One year ago, I made dubious journalism history as one of 53 people laid off by the Chicago Tribune. That's my desk in the photo, minutes before I had to clear out of the Tribune Tower and end a 16-year run as a Tribune staff writer and editor.
April 22, 2009 marked the single biggest day of layoffs in the Tribune Company's history. And as writer of "The Recession Diaries" blog, I went from covering the news to making it. Suddenly I became one of those ironic economic punch lines: "Hey, the recession is so bad, even the Tribune's recession columnist got laid off." My story got picked up by NPR, Jim Romenesko's media news column on Poynter Online, Mother Jones and a host of blogs, publications and TV stations.
My 20 years of continuous employment over, my wife and I fretted for our future. But in time, I found hope and opportunity not just at AOL (where I now edit and run the burgeoning Money College site for WalletPop), but also in the fields of music and book writing. I finished my first novel last week, and have two agents in New York waiting to look at it. The 2,500-square-foot recording studio I'm building in Chicago with three partners booked its first session last week. And on the home front, the mortgage somehow got paid every month. Food made it onto the table. Amy and I not only survived, but thrived in newfound freedom and possibility.
Many others don't have it so fortunate, including a good number of my laid-off compatriots. Perhaps you as well struggle to trudge through this economic quagmire despite your best, honest efforts. If so, know that I empathize. It's rough out there. I still don't have that elusive full-time job with benefits.
But I've learned a lot and I'm happy to report that a year after the bomb dropped, life isn't just great: It's fabulous. Allow me to share some hard-won lessons that stemmed from getting laid off -- lessons I learned because I lived them.
In a second piece, I'll speculate on what I believe my former employers have yet to learn from the past year -- and what I sincerely wish they'd act on for the good of Chicago Tribune morale, and the news organization's future.
1) Define your endgame: The end of the road for my print journalism career marked a time to mourn, but also one to reflect and regroup. "What do you want to do from here on out?" I decided right away that I wanted to conceive and create journalism-based websites, write books and produce music. Over the course of the next year, I accomplished all three objectives.
Lesson learned: It's much harder to hit a moving target. Of Stephen Covey's celebrated Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I turned time and again to Habit 2: "Begin with the end in mind." This reminded me that no great goal gets met without purpose and direction. When I was done burning up inside, I let my dreams burn like lighthouse beacons to guide me out of the murk and toward the mark.
2) Revisit your relationships: When I lost my job, I got to work -- and job one was to fan out across all the mentors, friends and colleagues I knew, and look for any bit of daylight I could find. Did it pan out? Absolutely. One former editor, Patti Tennison, referred me to a summer teaching job with the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. A mentor, ex-McDonald's PR chief Chuck Ebeling, gave me continual encouragement and job leads. And NPR reporter David Folkenflik, after he interviewed me, passed me on to a close friend, a New York City literary agent whom I've kept in touch with ever since.
Lesson learned: Relationships not only matter, they may be the prime determinant in deciding who gets to work. At the Tribune, this in large part decided who avoided the 2009 layoffs. And I kick myself at times for not cultivating newsroom relationships (and their political umbrage). But what's life for if not learning to correct course?
3) Explore every opportunity: Though hesitant to pursue a PR post, I followed up those job leads when they came up. I applied for job after job, only to hear no after no. But I never took the rejection personally, and kept getting back up when knocked down. And I refused to turn my nose up at any chance to earn my keep. When musicians asked me to help write their bios, I returned every call. I loaded my calendar with as much freelance writing as I could handle.
Lesson learned: Unemployment can also mean unlimited options. Remembering my musical background, I used my chops in the recording studio to make albums for others -- and created custom-made songs for AOL, Kleenex, Augsburg Fortress Publishers and other corporate clients.
4) Persist and work your ass off: The message I learned as a young reporter in Philadelphia back in 1989 renewed itself in 2009. Be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Do more than what's expected. Have a great attitude even when your bosses and colleagues don't. Expunge the word "impossible" from your dictionary. And above all, work it.
Lesson learned: Promise the "impossible" -- and deliver it. I made some fairly extravagant guarantees to writing and recording clients in 2009, determined to stick out from the crowd. Did I worry? Not so much -- because I knew that hard work, combined with persistence, would help me get the job done every single time.
5) Don't limit your dreams: The demon of job loss made me feel as though I'd failed, even though I did not. The surest antidote for that was to dream big. Ridiculously big. Three days after my layoff, I was in suburban Nashville meeting with one of the creators of UPromise to pitch a website idea. (He loved it; I still may pursue it.) From my first days at AOL, I dreamt of becoming much more involved than just writing one or two stories a week.
Lesson learned: There's a big difference between settling for what you get and setting your sights high. As an unemployed guy, I often felt like a nothing ... until I realized I had nothing to lose, either.
6) Tap your passion: Job loss, I am convinced, saved my career life. It gave me a chance to let go of my privileged-but-stuck life at the Tribune, and entertain what I would do if I could indeed do anything. Thanks to a small severance check, unemployment benefits, a trickle of freelance work and a hard-working wife, I had a portal of opportunity to reconsider everything.
Lesson learned: Making a life instead of a living. Getting laid off meant a return to the things I love most -- which not only include what I do, but how I do it. After a decade of working for some horrid bosses, I now revel in the freedom of hopping from coffeeshop to coffeeshop, free to get my work done on my own time, in a less pressurized (but still productive) milieu.
7) When all else fails, prayer will not: You may think you can go it alone. I know I could not. The answers to my job situation often seemed elusive. I had 10 questions for every answer. Prayer did not solve everything with the wave of a magic wand. But still small voices whispered messages of value that proved both financial and spiritual. I've lost count of the number of times I awoke in the middle of the night with sudden revelations and inspirations; found surprising answers and opportunities in my e-mail box when I'd reached a dead end; or simply gathered up enough strength to go on.
Lesson learned: An attitude of gratitude. When I prayed, I thanked God for a super-supportive spouse, two young kids who seemed oblivious to my job loss (so long as I roughhoused with them), and abundance beyond anything I thought possible. I thanked Him for my supervisor at WalletPop, who gave me a second chance as a journalist. I thanked Him for my former Tribune colleague and lunch buddy, who called nearly every day for a month after my layoff to check up on me. How incredible is that?
I used to think success meant a Pulitzer and a seven-figure book deal. But these people helped me to see things differently. And I'm richer for it.
Lou Carlozo is the editor of AOL's Money College, a WalletPop site dedicated to college life and finances. E-mail him at email@example.com.
A year after my Chicago Tribune layoff, the lessons I've learned