Contrarian that I am, I’ve always found Friday the 13th to be lucky—although I wouldn’t have sworn to it on that Friday, a few years back, when I was recalled from vacation to learn that my department at a large global investment organization was being downsized and that my job was being eliminated.
It was in the depths of the Great Recession. There weren’t many corporate communications executive positions to be had. It didn’t help that I wasn’t willing to relocate. For the first time since college, I found myself unemployed, with no clear prospects for the future. And, unlike college, this time I had a mortgage and a teenage daughter in private school. I was scared to death.
Failure was not an option. I had to eat. I had to feed my family. I had to keep a roof over our heads. I was willing to do anything.
I strafed the market, machine-gunning inquiries and resumes out to anyone and everyone familiar with my work. Wolf at the door, I took every job that came along—including construction. I taught myself new skills: web design, blogging, grant-writing, drywall, and nonprofit management. I read books. I registered with online jobsites. I went on interviews. And I started asking questions.
Time and again, I heard the same advice: Figure out what you are really good at, and focus on that. It seemed so trite at the time—a silly aphorism at a time when I needed actionable advice.
Necessity dictated that I take the work that was available to me, and by the end of my first year, I had cobbled together my own agency—again on the advice of a former boss, who had suggested that if no-one could afford to hire me full-time at my previous salary, I might want to consider offering my services part-time to multiple companies. It turned out to be brilliant advice, and by the end of my first year, I found myself saying, in the middle of a late-stage interview for a lucrative corporate communications position: “I think the worst is behind me. Thank you for your consideration, but I think I’m going to try to make it on my own. If I don’t do this now, I’m not sure I’ll have the courage or opportunity to do it again.”
Almost five years down the road, and with the luxury of hindsight, I can tell you that it was a good call. The client relationships that have stuck—the ones that have become the bedrock of my agency—have been those based on my oldest and deepest skills as a communicator. These are the clients that have come to me on referral.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t constantly be trying to expand your skillset. My forays into web design helped hone my SEO skills, providing me with a new platform and helping me to serve my clients better. My work in layout and graphic design taught me to “think visually,” opening up a whole new world of video storytelling.
The process has also taught me what I am not. I am not a programmer, for example. Nor am I cut out to paint houses, roof houses, or run nonprofits.
What goes around comes around, and now I often find myself on the receiving end of probing questions from friends and displaced former coworkers, looking for a new way forward. I try not to leave them hanging. I know how that feels. I offer up details about what I tried—what worked and what didn’t.
But I know, deep in my heart, that when it comes right down to it, I’m really telling them what everyone told me: “Figure out what you are really good at, and focus on that.”