Ten years ago this month, a young man named Simu Liu lost his accounting job at Deloitte. “I fought back tears of humiliation, grabbed my things, and never looked back,” he recalls. “I owe my life to being let go from a job I hated.”
The actor who played the lead in last year’s Marvel hit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, shared the backstory of his rise to stardom on Instagram earlier this month. The failed accounting gig is a footnote in his work history now, but the details are fresh.
“A lady from HR and a security guard escorted me back onto the floor in front of the entire open concept office. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Nobody moved, offered a whisper of encouragement or even looked in my direction,” Liu writes. “Ten years ago I thought my life was over. I had wasted countless time and money that my family had invested in me. Years of schooling, gifted programs, trying to live up to my parents’ expectations. It all came crashing down in an instant.”
Indeed, Liu went on to stage an amazing comeback, but the best part of his reflection is not the fame and success that awaited. It’s that the layoff allowed him to begin defining himself, for himself. “The pursuit of a dream, YOUR dream, against all odds, that’s what life is all about,” he says.
The lesson feels more needed than ever against a drumbeat of news on layoffs and economic uncertainty. In the mortgage sector, Wells Fargo and Better.com confirmed layoffs will impact thousands. In the biotech sector, it was Imara, Stryker, and Novartis. Closer to home, within my own industry, it’s been a bloodbath in the media: Black News Channel and Bitch magazine shut down. Then last week the new parent company of CNN+, Warner Bros. Discovery, announced it’s shutting the streaming service down, and hundreds will lose their jobs; a spokesperson says the company is working hard to place people. (Disclosure: I worked at CNN for five years and many of those laid-off are former colleagues.)
The ripple effects of layoffs are undeniable. There are those affected, of course. But then there’s everyone else, watching for what this means for companies or the economy at large, fearing they might be next, wondering what to do or say, how to help. Largely buoyed by the Great Resignation and the resulting tight job market, people seem to have gotten even more open about their unemployed status, whether by force, choice, or a little bit of both. Since the pandemic became a clarifying backdrop for many people on the purpose they seek at work, workers are prioritizing what they want to do, versus what companies want from them.
Last week, in response to the barrage of layoff news, Chris Fowler, a senior director at the nonprofit USO, which provides entertainment and services to military families, shared his search for work and repositioning after being downsized. He suggests putting in writing what you are looking for and circulating it—widely. “A resume looks backward, showing what you've done. A positioning document is about who you are and what you want to do in the future,” he says. “It's not a cover letter for a particular job. It's something you can share with people that want to support you, but don't know how.”
Most advice on communicating a layoff recommends being honest about it, whether it’s the result of being acquired by another company or another reorganization. Experts advise focusing on the opportunity at hand, versus the setback: “My position was eliminated as part of a company reorganization. I’ve had a chance to realize this was an opportunity for me to explore [state a different career path you’re interested in], which has been a strong interest for some time, as I have experience in [list a set of skills].”
I reached out to a victim of layoffs to ask what was on their mind and how well wishers could be helpful. This person’s response was unexpectedly poetic and poignant, and I share it in full:
“If it’s a job you loved, how to love as hard again.
How to fill your day when there is nothing to do.
How to have purpose.
How to stay motivated.
How to network (so many of those laid off are young)
How to ask for help.
How to move on emotionally.
How to learn from it.
How to recover your confidence.
How to know if it’s time for something completely different.
How to embrace the uncertainty.
How to use the time for beautiful things (like your family)
How to not worry. How to not worry. How to not worry.”
It was a reminder to not romanticize the reinvention that can occur after job loss. It’s truly a scary time, and predictions about what’s going to happen to the economy are all over the place. (A headline from The New York Times last week was “How a recession might—and might not–happen.” Thanks, Paul Krugman.) But from all the folks who’ve been through a layoff—and one 2019 study says at least 40% have experienced this once—a common theme emerges: to define what you want and who you are, beyond a job title.
Ten years later, Liu went so far as to thank his bosses at Deloitte: “you destroyed a life that I was building for someone else, so that I could finally begin to build a life for me.”