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.
- 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.
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.