On a Friday afternoon at 5 o’clock, I was invited to join my boss for an unscheduled meeting in the downstairs conference room. The news was not good. After much hemming and hawing and expressed appreciation for my hard work, she finally got to the point: I was being “downsized.” I was unemployed. In the midst of one of the worst economies in many years, at 50-plus years of age, with a mortgage to pay and a daughter in college, I was back in the job market. Ironically, a few years earlier I’d published a book about switching careers, which included a very sunny chapter on finding a new job. Could I take my own advice – and would it prove useful?
With a single-minded focus that usually irritates my husband, I started the job hunt. I contacted every person or company I’d worked with in the past 30 years and activated all the social-networking channels I could think of. I met people for lunch, for coffee, for drinks. I scanned the online job boards and sent out a daily quota of applications, each with a resumé individually tailored to the particular job posting. The job-application process had changed significantly since the last time I’d pursued it. Nowadays, resumés are submitted online and scanned electronically before being passed to the human-resources department – or not; if a rejection letter arrives in less than 24 hours, you know that no one actually saw your resumé. My success rate was pretty good; I landed a number of good interviews, but the competition was fierce and no offers were forthcoming. It became clear that finding a job was going to take longer than I’d expected.
Then an interesting opportunity appeared in the form of a minor family crisis. My brother and his wife, both juggling full-time careers and the care of their 4-year-old twin boys, lost their nanny on short notice. They urgently needed childcare, part-time, for several weeks; could I help out? So in early summer, I took a hiatus from the job search and joined company with two aspiring kindergartners – big men in the preschool circuit, full of energy, mischief, and curiosity. My assignment was to chauffeur, feed and generally entertain them four afternoons a week.
Almost by definition, the supervision of children carries the responsibility for their care and safety. But I felt an added imperative. My own childhood was graced by wonderful and quirky adventures with my Aunt Esther: road trips in her Volkswagen Bug, picnics on the beach, sleep overs at her apartment. Together, she and I had long talks and invented such culinary wonders as boiled carrots smothered in French dressing – a combination I found particularly satisfying because of their matching orange hue and because my mother, a respectably good cook, was aghast at the concoction. The adage “it takes a village to raise a child” should be extended to suggest that the village include an offbeat character who helps the child see and explore the world from a different perspective – a Mary Poppins, a Peter Pan, or, a batty aunt. Someone who believes in the unbelievable and does things your mom mildly disapproves of. I considered this my opportunity to open new vistas for my nephews, never imagining the expansive effect it would have on my own life.
The boys and I started our newfound time together with gusto. We went on hikes and picnics; we went to zoos and castles. We rolled down hills, climbed trees, drew pictures, rode bikes, went swimming, cooked dinner, wrote songs and made some very big messes. We kept a logbook of our adventures and wrote down the questions we wondered about. One day we went in search of the mailman. JoJo, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, came to the house every afternoon. “But where is JoJo when he’s not at our house?” the boys wondered.
With careful sleuthing (does Mrs. Stillman’s mailbox have letters in it?) and much circumnavigating the neighborhood, we finally found him. The boys were overjoyed and greeted him like a superhero. JoJo, clearly elated if somewhat surprised at the warm reception, spent several minutes listening as the boys tripped over their retelling of our hunt. Smiling, he went on with his route. Two boys and one man went home happily anticipating their next encounter.
A chance encounter with a vacant field inspired us to stop for a game of imaginary baseball. One boy pitches, fast and true; the other swings, connecting the invisible bat to the invisible ball with an audible crack (my job is sound effects). Everyone runs the bases and slides to home plate; the crowd goes wild. We run a victory lap for good measure. Exhausted and happy, the boys tell me, “ Aunt Jannie, you’re fun … and odd.” Feeling highly complimented, I break out the snacks. Get your cheese sticks and apple slices here! The game can be imaginary, but the food should be real.
All too quickly our time together was up and we all returned to our regularly scheduled summer plans. The boys went on vacation with their folks; a favorite high-school sitter was recruited for the remainder of the season, and I renewed my job search. But the boys and I had set in place a good collection of “remember the day we…” stories, and laid the foundation for many more adventures together. I hope I’ve instilled the fun of doing things “not like everyone else” and a yen for successes larger than the moon. I hope they will take inspiration from, and seek the company of people with active imaginations who don’t accept the status quo. I like to imagine that I’ve played a small part in their future efforts to reinvent the world.
Strangely enough, when I returned to my job search, I found that the whole picture looked far rosier. It was as if the universe had sprinkled a plethora of new listings on the job boards, all with me in mind. But I was different too: My few weeks spent embracing the world’s potential had given me a new outlook on my own. I re-polished my resumé, beefed up the cover letter and dove in with renewed vigor. I aimed high and looked for a job I could be passionate about, where I could make a difference in the world one person or project at a time. And then I found it. A small non-profit was looking for a project manager – a company whose very mission was to bring positive change to the world. Not only could I match my skills to their stated requirements, I could envision myself in a leadership role. The application process was surprisingly easy. My resumé was received and read by actual people. The interview was fun and the discussion animated; we had colleagues in common (several of whom provided excellent references), and a job offer followed within 48 hours of the interview.
By taking time to immerse myself in the lives of two 4-year-olds, I’d discovered the power of imagining my own success; the lessons I’d intended for children had somehow worked their magic on me. Now I’m back in the world of the employed, at a job that’s just too much fun to call work. Never underestimate the power of play.
Jan Burdick is a freelance project manager in New York City and the author of Creative Careers in Museums.