The unemployment rate is ridiculous right now. We've seen layoffs in every sector of American business and a lot of people are scared that their professional lives are canceled. But a pioneering few who have been affected by the pandemic’s economy are seeing a stepping stone instead of a stumbling block — betting on themselves when the bigger system has failed.
“I felt a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about my ability to maintain financial stability because the entertainment industry had practically shut down overnight in response to the pandemic,” Jarry Lee, a 27-year-old in NYC who was a model and actor pre-pandemic. Now, she is a full time social media influencer and content creator with over 600,000 followers. Lee is living her dream, but transitioning from working behind the camera to working on both sides of it required a significant shift in perspective. Lee already had photographic knowledge and experience, but the pandemic required her to utilize those skills in innovative ways to build her brand.
“It’s honestly been really empowering because I now perform all the roles that other people used to do around me on set for my shoots,” Lee says. “I’m the photographer, hair and makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, set designer, retoucher, and model.” Being forced to hone her skills in a new way has given her a boost of confidence, which is really helpful since the rest of the world is in flux.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and, perhaps, even intervention,” says Lisa Orbé-Austin, a New York-based psychologist, career coach, and author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life. “During this time, a lot of people have had traditional security disappear and have instead considered the skills, experience, and abilities that they have and how they could leverage them.” When the pandemic hit, Lee basically repurposed the skills she had so that they were usable in new ways, embodying the spirit of personal and professional innovation. And if Lee’s giddiness about her success is any indication, that kind of innovation can be very satisfying.
Using lemons to make lemonade sounds great, and folx like Lee make it look beautiful and easy, but the truth is that stepping up during an economic downturn requires a kind of eagle-eyed perspective and the ability and willingness to take a cold, hard look at your life and priorities. “I think people wait for some kind of external trigger to make changes in life, and the virus has turned out to be a huge trigger,” says Matt Kandler a 32-year-old web designer and developer in Brooklyn. Kandler had been making apps as a freelancer for seven years and working on a gratitude journal app, called Happyfeed, in his spare time as a passion project.
When the pandemic hit, it was clear that finding work was going to be difficult for him. But it was equally clear to him that his gratitude-based side project was helping people. Fans of Happyfeed were emailing him to tell him how much it was helping them, so Kandler decided to put his energy where he felt it was needed instead of where he might find the most money. Of course, making the choice to follow your bliss requires a certain level of privilege — both financially or emotionally. Even if you’re fairly responsibility-free and have a savings to dip into, the leap can be hard to make.
Kandler saw that he was making something that people loved and they were counting on him to keep it up. “I decided that this was my excuse to see what Happyfeed could really become.” Instead of doing the freelance dance of scrambling for every dime, Kandler put his efforts toward building a product that lets him use his technical genius and help people. It’s not always easy, Kandler tells me, but it is really rewarding. “As a freelancer, you can easily get in the mindset that every hour you aren't working is an hour you aren't getting paid for.” Kandler tells me he saw this moment as his chance to step back and think about what he wanted to create and how he could do it mindfully.
Orbé-Austin says that this pandemic is forcing some of us to look at our lives in different ways. “Because of the circumstances of COVID-19 –like increased amount of time at home, the isolation from others and the change in routine– it does give you an opportunity to reflect existentially on what brings you meaning,” she tells me. This forces us to question now expired ideas about our identities or our professional paths, and that lets new questions emerge. “What is your purpose? What are the possibilities?” Orbé-Austin asks. “Taking the time to reflect on opportunities, being hopeful and creative can open up ideas that felt impossible and hidden before.”
But as inspiring as we find people who have been able to leverage their skills in innovative ways, it’s easy to chalk their successes up to that privilege we discussed. I’m a stone Marxist and most of the time I think there’s a lot of truth to that logic, but sometimes people create success stories when they’re just trying to meet their own basic needs. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare," Audre Lorde once wrote. For some people who have given themselves, emotionally and creatively, to a company in exchange for a salary, would argue that leaping into their own project is an act of self-preservation.
“I needed to make a living and I'm not one that gives up easily,” Ivory Price, a 25-year-old from Michigan tells me. Price was living in Guatemala when the pandemic hit, working in the travel industry. She got laid off and essentially stranded in another country in Mid-March, when it was basically impossible to fly internationally without V.I.P. status or at least a lot of money.
None of those setbacks appeared to phase Price. “The morning we got laid off, I cried and then laughed,” Price tells me. “I look for every possible way to make something work.” Price needed to stay in Guatemala and be able to make a living remotely, so she started her own virtual personal assistant business. “I look for every possible way to make something work,” Price says, which is also, not coincidentally, a really great skill for a personal assistant to have.
She says that being laid off was a blessing in disguise. “I am my own boss, I make my own hours, and get to remain in this beautiful country — or travel wherever and whenever I want post-COVID,” Price tells me. “Getting laid off might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.” To be fair, this may not ring true for everyone. I am often grateful for my most challenging obstacles in retrospect, but the truth is that being laid off can be both freeing and horrific.
We often think of the pressure to work as a burden, but for some people, professional instability fuels creativity. But you don’t have to lose your job to find joy. As Orbé-Austin points out, most of us are finding our lives to be a bit quieter than before, and that quiet can give us much needed space for contemplation. “The absence of ‘noise’ and distraction –like sports and entertainment allows people to sit in their present experience and examine their current circumstances and how or what they might want to change,” Orbé-Austin says.
Instead of looking at this great pause as a terrifying void, then, perhaps we can see it as a vast opportunity to try something new and develop dormant skills. We don’t have to pretend it’s risk free to take professional and creative risks. It’s scary and hard to step towards the unknown, but navigating uncertainty is a skill that we’re all honing. We practice risk assessment and dexterity every time we don our masks to go to the grocery, and those skills might just transfer over into our careers. “The real risk in life is to not take any risks — you don’t know what you could have missed out on,” Lee says, describing her own pandemic-inspired professional epiphany. If something in this very hard moment in human history feels like it might bring you any joy or success, she says, it can’t hurt to try.