GUESTWORDS: What’s Good About Goodbye?

By Stephen Rosen and Celia Paul

    With the economy hesitating to recover, is it time to think about finding or changing jobs? Normally, about one person in 10 changes occupations per year. Nowadays, about twice that number contemplate switching. What’s so good about saying goodbye to a job or career? What’s good about being fired?
    Finding a new job and changing jobs, careers, or occupations can lead to job satisfaction. Many studies (and our personal experience) show that job satisfaction is an important predictor of job performance. A happy worker is a productive worker. So it’s not surprising that changing occupations led us, and can lead you, to career satisfaction. But how do you find your true calling, your passion-at-work?
    Some of us acquire practical job satisfaction by changing careers repeatedly until we find what’s right for us, sometimes through chance encounters. (Louis Pasteur, who discovered penicillin serendipitously, said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”)
    But our studies of thousands of downsized employees and job-changers prove that there’s a special population who learn how to find or switch jobs naturally, easily, and freely. They find new ways to direct themselves in new avenues, to use their skills and strengths. They figure out how to find a job that dovetails with their skills. They arrive at a kind of inevitable match to their work. Their skills fit their work like a glove. They are invigorated, not exhausted, by work. They fully enjoy the exercise of their signature talents and their strongest and most enjoyable skills. One of these rare individuals put it this way: “My work is now a worthy expression of who I am.”
    Parents or well-meaning friends may suggest to career-bewildered youngsters, “Become a lawyer or a doctor, and you’ll never have to worry about making a living.” We find that many lawyers and doctors later in life, after following this advice, actually experience a rude awakening: They have a mortgage, a lifestyle, and a family to support and realize they’re doing what their parents wanted, not necessarily what they want.
    Career changes late in life, now common, are difficult: Is perfect paralysis better than imperfect movement?
    The workplace is filled with those who do find satisfaction. A landmark study of young people by Eli Ginzberg, a Columbia University economist, found that as adults almost two-thirds had moved in a “straight-ahead career path,” entering and remaining in one field. Almost a third pursued a “broad career pattern,” shifting fields within their occupation. The rest (some 13 percent) zigged and zagged in a “variant pattern,” changing career directions completely.
    The study concluded that achieving career satisfaction is not a fully conscious process but had to be learned from the alternatives encountered — by trial and error. Those people who switch jobs or careers (by getting fired or quitting until they find the right fit) tend to be productive and satisfied in their work . . . eventually. Hard work, years of random or systematic job-changing, and even floundering may be necessary.
    Compared to other countries, the U.S. labor force works the most hours annually and has the shortest period of unemployment benefits and the shortest vacations of any capitalist democracy. Charles Darwin observed that variability of offspring “coupled with the energetic searching for a niche” produce hardened survivors. Layoffs and career-changing help give us a productive American economy because of the variety and energy in our work force, in our start-ups, and in our established companies.
    Changing jobs or careers lubricates and smoothes the operation of the economy. “Free movement of workers between occupations,” according to economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “can be beneficial to both the individual and the economy.”
    The global economy drives local labor supply and demand in the U.S., making rapid competitive responses essential. For example, FedEx keeps cargo planes in the air half-empty so they can mobilize promptly in response to changing demand conditions.
    Similarly, workers can mobilize their dissatisfactions as motivation to change jobs, occupations, specialties. So work force versatility and even employee unrest or layoffs become a resource waiting to be used — a virtual national asset. The U.S. economy can, in effect, turn on a dime when necessary by allowing versatile, talented, and productive workers to shift jobs or careers with ease and alacrity, as facilitators to the survival of the fittest. This is as true for laborers and tradespeople as it is for lawyers, business executives, or doctors — no matter what color collar they wear (white, blue, plaid, pink, or gold).
    We do work harder and more efficiently when we work at jobs or careers we like. “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface,” Darwin wrote, “with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.” Individuals striving to find jobs or penetrate an economy (a face of nature) are similar to sharp wedges. The incessant blows that move us forward are our confident refusal to accept job loss, our energetic persistence, our struggling to the utmost, our willingness to push ourselves.
    Getting fired and changing jobs or career directions may not only turn out to be good for us, but may also be good for the economy. Saying goodbye to a job layoff or career mismatch can provide a new lease on life and lead to genuine career satisfaction. Isn’t imperfect movement better than perfect paralysis? You don’t have to break glass to get fresh air. You can open the window.


    Stephen Rosen is chairman of Scientific Career Transitions, which specializes in the career problems of scientists and physicians. Celia Paul, his wife, is president of Celia Paul Associates, a New York City-based career-counseling firm specializing in lawyers. They live part time in East Hampton.