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Diaries of a Downturn

Four Fast Company readers open their private journals and share stories of disappointment, confusion, and resilience. Real accounts from a dog-day era of layoffs and cutbacks.

Read the main story: 20 (More) Ways to Slow Down Smart

The degrees of separation between you and a pink-slip victim decrease every day the NASDAQ dips below 2000. So chances are you will have a story to share — a tale of free lunches canceled, expense accounts squashed, or coworkers downsized — before the summer ends. Like it or not.

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The community message boards on sites like Vault suggest that most of those stories are little more than bitter rants and retaliatory rages. The diary entries below are not those stories. These accounts are honest, personal, and real. Responses to our Lap(top) of Luxury contest, they show how real people are surviving this downturn. They also suggest alternatives to the hunker-down-and-suffer mentality pervading business today.

A Hell of a Year

Learn how to tend bar. That is the only tip I have for surviving a pinch. I am a classically trained actor who lived in New York for almost 10 years. When my engagement broke up last year, I wanted more than living hand-to-mouth, so I returned to my roots in Chicago. My first job entailed selling advertising for an extremely large company. Talk about a 180-degree turn!

I left that company for a dotcom that went out of business, and then joined another that was horrifyingly corrupt and another that just downsized 30% of its workforce, including yours truly. All of this in less than a year.

Now I am full of questions, not the least of which is this: Is it time to bring art back into my life full-force, even if that means taking on even more debt? On the positive side, this has been a lovely time for reflection. It is quite freeing in a way. Of course, the first large bill has not arrived yet, so the fear of God has not yet fully taken root.

— Dory Binyon
Chicago, Illinois

The Laughter Factor

Our small multimedia and design business lost more than $97,000 in revenue when Belgian speech-recognition company Lernout & Hauspie filed for bankruptcy in late 2000. The people you don’t hear about when companies fold are the creditors who might never get paid. With no warning, we were out a large amount of money and our best client.

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On the bright side, our company has formed strong personal relationships with many of the people who worked at L&H. Those people have brought a tremendous amount of fresh, new work to our studio since leaving L&H.

What I have learned from people — no matter how fast, traditional, entrepreneurial, institutional, nonprofit, organized, disorganized, or good — is that you have to focus on working with good people and on becoming a better person yourself. Actively choosing to work with clients, colleagues, and team members who make you laugh is perhaps the most important choice you can make.

— Caitlin Jewell
Boston, Massachusetts

Distance Learning

Several years ago, my husband and I took a two-year sabbatical. We sold the house and cars, and then bought a 23-foot RV and a little trailer to tow a motorcycle, a canoe, and bikes. That experience changed the way we both view life. We learned how little you really need to make life livable.

No job since has taken priority over my personal life. I love my work, but if I stopped loving it, I would not hesitate to leave. Two years off the career path gave me the opportunity to think about where I was going. Although I had a successful career in not-for-profit administration, I felt that I needed a change. I returned to graduate school and studied what I liked — no career goal in mind. I was “underemployed,” earning a paltry amount, but school was a great challenge; money didn’t matter so much.

I fell into the perfect career, thanks to the skills I developed in my courses. For the past five years, I’ve worked as an independent agent, developing content and designing education software. Recently, one of my clients offered me a permanent position that allows me to work from my home office. Talk about the perfect setup — no commute, flexible hours, regular paychecks, and great benefits. And all of this during a downturn!

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Don’t put your future in any company’s hands. If my job ends tomorrow, I’ll just call up some of my old clients and networking buddies. And if it takes a while to land my next gig, I might take a trip in the meantime. Oh, yeah … as a free agent, I also learned to save about 25% of what I make so that I can take those trips.

— June Wilson
Smithville, Texas

Wish List

I got laid off right after I joined the ranks of the few, the proud — the homeowners. I panicked and took a computer-analyst position two weeks later. Fifteen months after that, I had an ulcer, hated my job, and found the only redeeming aspect of my position was being able to toilet-paper my boss’s cube on his birthday. It was time for a change.

People say that dream jobs don’t exist. They do. I know, because I found mine. For me, staying fast when the world was slowing down meant making a list. My list was the normal grocery-store variety — what I wanted and what I would be willing to compromise on. What emerged was a job description for an online content position.

I was tempted by the dotcoms — the money they offered and the foosball table in the playroom — but I didn’t bite. Now I work for a bank. I know what you are thinking: Boring! Nope. It’s great. I write financial news, make our clients’ experiences better, and inject a dose of creativity into an otherwise gray-flannel-suit world. The best part is that the bank accepts me on my terms. For me, staying fast when the world slowed down was all about making myself happy. Gotta go. It’s time to write the news!

— Hallie Hoffman
Charlotte, North Carolina

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