To Find A New Job, Try Becoming Un-Unemployed First

During the eight and a half years that I worked at Nokia and Microsoft, I survived layoffs exceeding a staggering 50,000 people, enough to fill a large stadium.

Among this throng are people whose stories I’ll never forget. There was the colleague who had started his new gig at Nokia just six weeks before Nokia did an about face and terminated his employment. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he had just moved his family from out of state to take the job. I didn’t know what to say to him, but his reaction floored me. He brushed off my sympathies, calmly reassuring me that he’d have no trouble finding a new job.

Others reacted with the fight-or-flight reflex I had expected. They could barely contain their tension as they recognized their sudden vulnerability and what it meant for the spouses, children and parents who depended on their incomes.

Laying off my own employees was the hardest thing I ever had to do, even if it paled in comparison to what they had to endure. Through it all, I saw that talented people doing important work lost their jobs. The opposite was true, too. At times, the matter of who got to stay and who had to go felt random, like the turn of a roulette wheel.

Still, I managed to keep my job until I decided to leave Microsoft for Ampush, a startup, in the spring of 2015. Though there’s no room for indicating survival anywhere on a resume, I’m proud that I ran the gauntlet at Nokia and Microsoft and departed on my terms.

After what I had seen, going from a Fortune 500 titan to an Inc. 500 up-and-comer actually felt more secure. After all, Ampush had bootstrapped its way through eight years of growth. It employed about 120 when I joined, with more joining every month. That made it large enough to be a mid-size company by some definitions.

Then, after about two years at Ampush and having racked up more wins than losses, the downside of startup work struck. It became clear that the company’s then-new strategy might mean shutting down its marketing efforts. By the end of December, 2016, I gave myself a 50/50 chance of staying with the company beyond the first quarter of 2017.

Through all of the bloodletting at Nokia and then Microsoft, I never felt as imperiled as I did at that moment. My career had been on a steady, uninterrupted “up and to the right” path for the 18 years since my graduation from business school. Not only had I never exposed my family for which I’m the sole breadwinner to economic disruption. I never had to confront what I perceived to be the ultimate failure of losing my job. I knew from Nokia that layoffs were not a reliable indicator of a person’s skill or likelihood to succeed, but when it was my neck that was on the line, I couldn’t help but feel personally responsible.

Ampush and I parted ways in late March of this year.  The company’s leadership could not have been more generous and gracious under the circumstances. Walking out the door for the last time, I felt fear, but also relief that at the very least, the uncertainty I had experienced at Ampush for three months finally had come to an end.

I could not have known then that in six weeks, I’d land the best job I’ve ever had as the SVP of Marketing for Simulmedia. I’ve given a lot of thought to this journey, and I think documenting it might be useful to others – myself included in the event that I’m forced to find a new job once again at some point in the future.

In summary, I had to shake off any negativity, worry, or dip in confidence I felt once I was jobless. Instead, I had to be active, aggressive, sharp, poised, and ready to out-work anyone else who might be gunning for a job I coveted. I was not going to allow my employment situation be just something that happened to me. Instead, I was going to do my best to take back control.

I call this becoming “un-unemployed.”

Negotiating terms of separation

I mentioned that leaving Ampush brought on feelings of fear and relief. The latter had a lot to do with my negotiation with Ampush for severance. I won’t reveal the terms here, but I learned a valuable lesson for myself: terminated employees should try to negotiate. Even if you hate the thought of a back-and-forth, even if the potential gains are limited, do it for your family. A successful outcome can give you some good news in what is otherwise mostly lousy times.

Perspective

“The morning of the 15th dawned cold and desolate and everything looked as forbidding to us as the grave. Early in the morning of that day, the battle began to rage with great fury on the right wing and lasted until about two o’clock when General Smith rode up to our regiment and informed them that he expected the left wing of our Regiment, including our company, to charge the breastworks of the enemy about four hundred yards distance from us in full view. These works were situated on the brow of a very steep hill. Several other regiments had made the attempt to storm the well planned works of the enemy before and had failed with terrible loss. We were ordered not to fire a gun until we had driven them from their works. We were to use the bayonet. The command of “forward march” was given, and at quick time we moved forward to the terrible slaughter and to a more wonderful triumph. Presently we came within short range of the enemy’s trenches when they opened upon us a terrible and deathly cross fire. All around us and amongst us flew the missles [sic] of death and all around and on every side of us men were falling in the agonies of death. Now on my right falls the brave Capt. Cloutman, here on my right Lieut. Harper, before me the gallant Shaymaker waves his sword and shouts, “On for the Union,” and falls to rise no more. Behind me Major. Chipman sinks under a heavy wound, and here and there and everywhere around me fall many of our own Company and a score or more of those belonging to our gallant regiment. But on we went without firing a gun or saying a word except those of cheer to our men, until we gained the works and with an awful yell we leaped into the midst of the enemy and here our revenge began. And such a holocaust to the demon of battles! Everywhere could be seen the enemy falling in death while ever and anon some of our own boys would lay down and give up the ghost.” — Excerpt from a letter by James B. Weaver, Feb. 19, 1862, Fort Donalson. 

My great-great-great grandfather wrote this and other harrowing accounts of his action in the Civil War to his wife back in Iowa. My very existence is a product of his survival. I cannot imagine the terror he must have felt as he marched headlong into oncoming fire and watched those around him fall, and I certainly cannot fathom summoning the will to slay another man, even in battle. Just a month or so after my layoff, I joined my father and brother in Tennessee to tour the Shiloh battlefield, site of the Civil War’s deadliest two-day conflict. Weaver saw intense action there, too. Monuments to Weaver and his comrades in the Iowa Second told us where they had fought. Together, my brother, father and I retraced Weaver’s movements. The Confederates drove him and his unit all the way to the Tennessee River and near defeat on day one before they rallied on the second day to win the battle. Following in his footsteps, imagining the carnage that surrounded him, and recognizing the courage he found to keep on fighting humbled and bolstered me. If Weaver could acquit himself so boldly for two days at Shiloh, surely I could tame any dread I felt about my job search.

Honing my skill and faith

My family and I are devout Roman Catholics, and I turned to the Church when my job at Ampush ended. Coincidentally, my unemployment coincided with the season of Lent, which is all about hope and renewal. I attended Mass every day, and in the process I found strength in three ways.

First, giving voice to my hopes and fears and praying for relief brought me comfort. Hearing my worries aloud almost always makes them seem smaller than when they simply careen inside my brain. Being in the presence of the divine helped me calm my anxieties.

In addition, it didn’t take long before the regulars who attend weekday Mass to recognize a newcomer in their midst. They sought me out and asked about my circumstances. When they found out I had lost my job, they prayed for me, too. Their care and daily encouragement buoyed me. Every day, I could count on at least one parishioner to give me an “attaboy” and to wish me good luck. Having total strangers pulling for me felt terrific, but I also felt more accountable. I didn’t want to let my family, myself, or them down.

Finally, the priests and parish administrator invited me to give some of the readings. I consider public speaking to be one of my talents, so this gave me a chance to stay sharp. I also felt useful. Anyone who has ever been unemployed knows how generous and valuable a gift this is.

I don’t think you need religion to do what I did, by the way, Involvement in local charities probably would offer many of the same opportunities and benefits.

Give back

Back in the fall of 2016, I had agreed to help my daughter’s fifth grade class in the spring with a special lesson on geology. My kids and I are voracious rock collectors. We’ve been polishing our favorite specimens for nearly 10 years. Relying on what I had learned in that time, while I was job hunting I constructed a lesson plan that had all the school children describe a stone they had to find, assess its hardness on the Mohs scale, and weigh it. We then polished each one and completed the same exercises upon completion, noting how much mass each stone had lost in the process. They all got to keep their shiny stones afterward as a memento.

My teaching opportunities extended to time out of the classroom, too. I had been coaching my daughter’s basketball team, and there was about a month left in the season when I lost my job. Anyone who has ever watched me play basketball will know that I got much more out of helping them improve their skills, leadership and integrity than they got in the way of improvement.

I’ve always admired kids my daughter’s age (11). They tend to be optimistic, curious, and confident. My daughter’s class and teammates took enthusiastically to the geology lessons and coaching, but I got the better part of the bargain. They made me feel even more useful, and I fed off their cheerfulness. I’m sure that if I applied for a job shortly after visiting the classroom or returning from practice that their energy fueled my response.

Ask for help

I didn’t keep news of my unemployment to myself. I told my family. I told close friends and people in my extended network. I was open for entirely selfish reasons: if any of them knew of an interesting job, I wanted to be the first to know. I also hoped to avoid having the topic come up much later, which would have been awkward for everyone involved.

So many people wanted to help. A former colleague shared job hunting guides she received upon being let go by Nokia and regularly sent me leads and encouragement. Another former colleague who transitioned to career coaching donated her time. A parent of one of the girls I coached offered me his career coaching services, too. A startup CEO met me on my last day at Ampush and introduced me to at least four new and helpful people. My closest friends became more frequent correspondents, writing, calling and texting regularly and sometimes just to let them know they were thinking of me.

I can’t finish this section without acknowledging the support my parents, kids and wife gave me. My father was convinced that I’d navigate my unemployment to a happy ending and told me so at every encounter. My kids were more attentive to my mood and situation, careful not to add to my stress. My wife became my most trusted adviser and confidant. I discussed every application, every interview, and every follow up with her. Her advice was spot-on, and she never once revealed how much my situation weighed on her. It was the most generous gift anyone has given me in years.

Gratitude

This isn’t just an unemployment coping tactic. I try to remind myself every day to express thanks for the good things in my life, which far outnumber the bad. With that in mind, and at the risk of forgetting some important folks, I want to thank the people who helped me become un-unemployed the most. They include Jordan Wan, Alex Adamson, David Greenburger, Mike Wheeler, Darren Squires, Will Morel, Rick Cotton, Jesse Pujji, Nick Shah, Kyle Benedetti, Emily Gates, Adonis Voulgaris, Nik Sethi, Brandon Rude, Roshni Hurt, Jon Oberlander, Ben Legg, Ilesh Patel, Scott Hannan, Aaron Kessler, Andy Rubenstein, Janine Buis, Laurie Armstrong, Liz Schaefer, Keith Ryan, Michael Downing, Rob Duboff, Jonathan Hollenberg, Dick Glover, Mitch Galbraith, Jonathan Levey, Anthony Oland, Rob Fields, Gina Mastrangelo, Father Matthew Fernan, Father Anthony Gyamerah, Father Daniel Tettedji, Deacon John Duffy, Jeff Pucillo, John Jones, Eric John, Frank Fink, Bryan Biniak, Chip Scarinzi, Jason Madhosingh, Jeremy Snead, Rich Kwon, Ed Campagna, Paul Bornstein, Mike Byowitz, Steve Kals, Jeremy Arnon, Kate O’Loughlin, Sarah Schnall, Mollie Collison, Jacqueline Collins, Michaela Collins, Cindy Collins, David Collins, and Michelle Collins.

So to become un-unemployed, remember to stand up for yourself before you separate from your employer, always remember that others have had it far worse (this includes your ancestors), find ways to keep your super powers sharp, help others, and ask others for help. Following this guidance lead me to a state of un-unemployment. That, in turn, made me a stronger, more confident and poised job applicant and helped me land the best job I’ve ever had.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. Being unemployed definitely changes your frame of mind if you let it. Your words were just the encouragement one needed to read as a new year is round the corner!

    Like

    1. Thanks, Michelle. I hadn’t thought about the New Year timing when I wrote this, but it’s a great point. Moving the calendar forward from December to January naturally gives us a reason for renewed optimism. On that note, happy New Year to you and yours!

      Like

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