Five Lessons I Learned in Unemployment

Shortly after the Dot-com Bubble and before Monster.com and Indeed became popular, I found myself out of work, a situation not unlike 30 million Americans who have filed for unemployment compensation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my case, after a very frustrating year, I finally nailed a job interview. Really nailed it. I thought there was a good fit between my (hopefully) future employer and me in terms of world view, experience and attitude, and vision for the future. It was a very good feeling, like meeting the woman of your dreams. I returned home to wait for the phone call with a generous job offer. It was November, and Christmas held the promise of being much, much better than the previous year’s celebration.

When the phone call came, the voice of the employer on the other end let me know that another suitor had provided an even better fit.

Instead of sliding into despair, a person close to me suggested something bold, counterintuitive and brilliant. Within days, in early December, I launched the “Give Ed Novak a Job This Christmas” campaign, complete with a promotional brochure, press release, and web site. I promptly got to campaigning: even if my efforts bore no fruit, I intended to have fun with it. On the Friday before Christmas, the local newspaper ran a front-page, business section story on my unusual job search featuring a large, flattering photo of me.

A funny thing happened: there were local employers whose needs had not evaporated during the holiday season and who liked what they saw in the campaign. Within the space of a week, I had been offered and accepted a job within walking distance of my home.

Once again employed, I had the luxury to reflect about lessons I had learned during unemployment. There is plenty of advice people will offer you along the way, but until you have been down that rabbit hole, you cannot appreciate how these five thoughts helped me survive:

  1. You may not want to hear this, but I believe that everyone should get fired or lose their job at least once in life. It doesn’t matter if you were laid off, on the losing side in a power struggle, risen to your level of incompetence, or simply ill-suited for your line of work. It is a humbling experience. It can feel humiliating. However, unemployment forces you to look deeply inside yourself – measuring your strengths and weaknesses – in ways that you probably never would have done unless forced to do so. Surviving and emerging from unemployment will make you a better and stronger person.
  2. You must take care of yourself. After getting fired, I suffered a mild heart attack while jogging. Yes, this really happened. Up until then, I had followed a balanced diet and exercised regularly, but had ignored genetically linked high cholesterol. That clogged coronary artery did not cause a life-threatening experience, but it was a wake-up call to pay attention to what’s going on in my body. My gospel is this: eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. Following this gospel will pay you boatloads of dividends. You are only issued one body. Don’t take care of it, and it’s all over for you.
  3. Assess your situation honestly, and take the advice of job search consultants with a grain of salt. When I lost my job, I was at the top of my game. I was advised to think about new career directions. That kind of decision is OK if you are gainfully and successfully employed, but it could prove disastrous if you are out on the street. I wasted months looking for work in new fields; people were interested in me, but only up to a point. They wanted what was known and someone who was not perceived as “damaged goods.” In my situation, I should have stuck to what I knew best and left the day dreaming to another day. What’s your situation?
  4. Allow the love and support of family and friends to wash over you every day. They are on your side. They want you to succeed. They will catch you when you fall and provide the incentive to get up again and keep trying.
  5. Stay focused and don’t wait for someone to save you. Take the initiative and keep moving. Get out of bed. Put one foot in front of the other. Every day. The “Give Ed Novak a Job This Christmas” campaign is an example of how I did this. What’s your campaign? The alternative to this piece of advice is no alternative at all.

It was important to my family, friends, and myself that I got the job.

Shortly after launching my campaign, I received an email from a fellow who had just lost his job, telling me that he admired my campaign, both for its unusual approach and humor. I hope it helped him get a job half as good as mine.

FWIW, that new job of mine was the best in a career spanning nearly four decades.

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