Losing a Job You Loved

mm Russ Finkelstein

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”—Alfred Lord Tennyson

I recently wrote about the choice we can make: whether we should love, like, or tolerate our jobs. In response, I had several people write me with a follow-up question: What if you decide the you are willing to make the commitment to find a job you love, and you’re successful, but then you lose that job. What do you do then?

Often I have this conversation with professionals who’ve recently been laid off because of an organizational restructuring, or something else beyond their control. This kind of loss can creep up on you, too, perhaps over a period of years where the market for your field of experience and expertise just drops away.

Here are a couple of specific examples: I was coaching some employees of a startup, recently, who were devastated when their employer decided to close down their office for various reasons, leaving dozens of them unsure what to do next, or where to turn. Likewise a friend of mine spent years carving out a career as a newspaper journalist, only to watch as the market for his set of skills dropped away with countless buyouts, and what he describes as “the slow death of print journalism.” He simply woke up one morning without a sustaining employer, or much prospect of finding one, in a field where previously he had felt confident and optimistic, and he felt pretty lost at the prospect of reinventing himself.

I want you to be aware of two things as you consider what to do in a situation like this. Firstly, which kind of scenario are you in? Did the economy change, and start contracting in your field or role, so that you need to look at different kinds of work? Or is the challenge finding a similar kind of opportunity with another employer in the same field?

Secondly, I want to offer what I consider to be an unusual warning for me, which is that people can be quite unsupportive in this situation. People might tell you that you were lucky to have a job you loved, and that you shouldn’t expect to have one like that again. They might quote the statistic that 70 percent of Americans are unhappy in their jobs. Perhaps they, themselves, have never exactly loved their jobs, and there might be some professional envy at work. So, suck it up and feel fortunate to have enjoyed it for as long as you did.

While I don’t begrudge Lord Tennyson his point about “loving and losing”, I also recognize that having loved our job, once, we don’t usually want to simply curl up in a ball and feel fortunate for our past. I do believe that there is a good chance you’ll find work you love again, when you are ready, if you are open to the possibility, and willing to put in the work.

Given that these setbacks do happen to a person’s career. Here are some strategies for what to do when you’re feeling the loss of a job you loved.

First, ask yourself these three questions, which get at how quickly you can reasonably shift:

  1. How quickly do you need a next job, financially?
  2. Are there jobs available in the role or field in which you have been working, or do you need to pivot to something new?
  3. How emotionally raw are you feeling as you consider what to do next?

If you were able to reflect now, that is fantastic. If you need to spend time later to get to thoughtful answers, that’s fine too.

Before you find your next job…

Wait until you’re ready to love again

If you’ve just lost a job you loved, it’s may take a while before you’re ready to throw your energy into something new. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be passionate, completely engaged, and kicking butt every single day of your professional life. Give yourself a few months to decompress. If you’re unsure what you want, but you need money, you can seek a short-term position. Find somewhere secure to land, process what happened and make an informed choice about what to do next. You’ll know when you’re ready to be more intentional again about your career, and I really do encourage people to take this time for reflection, rather than simply throw themselves into the next thing. I’ve seen many people rush to take the first thing that was offered, even when they had a fair severance package. Grieving over a lost job and processing what happened can take quite a lot of energy and time gives you useful perspective.

Your attitude does shape your reality

Attitude really counts when you’re in a tough spot, professionally. Many people wear their moods on their sleeves. I recall running job fairs and being able to clearly pick out people who were participating, but without much hope of landing a position. Likewise, optimism is something that can be at play when you are reviewing openings. At first you might look at new opportunities with a degree of disbelief about your ability to land them, and that kind of professional dysmorphia is quite common, actually, when people are grieving the loss of a job they loved. But these things are self-fulfilling. Try to notice when you’re down on your potential, and even if you can’t think yourself over the hump, try to at least make room for the possibility that you’re looking at the glass as half empty. If you must land a job as soon as possible, practice your interactions with someone supportive and friendly, and ask them to help you ensure that your outlook isn’t overtaking your responses.

Do you believe that things will not get better?

There is a nihilist element of negative thinking in career progression, and it’s often linked to aging. When we are younger, we’re often quite confident that, even if we aren’t happy now, life may well improve as we acquire more agency and independence. As we get older many of us in the contemporary working world think that the future is bound to be a downward spiral, whenever we face setbacks. The changing nature of technology, the decrease in employer loyalty and the ability to find someone cheaper all play a part in that spiral. I call your attention to this, because if you just lost a job you loved, you might well be indulging in a bit of nihilism. Ask yourself: Are you? And: How realistic is it, really? If you get to this place, engage someone else you know and trust in a conversation about your unique set of skills and talents. This is probably best not your gloomiest friend, nor the hyper-positive one that you can easily dismiss. Rather, find someone of standing, and talk it out.  

Not every opportunity lasts forever

It’s very important to remember that many great opportunities in life, indeed sometimes the very best ones, are fleeting. As my quoting of Tennyson makes clear, it’s very hard not to compare the loss of a job you loved with grieving for the loss of a great relationship. Maybe you had an incredible summer or year with someone who changed your outlook forever. You might be sad because it didn’t last a lifetime, for whatever reason. But you wouldn’t take back the experience, would you? I doubt it. That’s because life is for living, and work is for working. I hate to break it to you, but neither continues in perpetuity and we need to appreciate what was great about each while it lasted.

Beware excessive nostalgia

Looking back over even the most lackluster of careers, you’ll remember a few high points, days when you felt absolutely engaged and motivated, for some reason. And it’s easy to look back on your former job as though every single day was exciting and motivating. I have a friend, for example, who once managed a branch of a fast food chain, and can speak at length about the joys of the role. Now he is a college professor, and far less enthusiastic, most of the time, about his current work! But the truth is, even the most boring or frustrating jobs do consist of some fantastic, if fleeting, moments. If you’re tempted to think that you’ll never have it quite as good again, in career terms, try to remember a few things about that role you say you loved that could have been better. In my friend’s case, for example, he really did not enjoy overseeing the cleaning of the restrooms, or the lack of a tenure track. Perspective is important.

Fill the voids

If you are having a tough time accepting some of the losses, try to mitigate some of the short-term pain by writing down key elements of your job that you really enjoyed, and find the pieces that can be recreated in the short-term. If you really miss the people, then fill the void by making plans to meet up with some of them more regularly. If there was a sense of making a positive difference in society, then perhaps you step up your volunteering? Rather than miss all that you loved about the job, just recreate some aspects of that life while you try to get your bearings again. You don’t have to go “cold-turkey” when you lose a job you love. And in this respect, it’s a little easier to get over this kind of loss than a lost relationship.

Grieve, but don’t stew

There is inevitably a period of discomfort and loss that follows losing a job you love, and it is important to make some space to process those feelings. But I always tell people, as a career coach, to beware of feeling certainty of any sort. That includes feeling love for your job, but also, hopelessness about having lost it. If you find yourself for months feeling certain, for example, that you’ll never have a job again in the future that you loved quite as much as the one you’ve just lost, or feeling that it’s simply not worth getting out there and finding what’s next, then you’re over-thinking it. There simply is no guarantee that the next opportunity mightn’t be much more interesting. Trust me. You need to be open to the possibility that good things could happen in the future. And you should trust in your ability to take the actions that will make those good things happen, too. These are also the times to have regular conversations with friends who prevent and endless descent.

Accept that job security is often beyond your control

Often our reason for leaving jobs we really enjoy is beyond our control. Perhaps we need to make more money to care for a relative, or we have to move to another place for some reason. Maybe there is an organizational issue around budget or new performance metrics. Perhaps you have a new boss who comes in with a different focus from the previous one, or wants to hire their people. The point is: You’re often not responsible for losing the job you loved. I suffer, more times than I will readily admit, from taking responsibility for things that are far beyond my purview. The sooner you accept that you too don’t control the universe of possibility, the more scary life gets, but also, the freer you are of guilt.

When you start your next job…

It takes time to love a new job

Assuming you’re lucky enough to be in a new opportunity, perhaps one that you’re not enjoying as much as the old one, then it is worth remembering that most jobs do take time to feel your way into. The job you loved, for example, probably was quite hard until you found your feet and learned the idiosyncrasies of your colleagues and manager. Did you always like the job you loved? Even from day one? Most people find the process to be a bit disorienting, like the first day at school, when they have just moved and don’t know where to sit for lunch. It takes some time to get your bearings.

Realize the importance of balance—or, beware of loving your job again

One of the real ironies of having lost a job you loved, of course, is that next time you love your work, you might feel a little more wary about losing it. I’m not trying to depress you! We talk a lot about the importance of balancing life and work, but there is perhaps never a better time to have a learning moment, on this front, than when you realize, perhaps more than you might have expected, that you once derived a great deal of personal satisfaction and perhaps even sense of identity from your job. It’s up to every individual to decide whether they want a job they like, love, or tolerate, but I do encourage people to make very conscious decisions about how much of their sense of self-worth and value they draw from what they do to earn money. Is it time to take up meditation, or to invest a little more energy in your life outside work? Perhaps not, but remember: You’re free to choose.

The TV Show Friends once featured an episode in which the character, Chandler, went through a breakup and was talked about as going through his “sweatpants” phase. That was the phase where he just wanted to sit around in his sweatpants and process what had happened. If you find this blog helpful in getting through the sweatpants phase of losing a job you loved, then that would make me happy. But timing is everything, and the best thing would be if you know someone who just lost a job they love, to share this article with them in that tough moment. Sometimes all you need to hear in the sweatpants phase is that there is a second phase, and a third. And that somebody really does believe that you will find career love again in the future. So: I’m rooting for you. You can do it.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >