Why I refused unemployment money after getting fired

I never paid attention. That’s why I didn’t see my termination coming. I took meetings, answered emails, and worked hard. I faithfully served the corporation.

Even when my manager scheduled a mysterious meeting with no agenda on July 8th, I suspected nothing.

Then I heard the words “Cathy from HR is on the line.”

By the way, my lawyer friends would prefer me to use the term “laid off” since that’s technically what happened. Does it really matter? I’m no longer employed. It wasn’t my choice.

The most common advice afterward was: “file for unemployment.” My co-workers, my friends, and even my former boss gave me this advice. I ignored them all.

Was it the right call? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But my gut told me to go another direction. I asked my gut why, and this is what it said.


I am prideful

What? Did you expect a heroic, noble reason first?

My pride played a big role in refusing money. Getting laid off was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I didn’t want to tell anyone it had even happened, much less admit I planned to file for unemployment. When I saw friends at Walmart, I told them my life was good.

People say there are good reasons and then there are real reasons. I don’t know which one this is, but I have to be honest: one of the driving factors for refusing unemployment was plain, stubborn, old-fashioned pride.


I knew about forcing functions

forcing function is “is any task, activity, or event that forces you to take action and produce a result.” You stepping on an escalator is a forcing function. It’s going up and you are too.

Benjamin Hardy, PhD explained this concept to me at a Sonic in middle Tennessee. I had cheesy tots and a cherry limeade. He had nothing because he doesn’t defile his body like that. They were good tots. I wasn’t embarrassed. While I stuffed my face, he told me about Cortés.

Cortés was a warrior who once burned his boats so that his men could not run from battle. By removing the option to go back, they had to go forward.

Unemployment money is a safety net. For some people, it is a necessary one. But for me, it represented a level of comfort I couldn’t afford to accept. I didn’t want any reason to flee from the battle of entrepreneurship anymore.


I hate slow systems

Let’s take a quick trip through history.

If early America had a slogan, it would have been “monarchies suck.” Every choice was designed to keep power away from a single person. This was good. It meant innocent people kept their heads more often.

As the world stabilized, the population size exploded. President Hoover’s attempt at an unemployment program after the Great Depression failed because there were more people who needed help than anyone could have guessed. That exponential growth has continued, which is why in April of 2020, unemployment claims skyrocketed:

Guess what happens when a slow system meets an impossibly fast trend? Disaster, that’s what.

History lesson over.

My friend called the NYC unemployment office six times. Each time, he stayed on hold for a minimum of four hours. They kept disconnecting his line, so he started the process over and over. I shuddered at the thought.

Eventually, he got paid. He used the cash to pay for rent and start a new business. The last time we talked, he had seven clients. The system can work if you are patient enough to wait and lucky enough to qualify.

Instead of waiting for the government, I chose to write, meet people, and build new products and services. Maybe it’s a flaw, but always I prefer the active approach to the passive one.


I had lots of social capital

After the crying and screaming and rage, I began to come to terms with my unemployment. Reality sunk in. What the heck was I supposed to do?

A friend of mine had run his own business for two years. He makes $17,000 per month. That seemed nice when I was employed, but now it seemed downright magic. I called him up, hoping he could give me some big secret.

As it turned out, he did.

“Reach out to every single person you know and tell them what’s going on with you. Ask for advice, and ask for work.

“If you get in front of 15 people you know well, four of those people will say yes.”

He was right. But there’s a trick.

During my seven years of employment, I grew semi-famous online. This allowed me to grow a network without networking. Guess how many favors I asked of all these people who wanted to know me? Zero. In fact, when Declan Wilson and I connected, I edited his whole first book for free.

The entire reason for having a network is to get you through hard times. I was lucky to have enough social capital to walk away from employment and into business with relatively few problems.


I had (a little) side income

I was really into Downton Abbey for a while. (Yes, the slow, British show.)

On one episode, the head of the house — Lord Grantham — is at risk of losing his entire fortune. He put all his money in Canadian railroads or something. The details are fuzzy now. Maybe it was Canadian syrup, although that seems like a good investment.

The day after I watched the episode, I heard financial guru Dave Ramsay talking about the show.

“Why didn’t Lord Grantham diversify his money??” he bellowed.

I googled “diversify your money” when I reached my office. Then, I started panicking. If wealthy Lord Grantham was in danger for putting all his eggs in one basket, so was I.

The four years between that day and the day Cathy from HR hit the eject button on my comfortable position, I scrambled to build side income. They were small, pitiful things. But they gave me hope in a situation that makes most people desperate.


I knew sometimes you only get one shot

We take it for granted that slavery should be illegal. But President Lincoln had to fight hard for the change. Most people were more interested in ending the Civil War than ending slavery.

In the 2012 movie about Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays an unforgettable scene that illustrates just how intense the 16th president was about banishing slavery in the United States before ending the war.

“I cannot do anything of human worth or meaning until we cure ourselves of slavery…blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment. We must [end slavery] now! Now, now, NOW!”

Had he waited until the war was over and everyone felt at ease, the constitutional amendment would have never passed. Millions would remain in bondage. Lincoln knew: sometimes you only get one shot.

My wife and I had our own mini Civil War after I got fired. She wanted me to go find another job. I couldn’t blame her. That was probably the smart thing to do. But I knew if I got comfortable again, the time to start and build my own business may never come around again. There were only two choices:

  1. Dust off my resume, dress for interviews, and ask for jobs.
  2. Take a deep breath, face the unknown, and take the leap.

I took the leap.

Within weeks, I’d replaced my entire paycheck. A few weeks after that, I’d doubled it. Much of that will be eaten up by health care and taxes, so don’t get too starry-eyed.

But I’m on my own time. I make my own luck. I call my own shots.

Life-changing moments don’t come around that often. There are certain moments to wait, certain moments to save, and certain moments to stall.

Every once in awhile, though, the conditions are just right. The winds are blowing in your favor, and despite the doubt and fear, you can see a new path. You catch a glimpse of a new world. You know it’s now or never.

In those moments, you have to take the leap.

This article first appeared on Medium.