How Failing Big Opens More Doors in Your Career

Nobody expects anything good from hitting rock bottom in life. We do everything we can to prevent and avoid it, not least when it comes to our careers. But whether it's of our own making or completely by chance, rock bottom really can be the right launching pad for radical discovery and innovation.

That's according to a new paper from Notre Dame University, anyway. Often the most painful and traumatic thing about job loss is the loss of identity that accompanies it. Investing ourselves so thoroughly in our work, to the point where we equate it with our self-worth, isn't just a recipe for burnout. When we're cut loose after a layoff or we quit a job that isn't working out, we may be at such loose ends that we self-destruct for a while.

But the Notre Dame research has an exciting possibility in it. "On the way down, we frantically do all sorts of things to try and repair the situation, and suffer as they fail," said lead author Dean Shepherd in a press release. "Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions and provides the conditions necessary to find a viable solution."

Shepherd recommends what he calls "identity play," encouraging lateral thinking about how your skills and interests can fit into a new role. Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans have developed a program called Designing Your Life to help people from all walks figure out what they really want through a guided examination of failures and long-shot ideas. They've published a book by the same name, with the ultimate goal of enabling readers to build the career they've wanted all along. It's just the kind of help you might need the next time you find yourself lying on the floor.