Underemployed, but Resilient and Proud
7 ways to find liberty and joyfulness in living with less.
Posted Oct 10, 2012
I’m underemployed, are you? Luckily, we are not alone! Millions of Americans are overqualified, overworked, and underpaid for the jobs we must do to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. The American Dream has become an anomaly. The idea that if you ‘work hard and play by the rules’ that you will be rewarded by becoming part of the “middle class” is outdated and unrealistic. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently pointed out that if you want to remain a part of the middle class that you have to stay very agile, constantly reinvent yourself and keep learning, learning, learning. I highly recommend reading his column regularly.
Trying to make poverty sexy is callous. There is nothing fun about being out of work or underemployed. Like so many of us who are in the ‘underemployed boat’, there are times when I feel very insecure and slightly panicky. I don’t have many options when push comes to shove. But there are things you can do to fortify a resilient mindset and make being underemployed (or unemployed) easier to handle that I learned as an athlete.
I firmly believe that if I practice what I preach in this blog that I will be able to turn the tide. In 2013 I plan to be making a reasonable income doing what I love to do. I believe you have this potential too, which is why I share the following tips with you.
1. Think like a Spartan Youth and work that body!
The Spartans were notorious for having physical and mental resilience to stay brave in the face of adversity. They ‘embraced the pinch of hunger’ and trained very hard to be mentally and physically strong. I glommed onto the Spartan mythology early on in my athletic career and it really helped me. The daily routine of getting through a really tough workout makes you stronger mentally and physically. This helps you with any struggle you face in life.
As a gay teen it helped me a lot to embrace ancient Greek culture. I idolized the concept of being a Spartan Youth. When the AIDS epidemic struck in the 80s I used the power of their myth to help me ride out that storm and cope with so many of my peers dying without giving up my life force or becoming immobilized. Being a part of ACT-UP fortified me, too. Thank you Larry Kramer and everyone who was a part of that movement! The Spartan shield in the image above represents resilience; the arrows are homophobia which have forced me to stay brave.
2. Personalize YOUR “Middle Way” between austerity and consumerism.
Many religions weave varying degrees asceticism and self-denial into the process of seeking enlightenment. I think that depriving yourself of creature comforts to an extreme can set up an unhealthy pattern of desire, over-consumption and guilt. I did this in my youth. It was a mistake. Now I recommend that you try to find your middle way of living with ‘just enough’ to make you feel content, without being a conspicuous consumer or complete ascetic.
Each of us has a very unique temperament and relationship to material possessions and our need for creature comforts. I coined a phrase I call the “Calypso Rule” in my book The Athlete’s Way which is basically a metaphor based on trying to sail a vessel in a straight line… We all have an individual pull between ‘Virtue and Vice.’ So, you let out the sails a bit or turn the rudder to keep you on a balanced track that depending on your character traits. Aristotle talks about this a lot in the Nicomechean Ethics. Buddhism talks about this in terms of the “Middle Way”… My basic advice regarding austerity and consumerism is to keep the monthly overhead as low as possible and don’t buy things you don’t need or can’t afford.
3. Get involved or create a community event without direct financial reward.
One way to counter the isolation or lowered self-esteem you might feel as being “underemployed” is to pour yourself into a community cause that is close to your heart. Face it, being underemployed means you have more free time. Use it constructively.
The word “volunteering” has always seemed really passive to me. I don’t think of the work I do without getting paid as volunteering… I frame it as being a “Labor of Love.” For some reason this makes a difference.
A few years ago, I became the co-organizer of The Provincetown Charity 10K run, with my friend Sean. I sort of stumbled into the role of co-organizer but have been amazed at what a profound experience it has been. I have met dozens and dozens of incredible people through organizing this race and it is now the highlight of my year. I highly recommend starting a charity event in your community based on something that is close to your heart and raising money for a local cause.
4. Let go of the idea of the American Dream and adopt the Yankee spirit.
In the 1800s everyone from New England was called a Yankee. The Yankee motto was based on education, problem solving and tinkering to come up with solutions. The pursuit of wealth and ostentatious living were frowned upon. You can feel a psychic shift when you flip your mindset from feeling that you were cheated out of the “American Dream” to taking a proactive stance of thinking as an American I need to hustle to find a unique solution to a problem. A Boston College professor wrote a great piece about the history of the Yankee Spirit.
5. Become a ‘Reverse Snob’ and avoid people who are into status symbols.
Have you ever been rejected or deemed ‘less than’ by someone who thinks he or she is higher than you on the socio-economic totem pole than you are? It can be very hurtful. I know this from personal experience. One way to deflect their barbs is to take a momentary stance of being what I call a ‘reverse snob.’ Being a reverse snob means that you think anyone who’s into brand names, putting on airs, trying to keep up with the Jones’ or living in a McMansion is foolish, vapid and tacky.
I learned about being a reverse snob when I was at Choate in the early 80s. There was one group of people at my school who were like ‘Phony Lock-Jaws’ and would wear very ‘Buffy and Muffy’ cliché “Preppy Handbook” outfits. I hate to say it, but me and my friends made fun of them and thought they were complete dorks.
We were teenagers and thought we were “the cool kids”… So, we would wear oversized, ill fitting clothes we stole from our parents, or older siblings, purposely distressed new clothes to make them look old, tore the alligators off our shirts etc. Yes, I know this was a privileged position to be in as a teenager… But, now that I am genuinely as poor as a church mouse, own one duffle bag of clothes, and scrape by to pay the rent—I take pride in the lessons I learned back in my privileged days when we renounced classism and status symbols.
Bottom line is that people think they were superior because of the brand names they wear or how much money they have are lacking in any real internal wealth. Yes, being any kind of snob is bad, but being a ‘reverse snob’ can be empowering (and sort of fun) especially when you’re underemployed.
6. Friends, family and life experience matter most.
I’d rather be poor than sell my soul for a paycheck. Would you? One of the benefits of being underemployed is that you have more time to nurture your relationships with friends and family, explore new ideas and have enriching life experiences. I decided to ‘get-off-the-merry-go-round’ and leave my rent stabilized apartment in Manhattan when I realized that just to pay my subsidized rent meant that I’d have to spend most of my time working at a job that wasn’t really fulfilling.
If you feel you are treading water just to keep your head above water I would highly recommend taking a leap of faith and letting it go. My dad spent the last year of his life driving around in an RV, camping out, exploring America, writing, meeting up with long lost friends etc…. At the time we all thought he was crazy, but now I realize he was actually on to something.
7. Find laughter and levity even when you’re in the doldrums.
As an ultraendurance athlete running through Death Valley in the middle of July or trying to break a Guinness Book world record in the Flagship Kiehl’s store in Manhattan, there were many times when things were so bad that all I could do was start laughing. The laughter always brought me closer to my support crew and buoyed my spirits just enough to get me to the finish line. Now, in my day-to-day life whenever I feel really down and out I use the same coping mechanism of looking for humor in a dire situation.
Ask for help if you need it. People will take care of you. Let them! Don't make learned helplessness a habit, but also don't be ashamed to lean on others. And, make a vow that when you're back on track that you'll give something back.
© Christopher Bergland 2012
The Athlete’s Way ®