Resilience In Tough Times

CPC Career Development
By Karen Siwak.
I live in a town with a high percentage of first generation immigrants. They came to North America in the ‘50s and ‘60s seeking a better financial future than was possible in their home towns in post World War II Italy, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Yugoslavia. Many of them arrived with little money, bare minimum English skills, and the very basic levels of education. Confronted with overwhelming odds against them, they nevertheless thrived. These “economic refugees” are in their retirement years now, and with few exceptions, are retiring not only comfortably, but with a substantial nestegg stashed away that they can leave to their children and grand children.

As a new generation faces its own set of overwhelming economic odds, it is worthwhile looking at what strategies this previous generation used to stay resilient in tough times.

  • Be Mobile: They lived in economically depressed regions, and didn’t wait for the jobs to come to them. They made tough decisions about leaving family and friends – sometimes for a few months, sometimes for years, because they knew they had to go where the jobs were.
  • Work Hard: They considered no work beneath them. Schlepping dirty dishes, washing floors, picking up trash, fieldwork – they did it. Paying their own way was a high priority, and they never let the kind of work they did define their sense of personal worth and value.
  • Master a Skill: Even as they schlepped and washed, they were on the look out for “masters” who could teach them a skill. They didn’t think in terms of career, they thought in terms of value. They were willing to work for low pay, and in back-breaking conditions, for as many years as it took, if it meant that they could acquire a skill that would increase their market value in the workplace.
  • Build a Company Around that Skill: Once the skill was mastered, they built it into a saleable commodity. As a tiler who built a multi-million dollar contracting company told me, “why would I invest all that time and effort into making somebody else rich? Nobody gets rich working for somebody else. You need to own the company.”
  • Make Friends: They didn’t call it networking, they never had a formal strategy for gathering names and following up. They just spent the time getting to know people. A lot of time, and a lot of people. At social gatherings they worked the room like nobody’s business. They found out who was working on what, who had a wedding coming up, whose son or daughter was graduating soon, who needed help. All these little bits of information that they gathered were filed away for future use. They found ways to be helpful. The found ways to connect people, so new friendships and opportunities blossomed. They didn’t think “marketing” or “advertising” or “branding”, they thought business. And business started with people, and handshakes.
  • Diversify Your Income: They always had deals on the go, multiple irons in the fire, both inside their companies and on the sidelines. At any one time they might be considering investing in a restaurant, or some real estate, or another business. They built partnerships – they were the original venture capitalists – and always entered joint ventures with a plan for  how they could get their money out when the right time came. They invested, not in stocks and bonds, but in income generation opportunities. They managed the risk by being choosy about who they partnered with, and  by not putting all their eggs in one basket.
  • Live Frugally: Even after their businesses were successful and their investments began to payoff, they lived with an eye to saving money. Many continued to have large gardens, and canned vast quantities of tomatoes and peppers, long after they could afford to buy all the food they needed in the grocery store. Wastefulness was a sin. They paid cash, and waited until they could afford something before buying it. Going into debt in order to keep up with the Joneses was the height of foolishness. Mortgages were risky business. They knew from their childhood experiences that good times can end with no warning, that banks could fail, and that they needed to be both mentally and financially prepared for the worst.

The values seem simple, perhaps even a little old-fashioned. Only a few second generation kids were smart enough to learn them and live by them, and they too are finding ways to be resilient in tough times. They offer an alternative to the go-to-university-get-a-good-job advice that forms the basis of most career counselling programs in high schools today, and with most college grads carrying mountains of debt and few job prospects, alternatives are needed. I wish these values had been part of the curriculum when I was going to school.

Karen Siwak is a Certified Resume Strategist, Certified Job Search Strategist, and Certified Career Management Coach. As the Executive Director of Resume Confidential and a member of the Challenge Factory coaching team, she helps executives, senior managers and credentialed professionals get marketing savvy about their careers.

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