Unemployed Executive Finds the Way to ‘Real’

Last year I knew who I was. I was the highly compensated vice president of marketing at a burgeoning e-learning software company. I was the person who conceived and managed all marketing initiatives. It was I who launched national programs that cost lots of money. Decision makers at Fortune 100 companies took my meetings. Vendors invited me to exorbitantly expensive lunches. Headhunters called asking what it would take for me to consider another position.

Then all hell broke loose. The world did a 180. And somewhere along the way I lost myself.

Unable to raise second-round funding, my company dramatically downsized last fall. Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, making it stunningly clear that anything can happen at any time for absolutely no reason. The U.S. went to war. I was laid off in December, and by the end of the first quarter of 2002, the founders showed the entire senior management team the door. The recession was officially acknowledged. Shortly afterwards, officers from Enron, WorldCom and Tyco rattled corporate America with their misdeeds and greed, resulting in dented consumer confidence, a general distrust of corporate America and a plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average. And then I turned 40, which was really the last straw for me.

Feeling old, stripped of a prestigious title and bereft of steady income, I felt empty inside. I had no idea who or what I was. Adding insult to injury was the fact that high-priced marketing guys, especially my New Economy brethren, were suddenly very much out-of-vogue.

With the help of a supportive (and patient) wife, a tough therapist and months of soul searching, I realized that I’d spent the first 40 years of my life looking for validation and definition from outside sources. Parents, teachers, friends and bosses told me I was smart. A beautiful home, foreign cars, fine clothes and exotic travel convinced me I was successful. Without them, I wasn’t sure of anything. And while this realization felt like a two-ton weight had been lifted from my shoulders, there were still a few remaining tons I needed to address.

Nine months later, I couldn’t get arrested in this town. The job market was a shadow of its former self. Headhunters who had previously pursued me were calling to ask if I knew of any contract positions they might be able to fill for companies. It seemed no one was buying or selling much of anything, least of all my act. I wondered whether the success I had earned after 15 years in corporate PR and marketing jobs was just a fluke — that my experiences in the trenches, award-winning campaigns and string of media hits were ultimately meaningless. Was I just in the right place at the right time? From a career high in 2001, my life had devolved into a patchwork of career near-misses, networking events, clever responses to online job postings and the occasional consulting gig. After much soul searching, self-doubt and frustration, it was, I decided, a propitious time to start over.

Hyper aware that I was responsible for my own destiny, my job search mirrored the four stages of grief. I went from shock to sadness to anger to action. Once the action chapter kicked in, it was time for me to pick myself up, dust myself off and start over again. I needed to embark on a personal and professional journey to get out of the mess I was in and reclaim my career.

This journey has taken me to interesting places. Most significantly was a solo trip to New York to reconnect with three friends from my single days whom I hadn’t seen for almost 10 years. I needed to know if they were all as prosperous, fit and happy as I suspected. Guess what? They weren’t. In fact, I quickly realized that, though they were each working, they were contending with their own personal, professional or financial demons. They were no better off than I was. Once I realized that the grass wasn’t greener in someone else’s pasture, I felt rejuvenated. I began to attack unemployment with an energy and enthusiasm I once reserved for paying clients.

If you have been displaced and have become disheartened, take your journey down a new path — and I don’t mean the cow path to Nowhereville. Set professional and personal daily goals. Pursue any constructive activities you know you can accomplish and feel good about. (For me it’s writing this article and training for an upcoming marathon.) Proactively seek out others in the same predicament for job-seeking tips, comfort and laughs. It’s amazing how much company you will have and how rewarding the camaraderie will be. Network with a vengeance. I have joined as many networking organizations as I could find — from professional to community groups — which, if nothing else, get me out of the house.

Create several versions of your resume you can submit for a variety of positions. I have three: a resume that highlights public relations, another for general marketing and a third for corporate communications. All are valid, each highlighting different aspects of my career. Investigate employment alternatives outside your comfort zone. For me it was throwing my hat in the ring for sales and business-development opportunities. Pitch your wares mercilessly to friends, colleagues, and former employers — even family if they can help. Don’t sit still. Don’t play the coulda, woulda, shoulda game. Give your revitalized self a chance to succeed.

To get your new life started, stop beating yourself up. See yourself as more than unemployed. Accept that, while your choices may not have been the best, you made them, own them and can make new choices. Finally, use your time constructively and embrace a peculiar chapter of life where you actually have time to sit back, reassess and ask hard questions

Personally, I love seeing my family a whole lot more. I’m now able to really participate not only in my children’s upbringing, but also in the typical day-to-day activities that comprise family life (the all-important “small moments,” as my wife says). So when she trots off to work, I am OK with the fact that, between e-mail checks and online networking, I’m the one making lunches, driving carpools, grocery shopping, managing household expenses and taking care of the physical plant. I also can make good use of my gym and take pride in the fact that, at 40, I’m in better shape than I was at 20. (Truth is, I’d rather be working, but in the absence of any viable offers, working out sufficed.)

So nearly a year after being laid off, here I sit, with an interesting assortment of consulting gigs, pro-bono projects, even a part-time corporate sales job. Not exactly the life I had before — certainly not financially — but it’s mine. I feel “back in the game,” vibrant and energized by a sense of hope that I will be able to take control of my career and life.

For me, getting to real was looking inward for validation and not relying on the approval of others or superficial trappings to convince myself I had worth. I actually feel pretty lucky to know this at such a tender age. Maybe it’s turning 40 or just realizing that you’re never too old to change the course of your life.

It was no fun getting here, but I did. And no parent, teacher, friend or boss could have shown me the way.

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