How To Turn Job Loss Into An Opportunity
“I’ve just lost my job and I did nothing wrong.”
I could hear the outrage in Keith’s voice as he hovered beside the armchair he was too agitated to sit in.
“My boss is such a jerk,” he told me. “He just didn’t try to understand what an asset I am to the business. He even said I had an attitude problem. Me, of all people!”
Keith had been a senior asset manager at an international bank for nearly five years. His anger was so powerful it swamped his sadness, fear and shame. Losing our job is hard because it makes us face difficult questions. Will I get another job? Can I pay the bills? What will my friends think? How will I fill my time? Was it my fault?
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, psychologist Dr Carol Dweck offers a helpful model to overcome setbacks such as losing our job, by showing us how we can grow through adversity. We do this, Dr Dweck says, by developing a flexible mindset. Instead of seeing problems as, well, problems, we should reframe them as chances. And, by acknowledging the part we played in them, we can then behave differently if or when a similar situation arises again.
I felt Dr Dweck’s ideas would be helpful for Keith because his disappointment about losing his job was keeping him in what she calls a fixed mindset. This was stopping him from seeing his own responsibility for his redundancy.
Keith was quick to take credit for his work successes but keen to blame others when things went wrong. Social psychologists call this self-serving bias, which protects our self-esteem while at the same time limiting our opportunities to learn and grow.
It was hard for Keith to look beyond blaming his former boss for what went wrong. This meant he couldn’t acknowledge the real reason why he was fired – a lack of communication skills and the low morale of his team.
“Instead of seeing problems as, well, problems, we should reframe them as chances”
During the months we worked together, these painful truths slowly became clear to Keith as he started to take some responsibility for what had happened to him and shifted towards a more flexible mindset. In a memorable session, Keith said, “I can see now I could have been much better at letting my team know what I was expecting from them and letting them come to me with problems.” We smiled at each other, recognising how different a perspective Keith had now compared with the rage born from his wounded pride in our early sessions.
In a session a week later, I suggested that we do a visualisation together to help him find a way forward. I asked Keith to close his eyes and think back to his best day ever when he was just eight years old. It could be a specific memory or moment. He just had to be having fun. Was he outside or indoors? Alone or with others? What was he doing? And what was it precisely that made this so much fun?
Keith started smiling as he described helping his grandfather make shelves in his workshop. “It was just the two of us and he let me use a saw,” said Keith. “I’d never used a saw on my own before. It was just brilliant. I can remember the smell of the wood, too, and that we were making this brand new thing that had never existed before.”
Listening to this memory I picked up on things that were lacking in the job Keith had just lost. Physically making something practical. Being taught by an older, wiser person. Being in a sensory environment.
When we are children (around the age of seven or eight), we show something of our true selves that can often get hidden in adolescence and into adulthood as we become more self-conscious and squeeze ourselves to fit the expectations of others. Additionally, some scientific studies have shown that children begin to form long-term memory around this age (and forget much of what came before). Eight is also the age at which we begin to have a degree of freedom from our parents’ control, which allows us more personal expression. If we can tap in to what excited us most as kids, we can gain a powerful insight into the kinds of things we should be doing as adults.
“I’d forgotten all about making stuff with Grandad,” said Keith as he opened his eyes. “It was so much fun. He was a brilliant teacher, too. God, I miss him.” Keith told me he hadn’t made anything in years. Where this might lead Keith we’re still figuring out, but, for now, as he plans his next career move, he no longer struggles to fill his time. He signed up for a woodworking course later that day.
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante