How to start over when your career dreams die
November 6, 2017 6:34 AM   Subscribe

I am at a loss. After spending over a year in anticipation, my friend watched his career dreams vanish without warning in the wake of the government's hiring freeze. I've never even remotely been in his shoes -- so how do I advise him?

I am good friends with one of the 97 unfortunate souls whose dreams of joining USAID's Foreign Service were summarily dashed by the ongoing hiring freeze there, as covered in this weekend's Washington Post. It seems many of them were fully cleared, ready to deploy, and waiting months on end to get the green light to come aboard. My friend had been waiting over a year to join, taking a string of irrelevant part-time/temp/contract jobs to bide his time. It was his lifelong ambition, so he is understandably devastated and unsure how to move on.

I've never been in a situation like this and can't offer him much consolation beyond "you have your whole life ahead of you" "there are other places than the government to have a fulfilling career" or "you can always reapply later on."

What should I tell him? Do you have stories of "starting over" that I could maybe share with him? Any other advice? Thanks!
posted by lecorbeau to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Don’t tell him anything. Listen to him.
posted by ewok_academy at 6:55 AM on November 6, 2017 [44 favorites]

Unless your friend asks for advice, don’t offer it. Just listen and say “that sucks, I’m so sorry, you didn’t deserve this, you would have been awesome at it.”

Recovering from disappointment is not the same as finding out what do to next. I know the things you think of telling them are well-meant but personally I wouldn’t find them comforting. I’d just want a listening ear and reassurance.

If your friend is as ambitious and smart as they sound from your question, they will find their own way forward. They already know other jobs are available - pointing this out to them is not something I would do unless they are truly stuck after a month or so.
posted by bunderful at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2017 [12 favorites]

Of course people start over all the time.

I think it is impossible to say anything right now; your friend will need to arrive at his conclusions on his own. Shore up his support system as best you can, encourage him to shore it up as best he can, because likely the reckoning is going to hurt like hell. That was a lot of eggs he put in one basket.

But! People dust themselves off and find clarity in these disasters. Not everyone, some people can't let go of Plan A, but a lot of people figure out that beyond that thing they were focusing so hard on are other opportunities that they couldn't see the potential in before. How you can help is not by "telling" him anything, but listening: let him think out loud about what's next, let him spitball and what-if and try on new future identities, and don't hold him to any of them and don't naysay. Give him pep talks - of the "don't be so hard on yourself/don't talk yourself out of things" variety - when he's bummed, but otherwise let him grieve this thing and find his next thing.

You can encourage him to mind his self-care right now. Get outside for a walk every day, get reasonable sleep, eat healthy food, socialize. The only concrete thing I think you could suggest to him at this time is to try to find some of those other candidates and network with them. Those people are going to be better spitball partners than pretty much anybody right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:22 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

A very similar thing happened to me about five years ago: I was on the hiring list for the State Department, having jumped through all the necessary hoops, including a security clearance, when the government shutdown led to a hiring freeze, and by the time they started up again, I was too far down the list to stand a chance. What made it more difficult & infuriating was that I'd actually gotten an offer a few months earlier, but I'd turned it down because I wasn't yet finished with my graduate degree and I'd felt confident the offer would still be there when it was ready...but it wasn't. It was a gut punch, for sure, and I sympathize with your friend immensely. It's hard.

I'm not sure this is something you can tell your friend to make him feel better, but I often look back at that time as a major fork in my path: what if I'd said yes when that first call came? When things were particularly difficult afterwards, when I was really financially strapped and unsure about what I was doing, I'd look back and think, man, all my problems would've been solved if that hadn't happened. But later, when wonderful things happened, I thought, wow, it's so strange to think that if I'd gotten what I'd thought I'd wanted, I never would have experienced this! And then when the new administration came in, and there were all these horror story articles about a gutted State Department, and foreign service officers with haunted expressions floating through the embassies like ghosts...I don't know, I felt a strange chill, like in some close-by alternative universe, I'm one of those people. It's strange and surreal. That was never a possibility I imagined when I was trying to game out whether or not I should give up on my PhD to take the job offer! It puts all our tiny attempts to control & predict the future into perspective, for sure.

I guess maybe the only concrete piece of advice I have is that while it might be tempting to add this to the list of things that Donald Trump Is Doing To Ruin Our Lives Because He's the Most Evil Man Who Ever Lived, in fact, on a smaller scale, this kind of bullshit sudden unpredictability/being subject to stupid political forces is in fact part of working in government and always has been, if on a lesser scale. If your friend is really, really committed to this life, I bet he will be able to do this kind of work eventually. This might be overly optimistic of me, but in the past few months especially, I've felt an increasing confidence that our giant, creaky, flawed, slow-moving, infuriating, imperfect government will out-last Donald Trump. There are thousands and thousands of bureaucrats out there playing the long game, putting their heads down and doing what work they can while they wait, and if your friend can adopt this mindset, he'll be well-prepared to take this job or one like it when the opportunity comes around again, which I truly believe it will.

Good luck to your friend, and to you.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:27 AM on November 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

It's not really starting over. It's never really starting over. But in this case in particular, his expertise and passion will be transferable to lots of other work. If things continue to move in the direction they're moving in, lots of people who'd otherwise work for the State Department over the next 20 years will be doing the same work, but at NGOs.

But as other people have pointed out, don't assume he's looking for advice. He might just need someone to stay up late and rewatch The West Wing with him.
posted by roll truck roll at 7:32 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

The advice above about listening is good. So is a long perspective, for you and your friend. Circumstance endlessly drives opportunity. I finished graduate school just as the 2008 economic crash was beginning to feel inevitable, and that locked me out of the government-funded job I'd been planning for. My husband lost his job in the 1993 recession and ended up moving 2,000 miles to find work in his field. I turn to biographies in times of duress. There are simply so, so many human stories about sudden, maddening changes to the best laid plans that it helps me reorient myself around an awareness that people have been striving for stability and predictability just as long as they've been celebrating (in hindsight) the serendipitous nature of bouncing back, stumbling on new paths, or even waiting out the storm. I expect there's a decent chance that this hiring freeze won't be permanent, you know? In the meantime, maybe your friend would be interested in taking solace from memoirs of people in the USAID universe? Kirk Johnson wrote about his time in Iraq with USAID. There's even an extensive curated bibliography of works by USAID folks about their experiences. These books and articles are chockablock full of stories about the organizations that USAID works with, which in itself may be good for your friend to direct attention to. Maybe there are some ideas in there for possible next steps and how to take them.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:24 AM on November 6, 2017

The Dalai Lama once said: "A wish not granted is sometimes a gift from god".
It is true for me. Career wise.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:09 AM on November 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

One thing I really value in my friends is that they love and support me and see the good stuff in me regardless of what is happening with my career. And they know the things in my life that I value aside from my work. So I'd focus on that and just - be with your friend. Let the feelings come but hold the whole person in your mind, not a single opportunity.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:42 PM on November 6, 2017

« Older Day Hikes   |   Best option for shared calendar between ios and... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.