On July 14, 2017, I got laid off from the last “real” job I’ve ever had. With no plans to ever work for anyone else again, I’ve reflected on five key things I learned from that layoff.
1. We’re only a “family” until the going gets tough
I’m sure you’ve been there too. You’ve been working at a company for a while, or hey, maybe you’re just in the interview stages. But they talk a lot about the culture, about the team effort, about one for all and all for one, and how great they are at building that environment.
Then someone actually says it out loud: “We’re like a family here.”
Seriously? That’s been tossed around so much that it practically has no meaning anymore. But that didn’t stop my last company from doing it to me too. They whispered the sweet nothings in my ear, talked about how high performing the team was, and how I’d be joining the upper echelon of top performers, yadda, yadda.
But then, without warning, one Friday I found myself out on my ass (along with about 18 of my coworkers—almost 30% of the small company).
Well, we weren’t hitting our sales goals (which were completely unrealistic to begin with), and to cut costs, they unceremoniously ditched a bunch of us.
But what about family?
I’d long refrained from believing the family crap, but that layoff cemented my understanding of how the majority of companies work. I know some friends who have stayed at jobs they’re unhappy at for YEARS longer than necessary believing they owe the company some kind of loyalty. But at the end of the day, companies are out to make money, and 95% of them won’t give you any loyalty back when it comes down to you versus them. If you work with one of the 5%, that’s great for you. But if you have any doubts, then you can be sure you don’t. And for the rest of us, we’ve got to look out for ourselves so that even if the rug is pulled out from under us, we can dust ourselves off and get right back out there.
2. I’m smart as hell when it comes down to it—it was about time I used it
I’ve got a healthy level of self-esteem. I always thought I was pretty smart—at least smarter than my bosses, right? I mean, don’t we all?
In a traditional job, a lot of times your intelligence gets tamped down (especially if you’re a woman AND a minority!). You get used to being told what to do instead of being allowed to contribute and make decisions. The entire process is designed this way, to crank out more cogs in the wheel, not captains at the helm.
From day one, when you show up and sign a bunch of HR papers on the dotted line, to when you go through training and are herded into weekly meetings, you’re used to just going along with what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to be innovating, rather toeing the line. Show up, put in your eigh hours, go home, for five days in a row. Finally wake up on the weekend feeling like you’re a whole different person. “Zombie you” is in hibernation for two whole days. I mean, this is why we go crazy over unlimited mimosas at brunch—so we can uninhibitedly make bad decisions and wholeheartedly buy into them.
But once I got laid off, I realized that if I was going to make a change. I needed to step outside of the “following the crowd,” same old way of doing things and make a change. That change was taking the leap to freelancing, and while I didn’t know what I was doing at first, I was finally thinking for myself. It was as if something inside woke up—something that had been tamped down during all those years in school, then university, then working in traditional jobs. I felt alive again and as if I was finally putting together all the intelligence that had been inside me all along, rescuing it from where it lay shaken up and tossed around like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I was thinking for myself, choosing for myself, and free to design a life for myself.
3. The traditional way of doing things doesn’t work when you want an nontraditional life
After my “family” unceremoniously booted me out the door with a foot to my ass and slammed that door behind me, one thought held court: “I don’t want a traditional job anymore.”
I was tired of people telling me how much I was worth (not much) and creating my job description for me—we need you to come in, sit in this cubicle, go to these meetings, go to lunch at this time, try to look busy all day, work with this team, work with that team, and go home at this time.
I wanted to do my own thing but was still scared.
So I started out thinking if I could just find “the perfect company” that did things in nontraditional ways and didn’t mention the family BS, then perhaps I could be happy there.
I started trying to find a job the only way I was familiar with: mindlessly surfing the job boards and sending my resume into a black hole. I realized I was trying to use the same tactics I’d always used (tweaking my resume, applying to different job boards) to try and get something different (my dream job, work remotely, travel the world).
That wasn’t going to work.
I decided to flip things around and directly take control, going after the people I wanted to work with.
4. Taking responsibility for your career totally changes the way you see yourself and the world around you.
When I decided to be 100% responsible for my career and actively go about making the life I wanted versus waiting for someone else to give it to me, everything changed for me.
I’d wake up every day feeling like my efforts were actually moving me forward. Even on the toughest days where it felt like I wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted, I still had a feeling of progress, unlike my jobs before where I’d wake up after two years on the job thinking, “WTF am I still doing here?”
Every time I opened my computer, every task I gave myself, every hour I spent researching clients, every email pitch that I sent out, every phone call I took, I was doing it for ME! I was contributing to my business, to my bottom line, to Me, Inc. And it felt incredible.
I began to see opportunities everywhere. I began to understand how to view my skills as valuable (though when I started freelancing, I’d always felt that I had no skills and nothing to offer). I found out more and more about what my clients’ needs were and taught myself to learn new skills to meet those needs, how to package myself, and how to present myself and my business.
I found high value clients I wanted to work with and taught myself how to effectively pitch them. (One client called me back a mere 10 minutes after I submitted a pitch through the contact form on his website!)
I found clients who were game for long-term ongoing contract work, effectively giving myself stability in the freelancing world (which is often thought of as volatile and unstable).
Once I put on my business owner shoes and firmly tied the laces, my entire life and career changed for the better. And best of all, I will always take care of myself. I AM family.
5. Always look for the opportunity in challenging times
The Friday I got laid off was awful. I was in LA housesitting for a friend and mere hours away from flying to the Outer Banks on the other coast to spend a week on a family vacation. Don’t let the glamorous sound of that fool you into thinking my life was sweet. I was broker than broke and the housesitting was a great way to spend two weeks of free rent in California. The family vacation had been planned years in advance, and now there I was, showing up broke and jobless.
But I’d made a vow to myself as soon as that call with my boss laying me off ended. A vow that, though I didn’t know how, I was going to make the layoff the best thing that ever happened to me.
And I did. It wasn’t overnight, but it wasn’t exactly slow going either. I made $94,858 in my first year of freelancing. The “you’re joining a team of elite top performers, we’re a family” company was paying me $20 bucks an hour. You can do the math, right?
Getting kicked to the curb by a company that in essence said, “We don’t think you’re valuable enough to keep,” made me look inside and truly assess my value. And when I did, I realized I’d been wasting time looking for my fit inside a company, waiting for others to recognize my value, when I could be out there setting my own.
Now I am living the life I always wanted. I’m traveling the world, realizing my dream of learning other languages by immersing myself in the cultures. I work with clients I love and who treat me like family (but we don’t actually say it!). I take on work I enjoy, and say no to work I don’t. I decide everything about my life. The hours I work, the projects, when I start work, when I quit work, how long a break I take for lunch. And when a routine is no longer working for me, I decide to change it up.
Right now, I don’t work Fridays. Planning to keep that one for the foreseeable future.