When You Find Your Unicorn Job but Can’t Get Past the Gatekeepers

When You Find Your Unicorn Job but Can’t Get Past the Gatekeepers

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Work

It was time to panic.

After nearly a year of effort, I had nothing to show for it. My dream job—the unicorn I was chasing—had slipped out of my grasp once more.

Exhausted, I persevered, hoping that somewhere there was one more unicorn to be found. Surely if I kept going I’d impress the right gatekeeper eventually…

What follows is a tale of my job-hunting woes and how I got around the gatekeepers that kept refusing to hire me. Multipotentialites often end up creating our own custom careers, but what happens when you get too attached to one particular iteration of the dream? And what’s possible when we think outside the box and open ourselves up to different paths?

Discovering the mythical perfect job

A couple of months earlier, I had returned from retreat with an idea: I should get a job. With hindsight, this was the obvious solution to “not having enough money.” But at the time the idea was revelatory.

It had been a few years since I’d begun building a portfolio career. I’d published a book, given a TED talk, and started delivering comedy presentations about my experiences with anxiety.

But I’d become frustrated with the freelancing I still needed to pay the bills. I enjoyed the actual work… but I struggled with the constant search for good clients with achievable projects.

My first epiphany was that I didn’t have to give up the portfolio career. I’d unconsciously been viewing “get a job” in black-and-white terms, as if it meant admitting failure and giving up on all my dreams.

Somehow I’d forgotten that a job could be part of a portfolio career, rather than replacing it. Suddenly, I could visualize the perfect outcome, the unicorn I sought. A single flexible job, which could provide:

  • A steady stream of income
  • Fun coding projects to balance my non-coding creative work
  • Actual colleagues, which might save my solo-working sanity
  • Freedom from constantly seeking new freelance projects
  • Time to continue giving talks about mental health & writing books & whatever else…

Now I knew what my unicorn looked like, I simply had to convince whomever was guarding it to let me ride it.

Ghosts & gatekeepers

Unfortunately, the perfect job doesn’t appear if you simply google for it.

For months, no opportunity had everything. Sometimes I didn’t have the right skills. Other times, the job was in the wrong place. Sometimes, the employer even seemed actively hostile.

As I was about to give up, I came across an interesting, innovative company who seemed keen. We threw around exciting ideas for projects I would work on.

But the start date kept getting pushed back, and—slowly—the conversation just… died.

I’d found my unicorn, and it had ghosted me. I’d expected to have to impress some metaphorical gatekeeper to the unicorn zoo, but they hadn’t even turned me down… they’d just looked the other way and whistled until I left.

Still, the brief flirtation with the security of a part-time job had got me hooked. Before too long, I stumbled across another job posting which seemed almost too good to be true.

They wanted a software developer with my approximate skillset to work remotely from any part of the planet. The pay was good. Best of all, they treated their employees with extreme respect—trusting them to take as much vacation as they liked, and even to work whenever was convenient, provided they got the job done.

I could continue speaking about mental health, write more books, pursue other passions, all while enjoying the security of a fascinating, enjoyable, permanent job. I liked the sound of that.

Unfortunately, so did six hundred and fifty others. This particular gatekeeper might never even notice me.

I spent the entire summer determinedly preparing the perfect application letter, before leaping through a series of video interviews and coding challenges. Every day, I dreamed of placing this final piece of the puzzle into the life I wanted to have. The unicorn was in sight.

They liked my letter. 300 people left. Another interview with another gatekeeper.

100 people left. A coding challenge. I passed this gate comfortably.

Down to the final 20. The last coding challenge.

And then, finally, after a summer of effort… I didn’t get the job.

Reaching the last handful from six hundred and fifty applicants was objectively an amazing achievement, but I felt worse than if I’d been rejected right away. An entire summer had been spent, and >still the final gatekeeper had turned me away.

If at first you don’t succeed… insanity is trying the same thing again…

It was time to panic.

After nearly a year of effort, I had nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, really. I could have spent all this energy on literally anything else.

Even the thought of continuing to search was dispiriting. Did I want to put more time and energy into a seemingly-fruitless search?

Until, one day, the idea evolved. I wondered… what if my problems could solve each other?

My humorous-helpful talks about mental health were going extremely well, but this had led to a new difficulty. I kept being invited by schools and charities who couldn’t afford to pay.

These talks were hard to turn down. I wanted to help, but each talk was a huge time commitment. I could afford to do them cheaply, but I would struggle to do it for free.

Somehow, these two separate problems crashed together in my mind. Need a job. Can’t do free gigs.

I wondered: what if my job WAS doing these gigs? Could I somehow get paid to offer mental health support to places which can’t afford it?

My soul felt soothed at the mere thought, which is often a sign of a good idea. This felt right in precisely the way all those non-unicorn jobs felt wrong.

Then I asked the obvious question: how could I achieve this? The idea grew an additional tiny shoot. Over the years, people had often suggested I crowdfund, but I’d always waved the idea away. I had no clue what could justify strangers giving me money. But if those people were willing to spare a dollar or two a month to support my mental health work, this could actually work.

Best of all, no gatekeeper could stop me trying… except myself.

Afraid of success

It turns out I’m a pretty good gatekeeper, as it took a month or two to convince myself to actually do it. But the day finally came when I launched my crowdfunder on Patreon.

I’ve pushed a lot of scary buttons in the past: submitting manuscripts, suggesting dates, opening up a new tab on TV Tropes. But pushing the button to explicitly ask people for support felt like a new level of vulnerability.

All that worrying was for nothing. A couple of dozen people leapt in to support me.

On some level, I recognize that’s a relatively small success. But on a much more important level, it’s HUGE. Earning $140ish/month wasn’t going to change my life, but it would enable me to offer occasional free talks to schools without working for nothing.

A previously unsustainable part of my life was now sustainable, and there was now the possibility of growth—more people could always support me in future.

The project’s mere existence also led to new opportunities. A local charity heard about it, and we began offering mental health outreach to schools together. As a result, in 2019 I spoke to FIVE THOUSAND students about anxiety across the region.

Choosing the right gate

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. The point of this story isn’t “quit your job and crowdfund”. After all, it’s easy to imagine this tale in reverse: a Parallel Universe Me who tried and failed at crowdfunding for a whole year, trying to convince the many gatekeepers of the internet to support him, before growing despondent and giving up… and then discovering that the perfect job was there all along.

My first idea wasn’t bad. Even with hindsight, it wasn’t “the wrong gate.” And it wasn’t about passion. Either of those two jobs—or a third that, y’know, actually employed me—could have provided the fulfillment and the stability I craved.

The point is that fixation on a particular gatekeeper can be stifling.

The persistent failure was a signal to change direction. Instead of searching for the one company or person who I imagined held the solution to my struggles, I needed a fresh perspective: I could just go through a different gate.

Everything isn’t perfect now. Different circumstances always lead to different problems. But they also bring new possibilities. Perhaps I could aim to grow the crowdfunder and expand the mental-health-in-schools project. Or I could reverse direction and seek a full-time job. I could even resume the search for that perfect job which eluded me in 2018.

What to do when you’re coming up against gatekeepers

If you find yourself repeatedly being denied by the same gatekeepers, ask yourself:

  • What haven’t I tried to get in? Is there a new approach that may work?
  • Or is there another way to reach the same place?
  • Do I really need what they’re guarding, or can I achieve my goals elsewhere?
  • Or is there another gate that takes me somewhere equally good?

Whether you end up entering your particular gate or finding a different one, I hope that this year holds all the unicorns you desire.

Your Turn

Which gatekeepers have you tried to impress, and which have you gone around? Have you ever changed direction completely after exhausting all the apparent options? Share your stories with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at enhughesiasm.com.

29 Comments

  1. Robin says:

    good one. i totally related to the first part about the unicorn job. i’m still struggling with entering a gate, any gate, although i can see about five of them, and i may be the only gatekeeper to at least one of them. *shrug* we’ll see! not today, though, i have to do a good thing for free :P

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, good on you for doing some free good deeds :D I’m pleased you related, and am interested in your observation that you are also your own gatekeeper from time to time! Amazing how hard we make it for ourselves sometimes. Good luck with your next steps, whatever they may be :)

  2. Sadie M says:

    Great post, Neil. I have recently given up chasing the unicorn that I have been chasing for a year and a half. It is exhausting. I am currently helping my husband launch a consulting business in hopes that he will find happiness and make enough money to employ me. Your story is inspiring. Thank you for sharing it!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ah, thanks Sadie! I’m sorry you didn’t catch this particular unicorn but I hope whatever comes next is equally good for you :) Best of luck to your husband’s new business too.

  3. Camelia says:

    Wow your story is following the same Pattern with mine.

    > 1 year of rejection from Gatekeepers in Software Development -> Exhaustion & Frustration -> Realizing that I am on the wrong path -> Changing the path

    I was chasing a career in Java Development, in order to finally specialize in something. I was not aware of my multipotentiality and trying hard to specialize.

    I was stuck in a crap job in Java and trying hard to find a job. Rejection after rejection, until it killed me inside. I lost my natural pleasure to develop myself, to learn new things, because nothing of these did matter.

    I was forced to realize that I have to change the domain, to work for jobs in German, better remunerated and more in demand.

    It helped me to accumulate enough savings, to redirect me on another path – freelancing, that feels to me more appropriate than a corporate job.

    The rejection was maybe the best thing for my career, but still hurts and brings me a lot of resentment.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Camelia! It’s very interesting to me that you acknowledge the rejection was ultimately positive, but that it still brings resentment. We’re definitely complex creatures! I hope things continue to go well on this new path for you.

      • Camelia says:

        Yes, I feel resentment for rejection, because rejection is processed in our body like the physical pain and also because it was delivered with worst intentions by people I have encountered.

        It just happened to be a good redirection for me.

        Thank you for your wishes. I wish you as well all the best on your path.

    • Harsh says:

      And here in my quest for software jobs, coming from a polyglot (half-baked) background, I keep seeing and feeling “I should have learnt Java” :)
      Funny how the Venn diagram of “grass is greener” keeps shifting lawns

  4. Sofie says:

    Hi Neil, thanks so much for this! It is so freakingly similar to the situation I am in. Being a freelancer since 3,5 years the constant search for projects (and hence income) feels like a heavy burden. Recently I have been wondering whether the joy I experience in my work compensates this burden… At the moment it is not. And so I am also looking for a part time ‘steady’ job to have at least some income every month that I am sure of. I didn’t find it yet, but also came very close (being the second after spending hours and hours of preparation for a selection process… yep!). Good luck with your search Neil. I admire your steady courage. Warm greetings from Belgium.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m not sure anyone has ever “admired my steady courage” before but it feels very nice to hear it! :D And I’m glad I’m not alone with struggling with this. I really hope you find the perfect job for you – do keep me updated on how your search progresses!

  5. Nancy Hann says:

    Great piece, Neil! It’s always so interesting to see how people solve the challenges of life. You may have already considered this, but you may also be able to establish your mental health talks into a small nonprofit and apply for various grants and funding to help with your support. Or record some as downloadable videos and charge a small fee to download. Even posting a short video sample of one of your talks on YouTube could help with exposure for either Patreon support or customers who can afford to pay for your talks. Best wishes for much success no matter what happens next!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Nancy! I really appreciate the ideas. I’ve considered both before – dabbled with making videos before deciding my passion wasn’t in it sufficiently, and am currently researching the possibility of additional sources of funding for the mental health talks. Thank you so much for the encouragement, it makes me feel like I’m on the right path!

  6. Gloria says:

    So, I have the steady job. And I podcast on the side. I’ve been chasing that promotion on the job for a couple of years, only to be passed over again and again. Job takes out too out of my time (full time job), burns me out, don’t even love it that much. I’m good at it just because I can’t do something without trying my best at it. Still looking for my unicorn job, but this article drove home the point, it’s insane to keep going for the same thing again and again for something that’s not even something I love doing. If my value is not recognized somewhere then I will seek my place in this world where it is.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m glad you found some insight in the post, Gloria! I totally get how it’s possible to keep going for something that deep down you don’t even want – I hope you’re able to direct your energy towards something that brings you pleasure as well as progress :)

  7. joshua says:

    I’d dreamed of writing children’s books that had an impact on the lives of the readers. From an idea at a bedtime story my wife and I developed a children’s book for a small south American country that we felt would really benefit the children. But we had next to no contacts in Government -so we went straight to the President! We managed to get a copy of our book handed in to Parliament and the President got it. After an initial meeting a lot went wrong. Strikes, attempts to oust the Government and 16 months of phonecalls, emails and wheels spinning in the mud. Eventually, I was just about to give up – so I decided once more to write to the President. I can’t prove it but I think he went and kicked butt – and we have just been paid for an order for hundreds of books. Next, I’ll be approaching other ministers to see if we can get their buy in for other projects. If you can’t get through the minions – go to the top!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Wow! That’s an inspiring (and surprising) story..! I’m all for finding friends in high places but I think this goes higher than I’d ever even considered for book promotion :D Thanks for sharing, it’s incredible :D

  8. Noes in Amsterdam says:

    I definitely do relate to the unicorns and gatekeepers. Slightly different story, but yet a lot similarities. Her is my story.
    In the past when I was around 20 I started my career employed. Many different jobs and studying and travelling meantime. When I was around 30 I started my own company and had it for 10 years. Also did many different projects throughout this period. Although I believe being self-employed fits my lifestyle very well. In my case my income was not hitting long-term comfort-zone and I really felt a lot of resentment doing acquisition of new business. So badly that I went back to being employed again.
    So far so good until I quit my job last year. It was so demanding that I had no time left for anything else than unwinding. There surely was no time to nurture my multipod needs. Anyway, I did not fear of being unemployed for a bit so I could look around to find my unicorn job. 9 Months later still job hunting and many disillusions further.
    This month for the first time I started to let in the thought that the universe is trying to tell me something. I’m still deaf and blind to other possibilities as my acquisition gatekeeper still demands quite a lot of attention. It feels a bit like I’m in a vacuum at the moment and I have no idea where this will lead me to.
    @Neill thank you for sharing. It gives me more depth in my self reflection.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you for sharing too! I empathise with every part of your story – sometimes it feels very uncertain what lesson to even take from what we’re doing. Should we continue, or should we change direction? It’s very hard to decide during a time of disillusionment. Wishing you lots of luck with the next steps – do let me know what you end up doing, if you like, I’d be interested to hear how the story develops :)

  9. K.C. says:

    Hi Neil,
    As always you have written another spot on article!
    I’m sad to say I feel your pain with job hunting, not even ‘unicorn’ hunting. I am a fiction writer- though not yet published, working on self-publishing soon- so that Is my Unicorn job. But like every other ‘starving artist’ I need to pay for my lifestyle choice. The only problem for me is that I don’t have a work history of amazing skills like your Coding. Most of my work has been as a Receptionist, but I can’t seem to get anyone to hire me to save my life. I volunteer here and there in the hopes of getting an entry level position in another area-Non Profit- that I would love as my ‘bread & butter’ gig. But after taking about 3 years off due to Cancer- in remission now 4yrs- where nobody wants to hear that, it has been a real demeaning time in my life that has left me ‘in between homes’, thus causing me at times to be in a tug of war to get a ‘real’ job that I don’t like or have the skills for, or to continue following my heart.
    But I have claimed 2020 as my year for that life changing moment to finally take root!
    I wish everyone the same. Thanks for all your encouragement. Keep up the good work!
    K.C.?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I really hope 2020 brings you some good luck, K.C. I certainly appreciate I’m actually incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do while having something like software to fall back on. You’ve been very resilient to build new things after an experience as tough as cancer. I hope your health remains well and that you find a stable place from which to explore your passion projects – and I hope those passion projects are then wildly successful too! Good luck, and keep us posted :)

  10. Thanks for sharing your story. I have spent the past few years applying for scholarships and university courses, with no success. I find it hard to know whether to keep trying, maybe have different approaches, or give up altogether and try something else. Best of luck with your portfolio career!!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I feel your frustration, Safiya! I often think it would be easier if we just knew whether we should keep trying or not—sometimes persistence pays off, sometimes it’s just more wasted time for something that won’t pay off. (Of course, I get that there’s always something to take even from a rejection, but it can be very dispiriting when that’s ALL that seems to come along.)

      Good luck, whether you keep applying, choose to do something else, or both..!

  11. Dora says:

    Nice piece. Rang a lot of bells. I’ve been chasing the unicorn called Research for the past 8 years. So many gatekeepers, so many closed doors. I finally got the unicorn job but turns out it was just a plain old donkey. The job is nothing like the advert or my contract so I am now considering leaving the donkey behind. After so many years of trying and everyone telling me encouraging things I have come to resent the whole idea and the people. I also realized it is very stressful and I don’t enjoy it as much as I thought, something I never thought about until I started getting regular palpitations and arrhythmias in my 30s! So, I started thinking what else I could do that doesn’t cause my heart to explode. I do embroidery as a hobby and I’ve been thinking of trying to turn that into a real thing. My only concern is that I don’t know whether I’ll be able to support myself with it but I guess I’ll have to see how it goes.

  12. john leigh says:

    hi Neil

    it was very familiar reading your article and peoples comments.
    I was made redundant a year ago after 12 years at a advertising company where i wore many hats as creative producer successfully handling many creative projects in design web design, video, editing, notion, and as a 50 something chap, now that i have been applying for jobs i find that everyone is now expected to have a degree and be a guru in UX/UI with appropriate qualifications plus a huge shopping list of skills and yet they call this entry level or junior with a $20k salary .
    This is beyond gatekeeping it seems more like lazy or misinformed HR people who reject anyone without a degree right away – any degree i could have taken in the past had i been so priveleged back in the 80s would be irrelevant today – I believe my knowledge, experience and skills in my past 20 years of working across mamy campaigns for well known clients easily trumps a degree with no relevance from 30 years ago- what do you guys think?

  13. Lisa says:

    Hi Neil – I recently worked for a life insurance company in Australia. Both they and their competitors are actively funding/sponsoring/engaging people delivering mental health talks, events, programs. This included:
    * Speakers at events for financial planners (who are struggling)
    * ‘Mr Perfect’ mental health BBQs (A national program of BBQs for men (Reach out to Terry Cornick – contactable on LinkedIn) – they started sponsoring him when he only ran a few BBQs a year, and now it’s up to 300/year.
    * ‘Tackle your feelings’ – a program targeting coaches of school rugby teams and the kids in the team: https://www.facebook.com/pg/tackleyourfeelingsaustralia/community/?ref=page_internal (If you aren’t sporty, target a program that works for you, or partner with someone)

    Find a catchy, sexy name for your program/offering, package what you offer in a way that will entice the audience, and pitch it to Life Insurance companies – If it is likely to reduce their claims or make them look supportive of their community and mental health, they are likely to support you with funding. I suggest targeting the insurance companies who already run programs in the space, or their close competitors who are looking for a way to build a profile.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hi Lisa!
      This is fascinating advice – I wouldn’t have thought to go direct to these sorts of companies, but I’ll absolutely check these out in my country and see if they’re open to working with me on this. Thanks for the idea, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience :)

  14. Neil, I’m so glad I came across this article of yours. It’s really head-on for me as well. I’ve never really considered the possibility of the “two problems” (I have very similar one) solving one another. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s wonderful to hear, Sandra! I think with many combinations of problems it wouldn’t help, but sometimes mixing them together brings fresh thinking and new inspiration. I hope things go well for you :)

  15. Harsh says:

    This article about “gates” reminded of this book (which I didn’t read but the article introducing it, and the excerpt) makes me want to read it (someday)
    The Third Door https://www.amazon.in/dp/0804136661/ref=cm_sw_r_other_apa_i_KaRvEbPP67TGW

    I relate to these gatekeepers as I am also trying to convince recruiters and reach an interviewer who understands my profile ?????

    Upon reading ur article, I was wondering how the courage to try and pick things, in itself is so wonderful and worth it!
    The time you think which you spent where you didn’t earn, maybe you did

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