Six months ago, I was fired from a government job after only a year of employment. My probationary period was extended from the initial six months to a full twelve. According to my manager and the CTO of the department, HR had deemed that I had not fulfilled the expectations of the position and was to be terminated. They had no power to overrule this decision.
When I graduated college, my (then) girlfriend’s parents told me that government jobs (federal and state) were the best due to their reluctance to fire employees and insensitivity to the state of the market. They didn’t know that it is incredibly easy to lose a government job if you, like me, had grown accustomed to “succeeding” by avoiding failure.
I was born to a woman who had failed. My mother's marriage with my father fell apart after having their third child because she couldn’t see the signs of a failing relationship. She struggled to make ends meet as a graphic designer, working both a 9-to-5 and taking freelance work to make ends meet. And when she moved from Washington to Idaho in a housing bubble to keep her job with a real-estate magazine, she was rewarded with the Idaho branch of the magazine closing just as the bubble burst, leaving her in an unfamiliar state and only freelance work from a longtime friend to keep her and her children afloat.
I was raised by a man who had failed. My step-father was held back in elementary school, an event that convinced his parents for the rest of their life that he was mentally challenged. He went to college for a degree in child psychology to prove to them that they were wrong. Then he went to a law enforcement academy. Then cooking school. Next art school. When he met my mother, he made a living making and restoring wood furniture, a profession he gave up when my family moved to Idaho. He became the stay-at-home parent for my two younger siblings and me while my mother worked.
My parents knew the sting of failure and the pains of regret. They wanted their kids not to have that experience. They wanted us to grow into successful people like all parents do. But my parents had grown afraid of failure, and I’ve never heard them talk about their past failings as failures. Failure was never an option in my family’s household. A lot of things were never an option.
When I graduated high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I could have gone to any school I wanted, but I feared failure. I feared being rejected. I didn’t want to put effort or hard work into an application to a prestigious school because I didn’t know the connection between hard work and success. Success had always been easy.
I got a letter from a university in Montana that, when summarized, told me, “Apply and you will be in.” Easy success struck once again, not to mention an escape from my emotionally abusive parents and their toxic ideals.
My time in university wasn’t easy, but that didn’t mean success didn’t seem to fall into my lap. I had a track record of A’s and B’s in my classes, with an odd C and one failed class due to forgetting a final project. The funny thing is that it took hardly any effort to do — for me, at the least.
This didn’t mean I was happy. I struggled with my tumultuous mental health, manifesting in fits of depression and mania. Desire to commit suicide plagued me, and I habitually isolated myself from others in times of greatest stress. I was still afraid of conflict. And it would all get worse just before I returned to my parent’s home.
When I graduated, there was a problem. I couldn’t get a job.
I worked as a software developer with the university for three of the four years I was in school. It was not an internship. It was a job that helped pay for my education. I was indignant that company after company wouldn’t hire me despite having three years of experience when my peers had at most one year in an internship. I didn’t understand the point of an internship.
I only got a job through my (then) girlfriend’s father. He knew the guy hiring for a military contractor that my girlfriend was also applying for. I impressed the man because he hired me without a second thought. That or he trusted my girlfriend’s father. I didn’t care. It was another success. Another easy success.
It’s been four years since I graduated, and I haven’t held a job longer than a single year. My tenure at the first military contractor I worked for was miserable for many reasons, but the principle was that I didn’t know how to work or ask for help. I switched to another contractor — the one my girlfriend’s dad worked for as a branch manager — that promised to have me working on software instead of electronics of the last century. I thought I wasn’t succeeding because I wasn’t doing what I was passionate about, naturally, software. (Or so I thought.)
I didn’t last longer than a year there, either. I had convinced myself it was because I was working on something I wasn’t passionate about. I started therapy during this job after a mental breakdown that brought me to the brink of psychosis. I got medication that made me dream every night, like clockwork, without failure. I got a PTSD diagnosis and was told my hunch about being abused was true. My youngest sibling came out as trans, and the event made me question my gender identity.
Through therapy, I convinced myself I needed to work on something I was passionate about. My girlfriend bought a house, and I quit my job at her dad’s company to start my own company. My youngest sibling ran away from my parent’s to live with my girlfriend and me.
My company failed. I didn’t like to think of it like that. I just joked with people post-fact that building a business was hard and needed more time. I got a contract with a startup because they wanted me under an NDA before I got too deep into reverse engineering their code. Then I started working for the government again before the startup realized I hadn’t done anything during the month-long contract that paid me entirely too much.
A year and a half later, and I’m here.
Unemployed. (In Greenland.)
For the last six months, I’ve been alone, living in a brand new apartment that is too expensive because I thought I’d still have a well-paying government job despite being little more than a parasite. My girlfriend and I decided to break up because we no longer felt we could provide what we needed for each other. My sibling moved out to live on their own.
In the first few early months, I assumed getting a new job would be easy. I was wrong, but I didn’t look at myself. I blamed the economy, the businesses, and the recruiters. I gave excuse after excuse. “Unrealistic expectations,” “It’s not hiring season,” “I’ll wait for the right job,” “The market’s just rough. Look at the layoffs.” Then I convinced myself to make a career change and get training. First, it was cybersecurity. Then I realized I didn’t like being on the tech treadmill. I wasted a month on a two-week-long course and studying before figuring this out.
The next month was transitioning from the software engineering equivalent of an odd-jobs contractor to front-end development. The month after that, any job. The clock is still ticking as I write this to find a job before I’m unemployed, broke, and homeless.
And it is only now that things are starting to connect.
I have been raised to fear failure. Failure is an evil thing. Failure is worse than death. I was taught by parents who felt shame and regret at their failures to avoid failure. To not even try if there is a risk of failing. And when they tried to teach me that hard work equals success, they forced me to work on something that would succeed. Hopefully, it’s obvious to some readers that they were teaching a different lesson. My parents made a good choice not to be teachers.
As I’ve been reflecting, I’ve realized that hard work entails failure. Failures are an artifact of putting all your effort into something. By failing, you learn what doesn’t lead to success. Had my parents let me explore and fail, I would have had more confidence in leading my life.
But this was never really in their hands. My parents failed to be good life teachers, but I also failed to be a good student. Instead of speaking out for myself, I let fear govern me. Instead of digging deeper, I let bad habits grow like cancer in my psyche, poisoning everything I touched and making me unable to function with a strong sense of responsibility.
This is all up to me to fix. It always has been, and it always will be.