A while back, I was chatting with Dilbert creator Scott Adams (this was before he went sort of bonkers) about life and business. Because he gets a lot of correspondence from disgruntled employees, he has a pretty broad perspective about how the business world works. Anyway, he told me something that really stuck with me: "almost everyone I know who's been laid off said a year later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them."

Scott's remark reminded me of a guy I worked with--he was an industry analyst--who called me one morning to say he wouldn't be meeting with me because his employer (whom we were using for market intelligence) had fired him the day before. I expressed surprise and sympathy, of course, but then he added this kicker: "when I got home and told my wife, she told me she was filing for divorce and handed me a box of my stuff. Now I'm living at in a motel."

Even though I didn't really know the guy that well, I said, "hey, meet me at the local bagel shop in 20 minutes and we'll figure out what to do." We show up about the same time and, not surprisingly, he looks like hell warmed over. As we downed a couple of coffees, I asked him enough questions to confirm what I suspected, which was that he'd been laid off for political reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. (He was a very smart, very savvy analyst.)

Long story short, he calls me about a year later. He'd landed his dream job as a VP at Xerox and was back in town, with his new girlfriend in tow, and had run into his ex-wife at the mall in a "When Harry Met Sally" scenario except that rather than him looking like a sad sack, his wife was shocked and annoyed that he'd not just recovered financially and career-wise but was also dating somebody more attractive than she was.

Revenge was sweet.

Of course, I've heard other "I got laid off" stories that don't end so positively, mostly from people who got laid off in middle age and still slogged away trying to find the exact same job that they'd lost. Otherwise, though, Adams's observation seems reasonably true, especially in light of a recent survey (conducted by the gig vendor Airtasker.com) of 800 people who'd been laid off or fired. It's not a peer-reviewed study, but the results are nevertheless interesting.

The top line was that fully 70% of respondents were "grateful" for being "let go," mostly because it spurred them to make life changes they were otherwise putting off. Specifically:

  • 29% started doing gig work on the side
  • 29% took classes
  • 21% started their own business
  • 20% traveled
  • 19% expanded their network of contacts
  • 18% moved to another city
  • 13% did volunteer work
  • 7% started a new relationship
  • 5% ended a relationship

Note: the percentages don't add up to 100% because many people took more than one action.

For myself, being laid off (I took an exit package but it amounted to the same thing) was what launched into a much more lucrative and interesting career. Similarly, the massive heart attack I had last year (and subsequent open heart surgery) certainly wasn't a picnic, but it's definitely helped me focus my energies on what's important.

The lesson, I think, is that whatever happens in your career or in your life, you can either complain and feel miserable about it, or you can look at it as an opportunity to discover something new about yourself or to make changes that you've been putting off. Pundits talk about how companies must be "nimble" but that's excellent advice for individuals as well.