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What I Learned Working as a Temp for Six Months

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By the time I graduated from Arizona State University, my life was pretty much planned out. Four years of extracurricular overachieving (campus radio, booking concerts, internships, etc.) had paid off in a big way when I received an offer for my dream job at a record label. I was greeted with an income, full benefits, a 401K, unlimited coffee, and a purpose. I had often lamented during my time in school that I would be far better utilized as an employee than a student.

Current college students, take note: Enjoy it as long as you possibly can. 

I spent seven years working, learning, and bouncing around to a few different roles in an industry that is constantly changing. I moved across the country to New York and back west to California, chasing opportunities that seemed like they could evolve where so many of the jobs in my business had become obsolete. I began to hit some bumps in 2014, starting with the revelation that my job of three years was being moved to a different office 400 miles away. Though I was offered a chance to transfer, I decided to stay behind and take a new role instead. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was only a contract position with no benefits or growth. So 10 months later, I was on the hunt again. I finally landed at a place I had hoped would be for the long haul, but it ended up being unbearably toxic. I was anxiety-ridden, completely fried, and disillusioned by my life's work. Without a job lined up, for the sake of my health, I felt like I had no choice but to quit.  

At first, it was actually kind of great. I had been working nonstop in some shape or form since I was 17 and always longed for a break. I did some traveling, took lots of naps, and dwelled in coffee shops among the screenwriters of Los Angeles. I took on a few freelance gigs and continued to interview for something permanent. Weeks turned into months, and opportunities came and went for one reason or another. I sent out countless résumés, and found roles that I wanted and some that I didn't (but fought for anyway). I was offered a couple positions that were great, but the pay wasn't. I was in the precarious position of being middle management level — too much experience, yet not enough. 

I was unable to claim unemployment since I left my previous job voluntarily, and my savings were going quickly. Of course, I started to panic. Up until that point, everything in my life had proven that when you work hard, you reap the rewards. This was the first time that wasn't happening. Despite burning out, I still knew that I wanted to stay on track with my career, but I didn't want to rush into another bad situation. 

As far as "in the meantime" roles, I felt pretty limited. I hadn't worked a retail or restaurant job in a decade, so I wouldn't even know how to sell myself as qualified. It's surprisingly cutthroat in a city like Los Angeles, where a lot of people need flexible day jobs in order to pursue acting and other creative endeavors. I also didn't want to take a full-time office gig and lie to a company about being all-in while planning my exit.

In other words, I was stuck.

I had worked in some pretty big offices, and we always had temps circulating for different projects or absences. I figured a temp role would keep me afloat, offer flexibility, and be more in line with the 40-hour-work-week life I had grown accustomed to. I scanned the job boards and, while I assumed I would have to go through one by one, I noticed a lot of those opportunities came from one agency. I met with the team there and discussed my experience and expectations. Within a week, I had my first placement as a data-entry clerk at a real estate company.

Over the course of the next few months, I worked at four real estate companies, two architecture firms, two marketing agencies, a stock brokerage firm, a law school, a hotel group, and a fine art photo printing company. Most of the time, I'd know at least a day in advance, but it occasionally operated like the substitute teacher system, where I'd get phone calls at 7:30 a.m. because someone was sick. Usually though, I'd be covering for a vacation or medical leave, filling in during a gap in the hiring process or working on special projects. I answered phones, entered information, organized files, processed paperwork, put together large mailings, and, of course, ordered people's lunches. 

I never spent more than six weeks at a place, although longer-term options were there. However, I wanted to be sure that I kept myself flexible for interviews and always had an end in sight for my sanity. I'd spend those weeks getting to know the company and my duties, only to have to purge all of that information and start all over. I met some awesome people who I will probably never see again. The pay rate would vary, and I wouldn't always have gigs back-to-back. I filled the gaps as best I could with freelance work, but some days, I made nothing. 

After six months, I finally landed on my feet with a job in my industry at a company I love. Now that I've had some distance from my temporarily transient professional life, I've been able to take away some lessons that don't have to do with what button you press to transfer a call.

You Always Have Something New to Learn
I'll admit, I had to eat a big ol' piece of humble pie more than once as I soldiered on through my temp life. I was making less money than I made straight out of college and doing work that had nothing to do with my skill set. I tried not to think I was above anything that was asked of me, and the best way to do that was to appreciate what I'd be taking away from the experience.

I thought I knew everything about "regular" office jobs, but I was able to see how different company cultures affected employees. I came from an industry where people move around all the time, but was a temp at companies where employees stayed for 30 years. Before all of this, I knew nothing about commercial real estate, and now I notice every "for lease" sign. I learned how to custom-build a photo frame that was bigger than me. I filled out paperwork that was vital to the construction of a hospital. I would have never been exposed to these things in the past, and they've already given me a new perspective.

Casual Friday is Relative
Although I come from a more laid-back work culture, I can understand the need for a more polished office. However, I grappled with some of the company policies, including strict rules about always wearing ties. As it turns out, you can be just as productive wearing jeans as you are in a dress. 

Work/Life Balance is Crucial
Temp work is hourly, and the rules are super-strict in California. If you work one minute over eight hours, you're in overtime. Long days were pretty average for me in previous salaried jobs, not to mention most of my lunches were spent at my desk, continuing to work. In my temp jobs, the minute I was out the door, I wasn't getting paid, so I might as well enjoy that time to myself. I didn't have e-mails coming through on my phone at all hours of the night, so I could truly leave my work at work. This kind of distance has become blurry in recent years, but I can't stress how important it is to hold your leisure time sacred. 

Not Everywhere Has Free Coffee
It's horrible and tragic, and I don't understand how it's not against the law, but alas, it happens. Every new job, I brought some just in case. 

Roll With the Punches
In most of my job interviews, they asked me the age-old question: "Where do you see yourself in five years?" My answer: I didn't see myself here five years ago, or where I was five years before that. The only way to survive is to adapt and be open to changes in your work and your life. Temp work wasn't ideal, but it gave me the chance to take my time and find the right full-time job. It wasn't always pretty, and I spent a lot of nights stressed out, broke, and wondering if I'd ever get my life back. I certainly won't ever take work for granted again. Your priorities are much different at 22 than they are at 30, and what makes or breaks you is your ability to recognize them.

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