Friday, July 27, 2012

Arbitrary Goals

Earlier this week, I started job hunting. As anyone who is unemployed knows, this is an odious and onerous task. Even when you possess good skills (as I do), it is very hard to find a job in a sluggish economy with a high unemployment rate. There are lots of people out there looking to secure a decent job and lots of others who have jobs they don't like who are looking to find something better. The market favors the latter over the former, and I'm one of the former.

As part of my job hunting, I've set up a spreadsheet of all of the ways in which I'm looking. It includes temp agencies that I have applied to, individual jobs I've applied for, the dates I've applied and responses, if any. I started looking on Monday and today is Friday, so it's a little soon for responses. However, I'll be adding in "follow-up" letters to job applications as one of the things I track soon. I think it's silly that I should have to remind people that I sent them my resume, but I've been told it is a good technique to help you stand out a bit more in the crowd.

One thing that I did early on was decide that I would apply for at least three jobs a day. I set that goal because I figured that it would push me to look more aggressively. On the third day of looking, I was struggling to find a third place to apply to and decided to send my resume for work that I had done before (residential assistance to the mentally ill), but wasn't necessarily keen on doing again. This is the sort of "last ditch" job that pays so poorly that it would be hard to live on the income, but I was scraping the bottom of the barrel that day for my third application and it fit the bill.

A problem arose when they called me pretty much immediately to schedule an interview. It became clear that I was a perfect fit for this job because I'd done something very much like it before. If I interviewed, there was every chance I would have gotten the work. Unfortunately, I didn't really want the job. Upon reflection, the prospect of doing it made me feel terrible about myself. I felt like it was a step backward and was the type of work that would not challenge me or increase my skill level or knowledge. The pay was dramatically less than I made before. Pondering taking this job made me feel less valuable and as if I would never be offered anything better. I felt like it would be cramming me into a slot that said I couldn't move on in life to better things. It made me feel right back where I started from economically (poor) and emotionally (worthless).

I've mentioned before that my mother pressured me just after college to take the first job that came along. In that case, it was work as a waitress in a mall snack bar. She always engaged in "the sky is falling" thinking and talked as if you had to take the first thing that came your way because there may not be another chance. This mentality was drilled into me as I grew up, and it is very hard for me to walk away from a job opportunity because of it. It didn't matter that the job was not "right" for my goals, the cost of living where I'm going to set up my life, or in line with my skill set. Someone was offering me a job! I "had to" take it.

As I was emotionally struggling with this, I talked about it with my husband. He said that he was worried that this sort of thing would happen when I started to job search. I told him that I couldn't just sit around and do nothing while he was in grad school (which he just started). He said to me, "actually, you can." And he's right. I can. We saved enough money to live without either of us working for about 6 years. While it isn't preferable to drain our savings in this way, it is possible, and he will likely finish his path to a new career within about three or so years tops. That means that we have more than enough to live on until he gets a professional job most likely.

Despite all of this, the only reason I gave up on interviewing for this job (and the idea of taking it) was that my husband did something he has never done before. He directly told me what he felt I should do. He told me to cancel the interview and start writing the book I should write in relation to this blog and what I have accomplished while continuing to search for appropriate jobs that I want to do. It was only because he gave me "permission" to "fail" that I could make that leap. He said it was okay to break out of the box I'd arbitrarily put myself in, and so I could. Otherwise, I don't know if I could have done it at this point in time. Since I trust his judgment more than my own, I could manage this. I  hope next time to do it on my own, but this is a leap I wasn't quite able to make alone.

One of my problems throughout my life has been the setting of arbitrary goals which do not line up with rationality or sometimes reality. I set up a set number of jobs to apply for and when I couldn't locate three, I made a bad choice which landed me in a difficult situation emotionally. Had I not set that meaningless goal, I wouldn't have applied for a job that I didn't actually want and then been put in a bad position when it was almost certainly going to be offered to me. The fact that it was so quickly tossed in my lap in a difficult job market is an indication that it is not a desirable job and that they are having problems finding someone to do it, yet I felt that I had to take this scrap that was being tossed my way because I had another arbitrary notion that I "have to" work as soon as possible.

Of course, the desire to work isn't an arbitrary one. The truth is that I want to work for a variety of reasons. The primary one is I'd rather make money than use savings, but I also simply want to be engaged in meaningful and stimulating activities. I want to make connections with people and engage in my home culture again. I also want to start paying into the Social Security system once more so that my retirement benefits will be better. Working isn't merely about making money to get by everyday for me at this point in time (a luxury I earned through decades of hard work in Asia, frugal living, and an emphasis on saving), and that is exactly why it was a bad idea to take a job which was little more than shepherding and babysitting people with physical and mental disabilities. It's not that the work is beneath me or anyone else, but just that it is not a challenge for me. I've done that already. It's not bad work, but it's not a personal growth or learning opportunity. Frankly, I'd rather go back to Asia and do what I was doing before than return to the job I did just after completion of college.

Getting back to the point, I have this tendency to set up a rigid framework for myself and then feel trapped in that box. In this case, it was the goal of three job applications per day and the absolute necessity that I get to work as soon as possible. The fact of the matter is that there is no reason for me to apply for  a set number of jobs at all costs and I don't have to start working as soon as humanly possible. There is little logic in these goals and they ignore some important realities, especially emotional ones. Primarily, it ignores the fact that there may not be 3 jobs that are right for me everyday. This is something which is beyond my control. I should apply for 10 jobs if there are that many available or none if that is the case. Beyond that, I disregarded my needs to be stimulated, creative, and to learn entirely by placing a (very small) paycheck above my mental health.

This situation is not isolated. It is part of a pattern in my life and a pattern I see among many other women who are overweight and trying to lose weight. They set arbitrary goals and then feel stressed about not meeting them or like failures. They say their goal is to lose 2 lbs. a week, 10 lbs. a month, etc. The truth is that no one has any control over how much weight they lose. You can control the actions that may lead to weight loss, but you can't simply decide to lose "x" number of pounds and force your body to do it. Your body will metabolize fat or consume muscle tissue and reduce your mass in ways you can't control.

Similarly, people will choose exercise goals which are arbitrary and try to stick to them regardless of their health condition. They will work out "x" number of days per week for "x" number of hours/minutes and if they are injured, sick, or exhausted, they will push to do it anyway because they set an arbitrary goal and they are going to make it. The goal is health and fitness, not figures on a spreadsheet. You can't have good health if you do things when you are not well enough to do them. It flies in the face of logic.

The goals we set should be logical and flexible. Rigidity only serves to create stress and conditions under which we will have an increased likelihood of failure. That applies to all things, but it tends to happen more in weight loss for a variety of reasons. One is that we don't trust ourselves and we set the bar strictly to provide motivation. Of course, if you end up defeated by a bar that is set too high, it's hardly a good motivational tool to set an arbitrary goal.

Another reason that we make such arbitrary goals is that they give us a sense of progress. It's gratifying to know by the numbers that we're doing what we set out to do. That sort of feedback is a lot more rewarding than a general sense that we listened to our bodies each day and did what felt right. Our school systems reinforce the idea that measurable goals are important and rewarding when they give us grades for our work. Striving for excellence as reflected in an "A" is something we can relate to. Getting a perfect "score" by exercising for an hour five days a week provides a familiar sense of accomplishment. Getting a less than perfect one by being sick one day and only accomplishing it for four days gives a sense of being inadequate.

I'm not suggesting that people not set goals for themselves, but rather that those goals not be arbitrary or rigid. They should be flexible and reflect reality rather than a box we place ourselves in because we feel that is the framework we need to operate from in order to measure progress or motivate ourselves. For me, I've pondered why I have this tendency in general (my husband does not, he is rational about such things). I believe that it reflects my need for security and predictability in life. I grew up in chaos and being told the sky was falling so I have to construct boundaries to make me feel protected and ensure that I'm moving ahead. Those boundaries offer the sense of structure I didn't grow up with, but they can also be prisons. This is something that I have to be aware of as I navigate my entire life, not just in dealing with my relationship with my body and food.


Human In Progress said...

I have the same problem with setting arbitrary goals in multiple areas of my life, but I've never been able to articulate the problem this well, even to myself.

Oh, I SO hope you write a book! You've sold one copy already.

justjuliebean said...

I think my mom is your mom and mil, rolled into one. I have a bit of that "sky is falling" mentality, apparently not as much as my mother thinks I should have, and we battle about it. She's mellowing out a bit, but also still panics looking for work (at 70, and wealthy). I tell her that she'd probably get more fulfillment volunteering for something she believes in, but she was too poor as a kid.

I hope you find work you like, and don't settle, since you have the luxury not to have to. I've taken jobs out of desperation that i was overqualified for, and hated, and it showed. Not worth it, unless you absolutely have to.

It's very hard to throw off the neurosis passed down from parents, but well worth the effort (or at least, not let it rule our lives)

Sarah Quina said...


You can't have good health if you do things when you are not well enough to do them.

Also, I would buy your book.

Sarah Quina said...


You can't have good health if you do things when you are not well enough to do them.

Also, I would buy your book.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thanks, Sarah and Human in Progress, for saying you'd buy my book! It's encouraging me to keep going on it (I've already started).

justjuliebean: I can empathize with the trauma of childhood poverty making people do things which are not in their psychological best interest. I do it as well. The specter of insecurity is one which is hard to chase away.

I read an article today about a couple about 10 years older than my husband and I who are moving to Ecuador because they feel they "can't afford" to retire in the U.S. That ignited a lot of fear in me again, but I need to learn not to do that. The truth is that most people somehow manage in this world, even in retirement and without wealth.

My parents continue to live on the margins, as did my grandparents. I think that such fear is based on losing things you'd like to keep (like a certain lifestyle) rather than on starving or being in a truly bad situation. We want our internet, our cars, meals out, etc. We don't want to curtail our lifestyle.

The couple I read about wanted to live on $60,000 a year and felt they couldn't be comfortable on that income. They already owned a home and the husband had a military pension and health coverage (except dental). Their fears placed in perspective seem grossly magnified. I could easily live in one of the areas with the highest cost of living in America on an income of that level. The fact that they felt they couldn't speaks to their lifestyle, not to anything that needed to be feared.

Thanks for your comment!