It was the middle of April and I woke up in a toddler-sized bed. Not my toddler, mind you. The child in question belongs to two friends, who generously relocated their adorable son to their own room for a week so I could commandeer what they call his big boy bed.
I slept like this for two months this past spring. On couches and day beds, in spare rooms and living rooms. I subsisted primarily on Clif Bars and used my rental car as a portable closet. I chose to live like this because I desperately wanted to move to a new city and start a new career and this was the only way I could think to do it.
When I got laid off from my media job in March, I saw it as a challenge. While I enjoyed working on a morning news show, I knew it wasn’t my dream career. I went to school for screenwriting and always hoped I’d wind up writing for a TV show. Unfortunately, I graduated during the height of the recession and at the time, moving to LA seemed financially ill-advised. I decided to make a short detour to Chicago first. Nine years, one marriage, one dog, and many houseplants later, I woke up and realized I had forgotten to leave. But the layoff promised me a clean slate.
The difference between changing locations and careers in your early twenties versus your early thirties can be quantified in stuff: I had too much stuff, both physical and emotional, to uproot my husband and move across the country on a whim. I needed an opportunity first. But from everything I’d heard from friends and contacts within the industry, it’s almost impossible to get a job in LA without being in LA. That’s why at the tender age of 31, I temporarily moved to California to crash on friends’ couches and search for a job in the city I hoped to live and work in. If it worked out, my husband would join me and work remotely. If not, I’d go back to Chicago and reassess.
The hardest part was making the decision. Once I committed to going, I was able to plan my trip in less than a month and I did it by calling in a lot of favors. I was fortunate enough to have incredible friends already living in the area and I shamelessly begged for housing. But since I very much wanted to emerge from this experience with those friendships still intact, I tried not to stay in one place for longer than a week. Moving around was good for maintaining relationships, but it also helped me explore the city; over the course of the trip, I was able to test drive six different neighborhoods.
Just like in regular surfing, couch surfing requires both balance and flexibility. Even though I made a concrete housing schedule, I knew people’s plans would change—and they did. Friends were kind enough to let me keep their keys even after I left so that when I inevitably found myself without a place to stay for a night, I’d always have a safe place to go as a backup.
The biggest stress of the trip was undoubtedly financial. I was newly unemployed and unsure how long it would take to find a new job in a new industry. I benefitted enormously from the health benefits and financial help I received from my husband’s job, but I still set a very tight budget.
My only big expenditure was a long-term car rental, but I also allotted funds for food, gas, and professional expenses. This last category included money spent taking people out for coffee, drinks, and food as part of informational interviews; buying thank you gifts for people who referred me to jobs; and attending networking events. I also set aside a big portion of my budget for thank you gifts for my hosts, which I tried to personalize. For some friends I bartered free babysitting for room and board. For others, I made dinner or bought groceries or booze.
Two months may seem like a long time, but it goes by faster than you can fold away a pullout couch. I knew I had to optimize my days in LA, so I tried to prepare all of my professional materials before I landed on the West Coast. This meant making sure I’d updated my writing samples, resumes, cover letters, and website. I also made two lists: one of everyone I knew in the city and one of people I wanted to meet in my new industry. Using Twitter, LinkedIn, and friends’ contacts, I was able to start setting up multiple meetings and interviews in advance, all designed to get the word out that I was in town and looking for work.
It’s been two months since I returned to Chicago and I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience. Before I left, my therapist had described the trip as a Hail Mary pass, which I liked. In the slow-motion football game that is my job search, I’ve done all I can: I studied my opponent, I trained, I memorized the routes. I let the ball fly and now all I can do is hope that it stays on course and is caught by the right person.
But to stretch the analogy a little further, I realized the game didn’t end when I flew home, and I didn’t stop throwing passes. I still kept in touch with the people I met, checking in with them over email and letting them know that even though I was out of sight, I was still looking. And I think it worked: This week I accepted an offer for my first job in Los Angeles and am starting to prepare for a move.
Trips like this aren’t right for everyone. Certain industries are more amenable to outsiders, or less geographically restrictive. You won’t always have to move to a different place to look for a new gig. But if you’re anything like me, it’s possible that you’ve felt trapped by where you are and what you’re doing.
Changing careers is overwhelming and looking for a new job in a remote city is nothing short of paralyzing. Knowing that I had options and support—even if it came in the form of a toddler-sized bed—gave me the courage to try anyway.