This is the first article under SmartBrief’s new Young Leaders label.
In March 2023, I took a gamble on my career that didn’t work out. After spending four years with one of the largest consulting firms in the world, I was looking for a new challenge. I left my comfortable, stable role for a more senior position at a boutique firm, having been offered the assurance of a stellar company culture and a hand in shaping the future of my new organization.
When I joined, things unfolded mostly as promised. My colleagues were intelligent and kind-hearted. My clients were compelling and offered me exposure to new, exciting areas of my chosen industry. I was happy with my decision. However, come fall 2023, my newfound home, like many professional services organizations, was impacted by cost-cutting. I soon found myself on a Zoom call with HR, learning that my role was being eliminated after just a few months with the organization.
A huge eye-opener
The following two months — from the day I was laid off until the day I accepted an exciting role at another company — were some of the most challenging in my young career. I’d had a job almost as long as I could remember, so I was scared that I didn’t know how to function without that stability. Moreover, I was upset. I’d mistakenly believed that I would be spared when times got tough because I was a successful manager who had performed well and led important project delivery for a significant client. Given my strong performance reviews and excellent client feedback, I was surprised when I held a pink slip.
Through all the consternation, frustration and fear, I was fortunate enough to lean on a fantastic network of professional associates, which I’d accumulated over the past seven years working in various fields, as well as the love and support of my family. I can say now, removed from the fear and uncertainty, that it was the most significant period of growth in my career. It was an experience, however challenging, that has made me a better, more empathetic leader.
Alongside my growth came a series of lessons that did not come quickly, nor always when I wanted them to. But I’ll continue to carry these guidelines throughout my career.
Lesson 1: Finding a job is not your only job
During a crisis, panic is often one’s most natural instinct. In many ways, losing a job is akin to losing a piece of one’s identity. We spend countless hours at work, and “What do you do for a living?” is, more often than not, one of the first questions asked when making new connections. For better or worse, one’s career is intrinsically linked to one’s sense of self.
High-performing individuals may intensely feel the shock of an unexpected career shift. If you’re accustomed to running at a million miles per hour, it’s especially jarring when you feel the brakes lock up.
Correspondingly, there’s a strong temptation to throw oneself entirely into the pursuit of finding a new role. However, I learned that there’s little to be gained by spending your newfound 40 hours of free time each week firing off hundreds of job applications into the proverbial void. I became frustrated that I couldn’t simply will my way out of my situation. Trying harder or spending more hours scouring Indeed and LinkedIn did not correlate to a faster resolution. I had to learn patience, gratitude and, perhaps more importantly, to take time out of my day for self-care.
During a moment of particular difficulty, where I shared feelings of guilt for taking a few hours of a weekday afternoon to exercise, a close friend and mentor offered me the words that inspired this lesson:
Treat everything you do now with the same respect that you treated your job. If you go out for a long ride on your bike or a run, that’s your job today. If you spend time with your partner or your friends, that is your job for today. You may never have time like this to yourself again, so use it intentionally.
Lesson 2: You’ll be surprised by the people who show up for you
The aphorism “Your network is your net worth” is still true, but many professionals find that connecting with the right people is the fastest way to land a new role. Something I wish I learned earlier in my job search was that the right connection or the right source of help can come from unexpected places.
When I lost my job, some of the most significant leads, connections, and opportunities came from people I hadn’t connected with for months or years. Throughout my two-month search, I quickly learned not to discount any conversation or meeting since I frequently received valuable assistance from unexpected sources (like connections outside my industry and even friends of friends whom I’d never previously met).
This lesson is not just about not turning one’s nose up at anyone offering to help. It is more of a lesson of openness and flexibility. Talking with people I wasn’t sure could help me or whose help I couldn’t immediately see the utility of kept me from becoming frustrated with the job search and opened valuable new doors. I learned that no connection is bad when you’re hunting for a fulfilling role, and sometimes, the best ones aren’t what you anticipated.
Lesson 3: Be willing to bet on yourself
I know this lesson is born from a place of privilege. I have a partner with a stable job and access to health care. When I was let go, I had a sufficient financial safety net to continue that search at length if needed. I do not have children to support. I fully recognize that many professionals do not have the luxury of refusing a job offer, even if it doesn’t meet their expectations or the luxury of taking their time with the search process.
However, suppose you are in the position to be intentional with your career transition. In that case, a layoff can provide a rare opportunity to pause, recalibrate and determine what you truly want for the future (as hard as it might be). While the introspection necessary to uncover the correct next step can be anxiety-inducing, it will also serve you well in landing somewhere that feels like home.
Though you should never let the search for perfect be the enemy of the good, approaching the job search with patience can help ensure that you land a role you’re passionate about — not just one that pays the bills. Sometimes, that means holding out.
Lesson 4: Learn to regulate your emotions
Losing a job is scary. When we’re scared, stressed or hurting, we tend to project those emotions on the people closest to us. To lift a line from “Ted Lasso,” an Emmy-winning TV show: “Hurt people hurt people.” Unfortunately, we direct our frustrations to the only ones willing to endure it: the people who love us.
Dealing with a career crisis can feel like plunging into darkness. A lesson I wish I’d learned earlier was to be careful who I dragged alongside me. A crisis for you is also a crisis for the people who care about you. Fear can all too often prevent us from recognizing that.
Marc Cugnon is a management consultant specializing in the health care industry. His focus is change and communications strategy.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.