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How to Beat the Job-Loss Blues and Get Ready for Your Next Act
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Layoff. If you haven’t experienced one, you know someone who has. Dwain Schenck speaks with authority; not only has he seen energetic, talented, and accomplished friends undergo the stress of job loss, but he, too, has felt the sting of being “let go.”
Resetis the uncompromising portrait of Schenck’s journey: a successful journalist and communications professional who joins the ranks of the unemployed during the most dismal job market in modern history, his initial reactions of denial and depression sabotage his morale and motivation. Then, with the assistance of friends, wisdom from experts, and good old-fashioned creativity and tenacity, Schenck turns his attitude around. The hard-won, valuable advice and techniques in these pages can work for anyone concerned about job loss or keeping a job.Resetcan position you to get back on your feet, often landing in a better place. Schenck covers a wide variety of topics with a humorous, light touch that balances the serious subjects within, which include:
- The Emotional Phases of Unemployment
- Who Am I? Insecurity and Uncertainty
- Rules for Effective Networking
- Knowing Your Value in a Buyer’s Market
- The Social Life of the Unemployed
- Mastering the Art of Reinvention
With insight and inspiration from Mika Brzezinski, Donald Trump, Christine Hefner, Mort Zuckerman, Susie Essman, Donny Deutsch, Larry David, Joe Echevarria, Mike Barnicle, and Joe Scarborough
Reset would not have seen the light of day without the love and support of my close friend Mika Brzezinski. The recession was roaring full-force and I was out of work. “Write about it,” she said. She told me how it would help thousands of people keep their sanity through the worst job market since the Great Depression. She said it would help me along the way as well. She was right. Mika, you’re the sister I never had.
This book would have hit a dead end if it weren’t for the extraordinary men and women who shared their insights and advice with me. This is their reality and therefore their book too. Their stories and inspiration are timeless no matter the jobs numbers or economic climate. Nobody writes a book without a great deal of behind the scenes help, and I would be remiss in not thanking Mika’s Morning Joe co-host, the indefatigable Joe Scarborough, for his support throughout this journey and writing what he called, “an important story in our life and times we live in.”
Sincere and everlasting thanks are due my friend Mark Samuels who kept me sane throughout this labor of love that at times was more labor than love. Thank you for pushing me when I waivered. Thank you to my longtime friend, colleague and veteran writer/adventurer/PR man extraordinaire, Jeff Blumenfeld, who challenged me to write a book in the first place. Your counsel was invaluable. To Phil Cannon, who most importantly makes me laugh and whose guidance kept me on course every step of the way. Jeff Pennington, thanks for always being there for me—since the sixth grade. You are like blood to me.
To my editor Dan Ambrosio and all the talented people at Da Capo Press; thank you for your deft touch and eternal cheerfulness. Thank you to David Steinberger for saying yes to what I had to say. With all my admiration I thank my special friend Paul Stuhlman for his help throughout this project. He is truly a gift to anyone looking for a job. I have been inspired on nearly a daily basis by this professional who devotes his life to helping others find a job and keep their sanity.
My love goes out to my parents who have always been there for me and my family—especially through the lean times that this book addresses. Love to my Aunt Sharon who is special in so many ways, too numerous to count. For my in-laws, Gene and Theresa; I am enormously grateful for your support and understanding. Congratulations to my brother for staying the course and landing so successfully—before he even had this book to use as a blueprint.
And finally, my deepest gratitude and appreciation goes to my wife for the grace and happiness she brings to our family each and every day. I owe her the most thanks of all. Thank you for always being by my side and often times leading the way. Our children are truly blessed to have you as their mother.
Layoff. If you haven’t experienced one, you know someone who has. I speak with authority: not only have I seen energetic, talented, and accomplished friends undergo the stress of job loss, but I too—no lightweight in the career department—have felt the sting of being “let go.”
Much has been said—and written—about the changing work landscape, of the disappearing act of once-guaranteed pensions and employment-for-life business cultures. Welcome to the brave new world of job insecurity. I don’t need to pound that drum further. Where I can shed light is on how we respond to layoffs: how we can beat the job-loss blues and get ready for our next act. Layoffs, position eliminations, departmental reorganizations, corporate moves and closures—whatever the boss or HR person calls it—are usually outside our control. But what we do afterward is firmly in our own hands.
Reset is the story of a journey. Of a successful journalist, businessman, and communications professional (me) who joined the ranks of the unemployed during one of the most dismal job markets in modern history. Of how my initial reactions (denial, depression) sabotaged my morale and motivation. And of how, with the assistance of friends, wisdom from experts, and good old-fashioned creativity and tenacity, I turned my attitude around. The hard-won, valuable advice and techniques in these pages can work for anyone concerned about job loss and can position you to get back on your feet and, with the right approach, land in a better place.
But back to the story of how this book began . . . with a layoff. Unemployment strikes deep into our psyche. Beyond the devastating loss of income, a layoff can shift our habits and lifestyle, unhinge our sense of self, and drive a wedge into a marriage.
I experienced all this and more the day I came home with my proverbial pink slip. My first reaction was to run away, emotionally and physically. My wife, Colleen, wanted to talk about it; I wanted to avoid the topic. Intellectually, I knew it was stupid to let something like unemployment get between us, but emotionally I felt like abandoning ship, isolating myself, just packing up and moving out. In the days and weeks that followed, things were no better. Gone were the mornings when I would get up with purpose, take the girls to school, then have a job to go to. My sense of identity was shot. The job loss was decimating our personal finances. Could I continue to keep a roof over my family’s head, provide food to eat, new clothes to wear—would there be money left over to do fun things together? I came to realize that I had connected nearly my entire self-worth to my job title and to what I accomplished as a journalist and communications executive. Because I was no longer solving problems at work or collaborating as a valued team leader, I didn’t feel like a productive member of society. My psyche was crushed.
Then I started to think about what was keeping me back. I wondered, Is it possible that I’m not alone in these feelings and the befuddlement of what to do about it? I realized I had hit a nerve when I described what I was going through to my friend Mika Brzezinski, cohost of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. She implored me to write this book and talk about the enormous emotional journey a person undergoes while looking for work, especially now, in one of the worst US job markets since the Great Depression.
She then told me about her own experience being unemployed, how she felt washed up and nearly convinced herself that she would never work again—this coming from a woman who had been an anchor at CBS network news and is now a best-selling author, coveted motivational speaker, and successful media force. Millions of people are going through similar situations but are just not talking about it, Mika pointed out, and many are desperate to validate feelings they’ve never experienced before, such as loneliness, worthlessness, and loss of purpose. What if I could figure out how to cope with these strong emotions and perhaps even harness them to help me go forward? What could relieve me of those nighttime panics where I would wake in a cold sweat worrying about the future and how I was going to pay the bills? As a journalist the only thing I could think to do was talk to others about it and ask questions. That was the only answer that made sense to me.
Mika was right; I was learning that the emotional side of unemployment is something few people discuss. This was true of many people I knew who were let go. They jumped feet first into the tactics of getting back in the workforce without setting up a strategy to deal with the emotional journey. The problem is, you can find yourself doing all the right things tactically but not making progress (and not understanding why) if you don’t spend the time addressing what is knocking your self-esteem for a loop.
“The confidence problem is a big one, because that is usually the first thing that is shaken in a person,” says Pamela Mitchell, one of the country’s pre-eminent career reinvention experts and founder of the Reinvention Institute. “People think that the old way should work. They are doing it like they always have done it, and it no longer works. And they get frustrated.”
No matter how you wound up out of work, it takes months for most people to register the enormity of the tectonic shift in their world. But in time it sinks in, and for many, short of terminal illness, they start to see how long-term unemployment can be the worst thing to happen to a person. It cuts you out of the herd like a pack of circling hyenas making breakfast out of a wildebeest calf on the grassy plains. You lose touch with colleagues and your workplace social network. The stress can lead to further terrible things happening in your life like divorce and suicide.
On May 2, 2013, the AP’s Mike Stobbe reported that the suicide rate among middle-aged Americans went up 28 percent from 1999 to 2010, a period that by no coincidence included the recession and the mortgage crisis. The trend was most pronounced among middle-aged white men and women between thirty-five and sixty-five. Their suicide rate jumped a staggering 40 percent during that same decade.
Stobbe raises the question, “Why did so many middle-aged whites—that is, those who are 35 to 64 years old—take their own lives? One theory suggests the recession caused more emotional trauma in whites who tend not to have the same kind of church support and extended families that blacks and Hispanics do.”
To me, coping with unemployment is similar to experiencing the five stages of grief laid out in the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying by Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in near-death studies. As with coming to terms with our mortality, maybe coming to a new understanding and acceptance that this is the way the world is now will set us free and help us make adjustments to better deal with this economy.
After all, it’s not a stretch to say we are talking about a crisis of almost biblical proportion. There’s an economic term for people who have been out of work for more than a year and find themselves overlooked by companies as the economy, albeit somewhat shrunken, moves on without them: hysteresis. This is one of the worst by-products of a long recession, according to one of my favorite writers on the subject, Don Peck, in his book Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. Hysteresis is the kiss of death for the rank-and-file unemployed, especially during a buyers’ market when employers can be super picky and as job skills erode. Peck notes that in this situation, social networks shrink, references disappear, and employers, sensing personal and professional dysfunction, pass them over for more recently unemployed workers.
What can be done to prevent this? I didn’t have to go far to find people willing to talk about it. Some were in the throes of lengthy unemployment, others had recently landed new jobs; they were all willing to open up about how they are managing the changing tides. I also talked with influential entrepreneurs and business leaders, including Christie Hefner, Donald Trump, Donny Deutsch, and the CEO of Deloitte LLP, Joe Echevarria. I spoke with media moguls like Mortimer B. Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News, and Arianna Huffington and entertainers like Seinfeld creator Larry David, as well as career coaches, respected executive recruiters, psychologists, and career reinvention experts. They generously shared their wisdom, advice, and stories about how they beat their job-loss blues and how they better prepared themselves for a second, third, or even fourth act.
Ultimately, I think the true value of this book boils down to one word: perspective. During an extended period of job loss, perspective flies out the window. What I have learned is that it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
An old friend used to say, “Time takes time.” For some reason those three words resonate with me, slow me down, and help me take stock of what’s going on around me and what’s important. It’s like a minimeditation. There are many reasons we become unemployed. Some are complicated and some are simple, but everybody has to work their way through them. Unemployment is a wake-up call, and what you choose to do with it is up to you. It’s an opportunity to build yourself a much stronger foundation. In sharing my story, personal victories, and proven methods of finding work—along with ideas from the other brilliant contributors—you’ll see that, no matter what happens, you can take yourself from point A to point Z—and you will. That sense of strength comes from your own self-determination and from a little faith. That is real power.
When the economy will turn around and happy times will return again is anybody’s guess (for some, happy times never left). Many economists point to 2018 as the magic date. According Don Peck, “true recovery is not simply a matter of jolting the economy back onto its former path; it’s about changing the path. Many of the deepest economic trends that the recession has highlighted and temporarily sped up will take decades to fully play out.” Keep in mind that it took more than twenty-five years for the housing market to recover and the economy to right itself after the crash of 1929—that’s about a generation.
I don’t have a crystal ball to see the economic future either, but I can say this: those who start to think counterintuitively and learn to navigate these changing tides and address the emotional strain of unemployment will have fulfilling lives no matter where their career takes them. For that reason, this book isn’t solely for the unemployed. It’s for anyone who has a good job today, because you never know what tomorrow may bring. You must be prepared to hit your own reset button and come up with plan B as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The Emotional Phases of Unemployment
Houston . . . we have a problem.
That was the first thought that crossed my mind when my boss summoned me to his office on the evening of March 19, 2012. I had been waiting for him to weigh in on changes to the weekly roundup newsletter I wrote. It was not unusual for him to put me off for hours even though he knew I was under a tight deadline.
My stomach filled with butterflies as I left my cubicle. Approaching his desk, I saw him looking at me with his signature blank stare. I instinctively knew this was the end. I crossed his office threshold and felt a fan of air against my back as an invisible hand shut the door behind me. The HR business leader took a seat next to me. I didn’t take my eyes off her. As far as I was concerned, my boss wasn’t in the room. I was furious and loathed his existence at this point.
My stomach was in knots. I had never been let go, but I knew plenty of people who had recently, in an economy where companies were slashing workers in record numbers, adding to the national unemployment rate that was hovering around 8.5 percent. The real numbers were much higher, more like 15 percent. It wasn’t pretty.
So here I sat, in front of my boss, the third I had reported to in less than two years with the company. I was listening to the HR leader terminate me, but I wasn’t hearing what she was saying. It reminded me of the Peanuts cartoons where adults speak in unintelligible honks: wha, wha, whaan. It had taken me a grueling yearlong search to land at this Fortune 500 company, and now I was being cast off during one of the worst job markets in a century. It was an outrage. In my mind this was a slow-motion catastrophe happening in fast-forward. It was clear that my boss was cleaning house to bring in his own team. He manufactured problems, manipulated the facts, and twisted reality to fit his story line. Never mind how unjust it was or how I had tried to head this day off for months by disputing these distortions with human resources. The bottom line: he wanted me out and had been building a case against me for months. I, however, wanted my job. I needed this job. I worked hard to get and keep the job, reinforced by earning stellar midyear employee reviews and the maximum bonus from my two previous supervisors. Now all I could do was sit there with a sock in my mouth and take the punishment.
The meeting concluded with my accepting a separation agreement in return for three months’ severance and outplacement services. Not bad, I guess, for what turned out to be a fairly short-lived job. The HR leader handed over more documents to read and then followed me to my cubicle, where she robotically collected my computer, employee badge, and cell phone. I thought, I’m now going to be accompanied out of the building by a couple of guys who look like they bounce for Hooters. Instead, I was told I could leave the building without an escort as long as I did not stop and talk to anyone along the way. Like I was going to broadcast the fact that I was no longer working at the company because my boss kicked me out. I gathered up my notebook and other odds and ends. “We’ll box up the rest of your stuff and mail it to you,” the HR leader said in the most helpful voice she could muster.
How could a job that started out so well end so poorly? Less than two years earlier I had been hired as the new VP of communications for the US market for one of the world’s most iconic brands. It was a huge break, putting an end to a job search that started when my own PR business was sputtering to stay alive after the recession put a stranglehold on the economy. By mid-2008 most of my clients had either gone out of business or, like my anchor clients, experienced drastic cutbacks; PR services were often the first thing to go.
I loved my new boss, the one who originally hired me, at my new gig. He was young, smart, and supportive. Three months after hiring me, though, he left the company for more responsibility and much more money. That caught me by surprise. I was disappointed and concerned that drastic change was afoot. Things worked out. I inherited his boss. She was a firecracker—smart and full of vitality—who had been with the company for a very long time and rose quickly through the ranks. She too was supportive and valued my skills and what I brought to her department. I loved my job and looked forward to arriving early to get a jump on the day. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world. I had a great job that paid decently during the worst economy in modern history, and I was starting to apply my skills and learn about a new industry. What more could you ask for?
Then my new, new, inherited boss got promoted.
Bam, it was the World According to Garp under boss number 3. Within a month he fired a colleague who had started a month before me. Number 3 was impossible to read, played the devil’s advocate on every issue, and answered most questions with a question. You know the type. He was dour, pessimistic, and negative. He loved meetings. He was all strategy. He was the king of paralysis through analysis—the polar opposite of my first manager, which worried me. No, it put the fear of God into me is more like it. With boss number 3 it was all business while you were on the clock; when you weren’t on the clock, you avoided him at all cost.
Two months into the job, he showed his true colors. Returning from a business trip where we had given a presentation to one of our biggest clients, he and I were standing in a busy train station with people going to and fro, literally bumping into each other on their way to their train platforms, when he sort of squared off and asked me in what seemed a hostile tone at the time, “Dwain, do you want my job?”
I was floored. What a loaded question! He was my third boss, and I was still getting to know him. I hadn’t even been with the company for eighteen months, not to mention I was new to the industry and working hard to prove myself. It was absurd to think that I was gunning for his job, and I didn’t feel qualified to even fill that role at this point.
What possessed him to ask that question in a crowded train station, of all places? It was so ill timed that I thought at first he was attempting to be humorous, which was also absurd, but at that point I was grasping at straws. I was a fish out of water with this guy. He liked it that way.
He was trying to intimidate me. How should I answer? Prior to asking me if I wanted his job, he had finished a five-minute-long critique of our meeting with the client. There were reasons the meeting went the way it did, and it was a successful meeting without the perceived barriers he was throwing up. He was frustrated that I didn’t drive the meeting, but I was accompanying him as a new boss, and he knew all the players and had ten years’ more industry experience than I did. I chose to try not to be perceived as attempting to show him up in the meeting. In some twisted way, did he perceive me to be a threat now because of it? Surely not.
I decided the best way to answer was to dance around the question and tell him I was busy with my current responsibilities. “I’m happy where I am,” I said.
“So, you’re happy treading water then?” he replied with a straight face. I thought to myself, Is this for real? It was offensive, but I kept my cool. Was he baiting me? What was he talking about, treading water? He was picking a fight. I took a deep breath. I needed to keep my emotions in check. He shot back, “So, where do you see yourself in a year?” We’re in a train station in Delaware!
And so it went. Pure torture. Up was down, white was yellow, who’s on first . . . anybody? Through all this, the guy had the balls to say he just had my best interests at heart. “Don’t you believe me?” he would ask. No, I didn’t believe him, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it at the time, or ever for that matter.
SO, ON A BEAUTIFUL March evening, I walked out of corporate headquarters with separation papers in hand and took a huge, deep breath. For the first time in months, I actually looked around and appreciated the sunset and beautifully manicured campus. Nonetheless, the situation was grave and daunting. I was aware that twenty million people were unemployed or underemployed and that a huge percentage of them were middle-aged, white-collar workers just like me.
I told myself not to worry; I was too good for this company anyway. I had a plan. An eerie sense of calm swept over me. Mika later warned me of this feeling. In a 2009 blog, she brilliantly articulated the emotions a person experiences after being let go: “Many ‘friendships’ from work evaporate, quickly, for all sorts of disappointing reasons. There is denial. Fake Bliss. (I am so glad I am out of there! I am, I really am. What a mess that place was!) Then reality—You can’t stop asking why.”
In my first weeks of unemployment, I was totally enveloped in that fake bliss she was referring to. It was intoxicating. Everything will be fine, I told myself. I have a solid network of friends, and whether I liked it or not, it was time to move on. I’ll have a job in less than a month this time around.
I felt empowered with a sense of freedom I had not felt for years. In my mind, I was highly marketable. Because I had been working for nearly two years, I paid little attention to jobs numbers or the unemployment rate. I was pretty convinced that there were opportunities out there for me and that other companies would be looking for my unique skill set and knowledge.
On the drive home I called my wife on her cell to tell her the news. She didn’t say much. She listened to me go on and on about how this was probably a good thing. Her silence led me to believe she was probably thinking to herself, that’s a crock of shit but keep telling yourself that. I could tell she was more than concerned. I told her everything would be okay and that I already had several irons in the fire. Looking back, I realize my wife already knew the lunacy and sorrow I, we, would face with my being out of work, again, in this job market from hell. She knew deep down I was scared about the future and angry at how things had turned out.
Ironically, the cruel truth is I had played a role in hiring number 3. My second boss allowed me to interview him prior to making her decision. Although he lacked personality and the social skills of my other two bosses, it was undeniable that he stood out as the most qualified candidate. In the end, I hired my own executioner. It reminds me of a passage in one of my favorite novels by Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone.
Life. . . . You live it forward, but understand it backward. It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel.
Today I was that corpse.
Layoff—It’s a Family Affair
I pulled in the driveway prepared to tell Colleen all the reasons getting fired was good for us. I was planning to tell her that I’ll find something that better fits my talents and temperament. I just needed a few minutes to convince her of that.
In reality, words failed me. I walked in the door, said hello, and hightailed it downstairs to my desk and computer in the basement. I avoided eye contact. She needed eye contact. She wanted eye contact. I didn’t have it to give. She needed reassurance that I was okay and that we would be okay. I wasn’t so sure and she knew it.
Colleen bounded down the stairs after me and stood staring as I sat at my desk. She started to cry. I wasn’t expecting that and snapped at her to stop. It made me uncomfortable to see her like this. For God’s sake, I haven’t been out of work for more than an hour and she’s already falling apart. “Everything’s going to be fine. This is no big deal. I’ll be out of work three, four weeks tops. I’ve got a network of gold—you know I have friends I can call on to help me find a job.”
I’ve been working in one way or another since I was a sophomore in high school, when my best buddy and I painted houses in the summer. I was always working and was proud of putting in a hard day’s work. I worked my way through college, spending summers catching albacore tuna on a commercial fishing boat. After college I became an award-winning on-air television reporter and was wooed away from that job by the humanitarian relief agency AmeriCares. So naturally I’m thinking,
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2013
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books