I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about our careers. Unsurprisingly, I was frustrated with my job while he was thriving. Usually, our conversations revolved around bitching about our jobs, or how we’re not paid enough, or feeling like we continue to be stuck in the same shitty jobs we’re always in. But now, he was consulting for a major coffee company, and I was still treading through horrible job after horrible job.
I asked him if he thought I’d be miserable in every job I took.
He said, “Yeah, probably.”
That was not the response I expected.
He then clarified: “You might be unemployable.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. He could tell, so he continued: “No, being unemployable is a good thing! I realized I’m unemployable, and now I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
That conversation happened three years ago, and I’ve come back to the idea of being unemployable a lot since then, especially as I’ve cycled through jobs and wondered, “am I the problem here?” But when I go back to that conversation, and I think about my actual performance at a job, I remember that’s not true.
I go back and toss and turn over my actual job performance. My friend and I had this conversation after a particularly tense employment experience. My boss, an older man in his 40’s when I was 25, told me I was bad at my job. This was weeks after ignoring me at work and dismissing my texts, and at one point calling me crazy for texting him a question about work.
I then asked if his opinion had anything to do with my actual job performance. He said, “no, it’s just that I don’t like you.” He pressured me to quit, I told him he could fire me if he liked. I had never felt lower, and after a few days of replaying that scene in my head, I wandered into the conversation from the beginning of this piece.
As my friend defined, being unemployable doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job—it means the exact opposite.
Being unemployable means you see problems before they start—and you speak up. Being unemployable means seeing others get promoted over you and when you ask why, you get rebuffed with no explanation. Being unemployable means that, no matter what, you can’t just sit back and let things slide.
Being unemployable almost always means that there’s a huge difference in your values versus the values of your employer.
I realized this when, no matter what job I took, things weren’t as they seemed. Nothing is ever like how an employer describes it when you’re interviewing for a job (this is a much bigger topic for another day). After a honeymoon period, I’d begin noticing the cracks in the business, like a misogynistic colleague that has never been reprimanded, or a boss too preoccupied with small managerial tasks that they continuously push back check ins that can result in wage increases (side note—if your employer promises you a wage increase after a certain period, like six months from employment, put it in your calendar RIGHT NOW. Your wages are too important for anyone to push back a meeting or continuously reschedule a check in).
This isn’t great, but it happens—no business is perfect and I’m certainly not either. This becomes a problem when there’s no room for feedback or creative discourse. You know that saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?” That’s what almost every job I’ve ever had feels like. And it felt like, to be happy, I’d simply have to accept that.
Having a critical eye in a new business isn’t immediately a bad thing. You’ve probably had a discussion with a boss where you suggest moving something around to make things more efficient or you notice a discrepancy that costs the business money, and your insight is initially prized. But that changes quickly.
A critical eye is soon met with resentment and anger. The suggestions that were at first met with excitement would later be met with dread and annoyance. After a few weeks, I’d hear excuses like, “this isn’t how we do things here,” or “we don’t see this as a problem.” And eventually, I’d get bitter and angry, and leave (or get fired on Slack, which is a real thing that’s happened to me).
(Above: a message I got from my boss when I told her I wouldn’t come into her office on my day off to get fired.)
The flavor of unemployable is different for everybody. For me it was being too critical. For others, it can be holding an employer accountable (“didn’t you promise me a raise after six months when I first got hired?” or “why are there only white dudes working here?”) or asking for things that are perfectly reasonable (“can we sit down for my six month performance review” or “could we maybe publish the schedule a few weeks in advance instead of the day before?”). But those all come back to one thing—the things that you are good at and the things that are valuable to you are not valuable to your employer.
Most people don’t see their jobs as employers as being leaders for their staff. Likewise, they don’t see the role of their staff to help push their business and make better systems that work for everyone. Instead, most employers see employees as just that—their employees. They post a job, a person fills it, and that’s that. Any questioning of that power is seen as annoying at best and cause for firing at worst.
And for many, that’s enough. Their boss is their boss and what they say goes. But for some, I imagine that’s not good enough. Shitty job situations don’t have to be tolerated, especially when another answer is so clear. But for so long, we’ve been taught that we’re the problem, and employers—those with the actual power to change something—are taught that they’re always in the right.
I imagine that there are a number of people reading this who have been told, over and over, that they’re the problem. That their requests are unreasonable. That they’re rocking the boat just to cause trouble. That they’re not the “right fit” for a business. That their skills aren’t right for a position. And I imagine a number of us have internalized this. After hearing messages like this, we’re conditioned to think that we’re the problem.
(Above: some of the responses to my inquiry about feeling unemployable)
I’m not trying to make a value judgment on being unemployable—there are folks who can go to work and leave their job at the door and I’m sure they’re both highly competent and happier than I am. But I imagine this is a feeling some of you have felt before, and haven’t had a way to express.
Constantly feeling annoyed with leaders, seeing things fall apart in front of you, thinking, “I would have done this a different way,” or feeling confused when you bring a great idea to a leader and they don’t act on it.
Recognizing I was unemployable helped me see what I needed from a job and created a pathway for me to find happiness at work.
While I’m staunchly unemployable, I am employed. Along with freelance writing (part of quelling my deep need to be in control at all times), I work for a beer website where I’m allowed a degree of autonomy over my role I’ve never had before. Instead of asking twenty people if it’s ok to rearrange the way we stack post-its, I can make big decisions and try things out with and know that my opinion is trusted and valued. For the first time, all the qualities in me that have been admonished have taken a full 180 and are now seen as assets.
Realizing I’m unemployable helped me get in tune with my needs at work. For years I felt inadequate or like I was complaining too much. But now, I feel assuredly confident in my abilities, and know that my employers should see that as well.
I wanted this to be the first piece I wrote because I feel like there’s a number of you who have felt this way—and you don’t know where to turn. Being told by an employer that you’re causing a stir or that you’re too critical is demoralizing, and I’m here to tell you that you’re an asset. I could go into why these structures continue to exist (spoiler alerts: it’s about power) but that’s for another time. In the meantime, I want you to know that this space will, to the best of my abilities, speak to the issues that affect you.
If this message speaks to you, I kindly encourage you to check out my Patreon account. Writing about wage transparency, shitty bosses, and how to disrupt the power system is risky—but necessary. For the first couple of weeks, we’re gonna keep all content free, and may add paid content in the future. But if you want to jump in and contribute now, the Patreon is the place to do it.
If you can’t donate, please share this article with someone you know. Someone who might be struggling at work or someone with whom this message will resonate. The key to power is keeping folks ill-informed—and we’re here to fight that.