The devastating unemployment numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic may signify only the beginning of the pain for the newly jobless workers. If you’ve lost your job or will, how can you pick up the pieces?
Based on my experience after my layoff in 2013 from my dream job in journalism (a media columnist), a career reinvention —and a healing process — starts with working on your self-image and how well you can project it.
I can empathize in a big way with anyone now worrying about an uncertain future. I’ve been there. Yet today, seven years after becoming unemployed in my late 50s, following more than three decades as a journalist, I actually feel like a winner.
My Job Loss: A Lucky Break
In fact, as crazy as this may sound, I can honestly say that my layoff proved to be one of the luckiest breaks I was ever dealt.
I had to change my way of thinking. And that meant making my own breaks.
When I lost my job, my industry had gone through cataclysmic changes, much as the pandemic is dealing us now. I had to change my way of thinking. And that meant making my own breaks.
A few months after life lowered the boom on me, I noticed on the employment networking site LinkedIn the name of a professor at my alma mater (The State University of New York at Stony Brook, in Long Island) who was teaching in the journalism school. I reached out to her and suggested, on a whim, that I could help the program based on my pedigrees as a Stony Brook graduate, a seasoned journalist and someone with a master’s in journalism.
Intrigued, she invited me to be a guest speaker at her course the following semester.
Something clicked when I stepped into her Business of News classroom and I’ve have been teaching classes at Stony Brook every semester since. In addition to The Business of News, I created and offer a course on covering the arts and pop culture in New York City, lead a Reporting 101 class and teach my favorite, Senior Thesis, when soon-to-be graduates produce a lengthy print piece, a website and accompanying videos.
I’ve also taught similar courses at Hunter College in Manhattan and at LIU Post in Brookville, N.Y., which is part of Long Island University. In addition, I’ve branched out at Stony Brook to teach courses in subjects ranging from leadership and diversity in society to appreciations of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
True confession: I don’t teach for the money. A lecturer/adjunct professor can expect to receive a few thousand dollars per course, a pittance from what I earned as a full-time journalist; I supplement this with freelance writing. And the Stony Brook commute from my Manhattan apartment (pre-pandemic) has been a bear, taking nearly three hours each way. I teach for the satisfaction of giving back to the next generation in the journalism profession that has meant so much to me.
My Career Reinvention Advice to Others
I couldn’t be happier. So, what did I do right that can help you in your transformation if you’re out of work due to COVID-19?
I didn’t succumb to self-pity. I continued to believe in myself.
I bet on myself. When a Stony Brook dean asked me for suggestions of people who could teach a class about entertainment reporting in Manhattan, I convinced him that I was the right person for the job, quickly presenting a mock syllabus and a list of prospective guest speakers.
I rode the wave. After I finished guest-teaching the first class, the professor asked me if I wanted to take over the following semester since she needed a break. I said, YES!
I remained flexible to the possibilities in embarking on a new career. If I couldn’t keep on keepin’ on in journalism, I decided, I could pass on what I knew. Woody Allen was wrong in Annie Hall when he quipped: “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Those who can, teach!
I got off my high horse. For years, I dined out on the prestige of being a writer whose job meant rubbing elbows with media executives. When I lost it, I realized that my future might mean doing something with less panache but offering me more meaning and purpose. Teaching, I’ve found, has proved to be even more satisfying than journalism had been.
I learned what I needed to learn. Before I began teaching, I wouldn’t have known how to create a syllabus any more than I could have hoped to assemble a hydrogen bomb or dunk a basketball. Thankfully, Stony Brook journalism school Dean Howie Schneider helped show me the basics to run a college class (it took me four tries to get the syllabus right).
I changed my priorities. Once I became unemployed, I decided that I could feel better about myself by not focusing solely on myself. Turns out, helping others can be a great feeling. When a student tells you that your class changed her life, you realize you’re in a new area of fulfillment.
I embraced my new life. Yes, the world had dealt me a bad hand. Tough on me! But I’ve grown to enjoy what I have and not fret about what I don’t.
You can convert a defeat into a victory. You can survive and maybe even thrive if you give yourself a chance.
In what amounted to a one-sentence sermon about the virtues of re-invention, Patti Smith once sang, “The people have the power.”
Smith should know. She became a bestselling author in 2010 with her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, 35 years after bursting onto the rock and roll stage with her debut album, Horses.
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