5 lessons I learned from graduating into the recession and working 34 jobs

I spent over 4 years as a valet and bellman.

Since my first high school summer job in 2002, I've worked as a dishwasher, cashier, truck driver, valet, bellman, waiter, warehouse picker, broadcast technician, projectionist, production assistant, video producer, and more! In all, I've worked 34 jobs that each lasted at least one month, plus a lot more one-day-long gigs.

Many of those positions were postcollege as I tried to earn money and start a career during the Great Recession. In May 2007, I graduated with a bachelor's degree in film production. In April 2008, two friends and I moved to Austin, Texas, where I crewed on independent films in Austin's burgeoning film industry. The money wasn't great, but I was moving up and having a blast!

Unfortunately everything fell apart in September 2008, which, if you haven't heard, wasn't a great month for the global economy.

At the time I was working part-time as a hotel valet, but Austin's tourism industry, like its film industry, collapsed. The hotel where I worked shut down, the film I was on had its funding pulled as investors panicked, and I found myself jobless. As a freelancer in Texas, I wasn't eligible for unemployment.

As bad as it all was, graduating into the recession was a trial by fire, and it taught me several important lessons that I carry to this day.

Portrait of the author on a Texas production.
Stephen Parkhurst

1. Be versatile

Having different kinds of skills gives you the ability to pivot. I jumped back and forth between driving and the film industry multiple times between 2007 and 2012.

Unable to find consistent work in Texas, I used a credit card with a $1,000 limit to move to my home state of Maine in May 2009, where rent was cheaper. Thanks to my valet experience, I got a job delivering auto parts to mechanics for $8 per hour. At the same time, I landed a Craigslist gig driving for a doctor who'd lost his license, netting me an additional $250 per week. With help from $70 monthly SNAP assistance, I was able to pay my rent and eat.

Over the years, I held a variety of driving jobs, including deliveries, airport shuttle, and recycling truck; I served as a personal assistant and a luxury valet. At one point, in the days before Uber, I even drove drunk people's cars home for them.

Were any of these jobs glamorous? Not at all, but they kept me in my apartment!

The economy gradually improved, but I didn't feel financially stable until I landed my first full-time video producer job in late 2015. Even today, my sense of insecurity from the recession lingers, and I still find comfort knowing being a professional driver can be a fallback.

A visual representation of the author's antipathy towards driving for a living.
Stephen Parkhurst

2. Take smart chances

If you are able to pursue your passion, that can pay real dividends over time — especially if the risks you take are calculated ones.

In 2010, while I worked full-time as a hotel valet, I spent $3,000 on a new iMac, software, and a Canon T2i DSLR camera. I had no savings, so I got a second credit card and maxed out both that one and my first one. Maxing out a credit card is never a good idea, but I'd had my valet job for over six months and felt confident about my future earnings.

I used the gear to produce commercials for local businesses on spec. Though I lost money on the endeavor, those spec commercials landed me a job at a ski resort's TV channel, and my work at the resort gave me enough material to cut a reel, which helped get me interviews at several video production facilities when I moved to New York City in 2012.

I ended up as a postproduction tech and, when that proved creatively unfulfilling, I spent my free time producing comedy sketch videos. One sketch went viral, which got me my first video producer job.

It took five years, but if I hadn't taken a chance and purchased the gear, it's possible I'd still be parking cars.

Self-portrait of the author taking to the woods in 2011.
Stephen Parkhurst

3. Be open to unexpected opportunities

You don't end up working 34 jobs by saying "no" a lot. Many people pass on big opportunities because they don't fit the narrative they've established for themselves. Having a plan and a vision board is great, but be sure you leave yourself room to adapt.

I said "yes" to the job offer at the ski resort, even though it meant taking a pay cut and moving to a rural, mouse-infested cabin with an ornery old alcoholic. I said "yes" to a stranger who asked me to shoot her comedy sketch for free. We ended up collaborating on multiple videos and she connected me to the interview for my first video producer job.

It's scary to say "yes" sometimes, but it can be an extremely effective pathway to success.

It took five years, but if I hadn't taken a chance and purchased the gear, it's possible I'd still be parking cars.

4. Research your safety net options

There is no shame in utilizing the social safety net when necessary. I qualified for SNAP assistance in 2009 and it was a gigantic financial relief.

Look into your state's eligibility requirements for unemployment, SNAP, child health care and tax credits, and other benefits. Hopefully you'll never need them, but it's important to be educated about what programs are available ahead of time.

5. Don't forget to have fun

So much monetary advice, especially during lean years, is couched in the language of austerity. There's a clear logic there, and often the advice is well-intentioned: It makes sense to be careful, especially when money is tight. I'm not saying you should go splurge on a brand new BMW. What I am saying is that you shouldn't feel guilty spending some money on activities and experiences that bring you joy.

Downturns are emotionally taxing, and it's important to blow off steam and relieve stress.

Self-portrait of the author in his first week at Grow.
Stephen Parkhurst

In 2010, at my most broke, my friends and I saw a live bar band every other Friday night. We danced, goofed around, and drank too many PBR tall boys. The whole night usually cost me about $30. It would have been financially smarter to save that $30, but those nights were much-needed relief from the daily economic doom and gloom, and I still remember them fondly.

"Recession" is a scary word, especially if you lived through the last one. The good news is that, even at their worst, recessions are temporary.

Save as much money as you can while the economy is still cruising. Make an effort to learn some valuable new skills in your free time, because it's smart to have a fallback if your industry is particularly hard hit. Most importantly, continue to pursue a career or an opportunity you're excited about. Passion can keep you going when the going gets tough.

More from Grow: