Finding Myself Under Unplanned Circumstances
by Ana Toro

am a planner. I actually wrote my bucket list in 1986 when I graduated from high school, and everything on that list – well, almost everything – has been achieved. As the youngest in my house, I felt the need to make a statement, to demonstrate to my parents and siblings that I was an overachiever, either a result of my competitive spirit or as a way for me to reward myself with that good-feeling moment over and over again.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, my mother used to say, “Look at the Cubans: They lost everything, but no one could take from them their education.” So this became my goal: to study hard and choose a good career to ensure a great future. I still remember my friends asking me if I planned everything in my life; they could not believe that such a young person could really know what she wanted to do in the future.

During my college years as a journalism student, I had ambitious goals which I pretty much achieved. I graduated magna cum laude and earned the Department of Communication’s top honor. Even though I liked to plan, I also made adjustments along the way. That was the case when shortly after graduation, while considering my next move for grad school, I opted for a career change to public relations—and I never regretted that decision.

For more than 25 years, I was able to work in public relations, a career that enriched my planning skills, a profession that I was passionate about, an industry that I respected and loved. I worked long hours, built my name and reputation, grew my client base, established my own business, started teaching in universities, won awards, published and was interviewed in industry periodicals. I also worked for renowned communication firms. This doesn’t mean that it was all peaches and cream. During my journey, I went back to an old job after working with an incompetent supervisor, my business partner left me, I divorced, I sold my house and moved to Georgia after remarrying, one client never paid me back for a large project, and my salary dropped when the market crashed a few years ago.

I learned, I laughed, I cried, I rested, I worked, I planned, I traveled and I gave back to others. When I look back, this all had to happen to make me understand that I was already successful…
As work experiences filled my resume, I was still hungry for success. In fact, I actually wrote a new bucket list once I moved to the United States. In the eyes of friends, family, and colleagues, I was already successful. What else would I want to achieve?
The Ugly, the Bad and the Good (Yes, in this order!)
At age 50, exactly one year ago, the unexpected happened: this public relations professional became unemployed. Never in my life did I think that I would lose my job. But it happened to me and I found myself in unplanned circumstances.

I took this unexpected change as an opportunity to explore new roles I felt I was capable of tackling, discover new organizations of interest and get a glimpse of what was in the market. Everyone I talked to stated that my talents and experience would land me a job in no time. Almost everyone mentioned, “Someone with your background, language skills, experience and industry contacts should have no problem getting multiple offers very quickly.” In the blink of an eye, I realized the marketplace was saturated with similar people looking for high-paying roles, with years of experience and award-winning portfolios just like me. Reality struck. Salaries had not gone up as I suspected, and as the months passed by only a handful of people were still helping me with introductions and leads or just checking to see how I was doing.

The shock was real. Would I be employable as a woman over 50 who also happened to be a Latina? Between the happy days of extra sleep and time to clean, cook and sit on the deck with a cup of coffee came the sad days when colleagues and acquaintances were not responding to my calls or emails. Worse were the days when the only emails I received were the automated ones stating that I had not been chosen, or when those who promised me freelance projects said they were still in the planning stage or clients were delayed in making final decisions. I felt the industry was forgetting me. As my savings depleted and with twins in college, I became terrified that time was against me.

Even the Most Experienced Need Help
During my 12-month job search, three things contributed to my sanity:

  1. Support and belonging.
    A colleague of mine told me about a closed women-only group on Facebook where women in marketing and communication connected in Georgia. There, I was able to learn about job opportunities, get a sense of what others like me where facing, see what courses and trainings were the “it” thing these days, and find a fantastic career coach who listened, counseled and guided me through my job search strategy. Even though I didn’t know anyone in this 30,000-member group, it gave me a sense of belonging, a place to connect with people with no judgment whatsoever. On the contrary, I received words of encouragement from many.
  2. Knowledge and motivation.
    A close friend, who also happens to be in the communications industry, kept checking on me by text. The year before, she had landed a leadership role in one of Atlanta’s largest nonprofits, and we have been there for each other in the good and bad times of our lives. One day out of the blue, she suggested getting a book titled 60 Seconds & You’re Hired, by Robin Ryan. After ordering it online, I read it in a matter of two days and it gave me great insights, ideas and perspectives about the whole interview, negotiation and hiring process. It was a practical tool that helped me prepare even better during my phone and in-person interviews. I was suddenly on fire!
  3. Distraction and fulfillment outside of work.
    Looking for a job is a job of its own. But you don’t feel the burnout until you’ve applied for more than 85 positions, as in my case. Mentally, I needed a break from my desk, checking on application statuses and contacts, updating cover letters, making folders by company, etc. So, I took on projects that would distract me from my misery. I arrived at the conclusion that if all major corporations, nonprofits, universities and government agencies in Atlanta had my resume, I should find the time to do other productive things that would bring me happiness. I love to paint (as in, paint walls) so I painted my kitchen and a few other rooms around the house. I donated clothes to Goodwill, cleaned my carpets, pressure washed our front entrance and patio, judged student applications for scholarships, volunteered to develop a PowerPoint presentation for an awards dinner, traveled to three cities as a PRSA board member, read professional development books, joined online webinars and courses in media relations, crisis and writing, and visited my deceased dad’s four living siblings in Puerto Rico and Florida. I still smile remembering them and how thankful they were that I took the time to visit.

The story ends well. I reviewed my last bucket list and applied for several jobs in the federal government, even though many people told me that landing a job in that arena is quite difficult. I also shifted my focus to corporate roles as that’s where I felt I had the best chances for an offer. I was called to interview at 13 companies, some calling me for a second and third round in Georgia and Florida. As things were tightening up, with two corporations closing the process with offers, I got the call that I never expected: the offer of a role in the federal government with my top-choice agency. My dream job had arrived!

Find Yourself
Being jobless taught me that anyone, whether a recent graduate or a seasoned leader, is vulnerable to unplanned circumstances. Perhaps as leaders we take things a bit more personally because we have more skin in the game, i.e., time and a pedigree we have built throughout our career. This trajectory often feels as though it defines us, but it’s really just part of the whole, As part of this journey, I learned to be humble and to share my pain when I needed help. Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, I realized I was already successful and I was grateful for the experiences that had brought me to this point. So, whether you are employed or not, take a seat, breathe and, if you are a planner like me, take the time to see yourself in five, 10 or 15 years. Occasionally, things happen that shift our perspectives. Don’t wait for unplanned circumstances to work on that bucket list today.
Ana Toro
Ana Toro, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a bilingual public relations professional who enjoys music, films and food festivals. She is a board member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and a public affairs officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her proudest achievements are her three daughters, none of whom studied communications.

Ana Toro, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a bilingual public relations professional who enjoys music, films and food festivals. She is a board member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and a public affairs officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her proudest achievements are her three daughters, none of whom studied communications.