). I moved to San Francisco. I bought two pair of Lanvin trousers, one pair of Prada loafers and two Prada bags, and two pair of Oliver Peoples x Alain Mikli limited edition sunglasses.

I suppose this all could have been greater with more income, and my credit score hasn’t faired all that well, but I have to give myself props for not completely halting life while other things have been halted.

I’ve also managed to establish hundreds of new connections, the benefits of which may still to be realized.

To make money, I consulted a handful of entrepreneurs on their young retail businesses. I wrote articles for a news blog, and created content for a number of online properties. I worked backstage as a model dresser for a Schiaparelli Paris runway show, appeared on HSN as a neck hair model, and moderated a panel discussion with fashion and retail entrepreneurs.

And I was a personal shopper for 3 months, helping clients buy everything from slimming black trousers at Eileen Fisher to a new Rolex watch.

This leads me to my next point…

(#5) Social media is illusory.

I have such mixed feelings, on this Thanksgiving Day 2018, about almost all social media. It’s been an interesting experiment, and there are plenty of positives that have come out of the big 3 (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), like bringing together like-minded hobbyists or providing a place for sharing with your IRL friends. Spinoffs like Tinder allow us to meet romantic interests.

Unfortunately, most of the positives of social media aren’t about transacting. As if we needed another channel in which to receive marketing messages, but that’s what we got, especially with visual-centric Instagram and Facebook.

To Sell is Human, and I get that. But there’s something vapid and depressing and problematic about turning every moment in the day into a potential transaction. It feels like very value little is created, just shifted from one person to the next, from the masses to a few very powerful corporations. And for what? Something “on sale.”

Sadly, I think we’ve all become our own individual brands by being on social media, trying to sell something. Our intellect, our taste level. Our curative prowess. Our humor. Sex. I’m guilty of it just as much as anyone.

If someone looked over my feed in the last two years, they’d think my life was fucking fantastic. And though I’ve done plenty of cool shit, it’s been hard and stressful and probably aged me, which are realities of life we’d rather not highlight.

I love using Instagram, because I actually do enjoy taking photos and manipulating them. But it took me a long time to realize that it doesn’t reflect reality, so it’s best not to use it as a measuring stick. We all make our situations look better by only posting what matches the narrative we’ve created.

I’ve begun to trust only in what I can experience in person, with my own eyes, hands, or other senses. The rest is a fantasy — one that is great to escape to here and there, but not one in which to base our existence.

(#6) Humbleness is sexy.

This relates to everything I’ve listed up to now. We’re deep in a culture that celebrates self-achievement, self-promotion, and self-interest. And while caring for the self is crucial, it shouldn’t subtract from an overarching sense of humbleness.

Being in a challenging financial situation over the last years has certainly humbled me, and I’m thankful for that.

An interesting example: for months, I had no car. I bummed rides, took Lyft, or borrowed my dad’s Volvo. Then, I drove a twelve year old Toyota Corolla, in impeccable but bare basics condition. No frills. This, after having owned a Mini Cooper and multiple Volkswagens. My friends all drive Audis and Mercedes…

It was fascinating to conclude (1) life doesn’t end if you don’t have an expensive car (or a car at all), and (2) that people’s self-worth is very tied to their possessions and “status”. It was at that point that I stopped feeling embarrassed or self-conscious for myself, and more pity toward others. How sad that inner contentment is now more about which car you’re unlocking than what great book you’re reading, lunch with a friend you had, or soul nourishment you felt at the community garden.

Of course they would never understand. I was in the shitty old econobox. But I started to love that car for its simplicity, reliability, and utter anonymity.

I also realized that most proud, overbearing people (the opposite of humble) are actually the biggest attention leeches. “Emotional vampires.” I went on a few dates with guys like this and wanted to scream at how about themselves they were.

Ever since, I’ve found myself more attracted to people who aren’t on social media, who aren’t shouting from the rooftops, posting about every goddamn thing they buy or do. They’re interested to discuss topics, ideas, concepts, and philosophies rather than a list of achievements, of possessions, etc.

It feels like a humbleness revolution, and I’m happy to be on the forefront of it.

(#7) Your real friends come through.

Through all this, I actually feel like my friendships have gotten better.

I’ve missed out on some great vacations, and can’t go to brunch every weekend, but it’s clear who my best friends are.

They’re the ones who check up on me, who treat me to dinner and drinks. The ones who tell me to STFU when I turn on the melodrama and say after a shitty day, or just living in my head, that I want to “end it all now.”

They’re the ones who’re supportive and nonjudgemental. And perhaps most of all, they’re self-aware. I always found it strange when friends I thought were emotionally intelligent couldn’t wait to text me to say they got a new job, promotion, or to ask which kind of Cartier watch to buy.

Hello?? Have some discretion and self-control, and realize where I’m at — celebrating the free lunch I got out of a job interview.

(#8) Minimalism isn’t so bad.

Along with all the biggest fears in life (death, spiders, earthquakes), I’d posit that many people are mort-if-ied of downgrading their quality of life. We’re only accustomed to upgrading it, so the idea of having to go backward is chilling for most. [This is perhaps one of the main reasons people continue to vote Republican, but I digress.]

I’m happy to say that I’m probably more content and feel more “free” now than I did when my closet was fuller, I drove a more expensive car, and just had more.

What do I find is most essential? Well, I moved to San Francisco with two suitcases, my laptop, and a prized desk lamp. That’s it.

At 31, I don’t own a home, own a car, or have more than 20 items to hang in a closet. I’m down to seven pairs of shoes, not including what I have for sale online currently. I think I only have like four t-shirts I regularly wear.

In lieu of quantity, I’ve prioritized quality, so these fewer items are generally of higher quality and greater cost. There’s more Prada and Bottega Veneta in my closet than any other brands. But they’re also better made and last longer.

Life isn’t much different, or at least any worse, because I’m not consuming as much, even if it’s by necessity not choice. (Or is it?). To get familiar with what you truly value, and eliminate the rest, is so cathartic and freeing.

(#9) Trust the universe.

All at once hokey and incredibly powerful, it’s actually a huge relief to relinquish “control” (or the perception of control) to something external.

If you believe that all your circumstances are self-created and thus self-imposed, then anything you dislike becomes a stressor — a failing that you must correct.

In reality, we all have a journey that is unique, influenced from many angles. It’s circuitous, nonlinear, and entirely dependent on energetic drifts of other people, of animals and weather, of the planets.

I’m not a total devotee to astrology or parapsychology, but both provide useful fodder when you feel lost in life.

Some good resources I check regularly or have read: Susan Miller’s monthly horoscope, The Magic Path of Intuition by Florence Scovel Shinn, and in-person annual readings/predictions by Dikki-Jo Mullen of Orlando, Florida.

(#10) But also, take personal responsibility.

While entrusting some portion of progress and movement to external forces can be a relief, you have to also take ultimate personal responsibility for your conditions.

I’ve often felt like others (parents, powers that be) impeded my forward momentum or gave me crappy advice. Or didn’t push me to more critically scrutinize a decision.

In the end, none of that matters, because I’m responsible for my own happiness and contentment. Did I make an odd choice, not follow my dreams, or get scared by something? Yes to all. Is that my result to make the best of? Absolutely.

I think that’s a big part of growing up. Through this period of strife and emotional turbulence, I’ve had to move beyond blaming others for my situation and commit to making whatever changes necessary, within my power, to move in whichever direction feels right. AND, forgive myself for those “missteps.”

That also means not making decisions to please others. Sorry dad, sorry friends. I’m moving. Not just taking any job. That’s who I am, and I’ll be the judge of whether that strategy pays off.

Underemployment hasn’t been easy, and I hope it is coming to an end soon, but I’m stronger, wiser, and more confident for having lived through it.

I write regularly here on Medium but also on my blog:

A better sunset day recently in Daly City, CA

Alex English

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Writer, thinker, aesthete. Website:

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