This isn’t another one of those “revamp your resume, network, be ready with good interview questions” diatribes written and published on the job boards.
Rather, it is a saga of survival. Nothing compares to being “downsized”, today’s vernacular for being axed. “They” say that divorce, death of a loved one or losing one’s job are three of life’s most traumatic events. Having lived through all three, I can attest that the latter gets top billing.
There are four things that suffer from job loss: confidence, productivity, camaraderie and skills. Blessed with a good group of friends and a few clients whose portfolios I managed helped mitigate the last two, but the constant scrambling for meetings and the trickle of resulting interviews and fewer offers made me feel totally unproductive.
When I lost my job (not totally unexpected, since a merger had been announced) the usual fear and shock set in. Escaping for a few days to my weekend house to lick my wounds and plan my next move taught me nature’s lessons: we plant seeds, the sun shines, the rain comes, and in due time there is a harvest. A good metaphor for the job search.
All was not bleak: I turned down some jobs that I knew were not right, despite the promise of a good salary and respectable employment. A firm believer that we do best at what we enjoy, I had to be true to myself. Only time will tell if that was the right choice. But it was the choice I made.
Then, Bear Stearns imploded, and legions of qualified (and younger) applicants were unleashed on an already difficult job market. While I had a flurry of activity with a few companies that were hiring, I was not chosen. Meanwhile, I also made the rounds of recruiters, and for the most part, found them not to be helpful.
My weekend house has been a work in progress, as anyone can attest who has undertaken the renovating a 200-year old place. While my financial head told me this was a time to conserve cash, I faced the reality of getting my place ready to sell. Already committed to putting in a new kitchen, I moved forward with confidence, finding creative uses of credit, and sharpening my management skills, ruthlessly slashing costs as I rode herd over subcontractors. Being on site and running requisite errands for supplies, etc., saved at least 10 percent of the labor costs, and contractors, happy to have any work, cut their rates even further. It was therapeutic to produce a beautiful masterpiece and balanced the search/interview/rejection rollercoaster, although the constant cacophony of drills and hammers made phone calls a challenge. My new kitchen, pantry and mud-room are stunning, and for the first time since losing my job a year earlier, I could point to something and say “I did that!” with pride.
As if on cue, upon its completion, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, and a difficult search environment ground to a stop. Fighting despair, I took a drastic step (at least for me, a bonafide city girl). Blessed with a beautiful Park Avenue apartment, I opted to rent it for the winter while I searched for a job upstate where I thought there would be less competition (wrong). I was fortunate to have a couple of consulting projects to keep my mind occupied, portfolio management skills honed, and some money trickling in. All through the brutal winter with constant sub-freezing weather, I kept a picture of my beautiful NYC co-op on display in my home office upstate to remind me that, like MacArthur, I will return. Somehow I survived, and my new kitchen and its wood burning fireplace gave succor. A meager return on investment, but it helped.
Despite freezing temperatures, my routine included a daily run for exercise, then back to my desk for phone calls to arrange networking meetings (thereby combating isolation), and coming into NYC each week for meetings and interviews. Twice I had great interviews with companies, only to be told on follow up that the position was “on hold”. Fighting gloom with more activity, I joined strategic networking groups and accepted an invitation to join an equity research group to keep my skills current. I asked my friends for their indulgence NOT to mention my search, as I found the endless questions, although well meaning, to be a negative reminder of a dire situation.
While focused on my own search, I was always helpful to others, arranging meetings and offering contacts, resume comments and general moral support to anyone in need. I can point with pride to three outstanding people who now are working because of my contacts.
Which brings me to another thing I learned: there are opportunities in every negative. Everyone will bargain.Walking out of a high-end leather goods store after learning the price of a bag was beyond my limited budget, (no surprise) the proprietor offered a 70 percent discount, saying he’d rather sell something for a significantly lower price than not at all.
Vital to a job search are good grooming and exercise. I kept my hair cut and colored (while shamelessly requesting and receiving a “recession rate), nails manicured and shoes shined. I doggedly adhered to my work-out schedule of running, cycling or walking. It kept me sane (while combating too much time and close proximity to my refrigerator).
As spring came, and another couple of hoped-for job opportunities dissolved, I fought the blues by accepting an invitation from a friend in LA to visit for the weekend. Cashing in miles, for four days I bathed in sunshine and warmth. Her kind offer of a spare bedroom and bath if worst came to worst was a wonderful source of solace.
Energized, I networked with every man, woman, child and dog owner who would talk to me, and reconnected with a recruiter who knew my history as a marathon runner. He had no job for me but invited me to join him and his friends on the Mt. Washington, New Hampshire road race in June. I jumped at the chance to run a 7.5 mile incline to an altitude of 6.8 miles (yes, I’m nuts). Training for it kept me goal focused, and my photo finish reminded me I could achieve, even if I couldn’t get a job.
While summer brought a halt to most meetings as those employed escaped the city and its constant negative Wall Street drumbeat, I had unearthed an opportunity right after Easter, dutifully going through the paces and enlisting the HR assistant to propel me forward when the process seemed to drag. Each round of interviews brought me closer to my dream job of managing portfolios for a well-respected bank entering the NYC market. I knew I was the perfect candidate. So did they, it seemed.
While the process unfolded I discovered another benefit of having no job: time to indulge my love of reading of history and biography and discovered Wedding of the Waters, by Peter Bernstein, the tale of building the Erie Canal in upstate New York. A web search turned up an organized 8-day bike ride along the canal, and since I had the time, I signed up. Coincidentally, I had my fifth round of interviews with the executive VP of the aforementioned bank for breakfast on a hot, steamy July morning. I casually let it drop that I was leaving that afternoon for the bike trip, dispelling any thoughts he could have about my age while subliminally conveying I was not so desperate for a job that I couldn’t afford a vacation. Impressed, he shook my hand, and said he thought we had a deal. So did I, as I rode off on my odyssey.
Riding my bike from Buffalo to just outside Albany, a 382-mile trip, was an endurance test. Doing 65 to 70 miles a day consumed all of my energy and gave me a much-needed respite from the search saga. I saw beautiful parts of New York, focused on the history of the area, noted the “Burned Over District” where both the Mormon Church and the women’s movement began, and was reminded there is life outside of New York City. Back home, saddle sore but refreshed and toned (my arms can compete with Michelle Obama’s!), I hit the ground running and immediately followed up with the bank, hoping to finalize the offer.
Regrettably, during my absence, they decided not to fill the position, an outcome I have learned to accept as part of this recession. Deeply disappointed, I licked my wounds for a day or two, and then, back to the drawing board, hit the phones again. I’m nurturing a couple of opportunities and have faith that something will open up. If I can renovate a kitchen, run 7.5 miles up a mountain, bike 382 miles in the searing heat of the summer, I can get a job. If not, I know I can always sell both places and pedal my bike west to Los Angeles and stay with my friend. Now THAT would be another tale.