What I Learned from Getting Laid Off [Guest Post by Austin Yoder]

This post originally published here, reproduced here with permission of the author.

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I went to work for an amazing nonprofit immediately after graduating from Georgetown this past May. Funding is tight everywhere in the non-profit sector at the moment, so my time with them was short lived. They had to let me go four months after they hired me.

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I’m extremely grateful for the experiences I had, and relationships I developed while working for this non-profit. Those experiences are truly irreplaceable, and I have a great respect for everything they do.

I’ve taken some time to reflect, and wanted to write down some of my thoughts about the whole experience. Mainly for my own reference in the future, but also for anyone that might be going through something similar.

1. If you feel upset at circumstances, you are actually upset with yourself

I was upset for a while that I was laid off, but of course it was nothing personal. I realized, after a time, that I wasn’t justified being upset with anyone, or even with the circumstances. In fact, I wasn’t feeling upset; rather I was feeling shortsighted and helpless. I didn’t see this big thing coming, and therefore didn’t have a way to try and stop it. It took me by surprise.

It is a personal weakness of mine that I want to feel on top and in control. A form of pride. Circumstances put me in a position to confront that weakness, and while it is good, and necessary to confront your own weaknesses, it is not always easy to do so. Especially if you are not totally honest with yourself about those weaknesses, in the first place. I was not totally honest with myself that I feel pride about certain things, so the experience was difficult.

It’s a waste to feel upset at circumstances. What you should do instead is to figure out how, and why you put yourself on unstable ground in the first place. Now that I have recognized my own shortcomings I can work on improving them for the next round.

- 孫子

Translation: Stand on un-defeatable ground.
– Sun Tzu

If you position yourself on “un-defeatble ground” from the get-go you can’t lose. The question is how to get there.

2. Create the Certainty You Want in Life

It is my ideal to do work that I love, to be able to set my own schedule, and to provide for myself and the people I love. I came extremely close to that ideal, but still didn’t truly achieve it. It is always easy to overlook small details and persuade yourself if you are busy. And so I did.

If you want to provide for yourself and the people you care most about; to be able to travel, to do things on a whim, to set your own schedule – build that for yourself. Your colleagues will not. Your friends will not. Not even your family can do that for you. Nobody else will build your life for you. Nor do they have any obligation, responsibility, or reason to do so.

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

3. Time will tell

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

The Lost Horse,
Chinese Folktale.

This little parable seems to contain some wisdom, but I actually don’t like it very much. It’s too much like the Tortoise and the Hare. What I dislike about the parable is that the man doesn’t pick himself up and attempt to correct his own situation. He didn’t go look for horse, and he it doesn’t even say what he went to do after he was spared from the draft.

The lesson of the story is that time will put a different perspective on the events of your life. I agree with this, but I don’t think it focuses on the right things. The story never communicates that the man actively seeks to improve his own situation.

Live through your life without pressure and in the utmost contentment, even if all are clamoring what they will against you, even if wild beasts are tearing off the limbs of this poor lump of a body accreted round you. What in all this prevents the mind from preserving itself in tranquility, in true judgement of circumstance and readiness to use any event submitted to it?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The fact remains that as long as you have your wits about you, you are competent to make your own opportunities. Do not wait for time to lead you anywhere, or to put a positive perspective on your life for you. Time is a passive thing, and will never lead you by the hand. Lead, and improve by your own hand.

4. Nothing is the end of the world

As long as you aren’t dead, as long as you are healthy, you can make a fresh start. This too shall pass. You could eat ramen for months. You can shave down your spending to almost nothing, move in with your family to save money, or sell the things you have. It might be a difficult process to start from scratch, but unless you have learned nothing, you will progress more quickly than before.

Michael Saylor lost over $6b in a single day, and still came back to re-build his company and fortune. Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple, built Pixar, and then came back to build Apple into one of the most successful companies in history. If humans have the capacity to handle such large misfortunes that well, how bad can it actually be? Whatever it is.

For all your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

Going off of Seneca: if you have learned nothing from your misfortunes, then you will suffer many many more. And you will deserve every single one of them. Dealing productively with bad times is a skill. And I imagine, one which we become better at the more we practice.

Suffering greater misfortunes will make us greater than we are.

So, what’s next for me? After I got laid off I traveled back and forth a bit between Washington, DC, Pennsylvannia, and North Carolina, visiting both family and friends.

I sold off my RV, Rocinante. I was sad to see him go – he has been a noble and righteous steed. But he’s just a thing. At first a Russian Mafia type wanted to buy Rocinante to ship to his friend in Uzbekistan, but he was too shady to deal with. So instead I sold Rocinante to a nice couple in Florida that wants it to ferry around their 80 something mother all over the country to see her kids.

I’m typing this from Shanghai Pudong International Airport, en route to Seoul and Taipei. I left from JFK after a shower and Cognac in the KAL Business Lounge in Terminal 2. I’m flying into Seoul for a few days tomorrow to see my friend, the one who initially pushed me to fall in love with tea. After that, I’ll be around Taipei for close to a year taking classes, drinking tea, and shooting to build up something that will help support the type of life I want.


Thanks to Ryan Holiday, I’m on sort of a Stoic kick at the moment. Go check out the rest of his reading list if you haven’t, and also read On the Shortness of Life.