It’s happened to many of us, sometimes more than once. And it sucks—it really does. You’re certainly allowed those first, red-faced moments of anger, fear and freaking-out. Take time to rage or lick your wounds, but then refocus your energy on getting back on your feet. These three people stood tall again, learning something about themselves along the way.
I STARTED MY OWN COMPANY
“Losing my job felt like getting kicked in the gut, but it forced me to take chances.”
She spent almost two decades working for the same boss at two engineering companies, but in the fall of 1990, three years after surviving a merger, marketing manager Joanie Schirm was laid off—over the phone. She was traveling for work when she got the call. “I was stunned,” she says. “I had always been a contributor for the company, and was treated as such.” She was also worried: Schirm was the primary breadwinner for her family, had a six-year-old son and a daughter in college, and was separating from her husband. “I needed to work, quite quickly.”
After talking with former colleagues, Schirm took a leap of faith and started her own engineering consulting firm a few months after her layoff. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d do,” she admits, “but I knew the business side and the market well, so I just swallowed and went.” Schirm managed to get a credit line from a bank, and lived on that, taking no salary in the beginning; she continued to run the company for 17 years, turning it into an award-winning firm.
In 2008, Schirm sold her company to an internal group and started another chapter of life: She is the author of Adventurers Against Their Will, a collection of World War II survival stories, and her second book will be completed this year. “I thought I would have spent my life at one job, but getting laid off—and recovering from it–changed me,” she says. “It gave me confidence to take chances in my career, and the courage to just go for it.”
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I SWITCHED CAREERS
“A life-long passion became my full-time job.”
Panic. That was her first reaction when Janice M. Sellers was fired from her receptionist job three years ago at age 48. She knew it wasn’t a perfect fit, but she needed the income, and even more, the medical insurance: “I have chronic health conditions, and no coverage made me very anxious.” Sellers, who is single, applied for unemployment, began sending resumes for anything that sounded vaguely appropriate, and joined a job networking group, where she was tasked to develop a “me in 30 seconds” pitch. At first, she focused on admin and editing. But Sellers had another passion: for more than three decades, she had researched her own family history, and turned her love of genealogy into a side business, working for clients when she had the time.
A few months later, Sellers got a settlement from an old worker’s comp case, and saw the opportunity: “I gave myself a year to live on that money and focus on developing my hobby into a real business,” she says. She kept applying for “regular” jobs, but remained focused on her goal; she even recast her “me in 30 seconds” on her new perception of herself as a professional genealogist. “I was excited, but nervous,” she says—the money had to cover her bills and her lack of health insurance weighed heavy on her mind. To build her business on a limited budget, Sellers got creative—she volunteered to give talks at genealogy libraries, made presentations at conferences, connected to professional societies and offered gift certificates for her services.
Two years after she was fired, Sellers found a part-time job as a train operator for the San Francisco Bay commuter rail system that offers health benefits. That was the missing piece, she says, because her company—Ancestral Discoveries—is now her main source of income. She has two regular corporate clients, and a steady flow of personal research assignments. “I flipped my jobs, in a sense,” she explains. “I now support myself with genealogy full-time, and my side job provides health coverage. My advice: Find what you love doing, and try to make a living doing it—even if you have to be a little unorthodox in your approach.”
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I BUILT UP MY FREELANCE BUSINESS
“After losing two jobs in two years, I focused on becoming self-employed.”
When Hugh Taylor landed at IBM, he thought he’d have a long run with the technology giant–at least five or 10 years. So when he was laid off in 2009, after less than a year, he was shocked. At 44, Taylor had already overcome a number of career setbacks: A printing and web design business that he had run for eight years went belly up in 2002–the same year he got married, had a baby and bought a house. Despite his Harvard MBA, he took a low-level sales job at a friend’s small software company. “I knew I was lucky to have a job at all, but I wanted more for myself,” he says. Eventually he became marketing executive at that company, which primed him for his future role at IBM. After the unexpected layoff, Taylor found another executive marketing position relatively quickly, but six months later, he was fired.
“Right then I decided I would never put myself in that position again, of having nothing to fall back on while needing to support a family,” says Taylor. He had been doing some freelance marketing copy writing on the side for years, so while he continued to do contract work for software companies, he focused any spare time on cultivating his freelance projects.
In the last year, Taylor has built up his writing business to become his sole occupation. “I used my failure as a chance to learn about myself and start doing what I was meant to be doing in life,” he says. “I had to be honest with myself, even admit that perhaps I was in the wrong job. I could do the work, but it wasn’t my strength.” Today, Taylor is happier, more confident and less stressed. “I’m doing something I know I’m good at, and I enjoy.” Taylor has chronicled his journey in a book, The Life Reset: Overcoming Setbacks in Work and Life.
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Photo: David Fenton