What a Layoff taught me about Who I Am Beyond My Career

Written by Ai En
3 mins read
Published on Apr 3, 2024

When the layoffs started, I thought I was untouchable. As a high performing recruiter at one of tech’s biggest firms, I had it all – a comfortable life, the travel, and the premium free food. My career was a large part of my identity.

Then the dreaded town hall happened. “We have to make some difficult decisions…” my boss announced grimly at 12am. Turns out I wasn’t so untouchable after all. Getting laid off at 27 felt like a scathing breakup text from someone you thought you’d marry.

Those first few months were rough. With no job routine to cling to, I zamboni’d between the fridge and doomscrolling Linkedin day after day (who does that, right??) , wallowing in self-pity . Who even was I without the prestigious job title and firm’s colourful T-shirts? A nobody, that’s who.

But as the weeks drifted by, something shifted. Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent – all phenomena, including our careers and identities, are constantly changing. With no emails pouring in at all hours, I started rediscovering hobbies that gave me joy simply for joy’s sake – talking long walks at 9am on a weekday, going on long meditation retreats, and having catchup with the old and new mates I’d been too “busy” to see.

The Buddha emphasized the importance of spiritual friendship and community for our well-being. Freed from the golden handcuffs of constant performance, I reconnected with my true, non-office bredren who reminded me of my humanity beyond my job description. We laughed, reminisced, and soaked up all the wholesome inklings I’d been quashing.

That’s when it hit me – my career had become an all-consuming, cruchy cage without me even realizing it. Like many Singaporeans, I had succumbed to the toxic view that my career is my identity. By fixating intensely on my career, I’d neglected the very delights that nourish the soul – close friendships, playful passions, and savouring small joys. No wonder I’d been numbing myself with endless grunt hours and gallons of overpriced flat whites!

Buddhist teachings, like those shared on the Handful of Leaves podcast, remind us that clinging to any temporary state causes suffering. As the guest Amy shared, it’s crucial to find joy and purpose in your work itself – not just chase external success metrics. I had lost sight of my deeper “why” amid the rat race.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked to be gainfully employed again. (Rent don’t pay itself, amirite?) But getting laid off unshackled me from the toxic workplace I’d imprisoned myself in. These days, in line with the Kalama Sutta’s advice, I rely on my own discernment rather than society’s career fixations. I no longer rigidly self-identify as just “XXX, techie .” I’m exploring different roles and companies that align with my values for long-term fulfillment, not just for a fancy performance review.

See also  Ep 20: Being laid off & the life after (Ft Livia, Ex Meta employee)

If you’re stuck in that same toxic grind, here are 3 wise steps:

  1. Prioritize purpose over promotions. Nurture playful inklings and community interests beyond corporate ladder-climbing.
  2. Invest in nourishing friendships, as the Buddha taught. Surround yourself with people who remind you of your multidimensional humanity.
  3. Regularly pause and realign. Reflect on whether your current role aligns with your core values and allows space for continued learning and growth. Be willing to pivot if not.

Now, I’m not saying you need to totally disengage from your career either. For many of us, our work is a key part of how we contribute to society and find a sense of purpose. There’s value in applying ourselves diligently to our professional callings when it aligns with our interests and values.

The CEO of a social enterprise improving education access for underprivileged kids may rightfully view their career as integral to their life’s mission. A passionate surgeon might find profound meaning in honing their craft to save more lives. If your career allows you to have a positive impact in an area you care about, by all means, lean into it!

The key is to avoid letting your job totally subsume your identity to the point of spiritual stagnation. Make sure you’re still nurturing other areas of life like family, friends, hobbies and personal growth. But if your work itself is a positive force that energizes you, embrace that too in balance.

At the end of the day, our sense of self-worth should stem from our full, enriching life experiences – not just our job titles or salaries. My layoff was an abrupt yet invaluable wake-up call to stop deriving my entire identity solely from my career persona.

Sure, I’m back in the daily grind. But this time I’m consciously allowing space for the people, passions and simple joys that make life feel purposeful beyond any office role. Getting laid off allowed me to realign my priorities with Buddhist wisdom – and ultimately craft a more sustainable, fulfilling existence that positively impacts the world while nourishing my whole self.

Our careers are What We Do, not Who We Are. The layoff was a Buddhist wake-up call – a reminder to realign my self-worth with my deepest values beyond any office role. Sure, I’m back hustling now. But this time, it’s a more purposeful pursuit allowing space for life’s true treasures outside of just my job.

Author: Ai En

A collector of human stories, Ai En is passionate about sharing life experiences and mistakes with others so that everyone can grow in this Samsara journey. Data & A.I. are key areas of hobbies for her.

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