Career, Happiness, Job Hunting, Learning

What it’s like to move to a city with no apartment and no job

16 Comments 08 November 2012

I moved to Washington, DC from my hometown of Lexington, MA on June 28th. I left for two primary reasons:

a) I was getting a little anxious living at home with my parents (I’m a grown ass man for christ’s sake) and

b) My girlfriend wanted to move to DC after she finished grad school, so I figured I’d get a job and an apartment and get everything set up to make it a bit easier for her.

Most people I’ve talked to said they wouldn’t move to a new city without a job. They’re worried about not having enough money or just have a good thing setup at home. The New York Times wrote an article about the “Go-Nowhere” Generation. The article is mostly true based on my observations of my peers.

I moved to DC without a job in hand, without an apartment, and with few savings.

Four months later I have a job, an apartment complete with Ikea furniture, and credit card debt.

This blog post is about what happened in between.

On not having a place to live/living in a hostel

For the past four months I’ve been living out of a hostel. When I decided to make the move, I figured getting an apartment would be unrealistic because landlords generally want people who are, you know, employed. In addition, I didn’t want the commitment, I didn’t want to buy furniture, and I didn’t want to start renting a place before I knew where I’d be working.

What was the next best alternative? Living in a hostel.

I’ve stayed at hostels before during my travels and I’ve generally had a positive experience. You get to meet interesting people and and of course, reduce your lodging costs.

Living in a hostel in the city you attended college is a very different experience. Below are some of my observations:

- You will have to be social no matter what. Assuming you’re not staying in one of the fancy private rooms at the hostel, you’ll generally be sharing a room with 3 – 10 other people. For the first few weeks of staying at a hostel you’ll really enjoy meeting all the travelers that come through, but then you’ll get very very tired of it. You’ll have the same conversation thousands of times and of course even travelers staying at the hostel are surprised that you live there. Eventually you’ll come to a happy medium where you intuitively know with whom and how often you’d like to socialize.

-Living at a hostel is not actually cheaper than subletting. Hostels are definitely cheaper than getting a hotel room, but you could get a sublet for the same monthly price. In my case, I could’ve found a sublet in a worse location for about the same monthly price. I didn’t do it though because I’d still have to buy some furniture, I’d lose flexibility, and I really liked the location of my particular hostel.

- You’ll become sleep deprived. I arrived in DC the week of the freak heat wave and storm. The air conditioning system was being overwhelmed on my floor and the storm blew half the roof off of the hostel. It sucked. I eventually found the cooler rooms and they  fixed the roof, but there are still a few other things that will make sleep difficult for you. Middle aged men are the worst because they snore, and many of them are strange. I mean, if you’re a middle age man staying by yourself in a hostel, you’re probably a bit strange. The other factor is just general shuffling in and out of the room by other travelers. Most travelers want to get up early and go see the city, which means you can’t sleep in. I recommend taking naps in the afternoon when most people are out.

-Being able to pay one week at a time with a credit card is great. It’s great because it helps out immensely with your cash flow if you’re able to pay with a credit card. I also like racking up airline miles and having the flexibility to just leave or cancel if I need to. This is much harder if you have to write a check to a landlord.

- You’ll be forced to become a minimalist. I actually see this as positive thing. I lived out of a suitcase for four months and you learn that you actually use/need very few things on a day-to-day basis. It’s less stressful. I just finished furnishing my apartment and it’s amazing how having your own places makes you want a ton of stuff. I promised myself I wouldn’t get a tv but lo and behold, I’m looking at my 32″ LCD right now while sipping coffee from my Ikea coffee mug and sitting at my Ikea table. Owning stuff is sometimes nice but kind of stressful.

- You’ll really appreciate your new apartment when you get one. The first night I stayed at my apartment we had no furniture. My girlfriend and I had a blanket and a few pillows and we slept on the carpeted floor. It was fantastic; way better than the hostel. Living in a hostel lowers your standards for comfort.

Lessons and Takeaways

If you don’t want to impose on your friends who live in the city, I recommend living at the hostel until you get on your feet. It may seem like my experience was a negative one, but overall I’m glad I did it. You trade privacy and general comfort for flexibility and the social atmosphere. You’ll also file this experience into the “things I’m glad I did when I was young but it’s so awesome I don’t have to do that anymore” category.

- Book one week at a time and at least 3 days in advance. There were several times when the hostel was completely booked and I had to find a different place to stay. I stayed at a hotel a few times which was nice but expensive and a bit of a pain to move to.

- Live out of one suitcase and one backpack at most. Mobility is key.

- Become friends with the hostel staff. This pays off when you’re requesting specific beds and rooms. It also pays off because hey, you’ll have regular friends you can talk to. This is great because many of the people you meet will be travelers who are staying just a few days.

- Bring headphones and/or ear plugs. This is to deal with the snorers. Seriously, they are awful.

On Being Unemployed/Job Hunting

As I mentioned before, I moved to DC without a full time job. This seems to be the reason why most people who want to move to a new city don’t. It’s the fear of running out of money and completely failing at the job hunt and having to return home. This seems reasonable. In fact, I was living off credit cards starting on month 2. Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to do that but I was determined to make it work. In addition, all my credit cards had 0% interest rates. I have good credit and took advantage of those credit card offers.

To all those people who think I’m a unique case, you may be right, but I’ll list my “unfair advantages” here and you can see for yourself whether or not I’m a unique case

Unique things about me 

I have Top Secret security clearance, courtesy of the Navy. This only really matters if you’re looking for a job in the defense industry or government consulting.

- I’m a job hopper. This actually isn’t that unique but the types of jobs I’ve jumped to are very different. I was in the Navy for a little over year, then I went to teach English in Egypt, then I worked briefly for a travel company/website, then I worked for a defense company, and oh I have my own side project/company. I was able to successfully weave this into a cohesive narrative but I’ll get into that later.

- I went to college in DC and had the Navy pay for it. I still have debt, but it’s not a student loan and it has a very very low interest rate. This may or may not be a relevant factor when you move to a new city. Obviously if you’re not worried about loan payments you have more flexibility, but this is a difference in degree, not kind. It’s fundamentally an expense and cash flow issue.

- I have good credit. This was extremely useful for me.

- I have a small network of friends and contacts in DC. I attended college in the city and some of my friends stuck around are gainfully employed. This was mostly an emotional advantage. It’s extremely helpful to be able to meet up with friends for dinner or drinks or movies or whatever. Professionally, the friend were not that much of a help. The job offer I did end up receiving did not result from a pre-existing friend or contact.

- I lived in the city before. I generally knew where I was going which meant I had more energy to dedicate to job hunting. If I had to figure out where I was going at the same time it would have been a little harder.

Observations

Job hunting is very tiring and you can only really do it effectively a few hours per day. I conducted my job search a bit differently than most of my peers. I didn’t apply to any jobs online unless it took less than five minutes to do. This means I didn’t spend my time customizing my resume or writing cover letters.  I spent most of my time reaching out to people at companies with job openings I wanted. This involved researching the company and the job, finding people that worked there, and sending them a customized e-mail asking them out to coffee. I could only do that for a few hours in the morning. If I was having a good day, I’d have a coffee meeting in the afternoon. Total amount of time spent per day on job hunting activities was no more than four hours. It was usually two.

The other job hunting activity I spent quite a bit of time on was interview prepping. While this wasn’t done on a daily basis, I probably spent around 20 hours creating a toolbox of stories that reflect my skills and experience.

All other job hunting activities (like browsing gigs on craigslist) were frivolous and just made me feel productive even though I wasn’t.

Being unemployed is awkward depending on how you tell people about it. I’m one of those people who like to joke about my unfortunate situation. It’s mostly ok with your friends. They’ll laugh about it with you. That’s what friends are for. If you try do joke about it with a professional contact you’re meeting with, it’ll be awkward for both of you. “Funny unemployed guy” is not an image you want to convey to people whose help you want. I created a whole narrative explaining my job hunting and why I left my last job to move to DC. Instead of saying “looking for a new job” I said “looking for opportunities in (this specific field) where I can apply my current skills and develop new ones.” I didn’t realize how important it was to create this narrative until after I made it awkward a few times with my “fun-employed” jokes.

Your ego is a very powerful force and may override your rational side. When I moved to DC I thought that if I didn’t get a “real job” soon enough, I would get a job at a restaurant or retail store or temping or whatever to make ends meet. That did not happen. I went to temp agencies and told them I wasn’t really into admin work. I even received a full time entry level job offer a few weeks after I moved to DC that I turned down because the work just wasn’t interesting enough (it was a pseudo sales job). The rational decision would have been to take the entry level job and immediately look for a new job and quit when the better opportunity arose. But no, I just couldn’t envision myself doing the menial work for such little compensation. Because I had great credit and was able to live off credit cards, there was no psychological and financial urgency.

Job hunting is a slow process. Many things are just outside of your control. The job offer I ended up accepting took three months to happen after the interview process started, two months from when the interview process ended, and I’ll be starting one month after I accepted the job offer. After you do what you need to do everyday (researching and sending out e-mails and meeting people for coffee), you’re just waiting for the other person to respond. This is honestly the hardest part about job hunting, psychologically speaking. You’ll start questioning whether you did the right thing or figuring out if you offended your interviewer or even if you’re just a terrible person who is fundamentally unemployable. It’s that bad.

Lessons and Takeaways

- Being unemployed is awkward for everyone, not just for you. Create a compelling narrative about why you’re unemployed.

- Have reasonable expectations about the types of jobs you’re willing to take. If you’re like me you’re probably not willing to take any job.

- Job hunting will just take a while and you can only do so much per day. Act accordingly.

On general productivity and the emotional experience

Over the past four months I have had a ton of free time. As I mentioned before, job hunting only takes a few hours per day. In the morning I would wake up, shower, and head to the cafe around the corner to research and send out e-mails. I was usually out of there at 11 AM or so. This leaves the entire afternoon and evening for me to accomplish all sorts of goals, right?

I accomplished almost nothing.

I didn’t maintain a fitness routine. I could have gotten in incredible shape over the past four months because I just had hours and hours to work out. I didn’t. I’d go on the occasional run and do a few pushups and squats here and there, but for the most part, I was lazy about it. To be fair, DC in the summer is brutal and I had a nasty incident with some poison ivy that made it generally uncomfortable to do anything, but I could’ve worked around those issues. The sad thing is when I did work out I felt a whole lot better about life. This is something I regret not paying more attention to.

I didn’t work on my side projects as much as I should have. I have two side projects, this blog and TrekDek. This is the first time I’ve blogged in months, and I’ve done the bare minimum on TrekDek. I didn’t try to learn new skills or read as much as I could have.

I made extensive use of my Netflix and Hulu accounts. I even watched some of those cheesy Bollywood movies they have on Netflix.

I had a disgusting lifestyle. For someone who is into productivity and life hacking, I completely and utterly sucked at it for the past four months.When I was at home and had to go to work everyday I was at the peak of my productivity. Almost every morning I would wake up and do some writing or research. I managed to do 20 mile runs at 4:30 AM.

But not being productive wasn’t the worst part, the worst part was the depression that would just hit  in waves in the afternoon.It was pretty awful. Having hours and hours of free time in the afternoon while being unemployed gives you too much time to think. You start wondering what you did wrong with your life. Jumping off a bridge begins to seem more and more reasonable. You blame the economy for your predicament, but then you realize that most of your friends have jobs and then realize you don’t really have much of an excuse.

Solo happy hours became a part of my routine after a while. I became a regular at the bar around the corner from the hostel. It felt really, really good. Scratch that, it felt great. I’d bring a book to the bar and I’d have all sorts of creative ideas after a few drinks. It’s actually pretty scary how drinking can become a part of your daily routine.

What’s nice about the general depression though is that when good things happen, they feel awesome. Going out to dinner with friends gives you a great buzz that lasts for hours. Getting an interview feels fantastic. When the weather is perfect in the morning and it’s quiet and you’re awake to enjoy it you just get this overwhelming sense of tranquility. Then you get that first cup of coffee and it’s even better.

It’s an emotional roller coaster, and what’s crazy is that it’s all in your head. Your external circumstances are generally fine. You’re not starving, you’re not living on the street, and you have people to hang out with. You’re not in a warzone, and your worst case scenario is that you get to move back home.

Takeaway

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think the most effective solution to the roller coaster is having a daily external commitment.

It’s easy to fail at things when the only person you can fail is yourself. Working out, blogging, having a side business, those are all things that are internal. It’s up to you and only to make those happen.

When you have an external commitment, you are much more likely to follow through. I should have found a place to volunteer everyday. It wouldn’t have mattered where I volunteered. The point is to take away that superfluous time that leads to depression. I think the past four months would have been significantly better if I had somewhere to be in the afternoon. I would have been more productive and less depressed.

I remember one of my NROTC instructors said “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.” I think that’s true. Busy people don’t have time to overanalyze their lives and what’s wrong with it.

Should you move to a city without a job or place to live?

I have no idea. I feel like I’ve benefited from having done it. If I had to do it again I could and I would know how to do it in a better way, but to get to that point I had to do it in a stupid way.

I don’t think not having a job or a place to live should prevent you from moving to a new place if that’s what you want to do. I think it’s easier to job hunt if you live in the city that you want to work in, mainly because it’s easier to have the necessary coffee meetings.

If you’re looking to build mental toughness, being unemployed in a new city is certainly a way to do it. If you can learn to do deal with the general ambiguity and depression of your situation, you’ll become more resilient.

If you’ve moved to a new city without a job or a place to live I’d love to hear about your experience.

  • Albert

    Love it. That’s leadership: You were willing to do something unconventional- something that more people should do rather than playing it safe staying at home.  Then you honestly laid out things that people should think about if they get inspired to follow in your footsteps. And I’m certainly impressed/inspired today to take more risks. 

    I think one of the more important subtle points is that you learned not to just be in the mindset of “I need a job.” The narrative helped you get more in the mindset of “I want a job which has XYZ benefits for my own life/career/skills.”

    I generally work under the “external commitment/goal” paradigm, although this idea from Zen Habits has started to influence me recently: http://zenhabits.net/journey/

    Question: Didn’t realize you did this at all until I read your post. Did you feel like you would be judged by taking such a (perceived) risk and doing something unconventional- and is that why you didn’t blog/post about it much during these 4 months?

    • DaleDavidson149

      Hey Albert I appreciate the thoughtful comments. Mindset is definitely important, though I certainly could’ve done a better job of controlling my emotions over the past few months. I’ve been looking more into stoicism lately, it’s kind of like a western zen.

      I agree with Leo from Zen Habits in the sense that that it’s probably healthiest to focus on productive habits (with built in flexibility) rather than ideal outcomes. I’m trying to practice accepting the things that I can’t control but it’s tough. External commitments are a powerful tool though and I think when used correctly are an important part of living a rich life.
      In response to your question, I wasn’t so much worried about being judged, I just became very lazy in a lot of ways as I mentioned in the post. In addition, I didn’t want to write about the experience without having a “lessons learned.” 

      Thanks again Albert!

  • Pingback: The Whole(ish) Story « My Present Self

  • Charlie

    Great story! I feel very inspired from reading it. I relate to it because f what I’ve been doing the past two years. 

    After I finished my degree on International Relations, I was unemployed for about 4 months when I took “any job” out of desperation, customer service for Dish. Then, I was offered a marginally better business intelligence analyst job at a corporation, but then was downsized six months later. When I ran out of money I had to take another “whatever” job, (operations assistant at a freight forwarder) but I hated it and quit to join at Walmart, as an assistant manager. I actually quit my managerial job after realizing it wasn’t related to my field of study. I realized it wasn’t going to get me anything and I was not happy at all. I had been chasing something (no idea what it was) for years. 

     I’ve been unemployed for four months now,  Ultimately, I had to leave my appartment, move back with my parents and I had to sell all my stuff, except my tv and my laptop. 

    My parents try to help me to get “any” job, but I reject everything, because its now what I’m looking for. Yesterday I applied for an unpaid internship at the country’s most important Think Tank. Its rough being unpaid, but its great doing something you really like, something that at least will get you meaningfull experience. 

    I agree with the emotional side-effects of being unemployed. I also thought I would get fit, but I barely work out. I have so much free time but also watched the entire netflix catalog (to find a movie about unemployed people).

    I even tried to start a small business, unfortunately I didn’t sell anything once. My credit is terrible and I’m in a lot of debt. 

    This is exactly why your story is so inspiring, thanks!

    • DaleDavidson149

      Hi Charlie,

      Thank you for reading my post!

      I can definitely relate to your situation, though so far I have not taken a job that I initially didn’t want (but I did end up disliking several of them). Kudos to you for being humble enough to take a job that wasn’t in your field.

      Now that you’ve been at your internship, have you felt like the other parts of your life have come together (fitness, side projects, etc)?

      Feel free to shoot me an e-mail (dale@dalethoughts.com) ! I’d love to hear more about the progress you’re making.
       
      Thanks again!

      -Dale

  • Allie

    I found this after googling ‘moving to a new city without a job’ which pretty much tells you the place I’m in… 2 months ago I quit my job and moved across the country to be with my boyfriend, which is not as bad as it sounds l because I hated my job and haven’t missed it for a second, but I’m knee-deep in another one of those soul-sucking afternoons where I realize he’s about to come home from work and I still haven’t gotten dressed and have been on the couch for the past 8 hours. I’m not doing any of the things I should be doing with my free time, like working out, or writing, or learning anything… I did sign up for a few volunteering gigs but they’re not keeping me very occupied. I have already figured out what you did, that the key is to have external commitments – internal to-do lists are worth squat. Now I’m just trying to figure out where to find those external commitments. I’m trying to maintain a balancing act, I don’t want to take on too many things and then have to drop them if/when I get a full-time job. But I also don’t want to go out of my mind before that happens.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this! Good to hear from someone else who went through something similar, maybe it will help to not beat up so much on myself.

    • DaleDavidson149

      Hey Allie,

      Thanks for sharing. My girlfriend was also moved in with me while she was job hunting and she’ll be the first one to tell you she had some of those days that you describe in your comment.

      One of the things she found really helpful was taking a job at a restaurant. The bit of income was nice, but more importantly, she was doing something consistently. It helped a lot with the self-esteem, even though it was just a part time low level gig, and she made some friends who were in similar situations.

      She now found a great job and is very appreciative of her time at the restaurant.

      It’s probably best not to over-think it. Find some place that will pay you some money and where you can make some friends.

      Thanks for reading!

      -Dale

  • EC

    First off, I’m from Lexington, MA too! I’ve been living in Cambridge for about 3 years and have an itch to try out a new city. I love Boston, but could use change and a new challenge. I have a list of cities to try; currently Denver/Boulder, Colorado is my top city. I feel pretty confident at moving there without a full time job; I don’t mind a cafe/retail/admin job, and I can keep busy with hobbies such as swing dancing. I think I’m struggling with setting small goals from now until I move to make myself feel like I know what I’m doing and feel like a responsible adult. Also to show my parents I have it under control; as I know they will freak. I would want to drive out there with a place in mind (sublet, airbnb, or hostel as you suggested). Then are there other logistical things I need to prep for? I’ll have insurance for 18months covered by COBRA, I’ll get mail sent to my parents house, is there anything else I’m forgetting?

    Great read and certainly inspirational.

    • DaleDavidson149

      Good to hear from a fellow Lexingtonian!

      You know, the logistical steps are pretty easy. That’s just a matter of research. Pick a city, pick a hostel or airbnb place for the first week, find a better living situation, get a job, etc.

      Dealing with parents might be a bit harder, but you’re always accessible by phone and e-mail and can always fly back and such if things get hard.

      I think the more interesting point of discussion is why you feel the need to leave. I can relate to itchy feet, but if there’s something deeper bugging you (not knowing what to do with your life, lack of good relationships, etc), changing your place won’t necessarily solve those things and you’ll likely have the same issues in the new place. I wrote some thoughts on this for a separate project I’m pursuing:

      http://theancientwisdomproject.com/2014/02/stoicism-day-3-travel-escapism/

      Best of luck!

  • charlotteb

    I am moving from Gold Coast to Melbourne in 2 weeks without any money, job or car. It isnt a different country but it will still be scary. Melbourne is an expensive country but Gold Coast is full of dead ends and my guy feeling is telling me that its a good idea. My friend is coming down with me and said I can sponge off her till im on my feet but I just feel bad! I hope it works out. STAY TUNED!

    • DaleDavidson149

      Good luck!

  • sarahpearl

    So I want to move to a new city. I’m young and I don’t care about working a shitty job to pay the rent I just really need to get out of where I’m living right now. Would it have been different for you if you just took a few part time jobs?

    • DaleDavidson149

      Part time jobs would have helped with the depression (and the finances). I wish I wasn’t so arrogant to think I was above it.

      Best of luck with the move.

  • Bianca

    This was really inspiring. I’m 20 years old and I’ve lived in suburbia with my parents my whole life. Growing up my family had some issues (like most normal families lol) and I feel like that part of my past really brings me down. I’ve always longed to be a free spirit and just live on my own and take care of myself. I’m grateful for all I have been given in life, but simultaneously I feel I am missing something. Today I started downsizing on my possessions so that one day I can live on the move. I want to try to finish college first. It was just nice to read this… It made me feel like my anxieties about moving to a new city aren’t insane (like watching 8 hours of netflix, feeling depressed despite the generally good situation, etc). Thanks for being so honest and telling. Hopefully when I soon follow this path I can post again and let you know how it’s going.

    Bianca :)

    PS I work at Starbucks and even though sometimes I want to punch everything in sight from stress, it does build self esteem do have a job, some people to talk to, and a schedule. !

  • Breezy

    This helped so much! Made me realize when something bad happens I can’t always call on my parents to bail me out, I’ve always done it myself but with my parents by my side. I just graduated moved to Vegas and got robbed. Getting robbed was a major set back but you know what those items don’t define me. I have insurance lol! And I can always get the stuff back. The only thing they took away from me was my piece of mind, it sucks and it left me confused about why I was there and if I belonged there. But it’s okay because everything good won’t always be good and everything bad won’t always be bad. And you can’t always ask why people do what they do.. They’re people who do messed up stuff. But who are we to say what’s right or wrong? Anyways this really did help. Thanks!

  • B_Applebomb

    Thanks so much for posting this. It’s a very real take on the possibilities that can come out of a courageous move, and the hardships that it entails. I especially appreciate you acknowleding your “privileges”/attributes about your financial/job background, and the seemingly innocuous but clearly important factors that affected your well-being during the process. It’s true, that being unemployed and in a new setting without being established can be a mentally challenging time, mostly because of the inner battle some of us over-thinkers face.

    I spent 2.5 months in D.C. last summer for an internship, and I recall how stressful it was finding a place to stay. D.C. is particularly unique with the huge amount of turnover due to interns coming in and out, and the housing market was so competitive, and I am Canadian and was not being paid during my internship, and although I had a loan, the fact that I did not have a social security number and was not American was the biggest preclusion to me finding a place to rent. I never thought of going to a hostel, which is interesting that you mention that. The only way I got around the housing crisis I found myself in, was to constantly move (3 times in total) because I would just pick up short term sublets, where the subletter was less invested because I wouldn’t be staying that long, and they just wanted someone to fill the vacancy.

    I would like to move back to D.C. one day, and you have given me food for thought. I obviously have more barriers to finding a job because of my citizenship, but your story made me reconsider whether I would make any move without a job. I think, aside from the financial stress (I have huge student debt and own no assets and have almost no savings because I’m making a very minimal salary), the biggest factor one should consider, which you allude to, is knowing yourself and your mental tendencies. I hesitate to use the word “strength” because it is more than about being strong. It’s about knowing how you handle stress and a semi-confused identity (because honestly, being new in a city and unemployed and knowing no one, strips one of the three reference points that ground people the most) is a big deal. Even when I was in D.C. last summer, although I had a great time, I also felt like I lost a piece of myself because a fresh start was also a blank slate that takes time to build upon with the new friendships one forms.

    Anyway, many thanks for your honest and raw reflections; a rare and beautiful thing, which I’m sure many will relate to. I bet you are doing fabulously these days :)

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I'm now spending most of my time blogging for my new site, The Ancient Wisdom Project.

The Ancient Wisdom Project is a series of experiments in which I dedicate 30-day periods to practicing, studying, and reflecting on a single ancient philosophy or religion with the hopes of achieving personal growth.

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