Contrary to whatever you’ve heard, the lowest, darkest and bleakest spot to find yourself is not the infamous Rock Bottom. “The worst place is actually the step above rock bottom, because you’re still trying to hold onto something,” says Dean Shepherd, business prof at the University of Notre Dame. His new study, “Hitting Rock Bottom After Job Loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity,” looks closely at how losing everything isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems. Here are just a few upsides of rock bottom.
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A sense of relief
Shepherd’s study looks at career-injured veterans and musicians, fired executives and failed entrepreneurs, but rock bottom is mostly one of those places that you’ll know when you get there. One description that might help: “It’s when all the bad things have come together and the walls have closed in and there’s no way out.” In a situation akin to a stress nightmare, rock bottom lets you give up and finally come up for air. Phew!
Sweet, sweet freedom
If you’ve spent two decades climbing the corporate ladder, every move has likely been a careful step in one direction. But how long has momentum propelled you instead of passion? When was the last time you even questioned the path you’re on? Well, thanks to rock bottom, it can be right now: “You’re now free of all the associations you had with your previous identity,” says Shepherd. You can go in any direction you wish.
Permission to dream big
Step one—as usual—is admitting you’ve hit rock bottom, but step two in this particular recovery is far more fun than embracing a higher power. “You get to and need to engage in this great fantasy play. Ask yourself, Now what could I do? What have I always wanted to do?”
Seeing the big picture
Playing the identity game, above, for many involves looking backwards before forwards. “This is where people tend to say things like, ‘Well, when I was 14 I had this lemonade stand, and I think maybe I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur.’” Rock bottom lets you stop, look all around and explore these possibilities that you thought were long lost.
Choose your own identity
The last step of this recovery, says Shepherd, is a step he calls “disciplined imagination.” That’s when you try on each and every maybe-career and start to tell yourself a new story. “Here’s where you ask, is this something I could do? How does it feel? In what ways could I change myself to fit this role and how can I change the role to fit me?”
Immunity to embarrassment
A new outlook and a new plan bring a fresh start personally and professionally. “Sometimes your identity is so tied up in your work that if you lose that the identity, you’re in a lot of trouble,” explains Shepherd. When ego depends so much on work, a looming failure feels both personal and public. But once it’s happened and over, failure isn’t an abstract insurmountable humiliation anymore—it’s a real-live situation that you’ve proven you can survive. With any luck, you’ll even thrive: “Many people end up describing rock bottom as the best thing that ever happened to them,” says Shepherd, “and far more often than you’d think.”
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