To the newly unemployed

Five lessons learned for those who have recently lost their jobs

To the more than 30 million Americans who are newly unemployed as of the past month and a half, I want to say: I’m here, I’ve been here for a while, I know what it’s like, and I can help.

Maybe.

To state the obvious, being laid off can be a shock (it certainly came as a shock to me). No matter what, it sucks. It’s also bewildering. One day you have a job, a paycheck, and if you’re a lucky perhaps even a purpose. The next day, you’ve got nothing but your savings, however comfortable or meager it may be, and an unemployment insurance system that is both patronizing and intentionally difficult to access.

I was laid off just over 10 months ago. It’s odd to think it’s been that long, but it has.

When it happened, I felt a lot of things — the aforementioned bewilderment and shock, and also some fear, and buried deep down a bit of relief. It was difficult to sort through those feelings and to decide what to do with my time — actually it’s still difficult — but as I have worked through it, I’ve come upon some lessons learned.

I offer these with the caveat, stated once here and again below for good measure, that if you or your family are in serious, immediate financial distress, some of these suggestions will not be an option for you. You’ll be wanting to send out that job application to Walmart this afternoon and make sure you answer the phone when they call. Thinking through questions of purpose and identity in any circumstance is a privilege.

That said, if the job application to Walmart can wait, then I have what I hope are some useful lessons to share.

Lesson #1: Don’t be a hero. File for unemployment.

I was unemployed for six months during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and not filing for unemployment was probably the biggest mistake I made. I didn’t file for a couple reasons, but the two biggest were pride and overconfidence.

The overconfidence came from a certainty that the next job was always just around the corner. I had probably 8-10 job interviews over the course of those six months, but none of them panned out, and each week that went by I dipped deeper into savings.

I also had a certain pride of youth about being able to take care of myself without government assistance. And I could take care of myself. My expenses were low, and I had the savings to weather the financial crisis storm. But when I finally did get a job, most of what I had saved over the past few years of gainful employment was gone.

This time around, I didn’t hesitate. When I lost my job last year, I applied for unemployment immediately. That, combined with the severance package I got when I was laid off last year, have gotten me through ten months almost unscathed.

The fact is, you’ve been paying in to that unemployment insurance pool your whole working life. You are more than entitled to draw from it now.

Lesson #2: Don’t panic. Take some time.

In the hours, days, and weeks after being laid off, you are likely to launch yourself into a flurry of job-finding activity. If it pans out, great. But your first instincts for where to look may not be the right ones.

When I was laid off last year, I filled the first few weeks with furious job-hunting. I took every meeting, wrote every email, turned over every stone I could think of. I called close friends and told them to keep an eye out for opportunities for me. I went to events and tried to network, even though I was still in semi-shock at having my life turned upside down.

Had any of those efforts born fruit, it’s likely I would have ended up right back where I was: in a job that seemed perfect, but also may have been slowly hollowing out my soul, bit by unnoticed bit.

In the subsequent months, I was forced to grapple with a lot of questions about purpose and identity. I had always thought about these questions, but finding answers wasn’t exactly high on the priority list as long as the cushy paycheck kept rolling in.

In short, as long as you and your family aren’t starving or about to be out on the street, it’s worth taking some time before committing to your next move. Don’t panic, and beware the flurry of job-hunting activity.

Lesson #3: Don’t tell yourself a story starring you.

As Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Humans are nothing if not sense-making machines. If there’s something we don’t understand (death, creation, lightning and thunder), we turn to stories to explain, and we’re really good at it.

I love stories as much as the next person, but in the aftermath of a bewildering job loss it’s important to recognize that life actually isn’t a story starring you. Thinking that this is all about you is not only wrong, but likely to lead to a slew of negative emotions you don’t really need right now.

You didn’t get “knocked off a path,” because in actuality, the “life path” is itself a metaphor we have created for ourselves to make sense of things.

In October, I wrote about this in a piece about a trip I took to Denali National Park in Alaska, where there are no trails and no campsites, and you hike through the park by heading in whichever direction strikes you. Hiking through Denali, I wrote, is a lot like moving through life:

Whether you stay in bed all morning doing nothing, or get up to water the plants, commute to work, see your kids, play video games, or whatever else it is that you choose to do that’s in front of you is completely up to you.

If you are wondering what your path in life is, or what your purpose should be, perhaps you should rethink the metaphor itself: life doesn’t have paths. We are not on a road to Damascus; we are wandering through the wilderness, and there is no promised land on the other side. We are not choosing the road less taken; we are simply choosing how to spend our time, and there are infinite possibilities.

It’s a bewildering and often scary way to live, yes. But it’s also liberating, not to mention far less laden with guilt, self-loathing, shame or whatever else you may be tempted to feel right now.

Lesson #4: Don’t blindly wander. Figure out your values, and make a plan.

I know, I just wrote that life is like hiking through Denali. But don’t confuse moving through a pathless landscape with moving through a landscape with no set intention or goal. I may have hiked through Denali without a trail, but I knew where I was heading: up the valley to the retreating glacier, before it disappeared forever.

When I was laid off, I knew that, whatever happened, I didn’t want the weeks or months (or years) to simply pass me by. The worst thing, in my view, is to be like the feather floating through the wind in Forest Gump, just landing wherever the breeze takes you. I wanted to be effectual, to at least feel (debates about the illusion of free will aside) that I was actively guiding my life.

Whatever you’ve been doing to make a living, there’s a good chance that huge swathes of your life are the way they are not as a result of your true desires or active decision-making, but as a result of path dependency. I wrote about the danger of path dependency in a post last December, and in particular about Hunter S. Thompson’s exhortation to a young acquaintance that he “swim for a goal,” and not “float with the tide.”

How do you do that? First, I encourage you to read Thompson’s letter in its entirety. Secondly, I advise you to read my post on how I do strategic planning for life (incidentally one of the more popular I’ve written).

That post will help you ensure that you’re not blindly wandering around, taking whatever comes next, floating with the breeze or the tide or whatever metaphor suits you.

The point is: be intentional.

Lesson #5: Don’t rush into anything. Take baby steps.

If you’ve followed any of the above advice, chances are you will be giving a lot more thought to questions of identity and purpose than you’re used to. The temptation, once you do that, is to think that everything you do must be perfectly aligned with your new vision of yourself.

I assure you, it doesn’t.

Whatever it is you decide to do with yourself, however you decide to spend your time, don’t feel the need to rush in. Your choices over the next few weeks and months need not be everything. You do not have to find the perfectly monetize-able world-helping passion you’ve always dreamed of.

Take baby steps. Work through a process. Freelance. Start small projects. (Again, with the caveat that you and your family are not about to starve out on the street. If that’s the case, Instacart, Walmart, CVS, Amazon, and pretty much every large grocery chain are all hiring).

The next few months will be a process of re-learning about yourself. I hope that’s always the case, but a job loss has the particular effect of forcing the issue.

And be prepared — everything you hope will happen may take a lot longer than you think.

After all, it looks like we’re in for a rocky next few years.