Working without a job

I have drafted variants of this post lots of times. I've never published them because advice always feels... presumptuous. So let me say: I don't have any answers. But I do know that the usual way of 'finding work' doesn't work any more, so maybe the need for ideas, or just hope, has grown. 

Lots of people are out of work right now. I just read that 120,000 jobs have been lost in the oil industry in the UK alone. It's about the same order of magnitude in Canada, maybe as much as 200,000. Indeed, several of my friends — smart, uber-capable professionals — are newly out of jobs. There's no fat left to trim in operator or service companies... but the cuts continue. It's awful.

The good news is that I think we can leave this downturn with a new, and much better, template for employment. The idea is to be more resilient for 'next time' (the coming mergers, the next downturn, the death throes of the industry, that sort of thing).

The tragedy of the corporate professional 

At least 15 years ago, probably during a downturn, our corporate employers started telling us that we are responsible for our own careers. This might sound like a cop-out, maybe it was even meant as one, but really it's not. Taken at face value, it's a clear empowerment.

My perception is that most professionals did not rise to the challenge, however. I still hear, literally all the time, that people can't submit a paper to a conference, or give a talk, or write a blog, or that they can't take a course, or travel to a workshop. Most of the time this comes from people who have not even asked, they just assume the answer will be No. I worry that they have completely given in; their professional growth curtailed by the real or imagined conditions of their employment.

More than just their missed opportunity, I think this is a tragedy for all of us. Their expertise effectively gone from the profession, these lost scientists are unknown outside their organizations.

Many organizations are happy for things to work out that way, but when they make the situation crystal clear by letting people go, the inequity is obvious. The professional realizes, too late, that the career they were supposed to be managing (and perhaps thought they were managing by completing their annual review forms on time) was just that — a career, not a job. A career spanning multiple jobs and, it turns out, multiple organizations.

I read on LinkedIn recently someone wishing recently let-go people good luck, hoping that they could soon 'resume their careers'. I understand the sentiment, but I don't see it the same way. You don't stop being a professional, it's not a job. Your career continues, it's just going in a different direction. It's definitely not 'on hold'. If you treat it that way, you're missing an opportunity, perhaps the best one of your career so far.

What you can do

Oh great, unsolicited advice from someone who has no idea what you're going through. I know. But hey, you're reading a blog, what did you expect? 

  • Do you want out? If you think you might want to leave the industry and change your career in a profound way, do it. Start doing it right now and don't look back. If your heart's not in this work, the next months and maybe years are really not going to be fun. You're never going to have a better run at something completely different.
  • You never stop being a professional, just like a doctor never stops being a doctor. If you're committed to this profession, grasp and believe this idea. Your status as such is unrelated to the job you happen to have or the work you happen to be doing. Regaining ownership of our brains would be the silveriest of linings to this downturn.
  • Your purpose as a professional is to offer help and advice, informed by your experience, in and around your field of expertise. This has not changed. There are many, many channels for this purpose. A job is only one. I firmly believe that if you create value for people, you will be valued and — eventually — rewarded.
  • Establish a professional identity that exists outside and above your work identity. Get your own business cards. Go to meetings and conferences on your own time. Write papers and articles. Get on social media. Participate in the global community of professional geoscientists. 
  • Build self-sufficiency. Invest in a powerful computer and fast Internet. Learn to use QGIS and OpendTect. Embrace open source software and open data. If and when you get some contracting work, use Tick to count hours, Wave for accounting and invoicing, and Todoist to keep track of your tasks. 
  • Find a place to work — I highly recommend coworking spaces. There is one near you, I can practically guarantee it. Trust me, it's a much better place to work than home. I can barely begin to describe the uplift, courage, and inspiration you will get from the other entrepreneurs and freelancers in the space.
  • Find others like you, even if you can't get to a coworking space, your new peers are out there somewhere. Create the conditions for collaboration. Find people on, go along to tech and start-up events at your local university, or if you really can't find anything, organize an event yourself! 
  • Note that there are many ways to make a living. Money in exchange for time is one, but it's not a very efficient one. It's just another hokey self-help business book, but reading The 4-Hour Workweek honestly changed the way I look at money, time, and work forever.
  • Remember entrepreneurship. If you have an idea for a new product or service, now's your chance. There's a world of making sh*t happen out there — you genuinely do not need to wait for a job. Seek out your local startup scene and get inspired. If you've only ever worked in a corporation, people's audacity will blow you away.

If you are out of a job right now, I'm sorry for your loss. And I'm excited to see what you do next.