It's Not A Pink Slip, It's A Blank Slate

In the hit 2009 movie “Up in the Air“, George Clooney stars as a corporate hatchet man, hired by companies to do the dirty work of laying off dozens of their employees. He refers to himself euphemistically as a “career transition counselor.” To each person laid off, he offers a generic pep talk that is surprisingly effective. “Anyone who ever built an empire, or changed the world,” he intones like a sympathetic parish priest, “has sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

A tad trite, perhaps? Certainly. But is he right? Absolutely. And the evidence of this can be seen in a terrific new documentary entitled “Lemonade.You could almost consider this a companion piece to “Up in the Air” as it tracks the lives of 16 advertising professionals all recently laid-off, downsized or otherwise let go by the firms they previously worked for. For anyone who has been recently discharged or is trying to figure out “what’s next”, this film is a revelation. And a celebration.

What do people who were once paid to be creative for a living do when they’re fired? Well, they get inventive with their own lives. One person became the artist that he was always meant to be. One young woman became a yoga instructor and holistic health counselor. Another turned his passion for coffee into a thriving gourmet coffee business. The film is the brainchild of Erik Proulx, himself a former ad man who was given the axe. In order to overcome his own inertia and help others like himself, he started the website: The goal is provide resources for people who are recently unemployed, and more importantly, to help them understand the enormous opportunity that is often right in front of them when they find themselves on the street.

As a former executive recruiter, I thought one of the most striking pieces of advice was, “Don’t be the person out there who is looking for a job. Be the person out there who is doing something interesting.” It may take time, but I think the message here is to get involved in projects which speak directly to your interests and passions, as that is often the best way to figure out what you want to do next. Put all of your energy into doing the thing that you love. Make something, build something or make yourself into something.

Take Kurtis Glade, for example. Kurtis, like everyone else in the documentary, was terminated from his post. He also has a daughter with Cystic Fibrosis. Once he overcame the initial shock of being let go, he found himself wondering, “What can I do to make some sort of a difference here?” Where he found hope was in the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Monica.

Medical researchers have established that surfing is a natural therapy for those with CF, as the saline air and water acts as a lubricant to help to break down congestion in the lungs. So Kurtis decided to use his advertising skills and extra time to make a movie about the Surf Experience Days sponsored by the Mauli Ola Foundation. As he explains it, “I can’t invent a drug to cure cystic fibrosis, but I can make a movie.” He’s made a PSA for the foundation that gives the audience a pretty good flavor for the film he plans to produce. He is currently looking for help in obtaining funding for the ongoing project which will in turn, benefit his daughter and so many others who are afflicted.

Michelle Pfennighaus, ad-agency person turned yoga instructor puts it like this: “It is so easy to fall asleep in your life, but you can make huge profound changes. I see it in my clients. And I see it in myself. It can be the smallest thing like changing your diet.” Michelle has turned her passion for health and wellness into a now-thriving business. She says she works harder than she ever did in advertising, but she is also happier and healthier. In fact, this was a theme consistently echoed by all the participants in the film. Being laid off is certainly no fun. But as the documentary reminds us, it is by no means the end of the road. Check it out and hopefully you will feel similarly inspired: