Careers Issue

From Lemons to Lemonade

How to make the most of getting fired.

By Ethan Gilsdorf
March 29, 2009
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Let's say you've been laid off. Wait, let's rephrase that -- who hasn't been laid off, or at least hasn't been living in constant fear of being laid off, by now? From Blue Man Group to blue collar, few job sectors have escaped this recession's ruthless ax. And, as anyone knows who's been there, the ill effects of losing a job, from fiscal to psychological, can be debilitating. But they don't need to be disastrous.

You can use the dire news to recast your priorities and perhaps even make a bold career rethink. You just have to have a game plan. With the right attitude and smart moves, you can put your time off to good use, sail over this dark cloud, and, with any luck, land at just the right moment -- energized, with a new strategy and focus. The first step, however, is getting over the embarrassment. "When it first happened to me, I wasn't telling anyone," says Diana Beaudoin of Winthrop, a former bank vice president who was laid off before the holidays. "Now there's no stigma attached to it. . . . It's sad and striking."

Not that losing your job is a cakewalk, either, says Carl Schneider, a Cambridge-based career counselor and psychotherapist. "It helps people if they can remember that being laid off brings irritability and sleep problems," he says. Expect to feel hurt, angry, rejected, even depressed. Remind your partner or your roommates you're not going to be at your best. Cut yourself some slack.

"You have a wallowing period," says Patty Caya, a digital media producer from Medford. Caya lost her first job in 2002, after the dot-com bubble burst; "layoff 2.0" arrived last November. She's all for a brief daytime TV-Oprah couch phase. Then, snap out of it. "You have to get up and take a shower and go to your computer or library or coffee shop or wherever is your place and have a purpose." Become mentally fit for battle. Exercise. Be professional. "The first weekend I got laid off, I went to IKEA and bought myself a new desk," Caya says. "I need to get hunkered down to do this."

Once you've dusted yourself off, organize. "Create a schedule for yourself and get down to working," says Jodi R.R. Smith, founder of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm. Plan on doing job-search-related tasks each workday. Treat finding a job like a job. Schedule informational interviews. Stay active in your field by attending conferences. Make yourself more marketable for when the economy does turn by beefing up your skills. Volunteer. Join job seekers' support groups like WIND (Wednesday Is Networking Day).

"Getting out of the house is the number one thing I would tell people," says Smith. "Get interested in life. Be curious. You'd be surprised what jobs are out there you know nothing about." Begin with your existing network and branch out. Use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to remain connected. But Smith says be sure not to complain or burn bridges with your past employer. "Until you can put a positive spin on being laid off," she says, "don't bother coming to networking events. It's the kiss of death." No one likes a whiner.

So it's months into your job search. You're fed up, or worse, feeling desperate. Now is the time to disassociate yourself from your work. You are who you are, not what you do. Embrace the idea of taking a job you could never have imagined doing, be it barista or bill collector. "Lots of us have pride issues," Schneider counsels. "Get a partner to say you're worthwhile; you have succeeded."

Al Weisz, an architect who lost his job in November, says he's open to doing construction work. "I have a history swinging hammers," he says. For now, he's been using his time off to tackle projects on his house in Somerville, like building a workshop and a home office, as well as a playroom for his two young kids.

Coming off an intense job, you may need to recharge your batteries. What was the thing you always wanted to learn but never had time for? "Take a class," says Schneider. "Do whatever it takes to feel human." A skill like carpentry or car repair under your belt could not only save you money but also inspire you. Or you could pursue something less practical, like sailing or pottery. Caya says one of the first things she did was call Grub Street Inc., a Boston creative writing center, to volunteer as a writing coach.

Randi Bussin, founder of Aspire!, a career coaching business in Belmont, says being laid off forces her clients to face a key question: Is my field headed for extinction? "I'm telling people, 'You have to be super creative,' " she explains. "And I say, 'What is your backup plan?' " One of her clients is a man who switched from marketing to nursing -- in his 50s.

Dave Atkins of Westwood was inspired to start his own business. "I'm using the layoff as a kick-start for me to do something more entrepreneurial." Jumping from IT to marketing, Atkins launched a social media strategy business. But until that's ready for prime time, he's picking up freelance work and is still on the job hunt.

But you can't stalk Craigslist and 24/7. "What I like to do is not spend my entire day looking for a job," says Somerville's Maura Vogel, former press and marketing manager for Blue Man Group. "It's so draining."

If nothing else, joining the ranks of the unemployed should give you pause -- in a good way. "Once you're laid off," says Smith, "it's the universe telling you to do a quick check: Is this the career I love?"

Maybe it is. If not, there's no better time to embrace the chaos, get your house in order, and set out on a new course.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer in Boston. E-mail him at

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