Rebound: A Proven Plan For Starting Over After Job Loss
I was in Santa Barbara attending a video production course when I received a call from my editor at FT Press. Her request: Because of the sudden massive layoffs of Americans all over the country at the time, she needed a most up-to-date, practical, hopeful book on how to handle being laid off and what to do next. Only problem: She needed the manuscript complete and ready to be published in two months. Which meant the book had to be researched and written within six weeks. Rising to the challenge, I said yes. The result: Rebound: A Proven Plan For Starting Over After Job Loss.
The whole process became something of a joy ride. During the day I would interview a content expert for each chapter. Then I would whip up the copy into a chapter and ship it off to Australia, where my copy editor lived and was recovering from a ski accident that had broken his back. Because of the time zone change, I would be going to bed as he would be waking up, popping his first round of pain pills, and settling down to edit what had come in over his night. Then, when I woke up, there would be his edited version for me to review. It was split-second timing, and I thought more than once of an organ transplant team. Rebound was successfully released on time by FT Press. And this editor and I would go on to work on two more books together – always an epic pleasure.
What to Expect When You’re No Longer Expected
A high-speed car crash comes to mind just now. You have been barreling along at top speed for years. Working very long hours, even while in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Taking your PDA and laptop on vacations with you. Perhaps you’ve sacrificed a bit of your own health and peace of mind for the sake of the job and what it brings to you and your family. Things have been moving very fast, and you’ve been accelerating along with the world, pushing down on the accelerator to keep ahead of your competition and stay on the leading edge of your industry. There’s something exhilarating about working at those outer reaches of your skills, your wits, your creativity, your ability to react, your capacity for excellence. You’ve been learning a lot about yourself and what you really can do. You’ve been able to give your spouse and children a life in a world that you never knew existed when you were a kid.
But then it stops. With one visit from your manager, and maybe from someone in HR, you run head on into a wall. Done. Finito. Here’s a box for your stuff. Ever so sorry. Sign this. Get out.
You’ve been laid off. And your career is the accordioned wreckage joining the heap of thousands of other careers piled up at this very same wall. Your job may have come to an unexpected, abrupt halt. But your heart and mind continue to surge forward at the same rate of speed as before, and you’re in for some internal damage. No matter how well you thought you were buckled in, there’s not a whole lot that can prepare your insides from the shock of the sudden, slamming stop.
Let’s start with your head first. You may not have loved your job every single moment in the last year or so. And maybe lately it’s gotten really unpleasant at work, especially with all those empty cubicles. Not to mention that idiot who has taken over your division without knowing anything about the business. But you relished the challenge still and you had become attached to the habit of getting a paycheck every two weeks. Or you were proud to be associated with the prestige of the company name. Or you were five years away from retiring, and you’re old enough to know how fast five years can go by. Or you were in the middle of a really great project that you loved. What’s going to happen to that? That was your baby. Who’s going to take care of it now? And shouldn’t you have some input into who it gets handed off to? Uh. No. You no longer work there, remember? That project may or may not achieve its full potential. But no one is paying you to care about it anymore. In fact, with whatever severance payment you might have received, you’re actually being paid not to care about it anymore. So you can just forget it. Right now.
And what about your overbooked calendar? That speech you were scheduled to give to the Western Region? That review committee status meeting that was to give you the go-ahead to launch your pet project into Phase 6? All those lunch dates with clients who will show up on time, only to eat alone? Who cares? You don’t have to anymore. Even when you wake up in the middle of the night with this vague, urgent feeling that you missed a meeting or forgot a crucial detail. That’s just the phantom limb of your old identity wearing the memory of itself out. Go back to sleep. If you can.
So now let’s move on to the matter of your heart. All those people you grew to care about. All that celebratory laughter over a project well done. All those ridiculous cakes, with everyone genuinely caring about each others’ birthdays – turning the office into a jolly kindergarten room for just a few moments while the song is sung. That happiness survey you took every year. Wasn’t there a question about whether you had a best friend at work? You had more than one best friend, you had a team of friends who were equally dedicated to the same level of passion and excellence you were (maybe some a little more, some a little less). All those people you personally mentored, groomed, and promoted. They were so grateful. They were also really great at volleyball, at the grill, at the holiday charity fundraising, at that Habitat for Humanity building project. So much fun.
Where are they now? At work. Where are you now? Not at work. What are they thinking about your sudden absence? That you’re sick? That you got fired? That you got arrested? Isn’t anyone going to call to make sure that you’re okay? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not your job to worry about that either. And it’s not their job to worry about you, especially when your empty desk might give them cause to worry about themselves.
A layoff hits everyone differently, of course, depending on their financial resources, self-esteem, support systems, networks, professional reputations, level of endurance, resilience, and optimism. But there do seem to be some common experiences that laid-off professionals report. You might like to know about them. At the very least, there’s some comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
You’re angry and glad at the same time. Maybe you’ve been worried about the prospect of getting laid off, and now you’re relieved that the axe has finally fallen. Now you can replace that old worry of losing your job with the new worry of finding your next job. You’re furious with your boss for not letting you know that this was around the corner – even that time when you explicitly asked. And you feel sorry for him, too, because you know his hands were tied. He had to drop the axe according to a management enforced script; you know that. And it was killing him inside to do it. You know that too. But it still was your neck, not his, which the axe dropped upon. And you’re steamed. But then again…it must be really hard to be him right now.
How could they let you go when there is so much dead weight still lying around the office? How could you have been so blind? Were you just lying to yourself when you thought it couldn’t happen to you? What were the signs that you missed? Could you possibly miss them again if this happens to you another time – assuming, that is, that you can even find a new job?
Crisis in Self-Worth
Will you be able to find a new job – especially in this economy? If so, when? If the company you worked so hard and successfully for could let you go so easily, would another company even recognize your abilities and appreciate you for what you have to offer? How can your family still respect you when you’re not bringing in “your share” of the household income? What about all those sycophants who took your orders because you represented the next rung on their own career ladders? Would they even know you if you passed on the street?
How could it possibly be that you haven’t heard from any of your coworkers since you disappeared? They couldn’t have forgotten you already, could they? Maybe they think you’re a failure, and failure is catching, like in the Lyle Lovett song, where he sings, “Get it on your fingers and it crawls right up your sleeve.” You’re not contagious, everyone knows that. It’s not rational to think that one person’s failure might spread through the office like a flu bug. But sometimes humans aren’t rational. Like your boss, when he laid you off.
The cruel irony here is that just when you need most not to be alone, that’s when you are. Everybody’s at work. Your kids are at school. Your first days at home feel like the first few days at any new job: You hardly know what to do with yourself that contributes to anything in any kind of meaningful way. You don’t know who you are in the context of this new identity. Nobody else does either, really, because they’re waiting to take their cues from you. At least here you have the advantage of knowing where the coffee pot and the bathroom are.
Maybe you can go downtown. But the only people hanging out in the middle of the day at coffee shops are losers or “consultants.” And we all know what that’s code for, don’t we?
Or you can go in with the morning rush. But then there’s that possibility that you might make like Charlton Heston as Moses, pointing to the commuting crowd, and pronounce, “Beware! You could be next!” Oh. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? Better you should stay home, at least for a little while. At least until the shock wears off. But then how long will that take?
Who are you now in this new phase of your life? Time will tell. And the good news is that, even though it doesn’t seem so obvious or guaranteed right now, it’s quite possible that you’ll come out of this crisis the better for having gone through it. It’s been known to happen. Lots of times. And there’s no reason why yours can’t be one of the happy-ending stories. It’s not like the Good Luck Gate slammed shut a split second after you got laid off.
Your good fortune hasn’t run out. Maybe it’s just begun.
The best thing you can do:
Give yourself the chance to go through all the feelings that are coming your way.
The worst thing you can do:
Judge or rush yourself as you cycle through those feelings.
The first thing you should do:
Make a list of the things you can control positively and focus on that for now.