Three years ago today, an email popped into my inbox asking me to please step into my manager's office. There, a hired gun with a euphemistic title like "career redirection specialist" (sorry, I didn't keep her card) was waiting to tell me that my job as a nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times was unceremoniously ending.
Two decades of employment at the Times and a share of a Pulitzer Prize, excellent performance reviews and a popularly read column -- nothing counted for anything and my career and livelihood went poof in a matter of minutes. Three minutes precisely, because as I've since learned, the folks who come in to can you have mastered the script and know that speed is of the essence.
During the past three years, I've heard from hundreds of people who worked in many different fields but who all shared the identical experience. For the ones in their 50s, there is the added worries about employers assuming they have out-of-date skills sets. They are kept awake at night fretting about their insurability with pre-existing medical conditions. And some can't get past the damage to their psyches that comes from being told that their experience is no longer of any value. Yup, it's a big ouch all right.
Well, I'm living proof that the pain doesn't have to be where the book ends. Many of us have used the curb we were kicked to as a jumping off point for better things. Truth is, while the recession has unquestionably caused tremendous hardships and suffering, it has also created opportunities. I learned that with an economic gun pointed at my temple, I could be mighty creative. And I like where I am now, certainly more than I liked the career rut I had been trapped in. Sometimes security has an evil twin and its name is complacency.
But I don't want to romanticize the awfulness of losing your job. Three years ago today, I left the Times' downtown office and allowed myself one commute home's worth of grieving. Granted, this being Los Angeles, it was a long commute where I had plenty of time to pound the steering wheel with my fist and scream out a certain editor's name in vain. But once I pulled into my driveway, I brushed away my last tear and got busy with the business of moving forward.
First, I made a conscious decision to skip the blame game. Whose fault was it that I was suddenly unemployed? Was I singled out because of my outspoken, push-back nature? Feh. The economy sucked, somebody had to go; let Karma take care of the bastard who picked me to be that somebody.
I also skipped the anger part. Anger is an emotion that consumes you, and while you are consumed by it, nothing is getting done. I had things I needed to get done, like figuring out how to recoup my lost income and keep my family afloat during the most difficult economic years our country has ever seen.
Yes, of course it was hard. But whenever my stomach did that awful flip-flop that comes from fear or disappointment, I made a list of the things I was grateful for: My family was healthy, my kids doing well and on one of those lists I recently rediscovered, I apparently was grateful that the dog who hung out in my office-garage with me hadn't peed on the floor that day. (I am happy to report she is now fully housebroken; and would strongly recommend that the recently laid off not get a new dog, thinking that you'll have more time at home to train it.)
I learned lots of things about myself, including how much better I felt if I was helping someone else. There were days when I gave away freelance writing gigs to friends whose rents were due or who just couldn't gain traction and were getting depressed about it. I talked to them at length about how projecting a positive attitude as the key to getting work, and by the way, to actually feeling better. Yes, some days it takes an Academy Award-winning performance, but you have to "fake it till you make it," as they say. Go read Facebook. Do you really think all those "Had a great Webinar today with an awesome crowd" posts don't involve some acting?
Truth is, hard work is at the core of the successful reinvention equation. I worked as hard as I have ever worked in my life and would always smile when someone suggested that my success came because I was lucky. The harder I worked, the luckier I got.
Yes, I am happy to report that I survived losing my job. I did just fine, better than fine. I created several businesses and cobbled together a good income from freelance writing, editing and marketing. My goal was income, not job satisfaction, but in the process I found it way more satisfying.
And about a year ago, The Huffington Post offered me a staff job and I took it. What can I say? It was lonely working in the garage, but I know the dog -- who truth be told on occasion still has accidents -- misses me.