28 days that transformed my career

What I learned from hitting reset during the worst job market since the Great Depression.

When I left my job on April 23, 2020, 4.4 million of our fellow Americans had filed for unemployment during the previous week, bringing the total to over 26 million jobs that were — poof — gone since COVID-19 had begun to place its sickly fingerprints all over our economy just five weeks earlier.

That day, headlines trumpeted that the unemployment rate was racing toward an unthinkable 23%, likely to finish a close second to the record 25% rate seen at the peak of the Great Depression. It was also almost too much to consider that, oh, by the way, nearly 4 million people were expected to graduate with college degrees and jump, perhaps reluctantly, into the job market in 2020. All sobering numbers, not just for the those who had lost jobs, but for everyone considering their future.

As I sat, staring out the window of my home office, why was I not freaking out? Why, on that hazy, April afternoon, was I not crawling under my desk and withdrawing into a fetal position, or reaching into the mini fridge to numb my expected sorrows?

Perhaps it’s because I have (almost) always been one to have some sort of plan — for the small things, for the big things, for almost everything. My wife calls it OCD. I call it being prepared. You be the judge.

Fast forward to late May — specifically, 28 days later. I found myself excitedly considering multiple career offers, all with unique pros and cons. Did I want to jump right back into the status quo of something similar to my previous role? How about an ownership opportunity? Perhaps the excitement of working with people who I truly love to see succeed? What if I were to apply my skills to a completely new industry?

How did I get there? I wondered that question aloud. What happened in 28 days that put me in a position to have an amazing menu of options, and what did I learn along the way that I could apply going forward? Five lessons in particular stood out, and I am hopeful those lessons may help you if you find yourself at a similarly challenging career crossroads.

You are your own boss

My job for 28 days was executing a plan to define actions, deeply evaluate options, and commit to what was next in my career. Although it was unpaid, it wasn’t part-time. I couldn’t sleep in, couldn’t let a rainy day slow me down and couldn’t linger on my favorite podcast for too long.

“What do you have going on today,” my wife would often ask. Most of the time, my answer was that I was booked with calls, Zooms, emails, and texts from first thing in the morning until late in the day.

People would frequently ask me how I was doing. My response? I felt busier unemployed than when I was working. Often, it was literally true. Each day I was kept singularly focused on the task at hand and although there were temporary speed bumps, absolutely nothing was going to get in my way.

During the Great Recession of 2008, my boss would often say to me, “I choose not to participate in this recession,” and that single-minded determination produced results. During my 28 days, I found myself with a similar mindset. I was not going to let COVID-19, the economy, or anything else 2020 was throwing at us prevent me from achieving my goal.

Work your network

I have a secret, although for those who know me, maybe it’s not well kept. I don’t particularly enjoy networking.

Let me clarify — I love meeting people, listening to their stories, and getting a chance to establish new relationships. I just don’t like the process of networking. It often seems forced and contrived. Ironically, some of the best networkers I know have confided that they are not fans of the process either.

However, just because I don’t enjoy it, does not mean I don’t appreciate the value. I have an aversion to doing dishes but I loathe grabbing my morning mug of coffee and finding crusty stuff on the rim, so I get the dishes done.

Over my 23-year career, I have worked hard to build and maintain a strong and diversified network. Industry colleagues, former co-workers, past bosses, recruiters, competitors, consultants, friends, friends of friends — you name it. During those 28 days, I reached out to many, and many more reached out to me, as I was considering my next steps.

I am forever grateful for their thoughtful suggestions, willingness to listen, and for the insightful questions they asked. All wanted to help. Why? Because I had always followed through when they needed me over the years, sometimes on very small commitments, sometimes on major commitments. The bottom line was my network trusted me and when I needed them, they wanted to see me succeed.

Treat yo’ self

Donna from Parks and Recreation had it right. Taking time to make myself a priority produced some wonderful benefits separate from my career transformation.

We have roles in life. Mine are husband, father, son, brother, grandson, friend, community leader, neighbor, and caretaker (of me). Being unemployed was a blessing, in that I had the time to evaluate my performance in all of those roles, especially caretaker.

I put a focus on my physical and mental wellness. I lost 16 pounds, found my overlooked reservoir of positivity, recognized who and what I had been neglecting, and let go of resentments I had been carrying for far too long.

Each day, time was made for me, without exception. I did not feel guilt, did not feel as though time was being stolen from others, and actually felt like I was making an important investment, one which had to be an ingredient in my day to consider it both successful and complete.

#winning

With a jaded attitude or an outlook constrained by fear, most of my days may have been dominated by what some would consider failure. Voicemails not returned, promising leads quickly becoming dead ends, another terrible economic story on the crawler — temporary speed bumps. However, every day had a win; in fact, most often many wins.

Wins were often amazing, gratifying, and exciting because they came as surprises, at least at the time. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by the introductions to executives, the unexpected calls, the unsolicited endorsements, and the suggestions that had never even crossed my mind. An incredible network coupled with consistent determination produced many wins because that is exactly what should happen.

The key is to not miss the opportunity to celebrate the wins, however small they may seem. Those wins are the energy that will sustain you. Those wins reinforce your confidence and quiet your doubts. Those wins work like the miracle of compounding interest and provide a tremendous return on your investment.

Each day my wife would ask how my day had gone. It was her way of asking if I had gotten good news or had achieved my desired results. That was always my cue to share a quick story about the wins from the day and how I was better positioned for the next day. In reality, I was sharing the story as much with her as I was with myself — a brief celebration at the end of a day’s work.

Root for someone or something

What the heck got me out of bed each morning besides the fear of needing to earn a buck? Three simple but important things. My family, helping people, and improving me.

I love my family. They believe in me, unconditionally, and I was not going to let them down. Too many of us take that type of love for granted. Don’t ever stop reminding yourself of what a powerful motivator that is because it is an incredible responsibility and blessing.

Helping people succeed has always been a passion of mine. I realized it early in life as I took on leadership roles in high school organizations, sports, and jobs. That passion has only grown — it fuels my drive to succeed. I just can’t sit on the sidelines.

Getting better — what a simple concept but what a hard thing to sustain. Improving me is just something I was born needing to do, although it has been cultivated by the mentorship of so many amazing women and men whom I am fortunate to call friends.

These five lessons helped me successfully hit reset during the worst job market since the Great Depression. These five lessons provided me an amazing next step in a career that has had so many amazing next steps.

At the conclusion of day 28, the choice to be made actually became an easy one. Logic, experience, and emotion all aligned to provide me with a serendipitous path to collaborate directly with people who I love — educators. It allowed me to take 23 years of knowledge and focus it directly on helping a diverse group of people at a time when their careers are also transforming. I am blessed by the opportunity.

Many people, some very close to me, have been casualties of the COVID-19 economic fallout. They continue to search for what their next step is going to be. Being their own boss, working their network, treating themselves right, celebrating their wins, and rooting for someone or something each day is not easy for them. It was not easy for me either but I had people who believed in me and wanted me to succeed.

For those in your life who need help today — show them you believe in them and do all you can to help them succeed. They need you.

Kevin Hickman is a senior client executive for Nexus Solutions LLC.

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