In the “My Best of 2016” article, I wrote about the layoff which I experienced early in that year, but I didn’t go into much detail about what that experience was like or how I internally dealt with the feeling of failure that resulted.
Failure is a complex emotion. Failure can be actual, meaning that you tried something and did not succeed, it can also be perceived, meaning that you tried something and the result did not live up to yours or someone else’s expectations, or it can be a mixture of both. Failure is a necessary component of success, if you are willing to reflect upon this result, learn from that reflection and apply it toward future endeavors. In terms of my career, which follows an uncommon course by all accounts, I have experienced many failures and setbacks. That said, from when I started working at 15 years old (for a minimum wage of $4.25 an hour) until I turned 36 years old in January of last year, I had never been without a job for any reason other than my own decision. I’ve never been fired, and until 2016, I had never been laid off either. I guess that’s a pretty good run, especially considering that I worked more than 20 different jobs in 6 different cities during than span.
In January of 2015, I was hired by f-stop Gear, a camera bag manufacturer catering to adventure and extreme sports photographers, to manage community engagement for the St. Louis area. The city is (was?) the location for the company’s world headquarters, and my background exhibiting photographers here, teaching photography, and directing Photo Flood Saint Louis made me a great fit for that task. I quickly implemented a plan to expand the company’s presence in the city by drawing several prominent photographers from different backgrounds in as supporters, arranging for in-kind donations on behalf of the company for various schools and nonprofits emphasizing photography, and organizing networking events on behalf of the business. By late Spring, I was promoted to manage the company’s Brand Ambassador program for North America (the largest unit of professional photographers associated with f-stop). The company soon added several senior administrators as well, including a Vice President of Communications who became my new boss.
Early in my new role, the company unveiled its complete overhaul to its venerable Mountain Series line, six packs that make up the core of sales, and I served on the digital marketing team for this relaunch. I assisted with or managed press releases, copywriting, image asset organization and distribution, product allocation to Staff Pros and to reviewers, and more. This was a busy time, but an exciting one. The Marketing team did its job well, and we generated unprecedented coverage for the brand and its products. However, bad decisions at the top of the chain derailed our manufacturing, and by the end of the summer, the company was already massively behind in fulfilling product orders. It was even hard to get out product that we had promised to our dedicated Staff Pros. The first layoffs occurred during this time (officially, the company fired these people, though later clarified to remaining staff that these were more economic decisions than strictly job performance ones). Because these personnel changes were initially mislabelled, and because we were assured by senior staff that these “road bumps” were merely temporary and nearly fixed, my wife and I moved ahead with the purchase of our first house in late September. “Temporary” extended to the rest of the year and beyond, but even then, my wife and I were ecstatic to learn about the opportunity to adopt a biological sibling to our first son. It was in the middle of our adoption process that I was let go. In fact, the last statement I was to receive from the company as I exited the building was, “Well, at least you are adopting. That’s a good thing.” Somehow, this was not meant to seem ironic.
Layoff Week and After
Early in the week that I was laid off, I had my customary meeting via Skype with my immediate boss who lived and worked in London. I sensed something amiss in his voice, and being well aware of the problems the company faced, I asked him to please give me some advance notice if I was planned to be let go because I had a family that needed to be considered (something he could relate to). I was assured that was not going to happen, and was offered encouragements about the work that I had recently been doing. Still, I was skeptical, and I began to mentally weigh my position up against other positions in our small staff on the basis of their necessity to the operation of the company. Despite setbacks, f-stop had recently expanded into Macedonia, where a customer service staff was in progress of being trained. Including this staff, the company then employed about 40 people in 6 counties, with 12 of those at work in our St. Louis office. By mid-week, several employees in St. Louis were let go, including an Industrial Designer, the Product Photographer, and Accounting Intern. By that Thursday, we received a framed poster and documents recognizing two of our products as “Editor’s Choice Spring 2016” in Backpacker Magazine’s annual Gear Guide, a huge endorsement from the outdoor community and the first time that f-stop had won this. The Backpacker project was one of mine that I had been working on since midsummer, and I personally hung the poster in our conference room. By Friday at 4:50pm, with only ten minutes before the end of the work week, I thought I had made it through this round of layoffs; I didn’t.
Inside the Human Resources office, I was told that I was being laid off. I was told that this was “absolutely not a performance thing”, that I had been a great employee who they would be happy to provide a wonderful reference for, and that this was strictly about not being able to afford keeping me around. Over the coming weeks, both individuals that had delivered this information to me were no longer employed at f-stop (one was laid off and one resigned), as were other staff. In fact, of the 12 employees that once worked out of the bustling St. Louis office, only one full-time worker and one part-time worker remain.
I mention all of this not to shame f-stop. After all, many companies experience periods of contraction and growth. Rather, I want to provide context for just how quickly and without warning a layoff can occur, even despite promises that “you are not next”.
When I woke up on the Monday morning after the layoff, I was intent on finding a replacement job fast, and I was confident that the professional network that I had built and maintained would provide me with plentiful opportunities to do so. I started sending out direct messages right away, and used most of the next several weeks to exhaust my network as a viable option for re-employment. After that, I panicked a little, and posted a heartfelt plea on social media explaining my situation and asking my friends to send me any job leads they may have. I did receive several, as well as, several freelance photography opportunities (which I was very thankful for). Applying to those referrals, unfortunately, did not yield me anything in the way of sustained work.
Over the course of the next two months, I applied to hundreds of jobs, ranging from job calls to reaching out to companies that I wanted to work for. I refined and refined again my resume, and wrote innumerable cover letters. Nothing…worked…..
I believe that part of the problem for me was that, in a saturated applicant field, I was 36 years old applying for jobs that younger people were more apt to receive, and I was doing so with an unrelated college degree to jobs with specific degree requirements (I had the on-the-job experience!). Of course, this struggle goes back to that uncommon career path that I first mentioned, in that I have mostly advanced through previous positions by networking and/or proving my ability on the job. In 2016, students are graduating with highly specialized degrees that make “taking a chance” on an applicant less likely.
It was around this time that everything really hit me, and I started feeling really depressed. I still applied to open positions, but had no expectation of getting any of them. I was defeated. In my mind, I had failed, both actually and by all perceptions. For many people going through similar circumstances, this can be a dangerous crossroads to find yourself standing in. Luckily for me, I did have my immediate family to focus on and many side projects still to devote myself to.
In April, I applied for a Gallery Attendant position at the Saint Louis Art Museum, which is something that I have done twice previously. Though this job is a major step back on my unconventional career path (possibly even an ending for the sorts of jobs I wanted to do), I knew that the Museum would provide me immediately with health insurance, which I desperately needed for the birth of my second son, to occur at any time. I interviewed, was hired, and still work in this role while I plan my next moves.
Though I don’t know what the future holds in store for me, I do want to impart that things usually have a way of working themselves out. I am confident that new opportunities will eventually become present, either because of my new/old job or irregardless of it. I do still apply to jobs when I find them, though no longer at the blistering pace I did while unemployed.
If you are going through something similar, keep your chin up. Things will get better.
If anyone wants to share something similar that you experienced, and perhaps how you overcame it, please do in the comments below. How have you failed and come back to succeed? What did you learn from it?