The following is a guest post by Colleen Kong-Savage, an illustrator and writer who lives in Manhattan. She shares with us the difficulties of finding employment after a divorce and being out of the workforce for almost 10 years to raise her son.
Some people are good at making money. Others are not. I am not. In fact I'm really bad at it, and the fact that I am writing for a personal finance blog is rather ironic, if not downright ludicrous. I am that retail worker making minimum wage, not even taking those earnings home because she's spending it on the merchandise she's selling. I am your kid's martial arts teacher who isn't getting paid because teaching is considered part of her taekwondo training. I am the volunteer parent in the school yard ensuring the kindergarteners don't get trampled by the third graders. Or I was until I got divorced and now need to learn how to make money.
Now that I have sworn off jobs that do not pay me enough to live, I am unemployed. After 300 job applications where the only employers who acknowledged my existence were those introduced through contacts, or men on OK Cupid trying to meet me, I have decided that my Practical Plan, to procure a steady job in graphic design, is every bit as impractical as my Dream Plan, to get steady work as an illustrator. Thus I have moved on to Dream so as to not waste any more time on the Practical.
Why Am I So Unemployable?
I imagine myself to be an intelligent, creative employee with good people skills. I know I do good work. That costly retail job I mentioned earlier? Through my own initiative I landed that mom-n-pop shop some welcome press coverage with CBS News and the New York Times (it's a long story). Plus I am committed and disciplined.
My latest greatest accomplishment was achieving a black belt in taekwondo this year. And I know I have some solid graphic talent because my small but loyal client base consistently sings praises that I don't fish for; my son's school community points to me as the go-to volunteer to design fliers, t-shirts, yearbooks, signage. What is it that makes it so impossible for me to find an income?
Are my skills out of date? Well yes and no. My expertise lies in print work and a large portion of design jobs today also include web design. I took a basic crash course to HTML/CSS and debated whether to enroll in more classes, but I am hesitant at this stage to throw more money into my education if it does not guarantee a job. My Masters In Fine Arts at Columbia was pricey, and if I knew then what I know now, I would not have made that investment.
This past year I signed up with five, six creative temp agencies, who all looked at my portfolio and résumé—one agency even tested me in basic digital design programs—and they all assured me that they had jobs for designers with my skill set. Alas not enough. My friend, who teaches graphic design, tells me in NYC there are about 100 applicants for every graphic design opening.
I imagine my skimpy resume is the most ghastly boil on my employable being. Actually it's not that skimpy because while I had extricated myself from the job force in order to parent my kid (my ex made enough to support our family comfortably), I did keep up my chops by volunteering my graphics expertise to various NYC public schools and occasionally freelancing for small businesses. However, I left my last regular 9-to-5 job over a decade ago.
There was a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston a year ago which reveals a giant bias against those unemployed for longer than six months. Researcher Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University sent out 4,800 dummy résumés to job postings in various industries. He found that among a pool of similarly qualified candidates, only 1-3% of those unemployed for longer than 26 weeks were called in for an interview, versus 9-16% of those who were unemployed for a shorter term.
In fact the fictitious recently-unemployed applicants with no relevant experience were called in for more interviews than their experienced counterparts who had been out of work for more than six months. (Annie Lowrey, The New York Times). If my hireability expires 26 weeks out of my last job, my chances of getting hired in the design industry are remotely better than a cactus. I kind of want to cry about it, but the story reaffirms my decision to pursue freelance endeavors in illustration since no one's offering me a job any time soon.
My Dream Plan, actually it's a Dream Trilogy.
Part I: Just like every other parent who reads to her kid, I want to make children's books. Fortunately for me I don't need to hunt for artists and beg them to illustrate my writing gratis.
Part II: I fantasize about building an empire of toddler's apparel sporting my graphics. By the way, last month I laid down my empire's first building block when I opened up KONGA NYC: Beastly Attitudes for Kids, an online t-shirt shop, which I know you are dying to check out if only find out what the hell this unemployed creative does when she is not spilling her personal details on Financial Samurai.
Part III: Finally, I want to fill out the drafty corners of my Dream with royalty checks from artwork that I can license out to manufacturers of greeting cards, bedsheets, posters, fabric, dishes, magnets, etc. etc.
Epilogue: I will probably also be working the register at Trader Joe's in my nonexistent spare time for health insurance benefits.
The Challenges Of A Dream
Several years ago, I created a children's book, Subway Line to Bedtime, laboring over it for almost two years. I showed it to a fellow martial artist, an established illustrator who had published a number of children's titles. He was impressed and put me in touch with editors. Unfortunately none of them thought they could find a market outside of New York City. I showed the manuscript to several literary agents, as well as an editor who had reached out to me at an illustrators conference, to no avail. So I satisfied myself with a few copies printed out on Lulu, sent them out as presents and called it a day.
I have the talent and resources to pursue the Dream Trilogy for a couple years. How do I lead the pursuit towards success? After all, I am an artist, not a business person. Here are my challenges—my own career to-do list (by the way, I do welcome any constructive suggestions):
1) Crow loudly. I loathe self-promotion. It feels narcissistic and I worry about annoying people. You know that irritatingly incessant jingle of the Mr. Softee ice cream truck in the summer? It floats above the din for hours, luring children (erhh, children's parents) into buying swirls of vanilla and chocolate, or frozen licensed characters on sticks. Perpetual crowing is a skill I need to promote my own products–artwork, manuscripts, online t-shirt shop, Financial Samurai essays. Hopefully my Sirens' song is less grating but just as pervasive.
2) Find the market. I have to balance personal vision with marketability. Subway Line is a bedtime story starring New York's MTA. What I love about it is that it's personal. But for publishers that makes it too specific for a national audience. Seth Godin writes about the Purple Cow, that magic product so radical and unheard-of that people don't even know they want it yet. However most business folk—whether publishers, art gallery owners, furniture salesmen—are also pragmatic and want to invest in products proven to sell well. These days I am careful to consider marketability of my artwork and manuscripts when I begin them.
3) Make lots of stuff. Time is limited, but it's important to have lots of ideas. My art licensing teacher, a successful owner of a greeting card company, blew me away with her prolificness when she related the tribulations of her first tradeshow, lamenting she had created “only fifty designs.” And my illustrator friend recently told me he had finally selected two of the six manuscripts he's been honing to have his agent shop around. When I finished creating Subway Line to Bedtime, I felt I had completed a marathon. I now realize that Subway Line is a single mile in the marathon I am running. Heck, even this post you are reading began with a lot more paragraphs and ideas than what you see here.
4) Build endurance. Iconic bestselling author Agatha Christie faced five years of continual rejection before her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (rejected 20 times) was published. Even the first Harry Potter novel was turned down twelve times before gaining acceptance by Bloomsbury. Finding acceptance of my work is going to be about outlasting the rejection. Whether a job applicant, a t-shirt hawker, or an artist, enduring the rejections—ploughing through the no's is the biggest challenge. Not because they hurt, but because I don't know if after all the rejections I will ever find that one acceptance to get the ball rolling. My biggest fear is that I am wasting time.
When my son entered preschool, I attended the parent orientation, and the teachers did their best to soothe us new parents sweating the landscape of developmental milestones our kids had yet to clear—potty-training, separation, giving up naps. My son's teacher listened and said with quiet certainty, “It'll happen.” Before my son was born, I laughed at the nervousness of my friends who checked for their baby's breathing with a mirror. Then I became a parent, too, and realized how much faith is required those first few years, faith that everything is going to be okay.
I need faith. I spend hours teetering along the edge of anxiety because I have no clue whether or not I am getting any nearer to creating a viable source of income for myself, let alone establishing an illustration career. The first months after separation were demoralizing because I could not get a job and realized I was completely dependent on my ex for finances. For a while I returned to modeling for artists as I did in grad school. You cannot live on an artist model's salary, but in desperation to boost my morale, I returned to the tedium and cramping limbs that come with holding still for 20 minutes at a time. Now, however, I would rather use my time to move towards work that I actually want.
Writer Sara Zarr shared this thought at a conference: the time you spend before that first acceptance is the hardest. So while you wait for that break, just do the work. So I do. I make new art, I show manuscripts to that friend of a friend who is a literary agent, I post things in social media to let people know I am alive and available, I check in with the temp agencies, I update my website, I prepare my portfolio for an illustration showcase. I do the work. That is my mantra these days. Just do the work. It is all I can do.
Readers, have any of you struggled with finding a job after being out of work for a significant period of time? What were some of the things you did to help keep spirits up and food on the table? Do you have any suggestions or solutions for those like Colleen who are currently looking for work?
Congrats to the release of The Turtle Ship in 2018 written by Helena Ku Rhee and illustrated by Colleen Kong Savage!
Illustration & Design
Updated for 2019
40 thoughts on “Learning To Do The Hustle: One Freelancer’s Search For Meaningful Work”
Can you please reach out to me, i like the design you did for Sam,
my sister is a graphic designer, but she does not have time to do any jobs for me.. lol i know right.
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Love the art style… have you considered self-publishing on Amazon? Either print or Kindle?
Thanks for the compliment! I actually did self-publish a book called Subway Line to Bedtime with Lulu and I think they also put it on Amazon. However, I find that the marketing and promotion that goes into making self-publishing a success is quite daunting. I’m still learning the ropes in that area. I didn’t quite know how to push the title and so it never went anywhere. It’s also on UTales.com.
We will be experiencing this when my wife attempts to get a full time job when both our children are in school full time. I am forwarding this to my wife right now.
Best of luck to her on the job search! I don’t know how old your kids are, but if your wife can spare the time and brain cells to do consulting or occasional freelancing, that would be a bonus. A number of women I spoke to expressed difficulties of jumping back into the job market after a long hiatus. BUT I imagine it also depends on what field they jump back into. Career as an artist has never been reliable even when you are established :)
In re to your wife returning to work. Just found out about http://www.iRelaunch.com who help people get back into the workforce. I haven’t tried them out yet, but it sounds like a good resource.
Thank you so much for this resource. I have already sent it to my wife! Enjoy your weekend. I am trying to nudge her towards the blogosphere, but it just doesn’t interest her in the least bit ;-)
Having a lot of ideas and staying persistent seems like the way to go. Networking too. All of these are easier said than done, but sounds like you are staying active and giving everything you can a solid effort. That’s more than a lot of people who give up entirely when things don’t come easy. Hang in there!
Thank you! This must be my third try in making it as an illustrator, and I think it’s only now that I’m understanding what kind of persistence is required. Went to the NY International Gift Tradeshow yesterday to see what kind of companies use licensed art. Forced myself to hand out at least ten of my cards. HATED doing it. But I did it.
This a little different, but similar. I achieved financial independence when I was 38 years old, but returned to work 7 years later. I was able to use my entrepreneurial experience to help me return to a CFO position.
Have you thought about updating your skills by taking some (free) online classes? I am taking some free programming classes online to provide me additional skills. I have been a teacher for the last 12 years and I am trying to teach some new classes. I am 67 years old and will only work for 3 more years, but teaching has changed. The focus is on core subjects and I teach electives (computers and Business subjects). The district would like to me to retire, but I am not quite ready.
Yes, taking online classes about web design and coding is a good thing to do, and I spent a short time on the W3 school site. In another lifetime when I know I will use those skills immediately, I will take those tutorials in earnest. At the present moment, however, all my time is taken up with building my various portfolios, finessing my sites, and pursuing publishers and companies who create products with licensed artwork. And I barely have time for THAT. I AM learning the most basic tools however to help me along: a bit of WordPress, I brushed up on my Adobe Illustrator skills, figured out how to create and use a databank of addresses in Excel, and yesterday I signed up for Mail Chimp. I’m sure I will have to be working into my 70’s to afford retirement. Hope my eyesight, brain, and hand coordination don’t leave me tip I’m ready for the grave! I admire you and Sam for figuring out how to retire in your 30’s and then figuring out how to spend all that time in “retirement!”
I empathize with Colleen’s plight — what she says is true, and it’s a sad commentary about our employer society.
About that book, here’s one thought: Two of the biggest trends in recent times are:
(a) self-publishing and
(b) single parenthood.
If you get active on single parent blogs and pitch the book to them as one more way to increase the quality of life for those they care for, you might be surprised at not only the sales, but the support from their ranks in getting the word out.
Fascinating case study, and I think there’s a wrinkle in there for extreme early retirees. The statistics about the difficulty in finding work after a prolonged period of unemployment might have impacts for early retirees who find out a year in that they want to return to work (or need to return to work). Getting back in might not be as easy as getting out was.
This was definitely of my fears “What if I can’t get back in?” At ~25, when I was burning out and thinking about taking a low key job in Hawaii, I thought “What If I can’t get back into finance?” because nobody would take me seriously.
When I left in 2012, I also feared the same thing. Perhaps there’s a natural automation system that FORCES us to get back in to stay “relevant,” which is why I’ve dipped my toes back into part-time work at a tech startup.
I was so naive in not considering the difficulties of reentering the work force after years of not working. Having had the luxury of turning away unsolicited job offers when I was working, it never occurred to me that I’d be wandering about in a desert when I was ready to return. I have a feeling that by the time I’ve gained enough momentum to earn a living as an artist, I will have reached retirement age. But if I could make a living from making art as a senior citizen, I think I would be very happy.
Hey Colleen, you write very well!
You have had some important revelations! You’ve arrived at one of those rare watershed moments where you get to take in a slow 360-degree panorama of your life. This is the perfect time to figure out what the Number One Goal for your life is. Everything else can then radiate out from there, specifically your goals; short-, medium- and long-term.
There are no certainties in life except death, So start there and work backward. If you were to die tomorrow, six months from now who would care? Why would they care? Focus on this. This is probably your ‘calling’. This would be that thing that you do where you would be difficult to replace.
Can you monetize around this? Most times it’s better to separate your ‘job’ from your ‘calling’. Work ‘the job’ in order to pursue ‘the calling’. For example, you are a good writer. You are creative. You seem to have a proficiency for teaching. You know how to set up a website or blog. Use a blog to build your name and promote your professional reputation online.
Contact and network with successful folks in the design field’ Stroke their egos. Interview them. Get them to write an article. ‘Promote’ them on your blog while building street cred for yourself.
Learn as much as you can about your potential audience. Write articles on graphic design, breaking into the field. The trials and tribulations involved., etc. all aimed at that potential audience. Do this with an eye on monetizing through some sort of information products that you create and own. videos, courses, lessons – maybe a subscription service to all of those things that includes personal mentoring from you.
Anyways, just some ideas and Monday morning rambling… As The Band sang in that famous song, “take what you need and leave the rest”.
My two cents! Good luck!
Thanks, Chaz. Yes, it has been a time for metamorphosis. A friend reminded me, “you only live once,” and that moved me towards leaving my marriage. In some ways, I’m glad to have failed to gain any employment because it’s given me permission to pursue the career I want versus the one I think I should have. “You only live once.” And knowing the alimony will eventually stop, I have the fire of desperation to fuel me as I work :D
I can relate to how you’re feeling. I haven’t had a “real job” since 2007, when I left to go to law school. Three years later, I was unemployed with a bunch of loans. Before and during law school, I’d made and sold greeting cards on the side, and I decided to do that full-time after my husband got a job in a different country (where I wouldn’t be able to practice law immediately). Although I’ve acquired over 40 wholesale accounts since then, I’m still not making enough to support us, a fact that was made all the more real when we moved back to the US last year and my husband was unemployed for 6 months. But things are looking up: he has a job now and I’ll be going to the National Stationery Show in May, so hopefully that will take my business to the next level. I also have a secret dream of illustrating children’s books, but one step at a time. :)
So, my advice is this: if you’re receiving alimony from your husband and you have no debts, I would just work on the children’s book and see where that takes you. I looked at your portfolio. You are very talented and I’m fairly certain that you will be successful in this field. You can also try submitting a portfolio to publishing houses to see if they’ll take you on as a freelance illustrator. You should also join SCBWI if you haven’t already – they have a lot of resources and a huge network of writers and illustrators.
Feel free to email me, too, if you have any questions about anything I’ve brought up, or just want to talk to someone in a kind of similar situation. Best of luck to you!
I think we’re traveling on parallel tracks–I’ve just started creating greeting cards, putting stuff on Greeting Card Universe, and I’m going to do some simple handmade designs on etsy some time in the next few months. This month I’m busy prepping for SCBWI conference here in NYC, editing and adding and re-editing my portfolio, trying my damnedest to finish creating a dummy book by the 21st. Maybe I’ll see you at the Stationery Show in May–I have a student pass from my art licensing class and I’ve been planning to go ever since I found out about it. I’d love to hear more about how you built your greeting card business, either here on FS or via email.
Your mental hygiene is the source of your issues. It is in need of extreme improvement. The money will follow if you do the work. What kind of work? For starters, r\ead the following books three times in a row: 1) As A Man Thinketh; 2) Think & Grow Rich; 3) “Wishes Fulfilled” by Wayne Dyer. Take notes, write book reports if you need to. Internalize the messages and take the actions.
If you think what I’m writing is ‘airy fairy’ then your need to read and internalize these three books — as a starter — is even more acute. Incidentally, the first paragraph of your post is a sure fire indicator for the prescription I’m giving you. Take the medicine. And take action, on how you think.
P.S. You don’t “need faith.” You ARE faith. You are the source of faith. You generate faith. And you connect to faith. You are responsible for the faith you have. It’s now time for you to get to work.
I feel for her. My advice is don’t get discouraged and these things take time. Focus on the positives and what you can bring to an employer or customers through entrepreneurship. Hopefully you have some substinance from the ex. Sounds like maybe you got screwed there and you being the victim is showing up in your job search. Be positive. Good things will happen. Maybe keep the black belt on the down low during the Interview process as well. Awesome you have it but others could be intimidated if they knew you could kick their ass
Hah! The funny thing about getting a black belt is that you realize just how little you know as a martial artist.
Anyways, I’m lucky in that my divorce went relatively smoothly and my ex is a good guy.
You should consider selling artistic renderings of people’s pets printed on stretched canvas.
Another idea would be to sell artwork for children/babies rooms. Manhattan mothers wouldn’t think twice about a few hundred bucks for something to stick on a wall in a nursery.
Pinterest would provide excellent marketing for either.
Hah! Pet portraits would be fun, and I have thought about wall deco for kids’ rooms, but time is limited. As it is, I think I might be spread a bit thin between writing, children’s book illustration, tshirt business, greeting cards, and art licensing. I probably should just pick ONE area to focus on if I want to make any headway.
If you have read the excellent book, “A Fine Balance”, by Rohinton Mistry – life is unforgiving, but out of struggle comes beauty. I think some of this is watered down for America’s youth and when you grow older and have such delicate talent, I agree that you deserve respect. I’m sure, with a bullhorn via FS and perseverence, you’ll do OK, get some exposure to new opportunities. But America is unforgiving to the destitute and elderly, that is what was striking and very saddening to me when I moved back, and should be brought to people’s attention for those of us who have so much comfort.
I’ll have to check the book out. Art is made from struggle–blues and flamenco music, the most classic works of art from Michelangelo’s David to Picasso’s Guernica. Life is flat without struggle. Meanwhile I should be so lucky if my current situation is all that I have to struggle with. :)
I wish you the best! Have you thought about leveraging your MFA to get gigs at either museums, art galleries or colleges/universities?
Thought about it, but not interested enough in teaching, editing, curating, or fields where an MFA in fiction writing might come in handy… are there any fields where it comes in handy? Besides, I don’t think I’d be very good in those areas. I wasn’t thinking very pragmatically when I enrolled in Columbia. Honestly (and embarassingly), getting a graduate education was my way of avoiding the exact thing that I am doing right now: figuring out how to make an income. If I was a different person I would at least know how to network all those Ivy League connections–errh–connections I never made because I was too socially awkward in my early twenties. But I may eventually do more in tapping into the school’s career development resources.
That’s tough… Do you get alimony? I’m just curious. That will give you the resources to pursue your dream plan for many years, right? How about moving out of NY to a cheaper location until you make it? That will enable you to save some money and give you more time to achieve your dreams.
I say write and illustrate more children books. I think you need to cut down the time to market quite a bit. Just crank them out and see what works. Maybe farm out some works to cut down the TTM.
Hi, Joe. Yes, I get alimony which is why I can afford to pursue the dream. Yes, I have thought about moving (especially when I learned I could the health insurance I wanted for $250 less in CA than here in NY), but my son’s father and I both agreed to live in NYC until he went to college.
Great writing. There sure is a note of sadness in there.
A former New Yorker, and worked in publishing too, so I know how tough and competitive it is, and how often low-paying it is. And how easy it is to get discouraged.
I don’t have any job hunting advice… I abandoned publishing many years ago.
Is it worth thinking about a “regular job”? In my opinion, you Dream Plan Part III is the way to go.
Seems to me you need to (in your words) “make lots of stuff” and send in all directions. Greeting cards, book manuscripts, cartoons for magazines, art and articles for multiple publications, book covers, your own T-shirt venture, art to hang on walls, and a gazillion other ways to get your writing and illustrating out there in the the world.
And of course there is the irony… once you start getting more success, the things that were previously rejected will magically start getting accepted…
Good luck. Ask Sam to let you post another article in a few years to show how far you have come.
Hello, person Away from Home! Yup, I’m scattering a lot of seeds and hoping something takes root. Feels a lot like flailing at the moment, but at the same time I’m enjoying seeing the work I’m producing. It’s a bit like going to boot camp when you’ve only been going to the gym once a month. I WOULD like to avoid the “regular job”–I hear such horrible things about them. It killed me that when I was job-hunting I was trying so hard but failing so miserably to land one of these jobs that I know I would probably loathe. But if I can’t get any traction in my illustration in the two years, I will consider myself lucky if I can gain regular employment.
Thank you for sharing your story! I was just laid off myself (and I mean JUST – it happened at the end of the day on Friday!), and I’ve been feeling pretty uneasy, as you might imagine. I’m right there with you on feeling like learning to “crow loudly” is a challenge. I like to think my natural tendency to be humble – to always think that I’m not “good enough” and that I could be better – is an asset that drives me to work harder and push my own envelope. But when it comes to job hunting, suddenly my natural modesty about my skills is a liability.
Good luck to you! You’re a great writer, so that’s something you can definitely crow loudly about! :)
Man, I’m sorry, Stephonee! That’s a witch of a Friday. Thanks for the compliment! Yes, definitely crow loudly. I used to think it is so much classier to be modest and let people discover my great qualities on their own. And it IS, but it doesn’t work! And even if it does, by the time people realize your talent, the opportunity is long gone, and worse yet some opportunistic jerk can swoop in to claim credit that belongs to you (yes, it’s happened to me, and years later it still pisses me off). Most women need to develop a better sense of entitlement. We are always asking for less money, less recognition than our male counterparts in the workplace. I feel like women have such high standards and sense of responsibility that we question whether we have truly earned the right to demand more versus assuming we have the right. So go for it! Sing loudly!!
Colleen, it’s fantastic you’re combining your talents as a writer and an illustrator to go for what you want. Good things happen to people who take action. The results might not be immediate or apparent for a while, but eventually someone will take notice. You’ve got a lot of supporters out there who wish you the best. It takes a lot to put yourself out there. But those who do find the greatest rewards. Never give up!
Funny that on one hand it is terrifying to let you publish my experience of unemployment, which is predictably gnawing at my self-esteem, and on the other hand you’ve boosted my self-esteem in putting my unemployment story out there for all to see. Thanks for the opportunity to write for your blog, Sam. And thanks to your readers for their encouragement.
This really hits home. I left the traditional workforce several years ago when I had my daughter. To help supplement my husband’s income, I began freelancing as a writer while staying at home with her. It’s been tough at times, and not only do I worry about not bringing in enough income from freelancing, but I also worry about transitioning back into the workforce, which I’m getting anxious to do. Good luck Colleen, keep at it and your hard work is sure to pay off.
Thanks, Lauren. Freelancing has been my flicker of hope for economic survival. I was completely out of touch with how difficult it is to land work, and I’m thankful I have at least some freelance experience under my belt. I wish I hadn’t been so laid back in pursuing work before this point. However, at the time it was more gratifying spending those extra hours making cookies and costumes with my son rather than emailing applications into the polar vortex of the job market. It sucks that staying home to parent can be costly, but I still believe the time we spend with our kids–with all the mundanities and headaches–is rich stuff and I’m lucky to have had the luxury to do so. I feel like you have a much better awareness of the job market than I ever did. I hope your transition back to the work force will be smooth. Best of luck!