How to Make a Comeback When Your Career Crashes

Pete Ross

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I still remember the worst period of my life like it was yesterday. I was a day away from discharge out of the army. Despite screwing up a number of job opportunities, I’d secured a high paying job. On the last day though, the job fell through despite a formal offer being extended. In the space of an hour, I went from being certain about my future, to a scramble to stay in the army at least long enough to work out what I was going to do.

It didn’t get better from there. The army gave me another month, and that was it. No job. I ended up managing to find work at a camping store with teenagers, despite the fact that I’d just left the army with a master’s degree and having been in supervisory roles that involved intelligence monitoring of a million square kilometres. Everyone had such high expectations of me after I left, and so did I. Oh, did I mention I was this close to nabbing my dream job, and screwed that up too?

I was utterly humiliated.

It was my fault of course, but how and why is a story for another day. One of those “hindsight is 20/20” things. I don’t suffer from depression, but at that point, I went into a pretty deep depressive episode. I withdrew from all my friends, I stopped going to training at judo, and pretty much just went to work and felt terrible every day for a few months. It was all I could do just to function day to day, although I managed to still make myself go to the gym a few times a week, which is probably what saved me.

Eventually I got a full time job, doing insurance assessing of all things. Apart from the fact it had nothing to do with what I was good at and I had no interest in it, it was a sizable pay cut from my army job. I had to deal with pissed off people every day, which was the last thing I needed in the state that I was in at the time. I hated that job. I hated the company. I hated the industry it was in. The only thing I could be happy about was the fact that I finally had secure, full-time work, as my wife and I were expecting. I had to spend 18 months at that place and was trying the entire time to get out.

There’s a world of difference between where I was then and where I am now. I earn well over double what I earned in that job, I work in a high performing company and have amazing colleagues and a job that is incredibly fulfilling. Truth be told, it took a couple of years to turn everything around just in terms of job and life circumstances. In terms of my own learning though, it took many more.

In terms of how I made the comeback from that first beat down courtesy of life though, I want to tell you how I did it so that if you’re going through the same thing, you might be able to get out of it a little faster.

I listened to motivational videos all the time

Sounds trite doesn’t it? The fact is though that without a positive force in your life, it’s very easy to succumb to the negativity that builds up inside your head when everything around you sucks. I’d listen to them on the way to and from work, during work, basically whenever I could. Eric Thomas, Les Brown and many others became my unofficial cheer squad, telling me what I wanted to hear, and more importantly what I needed to hear.

I can’t overstate just how important this was to my overall state of mind. When you’re listening to positive messages for hours every day, when the voices that get most of your time are the ones that tell you to keep fighting, to know what you’re worth and so on, it seeps into your consciousness and drives the bad thoughts out.

I meditated

Again, it sounds trite, but this was just another front of fighting the mental battle while my life felt like it was in the toilet. When everything is going wrong, your mind can go straight down the dark path of catastrophising everything all the time. Any negative event, however small, can get you thinking about how terrible everything is. In that way, your mind is like a dog — it requires a leash and firm guidance. The only way you can do that is if you learn to control your thoughts and your state of mind. Meditation is the leash that will do that.

I kept taking care of myself

Exercise should be a part of everyone’s life regardless of what you do or how you’re feeling. That said, powerlifting was a very important escape for me during that period. No matter how bad I felt from work, I could go to the gym, put angry music on and feel powerful. Training is different from work — you can work your tail off at a job for years and never get anywhere. At the gym though, every bit of work you put in shows in your physique and how much weight you can put on the bar.

Being able to see that progress when I was going nowhere at work was important for my sanity. It also meant that my negative energy was burned off by the time I got home, so I could be the right kind of person for my wife and daughter.

I learned to put on a happy face

Because when you’re going for other jobs and trying to move up a level, anger and bitterness are just as perceptible as if you literally stink of excrement. You need to be able to put on that positive face and seem like you’re a happy go lucky go-getter, even when you’re utterly desperate for any change to your situation.

I looked at every setback as positive

Or in Jocko Wilink’s vernacular, “good.” Get screwed out of a pay rise by a boss playing games? Good, I’ll remember not to put that sort of trust in someone again. Get given my old job to do on top of my new one because my replacement had a stroke? Good, getting used to the extra workload will do me well when I get a new, better job than this. Not appreciated for anything I’ve achieved? Good, I’ll keep achieving and take it to someone who will appreciate it and pay me well for it. Literally every time something like this happened, I’d use it as fuel for the fire. I’d keep telling myself I deserved better, and I’d get better. The way I saw it, it was only a matter of time.

I never gave up

It would have been so easy to. Many people would have, and do every single day. 3 months of depression before I could get a permanent job that sucked. Another 18 months before that great opportunity came along, with nothing in between. I could have done what so many others do. I could have been comfortably miserable. I could have resigned myself to staying in that company or industry and just trying to get promoted because it was my lot in life.

Even when there was no light at the tunnel, I was determined that there would be despite not being able to see it. The opportunity that I eventually did get was pure luck, and would have flown right past without me even knowing if I hadn’t been looking for it.

I wrote my first book

It wasn’t a great book, but I’m glad I did it. I’d wake up at 5am every morning to spend 2 hours on it before I went to work. Having that project that was just for me, that I used my best mental energy on each day was important just like powerlifting was. Even though it didn’t sell many copies, it was my little way of taking control of my life and producing something that was a stepping stone to something greater.

Final thoughts

I’d love to say that I learned to forgive myself for the mistakes that led to my situation, that I learned to be happy, have gratitude and all that kind of thing, which is what led to me getting that better job. But the unvarnished truth is that I didn’t come to peace with all of that until I was well into the new job. If I was still there, I’d still be hating myself and hating my life.

The great thing about all of this is that when I did get that amazing new job and opportunity, I was incredibly thankful for it and really had a sense of perspective. When you’re in a good job that you’ve worked hard for, when bad things occasionally happen you shrug them off so easily, because you remember that period where life sucked. It’s also a powerful feeling — knowing that despite everything looking hopeless, that you didn’t give up and you got to a better place.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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