It’s a daily story — getting fired, laid off, downsized. Sometimes someone expresses his reaction in a way that cuts to the devastation of the experience. But seeing the glimmer of hope changes all that. I hope you enjoy this note from a reader as much as I did. (What impresses me is his attitude. He said he got fired. He doesn’t sugar coat it. That says a lot about how he approaches his work.)

I believe this article (Getting Fired is a State of Mind) is one of the best I have read in a long time.  I just recently got fired and I have always been on the other side of things throughout my career. I have always been among the top 3% in reviews in all the other jobs I have had. Having said that, I cannot help but feel like a failure in some way. I have now been out of work for 1 month. It has been tough but I believe I should be getting a job as consultant [soon]… This has been hard for me to take and as you know this a bad economy. Your words inspired me to keep my head up. Thank you.

A lot of talented people have been unemployed for months or years. But the devastation of getting fired hits immediately and makes a person question his worth. Breaking this state of mind is crucial.

My response to him: You cannot be defined by your last employer. They are gone from your life. How can they define you? You are still you. What defines you is what you do next. Even if this new opportunity doesn’t pan out, keep moving forward. Do what you do best. That defines you every day.

We talk a lot here about how to land the next job. But this reader’s note makes me ask you, how do you deal with the devastation of getting fired, laid off, downsized, sent packing?

  1. 1st thing I did was start a company of one (sole proprietorship). Self-employed (with no income) was easier for me to take than un-employed. At least it made me think like a business-person about my skills, desires, etc.

  2. You have to take time for your emotions. Burying them under “gotta to job search” will only make them worse. If someone needs to take a day or two to sort things out productively, not just perculate in the mire, in a week, go ahead.

  3. The OP didn’t say if he was fired as part of a larger group by himself. Psychologically, there is a big difference. In my case, I was fired in 2001 as part of a large scale downsizing to it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.
    I actually started preparing for this 10 years earlier after lengthly discussions over lunch with one of my co-workers. We gradualy concluded that working at a large, public company was more precarious than it first appeared. Sooner or later you would find yourself on the outside, despite your best efforts to the contrary. But, the worst thing you could do was to submerge your personality into the company because when the axe fell, you were in deep do do.
    Much better to develop a set of values and stick to them despite what was going on around you. This is far easier said than done.
    I have a number of friends who are retiring from the former empolyer. It’s surprising to see how bitter some of them have become. They felt underappreciated and used over the last 5-10 years. Mostly, becuase they believed a lot of the crap that was handed down. The only reality was that when things got a little tough, the upper management would do anything to preserve their jobs and bonuses. My studied contrarian stance has protected me from this. Believe me that I knew that my reviews would suffer for being brutally honest with some above me, and they did. In the end, I had my integrity which is a lot more than some of the more obsequious survivors had.
    By the way, I landed a better job in three weeks.

  4. I was fired after spending 10 months being berated, belittled and bullied by my manager. Like your reader, I was used to being a top performer with great annual reviews and consistent progress. It took me a couple of months just to recover from the shock of the whole experience. What I needed were some “quick hits,” some fast turnaround small successes that put me back in touch with the person I knew I was professionally and in terms of my work integrity. I took a couple of insanely easy freelance jobs that didn’t pay a whole lot financially but that paid off big in terms of reminding me I was a capable, competent person who could produce quality work on time and get paid for it with a few “wow, this is great stuff” emails in between. I was shocked by how important feeling successful was after being fired which, by the way, felt worse than when I got divorced.

    For me, it was about creating some new experiences — no matter how small — that added a buffer between my reality and that very negative experience with an employer and, in particular, a really rotten boss.

  5. I had a similar situation to Laura’s. For me, the emotional fallout was hardest to deal with, not the whole job search burden. I dealt with that by writing a letter to my former boss, saying everything I had to hold back for the past year, and letting her know all the positive things colleagues had said about me. I did a mind dump and refined it daily for about a week, then every once in a while when something came to mind. It remains unsent, but was a very helpful way to vent my emotions. Of course, I salivate at the possibility of really sending it when I am hired elsewhere.

  6. After you take the advice already offered that suits you (Nate, Laura, etc.) I suggest you look on that job as the “wrong job” and that you need to find the right kind of job. I suggest that you analyze your current skill set and interests. Make a list of your strengths, tasks that you enjoy, what size company seems to suit you best, etc. I would also honestly assess if you had picked up any bad habits from being unhappy in your last job, or things you didn’t have to do because a coworker did them for you.

    With this assessment, it is much easier to put the experience in perspective and to start the proactive search that Nick advocates.

  7. I, too, am a lifelong high performer, and was fired from a modestly paying job I excelled at when someone with significantly lower skills offered to do my job for half my pay. My employer leapt at what she considered an opportunity to save money.

    The day I was fired was one of the happiest days of my life. I realized I’d been freed from working for a person who had never appreciated the value I brought to her business, but never would.

    As for the person she replaced me with? My former employer got exactly what she paid for. Now, several years later, she’s still getting complaints from people I brought to her business about the precipitous drop in quality.

  8. Jenny, it sounds like you are giving good advice in general but perhaps you haven’t been through this yourself. I was fired almost a year and a half ago, I took 2 months to get myself back together physically and emotionally, and then I started job hunting for real. I’ve done the assessment of goals and skills, and gotten many interviews, and several people have told me they admire my positive outlook and persistence, but I still don’t have a job. It isn’t so much finding the right job for me as the right employer.

  9. I’m going through this right now.

    I’ve been a consistent top performer at my current company for the past 4 years (and the highest rated director in our department last year) with a somewhat unique blend of skills.

    My boss walked in my office three weeks ago and informed me my position will be eliminated next month. I took a week off to regroup and have hit the ground running (very positive first round “conversations” with two highly desirable opportunities, a dozen leads in my back pocket at lesser stages of development) but I’m still sorting out a serious WTF and “what did I do wrong”….

    Basically, I took an interim assignment to bail out a key area of the company after a management change and wound up occupying the same organizational slot as someone who works for another senior exec. Now that I’ve gotten them through the crisis, we only need one guy. Unfortunately, those two (the competitor and his boss) are both “one of the boys” and were able to shift the job cut over to us (eg. me). What makes this extremely frustrating is the competitor is a jerk with a pretty consistent record of incompetance and bad decisions (in the opinion of many people in the company).

    So…I take a (somewhat unwanted) job change to “do the right thing” and help the company out of a real bad situation and wind up getting whacked once we’re clear so someone outside my chain of command can protect his incompetant buddy. I’ve stopped trying to find a moral message in this one and concluded the organization is basically corrupt…

  10. I gave myself a week to go through the emotional roller coaster that being fired gave me. Then I got to job hunting and getting back in touch with various placement firms I had used yeas before other than the one that had placed me there since I wasn’t sure how well that would have gone over. Eventually I did get back in touch with that company and in a few months I did find a new position back in December 2007 after being fired in October 2007. There is something to be said for looking at one’s previous position and being able to define a few good attributes and a few bad attributes to try to prevent getting into a similar situation. Another way to put this is to use one’s past, don’t be buried in it.