I’ll never forget the day that I was let go from what I thought was my dream job. I was in my mid-20s and I had no Plan B and no rainy day fund. I was a magazine editor, and I loved my job (or at least I thought that I did at the time). So much of my identity and self-worth was tied up with what I did for a living.
But a funny thing happened when I was let go.
I felt an enormous sense of relief. Of course I was scared about finances and my ego took a huge blow, but I had known for some time deep down that the cutthroat world of women’s magazines was not for me. I had just been too scared to do anything about it. Losing my job was the push (or rather, the shove) to evaluate what I really wanted to do.
A few months later, I landed a great job as a writer/editor at a law firm. This job was a much better fit for me because it encompassed everything that I loved about what I was doing in magazine publishing minus the mean girl culture.
Fast forward to the present day (many years later), where I now head up the marketing department of a mid-size law firm in New York City after working in law firm marketing at a number of major firms. You could say that getting let go launched me on the right career path (yes, that’s true) and everything was smooth sailing since then (not exactly). Why? Because I’m not perfect (shocker!), I make mistakes, and I’m guessing that you do too.
A lot of people don’t like to talk about their faults but the reality of life is that occasionally each of us will experience failure. Failures teach us very important life lessons such as resilience, adaptability, self-awareness and most important, empathy.
When the failure is work related, and it’s a big one – such as getting fired or let go – sometimes it’s just that it wasn’t a good fit. Other times it’s because of something that you did that led to things not working out, which is the hardest to swallow. And then there are times when you lose your job due to circumstances that are out of your control, like for example your job was eliminated or your new boss didn’t like you and slowly pushed you out.
Each of these scenarios stinks, but the bright side is that you can emerge from these situations as a stronger, better version of your professional self and use them to propel you to work situations that are a better fit for you – just like I did. Just know that you will still make some mistakes along the way – and that’s okay, just as long as you continue to learn from them.
I wrote this article because a few superstar friends of mine have recently lost their jobs, and I wanted to share some of the important lessons that I learned from being let go myself because I believe that every dark situation has a silver lining.
I also wanted anyone who has lost a job to know that you are not alone in experiencing speed bumps along your career path and that you can make mistakes and still have a successful career. Remember – just because it didn’t work out for you in one position doesn’t mean that you are doomed for your entire career!
Don’t panic. First thing’s first – keep telling yourself to not panic – everything will eventually be okay. If you’ve ever been let go, you will never forget the phone call from HR, the dreaded walk to the conference room, the folder with the separation agreement, packing up your things and nodding your head almost a trance-like, out of body experience. Yes, your world has just been turned upside down and you’re grappling with a million different emotions – shame, confusion, anger, fear and more – but the most important thing you can do right now is to take a deep breath and get your bearings, and get out of there. Do not do or say anything that you will later regret. Hold your head up high. All you need to do is go home, call someone who cares about you (lots of people do!) and have a glass of wine. You still have your family, your health and your friends. Your dog/cat/guinea pig still loves you (and will be thrilled that you will be home more!). It’s okay to be sad, angry and confused. You were just sucker punched. Just get through the first day. You can worry about everything else tomorrow.
It’s okay to admit that you failed. We often feel shameful about being let go from a job and some of us won’t even admit that it’s happened. But here’s the thing, no matter how brilliant, hard working or passionate you are, you will fail at something at some point. It doesn’t matter if you went to Harvard or if you graduated at the top of your class, have two masters degrees, always received nearly perfect performance reviews – you will still experience setbacks. In fact, when I googled failure, one of the top articles that came up discussed the major disappointments of some of the top business people of our time – Steve Jobs and Oprah among them – and how those failures later motivated them to achieve great successes.
What really matters though is how you handle and recover from these failures.
Many of us define ourselves – and some of our personal self-worth – by our work. Much of our identities are tied up with our careers, I know mine used to be. In fact, what one does for a living is a commonly asked icebreaker question. But when you ask me who I am today, although the phrase “marketing director” will pop up early in my answer, I will also tell you that I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, an aunt, a dog mom and many other things. It took me a long time to train myself to break the habit of thinking of my identity solely by what I did for a living.
It’s dangerous to define yourself by your career because if you lose your job, you will experience serious emotional suffering. According to Psychology Today, when individuals who possess a “work-role centrality” mindset – meaning that work is central to their sense of who they are – lose their jobs, they are more likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to feel that there is less purpose in their lives. Here’s the thing – you can’t afford to go into a downward spiral when you need to get back on your feet fast. If you are depressed, it will show to potential employers. It’s important to stay positive when you are on the job circuit. When I was unemployed and feeling grim about my situation, I often envisioned myself in the future fulfilled at my next job. Utilizing the power of positive thinking has always been a technique that has quickly snapped me out of funk.
When you are going through a crisis that cuts right to the core of who you are, it’s important to remember that you are not the first or the last person who will lose their job (remember Oprah and Steve Jobs did and look how they bounced back!). And you will be okay. You temporarily lost your job, but you are still you – and you are awesome.
Have a pity party (but with an expiration date). If you’ve been through it personally, you know that the first few days after you lose your job are surreal. If you are like me and crave order and routine in your daily life, it is disconcerting to say the least to have nowhere to go while everyone you know is at work.
Take a few days to feel sorry for yourself, and then snap yourself out of the negativity and instead focus your attention on more productive tasks and strategies. No one is going to help you but you, and you don’t have time to waste. Spend time doing positive self-reflecting as you would after the breakup of a relationship to determine why you were let go so that you don’t repeat the same actions, but be kind to yourself at the same time. Ruminating is not helpful. Neither is wallowing in self pity. If it was your mistake, learn from it. If not, learn from the situation.
Take charge and develop an action plan. I don’t do well when I’m not taking productive actions so sitting around watching TV and feeling sorry for myself is not how I spent my unemployment period. Instead, as soon as I felt up to it, I developed an action plan to find a new job.
Take time to think about what you want out of your next position. What is your ideal work environment? What kind of boss do you want to work for? What do you truly enjoy doing? What areas present challenges for you?
Then make a list of people who can help you – include former colleagues and classmates, supervisors and headhunters, and reconnect with them only when you are feeling up to it (Note: Do not reach out to anyone when you are down in the dumps or feeling desperate– it will show and you will repel people. Wait until you are feeling more confident and back to yourself – trust me on this). One of the best things that I did was to seek out individuals in my network who I knew had also been through professional ups and downs. Their comeback stories helped to inspire and motivate me.
The next step is to refresh your resume and LinkedIn profile, and when you are done, ask a couple of close industry friends to review it. Use grammarly.com for proofreading assistance (don’t get dinged from a job for things within your control).
Create your narrative. While you don’t need to into any specifics about why you are no longer at your last position, you do need to craft a story about why you are no longer there because you will be asked this question at every single interview and by every single person with whom you interview. The right answer to this question will either make or break your candidacy for every position, so I recommend reaching out to someone senior who you trust – perhaps a mentor or a former boss – and ask them to help you create your narrative, which should always be positive and truthful, but as with anything, less is more. Also, keep in mind that with the passing of new employment laws in New York City (among other states) in 2018 that protect the rights of job seekers, there are limits to what employers can ask prospective employees and how much digging they can do into your background.
Become a thought leader. Now is a great time to establish or reinforce your position as a thought leader in order to strengthen your brand. If you are already a published author, write as much as you can on LinkedIn Publisher and on JD Supra on the topics where you want to be better known as a subject-matter expert. I know several colleagues who have gotten freelance and consulting work through their content because of the power of social media. Remember that writing is just one piece of the content puzzle – your work needs to be found, so take the time to develop a social media strategy to disseminate your content, with a strong SEO component. You can find some tips in my JD Supra article, “The Secret Sauce to Effective Social Media Marketing for Lawyers and Law Firms.” If you haven’t published content before, try it, but you’ll need to find your niche and voice first. (Stay tuned for an upcoming article on how to get started as an author.) Now is the time to do this while you actually have the time!
Make looking for a job your new job. I got lucky when I was unemployed because I found my next job through connections (once again underscoring the importance of having a strong professional network), but I very actively also applied for jobs the old-fashioned way – meaning I sent out a lot of resumes and cover letters and often heard nothing back. It may take a few months (or more) to find a suitable new job, especially if you are more senior in your career. (That said, the more open you are to potentially moving to another city, or flexible you are on job title and compensation, the easier (and faster) it will be for you to find a new gig.) Just don’t let the job hunt consume every second of every day or you will burn out and feel crappy at times. Spend time doing other activities to break up the day – have coffee with important contacts, volunteer for a professional association (like the LMA or a cause that is meaningful to you), take a course to enhance your skill set (more on that in a bit). Go into each day feeling positive and don’t take it personally when you don’t hear back from potential employers or connectors (they’re not on your timetable unfortunately), or when you get dinged from a job (think of it as it wasn’t the right fit for you). I promise you that when it is right, it will be right and you will know it.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – really. I know it sounds cliché (and it is the title of a slightly annoying but also motivating Kelly Clarkson song) but what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. You can reframe your failures as opportunities and use them to help you to achieve your goals. One positive side effect of failing is that you become more resilient and emotionally strong – the idea being that if you can survive your present bleak situation, you can survive anything. Failure also makes you less afraid and more willing to take chances. There’s a reason why so many people use that other cliché about dusting themselves off and trying again!
Stop caring about what others think about you. This was one of the hardest things for me to do – I was very embarrassed about being let go (there one day, gone the next) and therefore convinced that everyone at work was talking about me. Maybe they were, but only for about a day or so until they moved on to the next piece of juicy office gossip.
The truth is that no one at work cares about you as much as you think they do. They are consumed with their own lives and as a result, they will forget about you pretty quickly. While this may sound harsh, it’s actually a good thing, because it means they they are not hyper focused on you or why you were let go from your job. So the next time you feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up worrying that you are the subject of water cooler chatter, brush it off. Some people love to gossip and thrive on negative news about colleagues. For some twisted reason it makes them feel good about themselves. These people are awful and you should steer clear of them at all costs. And why do you care what they think of you anyway? You don’t need those kinds of people in your life, ever. It’s incredible liberating when you get to this place!
Take a social media hiatus. Trust me that this is not the best time to be looking through the personal and professional social media profiles of your friends and former colleagues. You don’t need to make yourself feel worse right now hearing about their great vacations and accomplishments. In fact, if you compare yourself (when you are at one of your lowest moments) to others’ you can do serious damage to your self-confidence and your ability to focus on your job search. My advice is to take a short social media breather so that you can stop thinking about what everyone else is doing and focus on what’s most important – you.
Continuously build your network. When you are looking for a job, you will need to draw upon every resource possible and every connection that you have. Actively cultivating your connections before you ever need them is one of the smartest things you can do to keep your relationships “warm.”
Make sure your Outlook contacts are up to date and that you are an active user of LinkedIn, sharing content written by you and others in your network. Join alumni groups, reconnect with former colleagues from past schools and jobs, and use LinkedIn messenger to rekindle relationships. In fact, LinkedIn should be your best friend. Why? Because it enables you to build relationships – and your brand – quicker and faster than ever before.
In addition, when you’re seeking a job, LinkedIn will be a valuable (and oftentimes free) job lead and competitive intelligence tool on companies for which you want to work. In many ways, it’s much easier and more acceptable to “cold call” someone via LinkedIn today, especially if they are connected to someone you know well – that’s the beauty of LinkedIn – it’s all about the power of relationships and who knows who. Remember, strong professional networks don’t just happen – they’re strategically built.
For more tips on how to build a robust LinkedIn presence, check out my JD Supra article, “Build a Stronger Professional Network Today with These LinkedIn To-Do’s.”
See yourself without rose colored glasses. One of the hardest things to do is to receive constructive feedback, but more importantly to act on it. Many people can’t take criticism well or they brush it off. Even if you disagree with most of the feedback, I guarantee you that there are shreds of the truth in it and some areas of improvement for you. So really listen to what others are saying about you and how they really see you. Your goal is to identify themes or patterns on which you can work. Remember that we are all works in progress and many things about yourself are within your control to change.
To personally do this, I sought out former supervisors and colleagues, and asked them for their unfiltered thoughts about me. I asked them what were my strengths and weaknesses and areas in which they thought I needed to improve. Even though some of the feedback was hard to hear, I made it a point to truly listen to it – because I needed to change my behavior to stop making the same self-sabotaging mistakes over and over. I tried not to argue, debate, defend myself or blame someone else. And it was not easy. Sometimes taking a good hard look at yourself in the mirror is the only thing that will bring about real change. Side note – I am still working on my areas of improvement – because like I said, we are all works in progress.
Create a personal performance improvement plan: Armed with your feedback, develop your own personal performance improvement plan that will help to fill in any skills gaps that you have, which you can work on while you have the time now. A former colleague who had also gone through a period of unemployment gave me the great advice to go on the web site Coursera to find low-cost courses to take – its courses are taught by instructors from top universities and educational institutions. Udemy is an online learning platform for professionals that offers 80,000+ low cost courses on business-related topics. Lynda, a subsidiary of LinkedIn, offers open video courses taught by industry experts in software, creative and business skills. Also, there are so many books, podcasts, webinars and videos on the market that you can immerse yourself in on topics such as leadership and business-related topics, that you will not have any free time to be sad about losing your job! I think being busy is a good thing when you are unemployed, especially when being busy means learning.
Taking negative feedback and using it to enhance your professional development is one of the smartest things you can do when things take an unexpected turn but also throughout your career. Sharpening your skills is always a good idea.
Practice makes perfect. Every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn and grow, but you must commit to actively changing self-defeating behavior, and breaking negative patterns and bad habits. There are a lot of techniques to do this, but one that has worked for me is to set aside some quiet, reflective time each day to think about what went well and what I wish that I had done differently. Note that this does not mean beating yourself up about what you did wrong, it just means thinking about how you could change your behavior next time.
A former boss once said to me that I often get in my own way. Those words are now emblazoned in my head. Being mindful and more self-aware has been one of the hardest and most important lessons I had to learn in order to grow, and it is not easy.
Don’t burn bridges (unless you really have to). It’s never a good idea to burn bridges, gossip or bad mouth anyone, no matter what the circumstances are regarding your dismissal from a position because our industry is tight knit and you never know where from your next recommendation or job will come.
Try your very hardest to maintain a civil relationship with ex-colleagues, bosses and even human resource departments even though you may want to shout from the rooftops about the unfairness of your situation. I know, I’ve been there myself. Remember, you will need references and if you don’t have a reference from a former supervisor, a new employer will wonder why. The best thing you can do is to hold your head up high, channel all of your energy into your future, let go of any negativity and just move on. I really do believe in karma, and that things really do come full circle – so just let things play themselves out. (I also believe in the power of cute dogs for helping to release stress in situations like this – so borrow one from a friend if you don’t already have one.)
If you have burned a bridge, losing your job is a terrific way to mend fences with that person. You will find that individuals from your past can be very receptive towards you when you are in a time of crisis if you approach them candidly and thoughtfully, and ask for help.
Don’t be a mean girl (or guy). If you’ve personally lost a job, you know firsthand just how much it means to have a strong support network around you. I will never forget those who were there for me (and those who were not) when I was I unemployed.
So, take that call from a friend who’s floundering after losing their job. Reach out regularly to check up on them. Don’t treat them any differently than before. Don’t make your friend feel badly and certainly don’t gossip about them behind their back. Instead go out of your way to offer up ways to help – connect them with a recruiter or someone who you think they should meet. I promise you that these actions won’t be forgotten when they land back on their feet. Be kind to everyone because it is just the right thing to do. And you just never know whose help you may need somewhere down the road. Everyone thinks something bad like this can’t happen to them until it does – remember that no one is invincible.
Also, there was a period of time in my career when I was a consultant before going back in-house – many people in our industry pivot back and forth, and I don’t know why, but I was treated differently when I was a consultant, and not in a good way. I still think there are negative associations with the idea of being a service provider and having been on both sides now, I’m going to do my part to ensure that we treat everyone the same.
Get some real R&R. If you look for a job 24/7 you will burn out. So, if you have the means, take a real vacation. With a good WiFi connection, you can do all of these self-improvement and networking tasks from a nice beach or while visiting your sister and her baby. You may not get a chance to take a vacation like this again for a long time, and a little time away may give you some much-needed perspective on what you want from your life.
Failure makes you more empathetic and humble – and enables you to appreciate what you have. The best thing about failure is that when you wind up back on your feet again (and you will!), you’ll appreciate what you have more than ever.
The hardest times in your life are often those when you grow and learn the most. Remember that just because it didn’t work out at one employer or in one career doesn’t mean you’re a failure! All it means is that you were in the wrong situation. Every bleak situation has always led me to a better place, and I’m confident that it will lead to better ones for you as well. Remember, setbacks are just speed bumps along a successful journey, so hang in there, because you got this!
(The original version of this story appeared on JD Supra – this is a more expanded version because I felt like there was more to say on such an important topic. I hope this article helped you and lifted up your spirits – please share it with someone who may be going through a tough time and remind them that they will be just fine.)
#careerdevelopment #motivation #careerplanning #jobtransition #jobcoaching #jobsearch