The Guardian's Erica Buist Talks Surviving Joblessness

From living in Mexico and becoming fluent in Spanish to training to become a video producer in Thailand - as well as treading the boards as a stand up comedienne, Journalist Erica Buist has followed a pretty unique path in life so far. 

After heading back to University and graduating with a Masters Degree in Magazine Journalism in 2012, Erica suddenly found herself among the many millions of frustrated job seekers struggling to find relevant and meaningful work. Work that would use her skills and education in the way she had trained for it to do so.

Realising she was not alone, Erica started the blog How To Be Jobless to explore the world of, and connect with, those in a similar situation. Today we chat about this blog, how it helped lead to where she is now, working at The Guardian Newspaper, plus discover some top tips for surviving the job hunt process and then balancing work and life once you find that career path you've been hoping for.

Photograph: Graham Turner, Graham Turner/Guardian

Photograph: Graham Turner, Graham Turner/Guardian

Thank you for taking part in today's interview Erica. Could you begin by sharing more about what you do currently and what your job involves?

I'm a Features Writer for the Guardian on a freelance contract. That means I have a word count to reach over the year, writing features for various sections (G2, Comment, Do Something, Guardian Weekend, etc). Every day I read the news and pitch ideas, or an editor might contact me with something specific they'd like me to write. Sometimes it involves travelling and pretty much always involves interviewing people way more interesting than me – an astronaut for example.

 

I really love reading your blog 'How To Be Jobless'. What did that time out of work and writing the blog teach you about yourself and the minefield that job seekers face when in a similar situation?

It taught me, once and for all, that I define myself too much by my work. Always have. Back when I did standup comedy, my entire mood would depend on how my last gig went.. If I’d had a bad gig I was a bad comedian. If I’d had a good gig I didn't even feel proud, my brain would say, "Yeah, and? That's your job, asshole." So to have trained to be a journalist and then find myself unemployed was devastating. I took being jobless very personally. I did nothing, so I was nothing.

Reading the news beat that out of me a little, of course. Everyone was in a similar situation it seemed, either jobless or clinging to their jobs like a life raft. The question I, and the other million unemployed, were wrestling with was: am I jobless because of the crisis, or because I suck?

I became interested in the fact that there were a million people in this situation, and every one of them felt alone. There's no collectivism among the jobless because it's not a collective thing, it's a competitive thing. The media dispassionately reported figures and chucked around phrases like "doomed" and "wasted generation", and every three months some crusty public figure blamed the jobless for their own predicament. Everyone was talking about the jobless, but no one was talking to them. I was spiralling, so I sought out comedians to make me feel better about the situation. There was nothing so I figured I may as well be the one to make people laugh about it all.

Photograph: Linda Nylind

Photograph: Linda Nylind

I started tweeting joke tips, like “Create an office atmosphere at home by standing up and offering yourself tea 37 times a day” or, “Turn an internship into a job. Put crack in the boss’s coffee. All they’ll know is things are just better when you’re around”. Careers site GoThinkBig spotted my tweets and asked me to write a weekly column called, “My Week in Joblessness” and just like that, I was doing comedy again, but anonymously. Being anonymous was great because people assumed I was a man, so I got all kinds of respect. Plus I could do it all in pyjamas rather than having to get up on stage in damp underground comedy clubs.

The blog gained a following and I had all these people tweeting thanks at me for making them laugh. The tendency to feel totally despondent and hopeless clearly wasn’t just me – I still get emails and messages from unemployed and aspiring journos and I always, always answer, because I know what they're going through. Jobseekers suffer emotionally because no one told them this would happen to them – it didn't happen to our parents, and universities aren't big on admitting that what they're selling you actually isn't the ticket to employment. It's more like vague directions to the station.

 

How did you get involved in the work that you do now and what training and experience did you have to undertake?

First, I did a Masters in Journalism at City and all the unpaid internships that entails. It was invaluable because I hardly had any journalism experience at all (I have no idea why they even accepted me, to be honest), but it definitely gave me an inflated view of how employable I would be by the time I graduated. While running How to Be Jobless, I applied for the Guardian Digital Journalism Scheme, mostly in the hopes that I would get an interview I could screw up for blog fodder. A post I wrote about the interview process went viral, and after a final interview with Alan Rusbridger I got hired.

While I was on the Guardian scheme, I wrote as much as I could. I was given a column on the Live Better project, and when the scheme came to an end they gave me a writing contract.
 


What is it that you love most about what you do now?

It’s never boring. I’m constantly reading interesting stories and talking to interesting people. Also, my days are deliciously unpredictable. I might have a quiet day writing a piece or researching ideas, or I might get an email saying, "Can you go to Oslo to interview the world chess champion on Monday?" or "Could you go dog sledding in Gloucestershire?" or "Someone has said something stupid about jobless young people, are you suitably enraged? We need an eloquent rant by 10am."

Photograph: Linda Nylind

Photograph: Linda Nylind

Are there any particular challenges and how do you handle them?

I sometimes find it hard to switch off, so I will sometimes lie awake going over something I have to write, questions I should ask that interviewee, whether that joke works in the second par...

Also, often your whole article relies on people getting back to you, so it can be stressful when people just won't. This is always true in journalism. I recently got an email that said, "Hi, would you still like to come in and intern with us?" in response to an email I had sent two years, six months, two weeks and two days earlier. I won’t embarrass the publication by naming them, but it was a very, very well known magazine.

As for how to handle it: do contact them again if it’s urgent, but don’t panic and start harassing them, making your deadline their problem. Is there someone else you could contact instead? Have you tried contacting them in different ways? Just tweeting at them or just emailing them might get a slow response – not everyone is glued to their tech the way journalists often are.

I used to panic because at uni, missing a deadline is an automatic fail. In the real world, you're dealing with editors, ie. reasonable humans who have very little interest in testing you. Their aim is to get the story published, not to give you an assignment and yell, "...aaaaaaand TIME!" In fact, editors set deadlines so early that they can seem arbitrary, even bonkers, but it's to account for such eventualities.

Now I realise these aren't things to get stressed about, they're just things to get done, and in the best way possible. But it doesn’t hurt to start contacting potential interviewees as soon as you get the commission, even if you have ages before you have to file.

Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

Some people dismiss it as a myth but do you believe in having a good work-life balance and if so how do you try and achieve it for yourself?

I'm always working, I check my emails constantly, and when I found out I'd be doing my new job from home my first thought was, "I can get two extra hours of work done by not having to commute!"

Last year, when I was still working in the office, my father-in-law dropped dead one day. My fiancé found him in his house and called me as I was on my way to the tube. I was devastated. The three of us had lived together for two years, he was a big part of my life. But the first thing I did – the very first thing, before even taking another step – was email my editor to let him know I wasn't coming in. Even in the most tragic, shocking circumstances, work was dancing around on the peripheries. Silly, really.

That said, I actually do believe in a good work-life balance, not least because as I mentioned, I tend to define myself too much by my work. It's crucial to have the "life" bit if you have that tendency: if the work dried up, or for some reason I was no longer able to write, without a rich home life I'd be left with nothing.

Here's how I create a work-life balance (of sorts) with the help of my fiancé:

  • Weekends are sacred. They are set aside for my fiancé and I to be together. If I absolutely have to work, we plan for him to be doing something at the same time, plan a mutual finish time and often go on a date to make up for it.
  • My fiancé reads and comments on all my work. That way he's a part of it.
  • Talking about work is allowed, but dwelling and repeating ourselves isn't. Once we've talked through a worry, we stop each other from getting stuck on it.
  • We watch Netflix together in the evenings. A small thing, but watching the same show is a shared activity, whereas if we were each tapping away on our phones we'd go to bed feeling like we hadn't seen each other.
  • I have two kittens (as anyone who follows me on Instagram will be very much aware), which is handy because there's only so long I can work before I simply must take a break to squeeze their little faces.

 

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had been given in the early days of your career?

Rather than advice per se, I wish someone had warned me that after graduating it takes two years to get the job you want, and that it wouldn't be because I sucked. That would have saved me a lot of misery and fear.

Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

How do you feel the future is shaping up for young job seekers and do you have any advice to offer those currently trying to find, and establish, themselves on their personal career path for the future?

I think we’re in a transition right now. The rules have changed, permanently, and no one sent us a memo. We’re the generation in shock that everything our parents told us would work – studying, qualifications, a nicely-written CV and covering letter – doesn’t.

My advice would be to graduate and start looking for work in the frame of mind, “Uni was fun, wasn’t it? I now have to get experience and in two years, I’ll be eligible for the job I want.” If you graduate knowing full well that no one cares that you have a degree or that you directed that play, it’s not such a horrible shock when your first 90 applications are ignored.

As for making yourself into an exciting prospect for the industry you want, I have the following advice:

  • If your skills lend themselves to it, showcase your work online. For some reason, you still have to send CVs and covering letters even though everyone knows they are outdated: "I'm good, I promise" doesn't cut it anymore now that employers can (and will) stalk you online. Make sure there's something there when they do. Think of an application as an invitation to Google you extensively.
  • If you start a blog, make it about others. Your thoughts and musings on life are way less interesting to people who don't know you, which, if you're any good, is most of your audience.
  • Ignore the older people in your life who "just don't understand" why you haven't got a job yet. Times have changed and either they don’t know what they’re talking about, or it’s a compliment – they think you’re so marvellous you’re too special to be affected by a silly old total upheaval of how people get hired.
  • Ignore your friends on Facebook who seem to be doing really well. Facebook an image-crafting factory. Everyone thinks everyone is doing better than they are.
  • Ignore all the internet advice that when jobseeking you should get dressed as if you’re going to the office because of some vague notion that “looking for work is work” and that wearing a tie will get you “into the professional mindset”. Sleeping until just after The Employed get to work, wearing pyjamas and being able to watch Frasier in your pants are the ONLY perks of this full-time, unpaid, soul-sucking job, so make the most of them.

 

I want to thank Erica for her invaluable advice and input in this interview. I personally really appreciate the tips for work-life balance and am trying to ensure I think more about a lot of the points myself. Especially when it comes to talking about work but not dwelling on it - that can be hard to do, but very important! 

If you're currently in the same position that Erica found herself, struggling to get the role that you want and find the right work for you, then I hope that her advice and great tips come in useful. Times have changed and so has the job seeking process - but it doesn't have to be as scary as it may seem. It's about re-thinking and preparing for the new challenges this changing world is bringing us. Make sure you check out Erica's blog for more thoughts and inspiration.

That's all for today folks! Have a very Happy Monday and a bright start to this new working week.