How To

How to Turn Unemployment into an Opportunity

Great things can happen during the most challenging of times. It may seem difficult to find a silver lining during the worst economic downturn in more than a generation. But if you’re out of a job, or fear your job is slated for the chopping block, retreating into paralysis will do nothing to speed our economy’s recovery. So this is a perfect time to turn a new page in your career and embrace the vast possibilities of reinvention.

Think about it this way. Circumstances outside of your control have forced a lot of free time into your schedule, giving you many options to choose. Learn to exploit this opportunity to strengthen your skills, sharpen your mind, and prepare yourself for your next job. Take it from someone who has gone through two layoffs in a year—once you get over the setbacks of unemployment, turn your attention to the opportunities around you. Maybe you’ll discover a new calling in life that will bring greater personal fulfillment. “The Chinese symbol for crisis includes both danger and opportunity,” said Steve Vislisel, a career consultant with Plan C Partners. “Most people focus on the danger. Be one of the few courageous souls who focus on the opportunity.”

When you are unemployed, there’s one commodity you have in abundance and that’s time. So learn to maximize that time in the following ways:

Network, network, network!

Your personal network is your best asset for finding the next phase of your professional career. With your days free to schedule lunches and meet-ups for coffee, this is the best time to renew acquaintances that you may have let languish when you were working. Consider your vast database of friends, teachers, business partners and colleagues. They are all sources of knowledge and ideas to help you evolve your career and connect you to potential employers. Find them on Facebook and LinkedIn, or send them emails suggesting that now might be a good time to get together. Chances are, a good 90 percent of the people you contact will agree to meet you as long as you position the meeting as a casual conversation to tap their career advice. During your meet-and-greet, remember three things: 1) Your contact will chatter away because people love to spread career wisdom, 2) don’t just tell them what you want, ask them what they need and think about yourself as a solution, and 3) be sure to leave every meeting with a few referrals.

Another approach is to meet people through conferences, gatherings, and social events. Recently I attended a gathering for the unemployed called LaidOffCamp, an all-day event for people to meet, share tips and exchange business ideas. I didn’t meet many employers, but I felt a sense of solidarity with others in my situation. Check out the website because there may be a LaidOffCamp coming soon to a city near you.

The Product Called “You”

Who are you? What do you want to do? These two annoyingly broad and existential questions form the foundation of your career strategy. Think through your answers, because everyone you talk to will ask them, and you don’t want to respond with silence and a confused expression (I speak from experience). I’ve learned that the ideal job blends the things you enjoy doing with things you’re good at doing.

Because you’re selling who you are, consider yourself to be a product that requires some branding and marketing. That begins by understanding what makes your brand unique, and then articulating that message to the people in your network. Don’t just consider your skill set or the functions you may have performed in a previous job. Much as it might pain you to admit it, those things are easily learned. But what can’t be taught in school or picked up on the job are the unique qualities of your personality and the innate values that define who you are. Those qualities can guide you to the job you’re looking for, and alert you against jobs that will be a bad fit.

Mental and physical fitness

Stagnation is the greatest enemy of the unemployed. After years of sitting in front of a computer for 10 hours a day in stale offices, you’ll fall in love with your brain’s ability learn new things. Watch artsy films. Read books. I always wanted to take classes in economics and financial planning, so I enrolled in Stanford University’s night program. They were fascinating and they helped me consider new areas for growth.

The same thing holds true for physical fitness. Yes, it’s great to sleep 10 hours a day, but lunch shouldn’t be your first meal. To keep your body moving you need to move it. If you’re not an exerciser, start with modest stretching and introduce a daily walk around the block. I take short jogs or walks in the afternoon to help me remove mental clutter and reprioritize my list of to-dos.

Learn to manage your money

For most of my career I thought budgeting was for those goodie-goodies who studied on Friday nights in college. After my first layoff, I poured my attention into learning the essentials of personal finance and disciplined budgeting. I became a number-crunching nerd, keeping track of every expense and figuring out creative ways to save money. I realized I was spending a lot on useless crap and eating out all the time. Once I understood my buying patterns, I made smarter decisions to save for a rainy day.

Serve Others

There’s no better way to gain perspective about your situation than pouring your energy into helping people. It’s human to give without expecting something in return, and it brings perspective on what really matters in life. I recently volunteered for a food distribution center and had a great experience talking to people going through tough times. There’s something human about handing food to people in need. Here are some good sites as a starting point: HandsOn Network, Volunteer Match, One Brick, USA Service.

For more of Jim Hu’s writing, visit his blog Gloom to Boom.