Being laid off is an opportunity

There are 3 things that are I believe is absolutely true about being laid off

  1. It will happen to you and me at least once in our life time, but more likely multiple times.
  2. It sucks every time it happens no matter how prepared or unprepared we are.  There is no escaping feeling at least some disappointment, anger, frustration, confidence blow, hostility  etc…
  3. It’s up to us to decide how long we will let it suck – we can dwell on our bad luck and let the event forever define us in some negative way OR we can rise above it after awhile and choose to view it as an opportunity to reflect and perhaps do what we really want to do in life.

Last night I saw the movie  “Up in the Air” by George Clooney – great movie!  That’s what prompted this post.    He plays a character named Ryan Bingham, whose job is to fire people from theirs.    The main point of the movie is not relevant here , but I wanted to share three parts of the movie that really stood out to me related to job transitions.

First Part – Ryan is telling an long time employee that he has been let go.  The employee was hostile and frustrated and asked “How am I going to tell my kids? I want them to look up to me.”   Ryan basically said that I see you minored in French cooking in college.  Why didn’t you pursue that?  The man admitted that he was offered way more money to do this job although he loves cooking.  Ryan says well do you want your kids to respect you because you make a lot of money or look up to you because you had the guts to pursue your dream. Now you have a chance to do that.

Of course, Ryan is being falsely compassionate in this movie but what struck me was I wonder how many of us gave up our dreams for more money, good job title, or to be envy of others.   And how long have we been pursuing the more lucrative or prestigious paths that we forget to re-evaluate our job search and decision making process?  Being laid off may not be pleasant but it forces all of us to stop what we have been doing.  If we let it, we can use the time to change career path, truly question what we want to do.  With no easy options, perhaps we can just find the courage to pursue what we truly love.

You may say, that’s all great and idealistic but most of us have families and responsibilities.  Pursuing my dream can’t pay for mortgage or kid’s education.  Then what?  Well, that brings me to the second part of the movie – Ryan’s first speech in “What in your backpack?”  He also moonlights as an inspirational speaker.  He said imagine you put all your material things in one backpack – not just notebooks but your furniture, your house, your car, your vacation home all dumped in one backpack and then imagine carrying that backpack  every day as you go to work and live your life.  How weigh down are you?  Can you even move?

I don’t agree that we can get rid of all material things like he suggests in the movie, but the backpack analogy is simplistic and telling.  There is nothing wrong with wanting big house, fancy car, private school in our backpack but just realize what price we are paying as we carry all that on our back every day – how that dictate our work and life choices?  Imagine if we can lighten the load (give up the vacation home, drive a Honda, send your kids to public school, smaller house or rent).  How much is our happiness driven by material things?  Do you know the true price we pay for those things?

Last – In the movie, I saw many negative reactions from the employees that are let go.  We find out at the end of the movie, one woman committed suicide because she was laid off, which is horrible.    This just shows that while being laid off is a common event that many people experience,  what we do afterward depend on how we choose to interpret this sudden, uncontrollable life change.

Many of my Wharton classmates in 2001 or 2002 facing $120K in debtcouldn’t find jobs or were laid off soon after employment.  A few years later, several people told me it was the best thing that ever happened to them.   If they were not forced to think creatively, they would now be grinding as an investment banker or consultant working 80+ hours a week somewhere.  Instead since they could not find typical MBA work, they had the chance to take more risks – some started businesses, other went for jobs that were more fun with less pay – all more fulfilling

So yes, being laid off is an opportunity for a positive change if we just let it.  Humans are built to survive through adversity.  How we want to survive and live our life after a lay off is up to our next set of decisions.  Good luck out there!

– Lei

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