Let’s say you get fired, or laid off, or you quit because after two weeks you know you’re at the worst company on the planet. In all of those cases, you will face the interview question: What happened at your last job?

Here’s the answer you should always give: “I left to do x.” And you fill in for x.

Which brings me to what you should be really focusing on when you are unemployed: Learning and growing. Because this is what you are going to talk about in job interviews.

Most people require about six months to get another job. This is a big chunk of time that you can piss away sending resumes to Monster and wondering why no one responds. But you cannot job hunt for eight hours a day. Really. You’ll go nuts. (Wait. Here’s a time-saving job hunt tip from my mom.)

So spend the time creating projects for yourself and executing on them. This is good for you mentally — because you are doing something meaningful with your time and that will keep your spirits up.

But this is also good for you in your job hunt. Because when you talk about why you left the last company, you spin it in a positive light by talking about how you are excited about doing what you are doing. Your interview should include you telling a good story about focused personal growth, and no one will get stuck on why you left your last job. Here are five ways to set that story up:

1. Create a job for yourself. These projects can be wide ranging, but they have to show that you are driven, ambitious and focused. During one stint of unemployment, I worked for free for my boyfriend’s company for a couple of hours a day. That way I didn’t actually have a gap in my resume; a resume doesn’t show part-time or full-time and it doesn’t show pay or no pay. So volunteering at my boyfriend’s company for a couple of hours a day ended up looking like a full-time job on my resume.

2. Focus on ambition and execution and not so much on work per se. Another time I got laid off I spent my days learning to swing dance. I took one or two lessons a day and practiced at night, and after my six months of job hunting, I was good enough to teach dancing just off Broadway. I didn’t put that on my resume, but when people asked me why I left my job, I told them about how I gave myself time to fulfill lofty goals as a swing dancer.

3. Start a blog about the industry you want to go into. Blogging is a great way to keep up in your industry, network without looking desperate, and leverage the fact that you have more time on your hands that people who have jobs. Everyone who is unemployed should be blogging as a way to get their next job. Put your ideas out into the world and connect with people that way. This is why you want to be hired, right? For your ideas. So show them. The reason that people who blog have great careers is that bloggers are always thinking about issues in their industry. Show that side of yourself to people. Blogging takes a lot of time, sure. Bu you have a lot of time. So use it. Here’s my guide for how to start a blog.

4. Start a company. Do you have a company idea? Try it now. During unemployment. There’s nothing stopping you. You have time, and you can try ideas to see which one sticks. Also, whether or not your company does well, you’ll be able to talk about it in an interview as a huge learning moment that will deflect from any problems at your last job. The company that never got out of your parent’s basement can sit on your resume as professionally as a stint in the Fortune 500. It’s all about how you write the bullet points: talk about accomplishments and learning.

5. Practice talking about yourself with everyone. High performers practice for interviews. So now you know what you’re aiming for, but you need to talk about it with everyone — parties, at the gym, on the phone with friends. When they ask how you’re doing, talk about what you’re doing like you are in the job interview. And the good news is that the better you get at talking like that, the more you will actually believe your story, the story that being unemployed is lucky because you have learning opportunities.

What’s important to remember here is that no one can tell you what experience you can gain and what you can’t. You don’t need a job in order to learn cool stuff and be on cool projects. You control what you do with your time and you can make it useful. Talk about that. There is no reason to talk about why the last job didn’t work when you can talk about the great things that leaving opened up to you.

203 replies
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  1. play online baccarat
    play online baccarat says:

    This List really sung out to me, I'm in the situation at the moment where I might lose my job, but I won't find out for sure until December 9th, Have no savings and no extra money. But on the bright side, I hate my job more than anything, I'm going to have to move back to my birth town as it's cheaper, but I'll get to see my friends and family everyday. And overall I'll be more happy and relaxed

  2. DeAndra Smith
    DeAndra Smith says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I lost my job last year. At first I was calm and enjoying the freedom of unemployment. I enrolled in a couple a college courses and did an internship. I thought that the time I had off was a God send and I was going to be able to take the time to reinvent myself. Well after the classes and the internship ended, my security blanket was gone. It dawned on me…I STILL DON”T HAVE A FREAKING JOB. A year and some odd months later…still searching. With two degrees under my belt, no children, mid twenties…I thought I would be an employers dream. NOPE! Last night I was going through my monthly freak out about being unemployed. Today I told myself I would start a new project and let go of the stress. That is when I stumbled across your article. Thank you for posting this advice! Can you suggest any blog sites for beginners?

  3. Doug P.
    Doug P. says:

    I agree with all that has been said. I need to focus on building my skills and maybe do some volunteering or some sort of classes. Unfortunately, I don’t know what planet you people are from, but unemployment for me means NO MONEY! No money means I don’t eat, I don’t pay rent (thus I have nowhere to live), and I sure as hell don’t start up a new hobby ($$). I wonder what your thoughts are about interning so far out of college. It has been three years since I graduated. It seems like most internships want current students, or at least recent grads. I agree with above comments. If I had rich parents who paid my rent I would intern my ass off, and probably not be in this situation in the first place. What if we re-framed the conversation to address being unemployed AND poor.

  4. Jake
    Jake says:

    well thank you , it may not be useful for me currently , but i know many of my friends , and i will surely recommend your post to them.

  5. Unemployed As Well
    Unemployed As Well says:

    I thought this was an interesting take on unemployment- so refreshing to hear that you are not expected to be job-searching 24/7 like some sites seem to imply. But I take the other posters’ point about money. I have been lucky to be able to live off savings, but for most people a paid job is absolutely necessary in order to get rent, food, childcare etc. Thats why I think all this business of needing to network, intern for free or do lots informational interviews in order to get a job is really unfair. A job is not a luxury, its a necessity!

  6. DeAndra Smith
    DeAndra Smith says:

    Check out the Random Thoughts of Unemployment blog. http://dtanae.blogspot.com I started my blog right after I read this article. It was refreshing to read and take a different approach to my current situation. I have been fortunate enough to been unemployed since January of last year and still have a roof over my head. It is hard to say the least but I make do. I’m 26 college educated with experience but I am fighting for the same jobs as other displaced workers, retirees and recent grads. I thank Penelope for post this article but I want to see how someone in my shoes is coping. (unemployed that is) Thats why I started my site to give a voice and real life situations of the unemployed. Check out the blog and thanks P. for writing this article and giving me something to work towards.

  7. Kay
    Kay says:

    I was laid off in March. Since then I have been trying my best to interview as much as possible. I landed a very good verbal offer. The potential employer told me about the benefits and the salary. I gave 5 references which I called them up individually and felt good with what they have to say about me. But the potential employer insisted to have one more reference from my first job. I gave the reference information to my recruiter and I actually thought the reference will mention good things about me b/c we had a good working relationship. It turned out to be the worst situation. As a result, the offer was revoked. I am back to square one. The people who know the reference were just as shocked as me. I called the reference twice and left her a voicemail. She never return my calls or emails. Obviously her conscience tells her she did something that was morally wrong.

    My point is to put yourself in another person’s shoes. What you tell the employers matters just as much as the interview. Unless your previous employee did something outrageously wrong, how can you crush someone’s chance of survival just like that? What happens if the person has to pay for mortgage, a child in serious medical condition, aging parents, or even just your own medical problems? Where is the moral and basic humanity? Just imagine if it is you in this situation.

    These days some employers are so picky that I think it’s insane. They were looking to hear specific things about this person. But realistically when you call up references, how many of them actually take it that seriously? Most references will think as long as they mention positive things, brush things on the surface, and nothing negative it should be fine. Plus who’s got the time to think and dig through everything this person did? So for employers, be realistic! For references, be careful of what you say and be more conscious of this tough market. Just by you spending a couple of more minutes out of your schedule can change someone’s life! What goes around, what comes around.

  8. Kay
    Kay says:

    Just think about the economic effect of putting an extra person on payroll. It stimulates spending, it increases payroll tax, the government spends less on unemployent and refocuses the budget on other area such as education, and health care. It’s a win-win situation for all.

  9. makarska
    makarska says:

    Update your resume !!!

    Check job websites for helpful hints on preparing resumes that get results ! You may need to create several different resumes to serve your different needs. Proofread carefully and make sure to print the final copy on high-quality, heavy bond paper.

  10. Roy Dixon
    Roy Dixon says:

    I am 50 year old and have never been without a job. I have a strategy that works every single time, but it is not without a catch… you have to want to be the best at something. Not just good, the best. A smart employer won’t turn someone away if they are driven to succeed.

    If I found myself without a job, I would decide what I wanted to do, pick one essential aspect of the job and get very, very good at it. Find a small company that you want to work for, a company where you can actually stop in and speak with the person doing the hiring.

    Tell the person what you are doing, explain that you really want to be the very best at this job, and make this simple offer… ” I will work for you for 2 weeks. If, at the end of that time, you don’t think I have the potential to be one of your best employees, then I will quit and you will owe me nothing. If you want to keep me, then pay me for the first 2 weeks and we can go from there.”

    Thew worst thing that can happen is that you have put yourself in a position to learn.

  11. Dubrovnik apartments
    Dubrovnik apartments says:

    Its essential to do what you do best.. If you are in position to choose, of course..
    You should start thinking about what type of work appeals to you. The more clearly you know where your interests lie, what you enjoy, what your talents are and which skills and strengths you want to use in your working life, the easier it is to recognize opportunities that suit you.

  12. DeAndra Smith
    DeAndra Smith says:

    I did all of this and started a blog called Random Thoughts of Unemployment! My fellow displaced workers please check out my site and show support! Tell me what you think, if you like it or not! This is my first time making a blog! http://dtanae.blogspot.com

  13. Investments
    Investments says:

    Penelope. I really liked that you worked for your boyfriends company. That is very smart and it looks good on your resume. It is a good idea for anyone who is between jobs. If a loved one doesnt have a company these days it doesnt take much to start one on your own. If you have some skill you can sell or consult then you can do it while looking for a job.

  14. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This is really great. Well the one part I am not sure about is when you mentioned volunteering for you boyfriend’s company. On my resumes I’ve always separated volunteer from paid work. To be honest, I’m not sure why but it’s been pounded in my head that there is a fine line between “fluff” and “lie”, and making volunteer seem like full-time crosses that boundary.

    I enjoy your career advice because it tells me things I’ve always wanted to do (like pursue a hobby while not working)but have somehow never been able to successfully justify.

    Thanks bunches.

  15. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I moved to the US from London, England 10 months ago. I’ve had one job so far which didn’t work out after around 2 months. Thanks to this article I’ve been inspired to use my freelance writing as a way of explaining away this year’s unemployment, rather than call on the recession as an explanation. Thanks for your input; this article is stuck to my fridge door to help self-start me during depressing phases!

  16. social bookmark
    social bookmark says:

    Starting a company is not a difficult part. The hardest one is how to make a company successful. By the way, thanks for the tips. They are really useful in the time like this.

  17. Lana
    Lana says:

    You’re just what the doctor ordered. I am about to go on a hike with a friend from my previous job, and as good a friend as she is I want to put on a good, positive game face which I usually do, but sometimes,… “What have I been doing these last almost four months?” I thought to myself. I know I should be doing more…Blogging is one thing I know I have to do, but I have been stumped on deciding on the right topic that will stick, that I can publicize and I will write everyday. Now I need to find something new – or not so new – to learn so I can teach. And work on my daughter’s art career (and help her finish college applications.) Prioritizing and not being able to focus is my demise, however. I cannot seem to do one thing without feeling like I have to be doing another. Off to my hike. It’s a beautiful day. Thanks!

    • Kimbelry
      Kimbelry says:

      Amen!! I’m so sick of people advising us to start our own company. We wouldn’t be worried about being unemployed if we could. DUhh!

  18. LM
    LM says:

    Start your own company when you are unemployed? Sounds like you know how to start a company with no $$$ invlolved. Please do tell. What bank is going to give you a loan to start your company when you do not have a job?
    if it were only that easy…. starting a company of ANY kinds takes MONEY…..something most umemployed people have very little of.

  19. Interior Design Ideas
    Interior Design Ideas says:

    Starting a blog is not always easy for an unemployed person. Apparently it might seem that earning through a blog is easy, but it needs a lot of hard work over a long period of time.
    My suggestion is to provide some services online for quick and easy money..

  20. Amanda K
    Amanda K says:

    I agree with most of your comments, but saying that working a couple of hours at a part time job (for no pay) can look the same as a full time job is dangerous. Oh, sure; you might get the job because you didn’t, on paper, have any “gaps” in your resume. But the moment you’re hired and HR does a background check using your Social Security number, they’ll learn immediately that you at best lied by omission in the interview and at worst, lied outright. That will get you right back in the unemployment line. I know. My best friend is a Director of HR, and she constantly tells me similar stories about new hires who got fired (remember that 90-day waiting period in most companies?) after a background check showed they misrepresented their income, work history, or some other aspect of their background.

    Unless you have a working spouse, are independently wealthy, are living with your parents, or have a huge bank account, looking for a job HAS to be a full time job. Hey, if you can afford to swing dance and spend money on frivolous activities, and not treat your job search like a full time job, go for it.

    The other tips you mention are all right on the mark and great advice.

  21. Lana
    Lana says:

    I posted earlier about how I am now helping to promote my teen’s art career – so my new job title of Social Media Director/Publicist. Tonight is the opening of the kid’s current art show. We just launched a new website bendow-art [dot] com and now I’m learning about web development. Plus part of my “new job” is going to art openings. Fun. I still have to start my pole dancing exercise class. I’d love to teach that! Thanks Ms. Brazen.

  22. k
    k says:

    You forgot to mention the fact that some people have no way to live! This makes the stress almost unbearable. What if you graduated college in 2008 and still have been unable to find a job? It was nice at first, but it’s getting horrible. Some people have absolutely 0 dollars and exercising and pursuing hobbies aren’t going to change the fact that I am about to starve. Good advice otherwise.

  23. Rachelle Wooten
    Rachelle Wooten says:

    Very insightful! This message should be shared with the 10% of Americans who are currently unemployed. In fact, if they apply what they see here, it may give our economy the stimulation we need. :)

  24. Doug
    Doug says:

    “…a resume doesn't show part-time or full-time and it doesn't show pay or no pay. So volunteering at my boyfriend's company for a couple of hours a day ended up looking like a full-time job on my resume.”

    Ummmmmm. This is a great way to falsify your employment applications. No wonder you were unemployed. I’m sure your previous employer probably caught you lying on your prior employment qualifications and dismissed you when they had the chance. This is the #1 statement at the beginning of the article???? I don’t need to read any further.

  25. Vaughn
    Vaughn says:

    Openly showing time on your resume as a volunteer is very helpful especially if you can show details that relate to the job you are seeking. If employers know you are seeking work and volunteering at the same time, they will look favorably on this.

  26. lisa
    lisa says:

    You all gotta be kidding me. apparently I found a site that has a bunch of people who do not have mortgage or bills. My hats off to you all

  27. Samir
    Samir says:

    I do agree with you, Its a big question “What happend at your last job?” but the question “What you are doing after you last job?”. It is better to be in touch with your work, as the second question is much worse than the first and really hard to answer as the answer is not “Job Hunting” for years.

    Creating a job is better than anything, we can work at our home business as well, but if you are working in IT but your family have an hotel you much not say that, you can carry on your studies and do some R&D and write at some blog or start your own blog.
    Starting a company and after some time applying for a new job can trick you as well, they may ask “If you started your own company, why you are here for a job?” or some other questions. If you start a company you must get it to success then no need to apply for a job again, “Thats better”.
    I have started my own company and the idea working very fine for me.

  28. John Dedman
    John Dedman says:

    I think half the problem is that employers don’t like generally hiring unemployed people.

    I sometimes think that employers generally discriminate against unemployed people, if they have a choice of taking on someone who is unemployed and hiring someone who is currently in a job, they tend to hire the already employed person first.

    Do employers really look that favourably on the fact that an unemployed person has done voluntary work, or are they really indifferent or take the attitude …. Very nice, yes, bus So what!!

  29. imjobless
    imjobless says:

    “Let's say you get fired, or laid off, or you quit because after two weeks you know you're at the worst company on the planet.”

    …quit because after two weeks you know you're at the worst company on the planet…

    this is exactly me..i quit after two weeks; (this was my first job 5 months after my graduation)And every time I
    apply I consider myself as a fresh grad.

    now I’m a bum and I’m feeling really depressed because all my friends has their job and I’m left out. I’ve been into so many interviews and I don’t know whats wrong, I’m very close on giving up. I don’t know if there’s any chance for me to get hired, it’s been too long since the day I graduated and I think that it will give a big turn off to the employers that I’m applying to. I do freelance but I rarely get one.

    If I follow these advice, how much time will it take…I don’t know what I’m going to do :(

  30. Billy
    Billy says:

    I feel your pain, except the only difference with me is that I had been with the same employer, doing sales in what’s now crappy industry to be in, home improvement, for almost 15 years while I was still in college part time. Ironically for me, contrary to what most college students experience, I was making really good money up until the time I had finally graduated in 2008. That of course was around the same time the market was getting hammered, and I had already started trying to find a new job since then. So now after over 2 years of looking for work on and off, thinking that it would be easier to get a new job while still having one, I was finally forced out of my last job, basically fired, for not complying to newer job procedures which included cold calling and prospecting every week, something I hated and never had to deal with much before. We had such few company leads on a weekly basis, and the average paycheck became so lame I started not caring anymore, especially after I decided to stop paying my mortgage since my property also lost almost half it’s value since I got into it back in 2006 with crappy loan terms at that. So I had spent more time at home looking for work, instead of doing a bunch of prospecting activity that really was a waste of time, since the job is all commission, there was no incentive to “work for free” anymore. I had gotten a few interviews here and there and nothing ever stuck. So now I’m finally unemployed which makes me feel worse because it was hard enough trying to get a job while having another one, compared to now when I’m completely unemployed. I really hope I catch a break before the summer is over, because I can’t take much more of this wack economy anymore!

  31. mike_,m
    mike_,m says:

    Interesting tips for the unemployed. Once when I was unemployed I learned a little bit of Spanish using tapes and books from the library, and it was a very good idea because my next job actually required a second language. I really like your idea about practicing talking about yourself, that also boosts your confidence.

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