What would happen if you woke up tomorrow jobless?
During July 2018, I hit my breaking point.
I finished my second year as a high school administrator and was reading Daniel Pink’s Drive on a cross-country flight:
“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”
It hit home. I was in the plummet stage.
I had my resignation prepared by the time the plane touched down. All I was left with was my naive optimism. With a potential knee surgery looming, this seemed like an ideal time for “a couple months” of recovery.
A year later, I was still sitting at home unemployed. Amazingly, my life had not fallen apart. My savings were a bit drained, but I was still debt-free and stronger than ever.
I survived knee surgery, paid all my bills, and took a 10-day dream vacation with my girlfriend on the other corner of the U.S. where I cruised to Alaska, bused to Vancouver, and then flew home.
I also bought an engagement ring. But, unemployment is NOT the way to a woman’s heart.
Only in hindsight, can I recognize the conditions and foundation that carried me through this ordeal with the worst damage being contained to my ego.
What were the keys to making this happen?
- Debt-free (with the exception of my mortgage)
- Emergency Fund
- Alternative Income Streams
- Affordable Health-Care
- Growth mindset
Being Debt Free
The key factor was being debt free. If I had debts and monthly payments, I would’ve been forced back to work earlier. And, I wouldn’t have had the luxury of choice.
I have been in serious debt once in my life, during a failed first marriage. I’d wake in the middle of the night in a panic wondering how I was going to make ends meet. It was miserable. As soon as the ex-wife left, so did my debt, and I swore never again (for both).
I paid my car off several years earlier (and ahead of schedule) and I live well below my means from month-to-month.
Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey frequently quotes scripture when he says the borrower is a slave to the lender. It’s a truth, dangerously underestimated and missed in our low interest society.
If you have debt, you’re not free.
This is more than credit cards. Car loans, the phone you’re unwittingly still paying for because you couldn’t afford it straight up when you got it, and then there’s student loans…
I was fortunate to avoid student loans debt as a result of scholarships and the GI Bill. Having avoided that experience, it was a shock to me to meet someone who after more than a decade of paying student loans, still owed significantly more than was borrowed. And there’s no escape, only repayment.
Being debt-free means all the cash you make, minus the mortgage and normal cost-of-living expenses, goes straight to your pocket. It’s amazing how low the cost of survival is without debt.
Another fortunate move was building having an emergency fund I can fall back on in hard times. Dave Ramsey recommends three to six months of expenses saved.
Fortunately, mine was a little bigger and stretched significantly further.
An emergency fund is a mental and physical buffer that frees you from disaster.
Having the ability to comfortably walk away from a disaster crash or a bad situation allows you to sleep a little easier at night. If you find yourself at your breaking point, you can evaluate the situation without the metaphorical gun to your head. And, you’ll be okay.
You have control. You have choices. And, hopefully a much shorter period to find your next role.
Alternative Income Streams
Having alternative income streams beside your main job is critical. This is another way of providing yourself a buffer should you have that step between disaster.
I receive a small amount from the VA, income from a real estate investment, and opportunities with my side hustle: the Army Reserves.
The Reserves have provided both worthwhile monetary and growth opportunities, but there are other options. What else can you do to make some money?
When you’re not relying on one source of income, it greatly increases your flexibility and panic meter should something unexpected happen like getting laid off, which I’ve also experienced.
Affordable Health Care
The early stages of my unemployment was intended to recover not only my spirit from a sense of burnout, but I needed knee surgery with nearly three months of limited mobility.
I was able to do this as a result of being a military reservist and getting Tricare.
I recognize many people might not have similar benefits and this is likely one of the bigger issues with an extended unemployment period, but healthcare is too delicate and financially dangerous to be unprotected. Be careful if you leave yourself unprotected, it’s an unfortunate consequence of where our society is today that medical bills can be just as crippling as the disease.
While the other factors were financial, I worked hard to stay positive and get better.
My ego took shot after shot as I failed to land a position despite more than 100 applications, a long line of phone interviews, and several face-to-face interviews. If it wasn’t the most failure and rejection I’d ever experienced, it was close.
I took each punch, reset, and focused on growth, both individually and professionally.
I recognized I needed help. I spoke with friends and worked closely with a coach for a short period, an amazing experience and a role I aspire to as I accrue more life experience.
I took online learning to a new level. I learned how to capture, organize, and synthesize knowledge by Building a Second Brain. I focused heavily on writing, both as a reflective tool and long-term strategy to build a professional portfolio, and the time allowed me to enroll in David Perell’s Write of Passage. From those areas, I branched out with my blog and newsletter.
I realized how I could drive my own development. As a former educator, it was shocking how much learning about learning I still had (and have) to do. My eyes were open to a world far broader than the K-12 expertise I’d left behind.
I was concerned how I was going to fit a full-time job in with all of my extra-curricular learning activities!
In an ironic twist, my unemployment actually ended with me back teaching and after my experiences, it clearly wasn’t going to work long-term. It was more about taking the hand the world had offered me before the couch became normal (and I went back to being single).
A month into the school year I received a call asking if I was still interested in an opportunity that I interviewed for two months earlier. Absolutely!
The first week of my new job, a position which has thus far been a dream, I found myself experiencing a sense of expertise, autonomy, and connectedness.
And, then she said “Yes.”
None of this would’ve been possible without a strong foundation to burst the status quo and chase my dreams.