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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Baseball and career resilience

Baseball was the first sport I learned to play. These days I follow hockey and football instead, but baseball still carries a cultural significance in this country that other sports don’t. The ceremonial first pitch of the season is usually thrown by the President. Whether it’s the movie Field of Dreams (at 1:24) or the late George Carlin’s comedy, the language of baseball is rich with widely known metaphor.

This month three managers of Major League Baseball teams – Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Cito Gaston – have retired after long careers. Cox and Torre, ranking 4th and 5th respectively in all-time wins as a manager, are certain to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

What catches my eye is not their record of success. Rather, it’s the fact that all three of them were fired at one point in their careers. So was Tony La Russa, who is still active as a manager and #3 on the all-time wins list.

Losing one’s job, whether from unavoidable layoff or discharge for cause, is widely perceived as tragic. It's true that those who are on the edge of financial ruin can’t tolerate a loss of income for any length of time. Even those who have liquid assets are threatened by the loss of healthcare coverage.

But I’m writing about the psychological impacts of losing one’s job:
  • a feeling that one has let one’s family down,
  • abrupt separation from close friends in the workplace,
  • loss of stature and enjoyable perquisites,
  • fixation on what one might have done differently to retain the job,
  • diminished self-confidence,
  • dread of finding a new job or of adjusting to premature retirement, etc.
I've been there myself, and I know literally hundreds of colleagues who were laid off by Nortel. Most of them have experienced some or all of these impacts to one degree or another.

Cox, Torre, Gaston, and La Russa testify that job loss is not terminal -- and that it often opens the door to unexpected success. Intellectually we already know this. From the perspective of emotion, however, proof points that are culturally vivid and easy to communicate, like baseball, are good to have.