Motley View: On the Rewards of Being Fired and Other Career Road Blocks

Some road blocks will stall your career for a while… (Kipahulu Lava Flow, Hawaii, 1987: E Medley)

You are driving along your well-planned career track en route to the next success. You are being considerate of others, following the Rules of the Road, when suddenly an unexpected career road block forces you to detour. Career road blocks are like that – they spoil your career plan, the highway that you had designed to connect your Cal Geoengineering degree to your Successful Career. Once detoured, you are perhaps lost in a countryside you never knew existed and had no intention of ever visiting. You try hard to get back on track. You worry that you shall miss your next scheduled achievement. And you fret that your career is now ruined.  

Sound familiar? Probably not, if you are less than 30 years old. Many younger engineers have yet to suffer major career road blocks. What is major? Well, being fired, for one. (If you want, substitute a weaker euphemism for being fired such as: laid off, terminated, sacked, made redundant, discharged, released, bounced out, canned, axed, let go, or downsized. All basically mean: “Goodbye, Job!”)

You have not been fired yet? Well, there is a similar career road block waiting just for you. Silt happens and mucky road blocks will eventually happen to you. Not to worry: you can’t miss them! They come in different shapes and sizes. How about these: you lose the position you knew was yours for the asking, you are overlooked for a much desired promotion, you flunk an exam; or you are suddenly transferred to a horrible two year assignment in Moose’s Armpit, Wisconsin. Get the idea? Career road blocks are unexpected, are apparently undeserved and always feel like failures or rejections. Still don’t know the feeling? Then substitute your first teenage romantic break-up, your divorce, a death or other unpleasant Life Surprise. (If you have not had any of those yet, count yourself lucky: you are overdue for a shakeup.)

By the way, I know of what I write.  I have been fired (laid off/let go/etc.), I have failed exams, I have endured horrible assignments, I have been overlooked for promotions; and, I have been detoured by several unpleasant Life Surprises. Indeed, I can plot the nearly 50 years of my working passage as a random journey composed of relatively pleasant scenic drives punctuated by dramatic lurches every 10 years with, more frequent but less disruptive intervening detours.

And so to the Motley View on why you should welcome career road blocks and their eventual rewards:

You will benefit from career road blocks: I believe that we are ultimately rewarded when we suffer through career road blocks. I am not saying that negotiating road blocks is easy or pleasurable, but they do eventually result in learning, humility and often, other opportunities.  Indeed, you may be able to lull yourself with the thought: “The last time I had to detour, my career changed for the better. In the fullness of time, this current unpleasantness will also lead to a great opportunity.” After the last time I was fired/let go/axed etc., I felt ignorant and at age 42, I entered Berkeley to refresh my geotechnical engineering with an MS. That intended brief detour ultimately led to the much more rugged traverse of PhD research of the unexplored terrain of melanges and bimrocks, a year of teaching and research in the UK and, finally a wonderful job at a great firm that would likely not have hired me five years earlier.

Being detoured is not the end of the world: It feels like that the first time you suffer a road block but after a while you learn to cope. The innovative, clever you will figure out the opportunities, find the short cuts, perhaps seek an adventure or two. It will be your chance to exercise your network of contacts. You do have one, don’t you? Indeed: you may never get back to your nicely planned career but instead shift over to some other route altogether and, like one of my close friends, a Berkeley PhD geoengineer, develop a wonderful zig-zag career by following your bliss and exploring  fields very different from geoengineering.

Others have it much worse than you: After you swerve to avoid (or else smash into) a career road block, it sometimes helps to put your own pain in perspective by seeing how other folk live their lives. Go spend a few months as a hospice volunteer or throw yourself into an Engineers Without Borders assignment in Bangladesh.

Take the opportunity to enjoy a break.: In my 30’s I had a magnificent “mid-life crisis”, detoured by a spectacular conjunction of career and life road blocks. Lost, I went to Asia for a few weeks of vacation. I came home two years later after travelling around the world. I had some stirring adventures, including a geotechnical engineering assignment in Iran, a place where few wanted to work at that time.  I returned broke but enriched with a different view on what was important in my life and career.

As an extra reward- you shall one day tell some great stories: A great benefit to nimbly/clumsily and bravely negotiating career road blocks is the stories you get to tell in your dotage. I have more than a few tales which I enjoy telling, even if I did not relish them at the time. Remind me to tell you the one when I was a prospector and was fired for telling the truth to an arrogant, ignorant boss…

This post is an adaptation of a Motley View article, first published in the February 2008  Newsletter (No. 4) of the Berkeley Geoengineering Alumni Association.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 40 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his 40 years of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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