Laid off is no lay up


I like to put stuff in perspective.

You, living on this planet right now, reading this, are probably one of the luckiest people ever to live. Life is generally better now for most people in the world than it ever has been, and it continues to get better. Just ask Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Around the world, rates of war, disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorship have all decreased significantly.

And if you are an American today, you are one of the lucky few to have been born amidst the most remarkable and successful experiments ever conceived and executed, with a level of general opportunity, prosperity and freedom unheard throughout most of human history.

(Caveat: all this is true unless the internet somehow survived the unavoidable SHTF event somewhere in our near future, in which case you may be reading this on the other side of that, and life ain’t quite as rosy. See, I can slip right back into pessimism.)

This is not to say that everyone has it easy. Many people don’t. But compared to many places in the world right now, and especially compared to the human condition throughout history, the overwhelming majority of people reading this right now live a much better life than most humans who’ve ever drawn breath.

This is an objective fact.

All that said…

Getting laid off ain’t no lay up.

When I worked for Capital One, a company known for frequent restructurings, I constantly worried I’d get laid off. My friends at work would say, “You aren’t getting laid off!” and I’d say, “But what if do?” and they’d say, “You can’t think like that all the time!” and I’d say, “But WHAT IF I’M RIGHT??”

I was laid off in October 2010.

My boss who delivered the news, and who was being laid off herself, started the conversation with, “You were right.”

We had a good laugh.

But, like I say, I like to put stuff into perspective. I thought about the fact that the concept of lifetime employment at a single company mostly didn’t exist prior to the 1950s, and that even then it only existed for the 30-40 years between then and the 1990s. Humans evolved to be able to handle instability. We migrated thousands of miles when food was scarce. We lived with war, pestilence and famine.

(I assume pestilence and famine are two different things, or they wouldn’t always be listed side by side. Nobody says “disease and sickness.” Although they do say “betwixt and between,” but that might be an artifact of a time when there wasn’t social media and the Golden Age of TV, so they probably had a lot of time to fill before they laid their miserable heads down on their dirty pillows, and they didn’t mind being redundant in their speech. Just look at any essay written before 1800 – were those people paid by the number of spaces between words?)

Pre-parenthetical, I was rationalizing that humans evolved for instability, so getting laid off should not be a big deal. On the other hand, we also evolved to die at 45 years old if we were lucky. So: 1. Maybe we died at 45 because of all the instability; and, 2. We live to be 80 now, and many of us get laid off after the age of 45, and therefore humans did NOT evolve to lose our jobs after we were dead.

Which is to say: expectations. The secret to happiness, or at least coping, is accurate expectations.

I did not have correct expectations when I was laid off. I’m a relatively easy-going guy. I make jokes. I affirm – others, and myself. I put stuff in perspective.

I’d be fine.

I was not fine.

Within a few weeks the kids started giving me a wide berth and Stacy started considering her words more carefully when we spoke. I began to stay up a little later at night, and get up a little later in the morning. Job hunting turned out to be hard. Then, and now, jobs can be hard to find when you have a specialty skill. Yeah, I know the world is screaming for data analysts, but I don’t know how to do a pivot table, much less regression analysis, so they weren’t screaming for me. In fact, most job applications were greeted, not with screaming, but with an indifferent, demoralizing silence.

It’s possible for two things to be true at once. Life today can be better than it ever has been in human history, and getting laid off can be harder than you might ever expect.

This is not an essay endorsing discouragement or giving up.

In fact, if you get laid off, you can handle it. You can find another job, and you will. You will get through this.

Even better, you might even find a way to reinvent yourself or discover your true passion in life or realize that you don’t need what you thought you needed and find a new freedom in your vocation. All of that happens all the time.

But, probably, it won’t be easy. Be ready for it not to be easy. That’s the best way to prepare yourself (apart from having an active professional network and emergency savings in place).

Brace yourself (or gird your loins, if that’s your thing) for a challenging time. Then get at it, and don’t give up.

You can do this.


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