Like millions of others, I lost my job in 2009 due to the recession. I had worked for 17 years in an international aid organization and believed on some level that I was called to this career field, kind of like a Mother Teresa but with good pay and benefits. Admittedly, I was stunned when my “call” led to unemployment in a 15-minute termination meeting.
Besides the obvious practical setbacks of losing a job (lack of income, for example), I also experienced an existential loss as I became unmoored from my beliefs about purposeful work. I free-floated away from gainful employment and also from my so-called vocation, which I had unwittingly entangled with self-importance. Now, six years later, I’ve come to believe that a good job is less about personal meaning and more about humility, fairness and gratitude.
I used to believe that my self-worth derived from the kind of job I had. Since I had a job that helped poor people around the world, “the poorest of the poor” as some said, I thought of myself as extra valuable. Now I call that belief system something else: smug.
Through my twisted sense of vocation, I stamped myself with a spiritual seal of approval, believing I was saving the world through my own cleverness. When I was laid off, I lost both a paycheck and a belief system regarding job satisfaction. But I realize these losses aren’t all bad because now I have another word for my former belief system: obnoxious.
I’ll never minimize job loss. I’ve met many capable, talented people who have lost their jobs for no obvious reason, some of them more than once. They are my people. And I will say that I’m a better person now, precisely because of my forced exploration of vocation.
Before I lost my job an obvious fact was lost on me: At least 1 billion people in this world who live on a dollar a day are probably not fully manifest in their respective skill sets. (Interesting that this didn’t dawn on me since it was precisely my field of work.)
On top of that, before I joined the unemployed I didn’t know the extent to which even the top billion people are underemployed or frustratingly employed. I realized there are lots of folks who spend hours, days and years in soul-sucking positions. Does that make them less valuable human beings? As I moved deeper into the ranks of the job-searchers, I started asking myself why my struggles were anything other than ordinary and why I was entitled to so-called purposeful work.
The notion of vocation turned upside down for me, and it took me six years to realize I can hardly stomach the self-righteous person I was before I lost my job.
Now my outlook on the job front is more about humility and gratitude and less about my own greatness. And in yet another twist, I’m infinitely better even though I am in a precarious professional demographic as a woman in her 50s. I’ve rediscovered learning, expanded my network and shined up my skills. And most importantly, I’ve become committed to building up the people around me.
I’ve come to realize the world owes me nothing, everything is a gift and my power doesn’t come from external validation. I’ve even dusted off an old book “The Four Agreements” by Miguel Ruiz. A job coach from long ago recommended the book to me, but I didn’t embrace it until recently. The four agreements are:
- Be impeccable with your word.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Always do your best.
Given the choice, I wouldn’t have opted for a layoff, and I hope it never happens again. But I know it could. Heads up, it could happen to you too. I don’t wish job termination on anyone, but I can honestly say losing my job was the best professional development I’ve ever had.