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How to Profit from an Unexpected Career Crash

The National Business Employment Journal

Treat your job loss as a beginning, not an end...but don’t rush to accept a new position right away.

Unexpected job changes among mid-life executives and professionals are at record levels, making their careers seem more like roller-coaster rides than Sunday drives in the country.

Some of the job jolts are involuntary. For instance, a Chicago accountant arrived at work one day to learn he’d been laid off as part of a restructuring at the telecommunications company where he’d been happily employed for nine years.

Other departures are voluntary, but unexpected nonetheless. One successful New York attorney gave up a secure position at a prestigious law firm because the stress of the job was making him ill. Although he was on a partnership track, spending 80-hour weeks on work he detested generated stomach ulcers and skin rashes.

Although these professionals had significantly different reasons for leaving their jobs, both couldn’t continue on the career tracks they’d been pursuing. And even though the attorney resigned voluntarily, his career "crash" was as traumatic as the accountant’s.

Interestingly, their initial reactions were identical. Both felt like victims beaten and robbed by their professions. But over time, the accountant picked himself up and went on with his life, while the lawyer remains struck. His wife supports the couple s he tries to raise capital to start a mail-order business.

How do some people emerge victorious after an unexpected job loss, while others remain victims? What are the crucial tasks that must be accomplished to put your career back on track after losing or leaving your job?

It’s impossible to predict who’ll survive and flourish after an unexpected job loss. Indeed, a four-year study of 120 men and women who experienced career "crashes" shows that neither a person’s background nor the cause of their job loss predicts how they’ll fare. Men manage no better than women, younger workers no better than older, job leavers no better than job losers.

A Three Step Process

Those who bounce back agree on one fundamental fact: Victory over a career crash is a process that occurs gradually. It begins with the moment you phase out of your old job, and concludes weeks, months or even years later when you successfully commit to a new one.

There may be shortcuts to finding work, but there are no shortcuts to emotional recovery. That process unfolds in three predictable stages: cutting loose, hanging out, and moving on.

These stages are actually variations on age-old themes. The eminent anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, described three universal stages in any passage from one status to another "separation," "liminality," and reincorporation." Whether you’re a young Indian girl joining Mother Teresa’s order of nuns, or a middle-aged man completing a career transition, these stages must be completed.

In plain English, you must give up your old status, go without a clear identity for a while (as you stand on the "limen," or threshold), then adopt a new way of life. The following

describes this process, as well as some suggestions for successfully completing each stage.

Step One: Cut Loose

The first step in recovering from a career crash is to leave your old job, both physically and emotionally. You may be tempted to hold on to your old title, status and friendships until you’re secure somewhere else, but you must put them behind you.

Cutting loose involves more than giving up your office and paycheck. It means ceasing to think of yourself as "Mike Martin, marketing manager for Gigantic Foods Corp.," or "John Jones, senior vice president at All American Insurance." Cutting loose also means giving up relationships with many, if not all of your former colleagues, and ceasing to care about office gossip or how well the company’s doing.

Certain aspects of the separation process can be enjoyable, even cathartic. Some people hold ceremonies, either alone or with others, to celebrate the end of their affiliation with their old employers. "I took my company ID card, removed it from the plastic holder, cut it into eight pieces, and burned each of them individually in the kitchen sink," a former manager at a West Coast insurance company recalls.

"On the night before my last day at the firm, I had a couple of friends bring a bottle of gin to the office after everybody had left," says a former attorney with an East Coast law firm. "The three of us got crocked while we packed up my stuff."

A less enjoyable aspect of this first stage is coming to terms with the fact that you’ve lost something. By immediately starting to look for a new job, many professionals deny their loss. They pretend that nothing at their old job ever mattered to them, and that they can just move on. Or, just as unwisely, they pretend they lever left. They make regular visits to their old office or call there every few days.

Much as some people can’t get over the death of a loved one because they don’t own up to their pain about the loss, you’ll never get past your feelings if you refuse to acknowledge the loss. Your emotional business at your old job will end only after you’ve mourned its demise.

Those who emerge victorious from career crashes endure a period of profound sadness and even seclusion. This period can be difficult and confusing for them, their spouses, and their children, but it’s a necessary part of their recovery process.

Step Two: Hang Out

Psychologists have debated for decades whether we "have" selves or "form" selves. Some studies demonstrate that each person has a definite personality profile. They’re either extroverted or introverted, optimistic or pessimistic, mathematically or artistically inclined, and so forth.

Other studies indicate the opposite. They show that people change, sometimes radically. "Personality may be more fluid, adaptive, and innovative than is usually thought," said Norman Haan, a distinguished psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Whatever the psychologist’s final verdict may be, thinking of yourself as pliable may be helpful when recovering from a career crash. That’s because you need to open up your horizons and reconsider who you are and what you’d like to become during the next 10 years. By resisting the trap of settling into a new career track immediately, you give yourself time to sort through your talents and ambitions.

"When I’m asked at parties what I do for a living, I say I’m open to suggestions," says a former college teacher. To pay the bills, he’s accepted an entry-level position as a copywriter of a New York advertising agency. He describes his new job as "a way station between the career I had planned to have and God-knows-what."

Often, when living without a clear identity, the most rational thing to do is nothing. This requires resisting the natural inclination to find a replacement position as quickly as possible. A rebound job, like a rebound relationship, may prove comforting at first, but turn out to be worse than the situation you left behind. The wiser choice is to hang loose for several weeks or months, attending to such other priorities as family and community activities, and surveying a wider landscape of job and restraining options.

If you have a savings nest egg or can rely on spouse’s income, consider treating yourself to a well-deserved sabbatical. This concept may be alien to someone who’s always worked. However, our society affords us new opportunities to pause and reconsider where we’ve been or are headed. The period after a career crash is an excellent time to use for this purpose.

"The smartest thing I did when I couldn’t find work was to expel that little voice in my brain that said I had to get my career back on track," says a former personnel manager with a Fortune 500 company in California.

After 12 weeks of having doors closed in my face by potential employers, he took stock of his situation. His wife was making good money in her own business, and none of the jobs he applied for appealed to him. So for six months, he cared for his young son while investigating a range of career alternatives.

"I said, I’m going to play Mr. Mom for a while," he says.

Step Three: Move On

The liminal period ends when you decide to settle into another career track. But this stage isn’t only about finding a new place to work in our set of priorities.

Nancy Fretta, a psychologist in Fairfield County, Va., says she often encounters professionals who have over-invested themselves in their careers prior to their crash. "They expected that work would solve their problems, that if they made it at work, they would live happily ever after, "Ms. Fretta says. "They just got on a treadmill and kept going."

Until your job loss, your career may have been centermost in your life, the essential source of your self-worth and the activity that ate up nearly all of your time.

"Some people choose careers too early, without first exploring who they are," says Judith Grutter, a Pasadena, Calif., career advisor. "Everything goes fine until their 30’s, when they begin to discover what they’re doing doesn’t make them entirely happy."

A critical task during the last stage of recovery from a crash is to change that formula—put work where it belongs, in second, third, or even fourth place, behind family, faith and/or community. But how can you accomplish this shift during a job search?

Some people decide to look for jobs only in areas that would be good for their families---locales with excellent schools, low crime rates or proximity to close relatives.

Other people seek companies that offer generous child-care or elder-care benefits, or whose values--based on their stance on free trade, environmental and other issues--are agreeable.

Some find ways to combine personal and professional interests. Perhaps it’s a laid off corporate lawyer who’s hired as counsel for his

church synod. Or it could be the dentist who tired of his practice and successfully ran for mayor of his city. Or it could be a banker who craved for more time with her three-year-old and wrote a business plan, raised capital, leased a building, and now runs the kindergarten where her son is a student.

These professionals treated their career crashes as beginnings instead of endings. Upon losing or leaving their jobs, they began a process of self-exploration. They allowed themselves the time and space required to go through each of the three steps, and their perseverance paid off. They landed in new careers they find professionally and personally rewarding.


Beverly Baskin, ED.S, LPC, MCC, NCCC, CPRW

Mitchell Baskin,

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All the best, Bob D.


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