12/22/2010 09:02 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Turn the Loss of Your Job into a Gain for Your Life

"How do you start over when you can't start over?"

That's what he asked me, as he sat down in my office one afternoon. At 52, he had just been let go by his company. He was devastated, frightened about the future. Despite a successful corporate career, he had no prospects in sight, and his wife's income wasn't enough to support the family -- especially with a daughter in college and a son headed there next year.

He's one of a rising number of people who've been hit hard by the recession in two ways: a forced "career transition" (the euphemism for firing), which is always difficult, and the emotional consequences of job loss, which are more severe in today's world of uncertainty and insecurity about what the future holds.

Nevertheless, I think the career-related and emotional impact of the economic implosion could prove to be the best thing that ever happened for some people's lives.

To explain, let's look at the man I described above. Like so many others who've sought my help over the years, he had defined his worth, his value to others, his whole identity, through his career. Now he felt thrown out to sea, alone, not knowing how to "start over when you can't start over." In the years prior to the economic meltdown, he could have expected to land another position within a reasonable period of time. He'd probably be dealing with a manageable degree of anxiety.

But that was yesterday. The current economic recession is taking a severe emotional toll on many people: Increasing anxiety and depression, family conflicts and stress-related physical ailments. Moreover, the practical and mental health consequences of job-loss and job-seeking can be especially severe for midlifers. In fact, many are considering the possibility that they may never work again.

So how can I say that this situation could be the best thing that ever happened to someone? It's because I've found that the most helpful strategy for successful career transition in previous economic times is even more essential and helpful for those in today's environment. It consists of stepping back to reassess and perhaps reconfigure what you've been living and working for, or towards, through your values, your life goals and behavior in daily life, reviewing where that path has taken you, and then clarifying what would be the most fulfilling and healthy next step at this career crossroads.

In other words, the best way to deal with job loss -- or if you think you might be facing one down the road and want to deal with that possibility proactively -- is to start with a self-appraisal of how your work and career relate to your overall life -- as an individual, couple or family. And then use that information to drive what you do next.

That appraisal includes a truthful look at what your value drivers are, in "real time." Those are the drivers behind how you actually conduct your life -- materially, spiritually, in your relationships and embodied in your overall sense of purpose. Aligning those dimensions is the source of lasting well-being.

For example, recent research by the Gallup organization found that the key element of what many people consider "happiness" -- positive feelings about their lives overall, in contrast to situational ups and downs -- is much more strongly affected by factors other than their financial status. Feeling respected, being in control of one's life and having friends and family with whom one is connected are more important. These are among the non-material dimensions of life, and they fuel well-being over the long run.

From working with people in career transition over the years, I've found that those who tackle these larger issues right from the start make the most lasting, successful and fulfilling transitions. Taking the time to reassess what you're living and working for, and deciding what changes you might want to make at this new turning point in your life gives you a positive boost, emotionally, during your career crisis. It helps you become better informed for planning a "what's next" strategy for your career transition, one that's likely to be more successful and fulfilling.

Readers of my posts know that my overall theme is redefining what psychological health means in today's world -- how to adapt in positive, successful ways to the changes and uncertainties that are part of our lives; and how to grow, in all dimensions of life. Today's world makes it even more crucial to find a psychologically healthy and resilient path through career transition. Here are some guidelines for doing that:

Assess Your Overall Life

You can do the following by yourself, or with your spouse or partner. If you're part of a couple, ask questions, but hold off commenting on or judging what you hear. Just learn from each other's views. If you're without a partner, do this as a dialogue with yourself, or with someone you're close to.

  • How do you describe your overall sense of life purpose, or vision? Why do you think you're here on this planet at this moment in time?
  • Describe what you're working and living for, or towards, in "real time"; 
that is, what's visible in how you actually live your life each day through your choices and decisions, in contrast to what you profess your values and beliefs to be. What does that picture tell you about what you've been strengthening or diminishing within your personality and values -- knowingly or unknowingly -- as you travel through life?
  • Describe what you're aiming towards at this moment, in view of your career and financial situation to date, including your family needs -- if you have growing children or ones already "launched," or elderly parents who may need care and decision-making. To help clarify that, list your material goals alongside your spiritual, creative or relationship goals for your lifetime. Is there alignment? What does this information tell you about your most important desires, values, aspirations or fears? What does it suggest in terms of your next career step?

Assess Your Career -- Past, Present and Future

  • How did you come to do the kind of work you now do?
  • Why have you continued to do it?
  • What has working for this organization meant to you?
  • What parts of your work have been the most enjoyable? Why?
  • What parts have you disliked, found stifling, or felt were "not you"?
  • Has your work served or contributed to anything larger than personal rewards like money, position and recognition? If it has, describe what that impact has been and what it means to you. If it hasn't, what's your view of that?
  • Has your work or choice of career felt in synch with your true self, your talents, your values? If not, identify the trade-offs of traveling down that same road into the future. What does that point to in terms of possible alternatives?
  • Did you turn away from any passions or interests that pulled you when you were younger, that you regret not having pursued? If so, reflect on how you might reclaim some of them in your job search.

Your Fork in the Road

  • Make a list of what talents, new experiences, unfulfilled creative needs and challenges you'd like to incorporate in the next phase of your career and personal life.
  • For each item on your list, note the changes you would need to make in your next career decision, your personal commitments or relationships. Consider what resources you currently have, and what resources you would need to acquire to make those changes (education, financial, location, life-style, etc.). How do they mesh with those of your partner? What do you do if they don't?
  • With your partner or by yourself, reflect on what's most important in each of the following areas, and how your answers should impact your next job:

    Children: Clarify whether you're on the same page about what you want for your children regarding education, summer enrichment programs and how you see their personalities, temperaments, interests, cognitive strengths, talents and needs for development.

    Financial: Describe each of your views of financial "needs" vs. "wants," with respect to your desires for lifestyle, long-term security, use of assets over time, and the role of giving to others in your value system. Discuss where you and your partner mesh, where you don't, and how to bridge the differences. Focus on the long-term, the decades ahead, and not just immediate circumstances that have been shaped by job loss or the current state of the economy. What are the implications for your next career step?

    Geographic: To what extent are the two of you compatible with and have a sense of connection with your geographic location? How important is this dimension to you? Where there are differences, how can you deal with them through compromise or adjustment over time? What are the career implications?

These suggestions are just a beginning, of course. But they're the foundation for bringing together the different "parts" of your life. That's a crucial step towards greater intentionality about your career transition, towards greater clarity of mind and emotional awareness. Next steps include applying your learning from the above exercises to the specifics of the job and career search: fine-tuning your resume, effective networking, due diligence regarding new opportunities, assessing the trade-offs likely to be involved, and knowing what to go after with high energy and a clear strategy -- or what to let pass by.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at