If a college education and an advanced degree are supposed to lead to permanent full-time employment, then I seem to have missed the message. It’s been two years since finishing grad school, and I’ve yet to land a permanent job. Instead, my employment history over these past few years has seen me work formally in five different states and informally in one other country. Even the current job I hold, one that is projected to last eight months, will be the longest tenure I’ll have spent at one place since graduating (and that tenure will span three distinct hiring seasons too). While it is a nice change of pace to hold a job and not be actively searching for the next gig down the road, I know that nothing about my current situation will ultimately be permanent. Come October, my seasonal contract will be finished and I’ll be moving on to something as of yet unknown. Nothing about this arrangement is permanent; everything remains in flux.
As the near-future begins to become less cloudy in the magic gazing ball, it appears as though I’m headed to be a career seasonal—at least early on in my career. It’s not at all like fate has been keeping me as a seasonal transient. Whether it’s been highly intentional or not, I’ve ultimately chosen this lifestyle for myself. For me right now, considering a job with a year-round permanent status is a liability and not a benefit. Last winter while searching for future work, I began to flirt with permanent positions. I applied to a few and was eventually offered a year-round permanent position from a wilderness therapy outfit in Vermont. The job sounded great; I’d love to work in wilderness therapy, especially someplace as spectacular as Vermont. But I couldn’t shake that nagging specter of permanency that would have come with the job. Was I ready to commit my life to an unknown indefinite future that I wasn’t remotely close to 100% sure I’d absolutely enjoy? Of course not—at least, not then. So instead I opted for yet another period of seasonal work. It was just less risky to take an 8-month gamble on a job rather than one that could potentially last forever.
Part of my intentions behind choosing seasonal labor is a way to help me fall into a career path, especially early on in my career. I am quite choosy (and a perfectionist to boot), and trying out different jobs to see what I like and don’t like has gotten me much better at discernment for the perfect fit. Navigating the job market has become much easier with practice, and by now I feel quite adept at always being on the lookout for the next greatest gig. Perfectionism aside, I do realize that no job is ever flawless and that there can always be circumstances that could be improved about any given job. But then—at some point, I realize, there will be diminishing returns for trying out new and different jobs. As I’ve continually refined exactly where I find the most joy in my vocation, the list of potential jobs narrows. Could it be then that I would finally be satisfied with a permanent job?
Another draw to seasonal work is that I can try out living in many different places. I did major in geography in grad school after all, and place as a concept is critically important to me. I enjoy traveling, especially to the point of becoming acquainted quite well with different geographies. Though many landscapes hold an allure over me due to their uniqueness, to think about where I’d live permanently is a very serious matter indeed. Rotating through different seasonal jobs is like speed-dating with geography. I can have fling after fling with a variety of places and leave it at that. No strings attached, after all. But emotionally, I still consider myself a true Michigander at heart (even though I’ve scant been in the state in the past four years). I can’t as yet see myself claiming allegiance to any other state. And though I currently live on Cape Cod, I am only an outsider here. Perhaps instead I can consider myself an honorary Cape Codder for the time being. Doing so provides a relationship with much of the benefits but without all the commitment required to declare residency. I had similar sentiments about place when considering the wilderness therapy job in Vermont. Though I’ve been to Vermont and looked fondly upon what I saw there, I just couldn’t begin to even envision transplanting myself entirely to become a Vermonter. With a series of seasonal gigs, though, I know I can always return to my hometown between jobs. I can openly cheat on my beloved Michigan with as many places as I want to, but it is forming a permanent relationship with just one place that feels like a real transgression.
Being non-committal has definitely been a factor in my history of seasonal work. But I think a larger influence may be that I am just too committal—and sometimes too committed for my own good. I have a tremendous capacity for grit and determination, especially seeing things through to the bitter end. Personally, I feel great satisfaction in bringing things to completion and feel it a shame to give up before the natural termination. For better or for worse, I’ve learned to stick it out. The downside to my tenacity is that I can very easily end up sticking it out in a situation where it is better to just cut my losses and leave instead. Pursuing only seasonal work puts a natural limit on this tendency of mine. If I end up in a short-term job that I don’t particularly appreciate, I can stick it out and then take a stab at something else later. If I were to have a permanent position, I would likely keep at it for way longer than would be beneficial to me personally; there just wouldn’t be an intuitive end or an easy out to the position. Instead, I would be faced with the daily gut-wrenching feeling that I’m not in a position that I want—daily wrestling whether or not to continue to stick it out or to make a change, until many months pass by unnoticed while I was wondering the whole while.
Seasonal labor also puts a natural restriction on my all-consuming exuberance and dedication to my work. I’m a perfectionist to the core, one who takes great pride in work accomplished. My identity is in large part based around the job that I do, and thus whatever jobs I end up taking I take very seriously. This seriousness can easily allow me to become consumed by my work. Even when crafting my master’s thesis in grad school (a monumental task which I didn’t particularly enjoy), I became so engrossed in the task that I lost focus on the other pleasures of life. Though I take pride in my work and the ownership which I have in it, too much ownership can cause tunnel vision and blur my focus on what other things matter to me (and also make me lose track of taking care of myself too). To resolve this tendency, I’ve been taking only seasonal jobs, ones where my job responsibilities are of a smaller, daily variety. Any given day on the job could be good, or it could be bad. I can enjoy the good days and brush off the bad days, in either case going home at night to relax free from any further mental obligations of job duties. Since I’m not in a position for the long-term, I don’t have those additional lingering responsibilities of a higher-level job—that glowering cloud of complicated logistics and organizational politics. I don’t feel burdened by the specters of the long-term sustainability of an organization’s programs or other tricky institutional questions. Given my personality, I find enough even in a low-level job to invest in and worry about. I don’t need the extra responsibility laden down on me by a job description; I just go out and add more responsibilities myself.
Even though I’ve felt very satisfied holding only the status of a seasonal worker, I am not immune from the pressures of career advancement—of holding a job at one organization and rising through the ranks. I can sense the pressure to do so; whether such pressure comes internally or externally to me is still a mystery. Given my upper-middle-class upbringing and my level of education, somewhere inside of me I must be convincing myself that I’m letting myself and others down by not climbing the career ladder—that I should be aspiring for something greater in terms of status. Haven’t I, after all, earned a master’s degree to boost me up the employment scale? But two years after earning that degree, I have yet to use it formally. I have instead chosen to dabble in the realm of entry-level work. What was supposed to be a distinguishing mark now serves more of a trivial fact at best (how many people can say they’ve studied wildfire ecology for two years?) or an embarrassment at worst (Master of Science and still earning minimum wage). Shouldn’t I aspire for advancement? I’m at the point where my immediate supervisors are within a few years of my age—or even younger in a few recent instances. Since I’m a high-achieving person, I feel like I should be doing the same as my higher-achieving peers. I know I’m capable of doing so. But I’ve never had any supervisory experience for any job which I’ve held, and I have no desire for any. I’ve always been the supervised, the one being directed what to do. Alas, I feel the pressure to get a regular, permanent job. But so far I’ve been tremendously fulfilled by my seasonal labor; the positions I take are not a way to make a livelihood—they are in fact my livelihood.
I often really enjoy the seasonal jobs which I do find, and often I wish I could stay on for longer. The longing for rootedness and connection are strong within me. But the prospect of ever staying on permanently still seems daunting and unapproachable. As one friend, another long-term seasonal, put it, “I couldn’t see myself signing up for that job for four years all at once, but I can see how I agreed to work there for one year four times in a row.” With any job that I enjoy, more time would be a bonus, but it’s not realistically expected. I always keep open the possibility that I might return to a place I’ve worked before, and I always strive to be the worker that employers would have back in a heartbeat. But I also value the personal renewal and new experiences that come with taking a new seasonal gig in an unfamiliar location. Ultimately, with each of these temporary positions the season will come to a close. Savoring the good aspects of a job while they last can make each day on the job seem all that much sweeter. As for the undesirable parts of a job, they can be toughed out to the end. Though leaving any position has its necessary pains, the natural end to a seasonal job makes the pain of leaving all the more bearable. We can brace ourselves for the fatalistic closure of any given position, for they were never expected to be for eternity from the beginning. It may be taxing to start and stop so many short-term jobs and meet and then leave so many different people; but similar to a long journey, beginning with the inevitable end in mind makes the ultimate departure ever so slightly more bearable and meaningful.
Above all, the biggest draw to seasonal work for me has been the nature of the work itself. I am in this field full of seasonal positions because I enjoy the work that comes with each successive season. I revel in being out in the field as I perform my work. I enjoy the blue-collar aspect of my jobs (as blue-collar as the educational field can be), and a little manual labor now and then serves both the body and soul well. The variety of my job keeps me fresh, and I feel utterly free from not being tied to an office for administrative work (indeed, my greatest employment nightmare is getting stuck in an office job). What’s more is that I enjoy the comradery of my co-workers—multiple people in the same position, working the same job—an egalitarian crew by job description. As a low-level employee, you’re part of the pack and live and die on the teamwork you provide. I’ve found that I thrive on that aspect, relying on others as surely as I am depended upon by my peers. For sure, I’m competitive and want to perform better than my co-workers, but I don’t desire to rise in the ranks above them. Though I am envious of the benefits and respect that the permanents get and I lust for that kind of social standing among my peers, my greater desire is to be one of my peers as well. I like being a team member. As for leadership on the job, my style is one where I want to lead with the respect which I earn from my peers, not with reverence from holding a higher job title. And thus, I feel uncomfortable having a position of power above people. I want to be an everyman; I want to be one of the people. When I find the work that I love to do, then I’d rather do the work myself. Of what benefit is it to me to supervise people doing the things I’d rather be doing myself?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a seasonal, and for the near future, it looks like that will continue. If I could find the right job in the right place, then the prospect of becoming permanently employed wouldn’t scare me as much. But unfortunately, the opportunities to take a permanent job in the wrong place or in the wrong profession are endless. With taking any permanent position I would undoubtedly be left wondering if there was a better-suited job out there somewhere. I am quite picky, after all, and the prospect of not being able to change daunts me. If I were to take a permanent job, I would have to be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s the job I need to take. Perhaps it may just the word permanent that rubs me in the wrong way. Permanent. Not to be changed. But even a permanent job can be gotten out of fairly easily (though not as easily as seasonal gigs). Maybe instead we should call them indefinite jobs; jobs that finish when the end is appropriate for the worker, instead of when the season concludes. Even so, the costs of taking a permanent job seems more of a burden to bear than the perpetual onslaught of seasonal labor. So I’ll continue to be a seasonal. At least for now…
One year ago I was a new arrival in Sydney, Australia, at the advent of my Australian adventure and my project of greater explorations into a meaningful life path. The launch of this blog, In All Directions, shortly preceded my departure and was intended as a chronicle of my travels in Australia—and also an experimental method of reflection and self-discovery along the way.
When I arrived in Australia in late October 2015, I had intentions of staying well over a year. My grandiose scheme had me finishing up a year of fruit picking at about this time and preparing to go on a circumnavigational road trip of the Australian continent as a way to spend my heaps of fruit picking money. A year later, instead of tramping in a van Down Under, I find myself living aboard a sailboat on New York’s Hudson River. Ending up at this particular spot wasn’t even on my radar one year ago, but due to the course of time, it simply ended up being the most reasonable next step to pursue. It’s intriguing the way that the passage of time makes one think about different possibilities with fresh attitudes. Nonetheless, through all my itinerant travels, this blog stuck to chronicle the journey.
One year into the In All Directions project and I can’t come up with any defining conclusions although I can still say it’s been worth the while to continue the exploration. In the past year, I’m more than happy at having tried three different directions: fruit picking in Australia, leading canoe trips in Wisconsin, and working aboard a tall ship in New York. Each of these directions had their individual benefits and drawbacks, but more importantly they have taught me lessons about myself and my proclivities. I can’t say that I’m close to a final discovery, or that I even believe there will ultimately be a final discovery; what I can say is that I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work for me. Anecdotally, Thomas Edison failed to make a working lightbulb after over 1,000 prototypes, but each failed trial led him closer to eventual success. When asked by a reporter about how it felt to fail so many times, Edison wisely replied that he didn’t fail at all—making a lightbulb was just a project with 1,000 steps. Like Edison, I’m not classifying things that didn’t quite work out as failures; I’m just refining what works for me and what doesn’t.
In everyday life, we all learn from our past experiences. But in order to gain those experiences, we must travel further down the one-way road of time. And to travel that road means going into an unknown future. Along the way you’ll encounter forks and decisions that will affect your route. You can’t travel back and do it all over again; the best you can do is trust yourself that what path you’re going down is heading towards the best outcome. This isn’t a Panglossian philosophy that all things ultimately work out in the best of all possible ways. More simply this is saying that no matter how life unravels itself, there is some measure of good to be made of the situation.
As I continue to try out different career paths and play with different ideas about my future, each direction I try out could lead me down a different path. One year ago I didn’t anticipate that I’d be writing a retrospective blog from Kingston, New York. But that’s what ended up happening anyway. The way life works is that it can only be viewed in retrospect. The future remains an intriguing mystery. One will never know what each path will look like until it’s been traveled.
Unlike my well-laid out Australian plans, life is not something you can plan out meticulously; life is something that you have to live through to understand where the experience is taking you. To get where I ended up right now, I could have taken many a multitude of paths. But on each of those infinite possible journeys, the lessons learned along the way would have been different; a slightly different person would arrive at each destination. Each journey undertaken is unique; chose to embrace the passages that add to the depth of your character.
There are many directions left to be explored, and I too look forward to seeing where they lead.
Travelling around Australia in a van, I inevitably run into a different demographic of traveler doing basically the same things I’m doing. This demographic can be described as the older, retired lot who also live out of vans or motor homes and spend their time driving around and living like tourists. For some people, this is their dream lifestyle. They’ve worked hard all their lives to afford a retirement full of travel and leisure. Retirement is their final treat where they can enjoy the fruits of their labours free from the burden of work and outside obligation.
Perhaps retirement is wasted on the old. Wouldn’t it be better to travel when you’re still young and have the energy to see things? Wouldn’t travelling prove more fruitful if you still have the bulk of life ahead of you to be influenced by what you learn whilst travelling? For these reasons, I decided to take my retirement early. But instead of taking a retirement of pleasure and leisure, I am taking a retirement of travelling and learning. I wanted to ‘retire’ while I am still young and flexible, while my identity is still malleable enough to shape the person who I am becoming. If a great deal can be learned by travel, then why hold off those lessons until most of one’s life has passed?
But, another reason why I decided to retire early and to travel now is that I have a gut instinct that I will not be as inclined to travel later on in my life. Instead of always being ready to move on, I have a tendency to linger at a place that’s become familiar to me. Eventually, in the years to come, I sense that I will settle down into a place and a community where I can let my roots grow. Once I’ve settled into such a community, I won’t have the desire to journey as extensively as I am doing now. Of course travel will always remain a way to re-invigorate myself in day-to-day matters, but, I strongly suspect, my future will not be one where I continue to live out of a vehicle on a long ambling sojourn. Consequently, I feel I ought to be travelling now in my youth, while the wanderlust still churns strong inside me. In my old age, though, I project I’d like to live in one place. Life as a continual transient on the road will not be the life for me. Some people may also chose to retire in a different location from where they’ve worked their careers. Again, not for me. Once I find my community, I won’t leave it for a leisurely retirement elsewhere.
Yet another reason why I’ve taken an early retirement is that I’m not sure if I’ll be the type of person who will even want to retire. Inevitably, I feel very impassioned about the work that I do, and right now I’m on an extended quest searching for my life’s vocation. When I do ultimately engage in a line of work that I am passionate about, I doubt I’ll have the desire to leave it just because I reach a mandatory age. Instead, I will follow my vocation and continue to work towards the betterment of society and my community through my career. Life takes a lifelong commitment—and I’m not one to bow out for an early retirement. When thinking about the idea of old-age retirement, I am greatly motivated by stories of people who have lived their passions to the fullest extent of their lives. One story I find particularly inspiring is that of Carl Sharsmith, who had a 60-year long career as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite National Park, becoming the oldest active NPS ranger upon his eventual retirement at age 90, one year before his death. Some passionate people like Sharsmith just can’t be stopped, and I hope to be one of them.
These are a few of the reasons why I decided to take my retirement early. My gap year in Australia is not just a period of leisure and an attempt to postpone a career—it is an investment in the person I will be in the future. Soon enough, necessity will dictate an end to my early retirement and will see my entering of the workforce. But I look forward to this as well, like a person who just can’t stay away from a vocation which he loves.