26

26

I am twenty-six years old. It is a strange feeling. When I was younger, I figured twenty-six year olds were “adult adults,” people with their life somewhat together. Maybe they have a long-term significant other! Perhaps they got their first major promotion in work! In reality, life didn’t work out as planned, as it rarely does. I write this in my parents basement still waiting for that first opportunity for true independence. Well, not really “waiting” as much as “actively trying to do better to alleviate the situation,” but there comes a point where it is less about your own abilities and more about opportunities. In this piece, I will outline my last year, more accurately probably my last sixteen months because it helps tell the entire story. It is a tale of being backed against the wall, “almosts,” and the small victories. This past year really taught me to embrace the small victories.

 I will begin by providing a narrative from beginning to end, followed by telling you the lessons I’ve learned throughout the process of “life.” These are very unhappy years, but still years that one must keep “chugging along.” I hope this can provide some camaraderie and hope for those that are going through hard times.

May 2nd, 2019

I had finally finished. After two years of 14 hour workdays, abject poverty, two internships, two years of teaching college classes, a volunteer gig with Cincinnati Men’s Basketball, and the hardest academic workload I ever faced, I finally finished my master’s degree in Organizational Communication. I had no debt, $300 in my pocket (after deducting the amount of rent I had left on my graduate student housing), and absolutely no brain left to function.

To be quite frank, two years of poverty and social isolation did a number on my mental health. My anxiety and depression? Through the roof. Existential dread? Plagued me every day. So basically, I was broke and broken. Tried my best to break back into college hoops full-time, and while I had the qualifications, my connections just didn’t make any movement that offseason. It was probably for the best, since looking back, I was not in a mental state to oh I don’t know— function as a human being let alone do good work in a high-stress job with long hours. I can do it wonderfully now (thank you therapy!), but then? Probably for the best.

That being said, I was ready to make the plunge into the corporate world, and hoped that all of the extra work I did outside of basketball during undergrad and graduate school would pay off, and that I could find work in an office job. My thought process is: I don’t know if I need basketball to be happy. I know I was happiest working full-time in basketball when I could also make basic ends meet and focus on doing a good job, but perhaps this was, and is an opportunity to find out if I can be happy without the game.

The Summer of “Almost,” Part One

I started applying, and applying, and applying. As it turns out, finding a job in your field is hard! Very hard! I sent hundreds of applications, and received hundreds of “nos” before you even have a chance to state your case. It was demoralizing to wake up every morning with your bank account thinner, the pressure rising, and 

They weren’t all “nos,” though. I got to the final interview with a Fortune 50 company, only to have the hiring manager and HR representative not be able to show up to my interview. Of course, I didn’t get the job.

Somehow landed an interview way above my pay-grade at one of the biggest fishing/lifestyle companies in the world. Tried my best, but quite honestly, that job was meant for someone that has a decade of experience in the industry. Oh well, move on.

One potential job called me while I was in the middle of working Cincinnati basketball camps, and refused to give me a number to call back to when not surrounded by 12 hormonal middle schoolers. Oh well, bad luck.

Made the final interview of a government communications job in Mississippi, and lost out to somebody in my own 20-person GroupChat of Ole Miss people! What are the odds of that?

A movie theatre chain told me I was “too talented” for their entry level job, and would get bored. Apparently I would get too bored to eat. Considering the pandemic the following year, I may have dodged a bullet on that one.

There were several more opportunities where I made it to the end, and got passed over. In some ways, it was demoralizing because you want to do a good job so bad, you can only control what you can control, and for the first time, I felt I wasn’t in control of my own destiny. 

Bankrupt

By the end of July, I had no money. My lease expired and I moved back into my parents home. I did everything I could to have basic independence and failed. I am thankful to be able to fall back into my parents basement, because some people aren’t so lucky to have that safety net.

My focus shifted from “find a career job” to “find something to build any kind of capital.” I also decided to finally get help for the mental health issues I had been ignoring for so long. So, I finally found work part-time at the mall working as a sales supervisor for an outdoor lifestyle brand, as well as entered therapy to help fix my noggin.

Welcome to Retail

Let me start with saying I am grateful to be at least somewhat employed. By employed, I mean, 14-20 hours a week at $11 an hour “employed.” As somebody living in his parents basement, it is enough to keep the lights on and slowly build up a nest egg.

It is weird— having the responsibility (at least somewhat) of management with the pay of a cashier. (OK, that’s a lie. Cashiers make $10 an hour.) In many ways I was grateful to have work, but in other ways, my insecurities about life started eating away at me. I felt like a failure (I’m not). Spending all of those hours on those classes, working my butt off on those freelance gigs and internships. Trying my best to do it all while burning myself out—- only to find myself working a job that merely requires a high school diploma.

The first few months of that job were miserable, largely due to my own attitude. Instead of making the most of what I could do, I spent any time I wasn’t working basking in my own self-pity and failures. As far as my mind was concerned, this was “forever” and nothing would ever get better. 

I also worked the night shift and weekends. Constantly. One thing you underestimate about working “normal hours” is that you have a chance to have a social life, watch sports, and perhaps get involved in the community. So, once again, I felt socially isolated, and I let it affect my attitude towards life. I was mad at the world.

Solace With Rising Coaches

However, I freelanced with one community that I owe a lot to: Rising Coaches. For those that do not know, Rising Coaches is a startup that is meant to create content, help network and foster the talents of young coaches who want to work in the college or pro basketball industry.  As somebody that grew up sports-obsessed in a non-sports family, I needed any advantage I could get to meet new people and showcase my talents to an industry that I so desperately want to enter.

Basically, I helped them establish what content would be appropriate for such a service, created microcontent for them from their existing content, and took on a complete rebrand so that untrained volunteers can create content from a variety of templates quick and easy.

One year later, Rising Coaches has over 1,350 members in a niche industry, and has the respect of some of the finest minds in the game. Instagram followership is up 40%, as well as engagement up 40%, and Rising Coaches appears to have a bright future as the leader in young talent development for the coaching industry. I’m just happy to play a small part in it.

That is neat, now back to Matt’s day job.

During the holiday season, I worked 30-40 hours a week and didn’t really spend much. While I had no social life, crippling anxiety, and existential dread just about every day, I also had about $3,000 in my bank account, which is enough to pay for both the deposit and first month’s rent on any reasonable apartment should I find a “big boy job.” Small victories.

Bedridden

In January, I got sick with a “mysterious respiratory disease” that would not go away. For three weeks, I coughed my lungs out, often to the point of pulling every muscle in my back. I had horrible fatigue, often to the point where the only thing that kept me going was the chance to watch Ole Miss play basketball on SEC Network. I would get home from work and collapse on my couch, feeling awful every day, with no signs of getting better. 

I had never felt so miserable. Of course, this was pre-pandemic, in a time that seemed like it took place on another planet. So naturally, I still had to go to work and “gut it out.” To be quite honest, for a solid month I was probably fairly useless at my job. I tried my best to help customers and do my job well, but I could barely walk without triggering a cough attack, let alone be perky and helpful. It was the pits.

Finally, after three weeks and ten pounds lost, I decided this isn’t “just a cold” and it was time to see the doctor. As it turns out? I had pneumonia. (This was a couple weeks before Coronavirus was known to be in the United States, so while I had all of the symptoms of the virus, I never got tested. Maybe I had it, maybe I didn’t. Wear a mask!) One week later, I recovered (finally), just in time to return to the only place I could ever call home.

  Returning to the Place where I peaked

After a stressful holiday season and an illness that took the little joy I had left out of life, I figured I earned a vacation, and by vacation I mean “return to Ole Miss to hang out with the basketball team.” They had a three-game homestand coming up in February, and I had some friends who would let me crash on their couch… for ten days. God bless them.

Are you on a plaque at your university? Didn’t think so.

Also, God bless head coach Kermit Davis for letting me stick around for the entire time. I worked under a different coach at Ole Miss, but Kermit treats everybody well, even with great power differences. Even though Ole Miss was in the middle of a dreadful 1-7 start to conference play, coach treated me like family, let me in on all of the practices, film sessions, and everything in-between that entire ten-day period. I got to pretend like I was working in basketball again, and it felt so comforting.

Pandemic

Remember that time we had hopes and dreams? Well guess what, that all went down the drain as the dreaded Coronavirus put the economy to a halt just as I finally saved up enough money to go back “full steam ahead” on the job search. 

The world shut down and I was among the first furloughed. In the short term, and chance of meaningful employment appeared to grind to a halt. Emails flooded my inbox about “hiring freezes” and “jobs being eliminated” due to “uncertain times.”

 

On the bright side, not having to go to my day job gave me more time to network, freelance, and grow within the sports industry. Schools from across the country used my talents during this recruiting period to help better pitch to prospects. I taught classes on basketball recruiting campaigns and for the first time in my life: I felt like my name and talents were being recognized.

Unfortunately, when they cancel the big billion dollar tournament that funds most teams, there aren’t a lot of full-time jobs to be had in the college sports world. Only scraps.

The Summer of “Almost,” Part II

Funny enough, despite the bleak job prospects of college sports, I managed to sneak my way into interviews with two mid-major teams, one in Conference USA, and one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference.

I spent 6-7 years of my life working for pennies, staying in on weekends, watching my bank account near zero with this pipe dream of one day having the chance to show my stuff. And I did! I gave it my all and impressed a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Like a dozen companies before them, they decided to “go in a different direction” while emphasizing how well I did and how I could do the job as well as anybody out there. Skill-wise, I belong. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to help pay the bills.

There were other opportunities along the way as well. I had brief conversations with a Big East school, as well as one of my former bosses that became a head coach at a different Conference USA school, but the budgets are tight right now, and any potential position was eliminated.

So we move on.

Still in My Mom’s Basement 

I’m 26 years old and still live in my childhood bedroom. People my age are getting married, buying houses, and living life— and I’m making $11/hour part time at the mall. Is this forever? Probably not. Is this humbling? Definitely. 

I don’t think anybody plans for life to end up this way. You see people around you making strides, while you struggle to tread water and fight your own personal demons. Perhaps this year was needed in order to get my head back on straight. Who knows. I do know that I learned a thing or two on this tumultuous journey.

Lessons Learned

  1. Comparison is the thief of joy.
    • Like I said before, many people my age are getting promoted and making major strides in their career.
    • I’m still working for major chance one.
    • Living in other people’s lives and accomplishments only brings anxiety and anguish into my own. They are on their path and I am on mine.
  2. It’s less about being “good enough” and more about “opportunity.”
    • For the first time in my life— “opportunity”— at least opportunity to make ends meet on my own — to have a basic shred of independence— it hasn’t happened, as it hasn’t for many people in this world.
    • It has made me recognize the privilege in my upbringing, in that I could take advantage of so many opportunities because I only had to worry about doing a good job— not my next meal or paying bills. 
    • Once you are away from that college environment and have to focus on the day-to-day, opportunities come by less on their own, so it is important to continue pounding the pavement and make the opportunities to have your voice heard. 
    • Just because the opportunity hasn’t happened yet— doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. You are enough, and you have to keep working to be ready when that chance comes.
  3. Take the small breaks as they come. They’ll help when the big break happens.
  • At this time last year, I had $300 to my name.
    • Took a part time job at the mall, freelanced, and continued to live in my parents basement.
    • Didn’t spend my stimulus bill.
    • Any “vacation” I took was really a work-cation. Found ways to break even while networking and taking maybe a day or two to myself.
    • Freelanced for several publications, D1 basketball teams, junior colleges, and other businesses.
  • Now? I have $15K saved up!
    • My mental health is in a much better place! 
    • Can afford to make the move when the time comes!
  1. You cannot take rejection personally, only as inspiration to get better.

Let’s do this rundown one more time.

  • A small sample of places I interviewed with in last year:
    • Digital content for FORTUNE 50 GROCERY CHAIN.
      • Made final interview, neither HR rep nor hiring manager could show up.
    • Digital media for FORTUNE 50 CONSUMER GOODS CONGLOMERATE. 
      • Interviewed well, but did not get job. Company has a policy of “if you do not get the job, you may not apply to this company for one year.”
    • Sales at SOFTWARE COMPANY
      • Interviewed well, CEO that never met me threw out resume thanks to “not enough experience.”
    • Public Relations Manager for MAJOR EXTREME SPORTS AND LIFESTYLE GROUP.
      • Quite frankly, that job was way above my pay grade even with a master’s, and probably was more a courtesy interview than anything.
    • Digital Media for SMALL MOVIE THEATRE CHAIN.
      • Interview feedback: “You have too many skills and would get bored. This is too entry level for you.”
    • Entry level management for MAJOR TOOL COMPANY
      • Position eliminated due to Coronavirus.
    • Digital Media for LOW MAJOR DIVISION ONE MEN’S BASKETBALL TEAM.
      • They were looking for a different skillset
    • Video Coordinator (aka entry level coaching) for HIGHLY RESPECTED MID-MAJOR D1 BASKETBALL TEAM
      • Did everything I could, but they went a different direction.
      • Still on speaking terms and occasionally freelance for them.
    • Video Coordinator at another mid-major.
      • Was a finalist—lost out to a person with more experience.
  • This does not include the half a dozen schools or so that showed basic interest before the season ended, only to have positions eliminated due to COVID.

Why am I listing these off again? Because life is full of almosts. It can be painful to get so close to landing a job in your dream industry, only to have them go in a different direction time after time. It will make you go insane to try to find the reasons why you may not be the best candidate. However, even after all of the rejection, calls not returned, poverty, and self doubt— I’m still here. I’m still alive… and I won’t stop working my butt off. I cannot change the past, but can only do my best to make my future better.

This year hasn’t been ideal, but you can only control what you can control. I believe I controlled those things well. I got my mental health in check. Saved up $15K. Paid off all of my debts. Kept moving forward even when the future looked most bleak. Am I where I want to be in life right now? No. Am I better off now than where I was last year? Yes. That’s all you can ask for.

Let’s keep moving forward, friends.

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