The 12 Books I Read in 6 Months of Unemployment

The 12 Books I Read in 6 Months of Unemployment

11 months ago, I graduated from a big, fancy, name brand grad school with my head swimming with the definitive belief that I am a unique, brilliant, special unicorn, and flowing from that logic, every company I deemed worthy of a CV would be throwing themselves at me. Five months ago, while at the Califlorence Climate Unconference in San Francisco, I met the COO and Cofounder of Pioneer, Kyle, and within a couple weeks, I was employee #1. During the past four months, I’ve felt personal growth at the most satisfying speed of my professional (and possibly personal) life, and have become a critical leader in a high functioning team. Looking back, it’s tempting to brush the six months that preceded Pioneer under the rug, to pretend I spent the time on a purposeful early career sabbatical, happily on the beach with friends until I bumped into Kyle and decided I wanted a job.

Because that’s not what happened. In reality, I found my period of joblessness intensely painful with alternative bouts of crippling self-doubt, frustration, and despair. The most important resiliency activity I discovered, outside of leaning on family and friends, was listening to nonfiction books while walking in nature (use Libby, support your local library, and get free audiobooks!). As an avid fiction reader, this came as a surprise.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that I was reading books in phases that matched my mental state (spoiler alert: downward spiral). Without further ado, some lessons from the hours I spent daily wandering with a diverse cadre of intellectual walking partners.

Phase 1: Memoirs

  1. Crying in H Mart; Michelle Zauner - A stunning memoir examining food, identity, and grief. I read this book the weeks after graduation, happily sipping loose leaf tea, absent of job hunting anxiety. I learned that my taste buds must be worse than everyone else’s as I regularly eat food directly out of the fridge, without bothering to wait the 45 seconds it would take to microwave it.
  2. I’m Glad My Mom Died; Jennette McCurdy - Darkly humorous and heartfelt; I finished it in two days. Pulling humor from intense trauma and tragedy, this memoir was an important perspective building title, reminding me of the incredible privilege of coming from a strong family, and the impermanence of my situation. I would also like it noted that my mom is wonderful.
  3. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; Dai Sijie - Ok, this isn’t technically a memoir, but it’s a fictionalized account of the life the author led and I loved it, so I’m counting it (one of the benefits of self-publishing). A powerful reminder of the importance of cross-cultural exchanges and the power of literature in and of itself. A good reminder to seek diverse authors, narratives, and perspectives.  

Phase 2: Chasing the Muse

  1. Big Magic; Elizabeth Gilbert - Amongst doom scrolling and watching too much TV, I choose this book seeking to reignite my intellectual “spark”. This inspirational guide redefines creativity as a natural process that’s innate to all humans, one that is imbued with curiosity and playfulness. I recommended this book to so many people, and it inspired me to start this website and share my writing, not for anyone else, but simply because it brings me joy and fulfillment. As a former “non-creative” person, I found this redefinition refreshing and motivating.
  2. The Secret Life of Groceries; Benjamin Lorr - I chose this book to update my knowledge on food & ag, and it’s a must-read for all interested in sustainability and food. It dives into harsh realities, and surprisingly pushed back on a lot of my base assumptions of how we can realistically make our food systems better, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Not a particularly uplifting read, but a required and incredibly well-researched one.
  3. The Wal-Mart Effect; Charles Fishman - Wanting to revive my business brain, I picked this up to keep sharp on traditional business concepts. If you remove the name Wal-Mart itself, it’s a surprisingly reflective exploration of US business ethos over the last 60 years, and how the changing times require a commiserate change in practices. But you can get most of this value by skimming and reading the last chapter, especially if you have a business background.

Phase 3: On Leadership

  1. Zero to One; Peter Thiel - Looking to break into start-ups, it was time to read the start-up bible. Admittedly, my previous view of Thiel was not informed by his zone of genius, and this book is rife with really important insights on the start-up mindset that’s required, much of which I’ve felt actively in my work. On leaders, it firmly believes in the power of individual exceptionalism, and doesn’t give much credence to the enabling conditions and systems that allow high functioning leaders to get to where they are. Regardless, a concise powerhouse of useful advice.
  2. Good to Great; Jim Collins - In opposition, Collins emphasizes the value of servant leadership, highlighting the importance of humility, shared vision, and dedication in sustaining successful companies. There is definitely truth in both, especially when looking at different phases of companies: space for both the bullish founder & their steady successor, but I identify much more with the servant leader archetype espoused here (or I hope that’s how I show up). Really interesting to read these back-to-back.
  3. Radical Candor; Kim Scott - A bit adjacent, a bit in the middle of Thiel and Collins, Scott argues that the best bosses care personally about their employees, while also challenging them directly and not shying away from harsh feedback when merited. Focused on personal improvement, embracing feedback, and cultivating meaningful relationships, the advice spans beyond the workplace, and I found myself embarrassingly situated within the “ruinous empathy” category in more situations than I’d like to admit. I’ve even brought this advice and framework into my marriage (sorry/thank you/you’re welcome, Burke?). Highly recommended for anyone leading teams, or anyone that suffers from conflict avoidance.

Phase 4: On Resilience

  1. The Meditations; Marcus Aurelius - Stoic insights from 1800 years ago on purpose, meaning, and conflict that still resonate today. Given our limited time on Earth, I wonder if anyone can achieve anything radically deeper through a life of reflection than this tome. While I disagree with much of what I read, and think much of stoicism doesn’t capture the complexities of modern life, I appreciate the push to accept our own impermanence. I let myself off the hook for wearing the same pair of leggings 4 days in a row.
  2. What Happened to You?; Bruce D. Perry & Oprah Winfrey - In direct opposition to The Meditations, this is written in Q&A format, and listens like an extra-long podcast, poignantly exploring how past experiences shape our present and future. The most incredible empathy-building tool I’ve ever come across. Sonder on a global scale.
  3. The Gifts of Imperfection; Brené Brown - A heartening book on overcoming perfectionism and embracing vulnerability. This book is accessible, deeply discusses shame and vulnerability, and encourages me to write this, likely “too vulnerable” post. I love this book.

TL;DR Lessons learned:

💼 On job searching:

  • Ambition, patience, persistence, acceptance, community, ambition. Breathe, repeat.
  • I value productivity and derive a lot of my identity from work. Therefore, where I choose to work is of paramount importance. It’s ok to take the time to find it. If it’s taking you a while to find it, that’s ok too.
  • Ask for help. Network, learn from people you respect, make it clear you’re searching. Seek referrals to give your name a gold star in the stack. I was shocked by the number of strangers who were open to a conversation with me that I cold DMed on LinkedIn. However, respect the golden rule: if you want people to respond to your DMs and chat with you, you have to do the same. Be generous and connect others on, it will come back to you.
  • When interviewing, focus on top of funnel. Even when you’re sure you’re about to get the job, keep networking, seeking referrals, applying and interviewing. Initially, I came from the perspective of not wanting to “waste anyone’s time”. This meant when I felt I was close, I stopped applying and seeking opportunities. Weeks later, upon rejection, I had to start from scratch, significantly prolonging my job search. Somehow, this lesson took me about five months to really integrate.
  • Don’t ask your unemployed friend how job searching is going every time you see them. Unless they bring it up, you can assume it sucks.

🌱 On life:

  • I’ve never read so much nonfiction so quickly. It’s manifested in a subtle, but profound shift in the way I think, show up, and interact. I am planning for this to be a lifetime habit.
  • Lifelong learning feels good, and self-guided growth, inspired by recommendations from friends and family, is so satisfying. There are few ways to deepen a connection faster than reading someone’s favorite book.
  • Without a structure to my days, they quickly fall off into an unsatisfying blur.
  • Walking with audiobooks provides Vitamin D, mental clarity, and perspective.
  • Before, I always felt that audiobooks “didn’t count” as legitimate reading. No. Audiobooks rule.