Thoughts on getting through turbulent times

By Martin Vogel

Lehman Brothers staff, London, 16 September 2008

When I talk to people in the financial sector, I understand the meaning of the current turmoil being a crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes.  The experience of redundancy is  unlike that any of us are likely to have come across before.  With banking institutions disappearing at a rate of knots, others laying off staff in their thousands and many of the remainder uninterested in hiring, the impression of alternative options rapidly closing down throughout the world can only compound the sense of shock for those who have suddenly lost their jobs.

I’ve seen plenty of advice to bankers along the lines of: polish up your CV and interviewing skills, tap into your network and be prepared to move.  There may be a place for these tried and tested career tactics.  But I wonder whether it is adequate to the moment to rely wholly on this approach.  When people suffer a shocking loss, they typically go through experiences such as denial, anger and depression before they feel able to accept the situation and engage with it constructively.  The slightly frenetic character of well-intentioned advice on job search skills seems to me to risk encouraging people into activities which – for some of them, at least – may be counter-productive.

There are suggestions that this is a crisis that is concentrated on the big financial centres, and that there are still banking opportunities to be found in places beyond London and New York.  But the impression I’m gaining from people who have lost their jobs is that it is the same story wherever they look.  Wise heads I know who have been through City slowdowns in the past are digging in for this one to last possibly five or six years.  If that’s a realistic assessment, it may be a recipe for despondency to go chasing after leads at a time when you are likely to be oscillating through a number of powerful emotions which may be preventing you from thinking straight.

As Lucy Kellaway has observed in the FT, “Unemployed bankers are in a world that has gone beyond pat advice.”  She suggests the best thing to do is to sit tight and take stock:

“As an agony aunt, my advice to those who lost their jobs – at least to those with some money in their pockets – is to spend the immediate future on rest and play…  Don’t start chasing leads today. Have a bit of a think and work out if you really want to move to Dubai, or retrain as a priest, before doing anything silly.”

I agree with this.  Even for those who don’t have a strong financial cushion, the chances of making a good decision are likely to be improved if they can find time and space to approach the situation more reflectively.  She’s right too to advocate thinking hard before instigating radical change.  But if ever there was a time to think laterally, this is it.

Many people who work in the City never intended to make this their life.  They had other dreams to which they intended to turn once they’d amassed sufficient wealth.  But in the shock of redundancy it can be hard to conceive of an alternative life for oneself.  Looking on this from the outside, I find it slightly bewildering to hear clever and talented people struggle to imagine their capabilities as marketable in contexts other than the ones they have most recently left.  But, on the other hand, I’ve been possessed of this mindset myself.  I ploughed quite specialised niches in broadcasting and – close to the action – could see my career prospects only in terms of the template in which I was cast.

Taking some time to luxuriate in breaking free of the template can open one’s mind to the broader options one faces.  David Freud, an investment banker who lost his job in the downturn of the 1990s, hints at this in discussing research which suggests that even the experience of depression can ultimately be a catalyst for a fulfilling transformation.  This is because it forces a reassessment of goals:

“This makes particular sense for City workers. Many have been lured into their careers by the huge money on offer, but they may have little affinity for the work. And when you need to put so much time and emotional intensity into an activity, you do have to enjoy it to persevere.

“Personal discontent can be disguised in an upturn but the pressures of a downturn – the firings, the up-ending of networks, the loss of autonomy, survivor guilt – means the misery can come back at full force. In these circumstances depression may be a safety valve, forcing the individual to give up the chase.”

It’s not necessary to have felt discontented with the job you have lost to benefit from taking stock to think more broadly about one’s options.  There may be a holding pattern you could pursue until things pick up again.  Or, for someone with unexpected time on their hands, now might be the ideal opportunity to fulfil some long-held ambition.

It’s hard to see the upside when one is coming to terms with an unexpected job loss.  And I’m not suggesting that it’s helpful to don a sense of false optimism.  But disruption to one’s career brings possibilities as well as setback and being open to those possibilities can increase the chances of making a good landing.

Image courtesy conorwithonen.

One thought on “Thoughts on getting through turbulent times

  1. Wonderful article. Indeed good advice to relax and enjoy, and spend the coming years in reflection (if you’ve got the means to do so). The world needs more reflection and maybe these disasterous moments provide the best chance to switch modes – from doing to reflecting. Painful moments have a great energy in them, and therein a great opportunity to do something positive with that energy. People could/should get excited when the sh%t hits the fan. It’s the “daily annoyances” and patterns that are truly dangerous – they’re bad but don’t have the energy (or opportunity) to galvanize positive change.

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