It’s been three months since I got the email. The email that unexpectedly ended my time at Google and started me on my layoff journey. My first reaction was panic, confusion, and a profound sense of loss — all of which I wrote about in my original post back in January. At that time, all I could think about was the future I had created for myself in my head, the plans I had made, the relationships I had built — all of which had been cruelly snatched away in a moment’s notice.
Despite the positive note I ended my last post on, I was still grappling with the immensity of uncertainty ahead of me. There were so many questions to answer — should I stay in the same role? The same industry? The same state? Should I continue to work client side, agency, or start my own business? Should I take some time to relax or dive right into job searching? Was I going to have to take a level or pay cut? There were a lot more mundane questions, too. Like, how does COBRA work, anyway? (This last one would occupy an inordinate amount of my time).
To work through these questions, I committed to spending the first two weeks just on reflection: exploring my options, talking to people, reading, working on the house, maybe even working on a book… just a little time to think before I committed to a direction. Then, after that, I could start making progress in whatever direction I chose. It was a good plan. It just took a lot longer than I expected. And I got a lot less done, too.
Just last week, now three months into my 2-week plan, I caught up with my brother-in-law. He hadn’t seen me since shortly after the layoff. He asked me how my plan had gone.
“Well, you know. I had planned to read a lot,” I said.
“How many books did you end up reading?” He replied.
“Oh, none. I have read none books.” I admitted.
In truth, it’s hard to say exactly what I’ve been up to these last three months. I did end up talking to people. A lot of people. One friend recommended I talk to 100 people before deciding what to do next. I think I’ve talked to 80 now – more if you include emails. I have not worked on our house at all (surprising no one). I have been writing (as you can see). Just not as productively as I had initially imagined. And I’ve been job seeking, as well, which has progressed much more slowly than I expected and yet still taken up way more time than I anticipated.
But mostly, when I think back on how I’ve spent the last three months, I’ve been reflecting.
Layoffs aren’t meaningful, but you can make meaning from them.
Layoffs force reflection. It’s one of the reasons so many people are quick to frame layoffs as some sort of gift (that and toxic positivity). It’s why you hear grizzled tech employees wax poetic about how layoffs helped them find a better direction or opened up some new door for them. It’s hard not to be reflective when your world suddenly stops, when your built-in social circle is torn away, and when you suddenly seem to have lots of time but very little direction.
I don’t think layoffs are a gift. I think they are cruel and traumatic and questionably effective at best. I would not have chosen this for me or any of my many, many friends who have been impacted.
But given that this has happened to me and given that things are seemingly turning out okay, I’ve found myself in a state of relative acceptance and even, dare I say, cautious optimism. As I said in my last piece, having the future robbed from me had the unintended side effect of allowing me to consider new possibilities I wouldn’t have before. And to re-consider prior paths that I had abandoned for reasons that now don’t seem so important.
Talking to so many people, hearing so many perspectives, and being forced time and time again to explain what I want to do and how I do it – it’s allowed me to really zero in on what’s important to me in my career. And what’s not. I’ve had to really think about what made me happy in the past. And to confront the times when I wasn’t really that happy – but the extrinsic motivations like title, compensation, or even prestige made me think I was happy.
I’ve also gotten way better at my elevator pitch: telling a succinct little story about the path that led me here and what it is that I can uniquely bring to you and your company (so hire me, please). Of course, my story is just that, a story. But telling my narrative over and over – iterating and pruning and tweaking – has had the effect of helping me clarify to myself how I want people to see my career. It has let me advocate for the type of role and environment I really want, rather than trying to squeeze into a box that others see for me. And it’s given me a great deal of clarity on where exactly it is that I want to be going.
Take my advice, I’m not using it.
Talking to a lot of people has also led me to consider a lot of different perspectives on my career path. And, perhaps more importantly, reject a lot of advice. Because here’s the thing about advice: it’s not really about you. It’s about the person giving it.
Most people give advice because it’s what they wished they would have known. It’s based on their circumstances and, also, how things ultimately turned out for them. But they don’t know exactly what you are going through. And they don’t know what would have happened if they had taken a different path. They can only give you the advice that was tailored to their exact context.
After I was first laid off, I heard a lot of advice along the lines of “Don’t take the first opportunity that comes along.” and “Don’t rush! You have time!” This advice came from a place of love and was meant to help me relax. But it had the opposite effect for me. My circumstances are such that I can’t wait to figure this out. And there are a lot of others out there like me – people with medical conditions that require healthcare, people on visas, pregnant people, people who are sole income-earners with debt to pay off….
I remember sitting down to tea with one of my favorite people in the world, just two weeks into my forced “reflection” period. I repeated this “don’t rush” advice to her as though it were a fact, since so many people had quoted it to me.
“That’s bullshit,” she said. “If what you want is stability, take the first good opportunity.”
Her point? It’s okay to focus on what you need right now. This isn’t some magical window that will disappear forever after you get your next job. Focus on what’s going to make you happy. If taking a stable job is going to satiate your anxiety and allow you to feel peace? Take the stable job. You know what’s best for you.
You can only run your own race.
Self-comparison doesn’t magically disappear with your job. Looking around during the first month or so, I couldn’t help but notice what my other Golden 12k “Xooglers” (ex-Googlers) and November-layoff Metamates were doing with their time.
A few friends started or restarted their own consulting businesses. One friend built a research class from scratch. Another got a book deal. A group of former colleagues are on the way to funding their own startup. I, on the other hand, couldn’t even muster up the energy to cook dinner most days after spending even just a few hours in the job hunt.
Then you had my friends with the opposite approach. Many friends took vacations to sunny, beautiful places. One notable colleague took six weeks to travel around the world. Others spent time cooking, hiking, revisiting hobbies, and embracing a break from work. Meanwhile, the best I could do to lean into my “time off” was spend an hour at Target looking at things I probably didn’t need to buy. I couldn’t even relax properly.
These feelings of inadequacy were, of course, compounded by those ex-colleagues’ LinkedIn posts cheerfully announcing a new position. I wanted to be happy for them, of course, but wow – that was fast. They’re already starting a new position and I’m still at the beginning of my search. Shouldn’t I be further along by now?
Of course, this comparison is useless. We’re all running our own races. I know myself – I can’t relax until I have my plan figured out. And while I haven’t written a book or launched a company, I’ve made a lot of personal progress that’s hard to measure. And you know what’s great? I don’t have to measure it! There is no performance review for layoffs. There are no gold stars for the fastest person to get a job, or the best relaxer, or the most productive individual. There’s only you and your happiness.
Embrace the “no”
Most of my accomplishments over the past few months have been personal. Intangible. This has led to some of my anxiety about whether I am doing “enough”. Sure, I’ve done a lot of networking. I’ve put myself out there for new opportunities. I’ve spent a lot of time planting a lot of seeds for the future, hoping a few will pay off.
But most of them haven’t. And that can be really hard.
I, like many people in my industry, really like to succeed. My husband and I joke that I just want to be the best at everything all the time – is that so much to ask? I don’t just want to pass interviews, I want to get an A+. But if these layoffs have taught me anything, it’s that if you want to break outside your shell, to go for something outside your and others’ comfort zone, you’re going to have to be ready to fail.
I have reached out to a lot of people over the past few months. Sometimes, I know them only through a friend. Other times, I know them only in passing, “Hey, I interviewed with you back in 2018. Remember me? No? Okay, no worries, let me tell you about my deal anyway…”
Every fiber of my being tells me not to do this. I don’t want to bother other people. I don’t want to be presumptuous. I don’t want them to reject me or tell me I’m not qualified. But you can’t get to the yes without a few no’s along the way.
One role I applied to was particularly outside of my wheelhouse. An innovation role at a toy-making company. I have zero toy-making experience and only a little experience with physical products. But I have a lot of innovation experience and I love toys. So why not?
I think the interviewers and I were equally surprised how far I got. Turns out, there is a lot of overlap with innovation research, regardless of industry. However, eventually, we both came to the conclusion that there were probably more experienced hires that were going to be able to do the role better. They said, “no thank you” and that was that. And you know what? It didn’t even hurt (much). I learned a whole lot. And I made some great connections. And if I want to go for something like that again in the future, I’m going to be a lot better prepared.
And you know what’s even more amazing? A lot of people I thought would say no to my requests… have said “yes”. Or at least “yes, maybe.” If I hadn’t opened myself up to failure, I wouldn’t have even gotten that far in the conversation.
I’m not at the end of my layoff journey. And I don’t know that I ever really will be. I’m still interviewing, still reflecting, and still figuring out my long-term plan. There are a lot of days where I feel down. Days when I don’t want to get off the couch and go do another screening interview. Where I look at my blog posts and wonder why anyone reads them. Where I feel moments of screaming panic that I’m never going to get back what I had in my last job. But there are up days, too. Days where I look back on the last few months and feel immense gratitude for having been able to reconnect with old friends. To take a mid-week train ride to see my family. To not have to worry about work while we tackle another consecutive week of sick days with our preschooler.
I often tell people I wouldn’t have chosen this path if given the option. But I’m making meaning out of it the best I can. And I suspect, years down the line, I’ll look back like a lot of others have and be grateful that it led me to wherever it is I am going.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a pathfinder and strategist with over ten years of experience advising top tech companies on preparing for the future. Her blog, tiny-data.tech, is aimed at helping researchers deepen their strategic impact and future thinking. You can find more from Genevieve on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Acknowledgements: A huge thank you to my coach, Diana, for helping me arrive at these lessons both directly and indirectly. Photo by Aldain Austria on Unsplash