Joshua Persky on Failure
Joshua Persky on failure.
Posted Jul 02, 2009
When Joshua Persky was fired from an investment bank at the nadir of the economic crisis, he spent months looking for a job. His lowest moment, he says, was watching his wife cry as she left New York with their kids to move back to Omaha to save money. When things got desperate, he resorted to drastic measures, swallowing his pride and hitting the streets wearing a sandwich board that said “Experienced MIT grad for hire,” literally becoming a sign of the times. His tactic paid off: Five months later he got a new job.
I was a consultant at an investment bank. I was let go at the very end of 2007. I expected to get back in, find something better or comparable. That didn’t happen. It was bad timing. The economy started going downhill. The subprime mess came to light, Bear Sterns collapsed. It became apparent it was going to be very difficult to find a job.
What was going through your mind at that time?
I’ve actually done some self-analysis using to the Kubler-Ross theory. I went through all 7 parts of the cycle.
When I first got laid off I was in denial. I didn’t register for unemployment insurance. Then when Bear Sterns collapsed, that was cold water in the face. I started to feel the pain.
As the months went by, and it became apparent that my wife and I were not going to be able to renew our lease for our apartment. I entered the depression stage. That led me into the testing stage, which is when I got my moment of inspiration, and just a couple weeks before we had to leave my apartment, I decided to go out to Park Avenue to hand out resumes. Just so people could see what I’m doing. I’m not an aggressive sort to run after people. I thought I'd put on a signboard so people could approach me if they were interested.
That turned out to be a life-changing event. My publicity grew fast and furious as soon as I hit the streets. I took every response and offer and possibility and lead seriously, spoke with many interesting people, had a lot of meetings and interviews and phone conversations. But nothing worked out. Even as my publicity grew, in inverse proportion the economy was going downhill. I became the poster boy for the sub-prime mess, a sign of the times, the face of the American economy.
When we lost our apartment, my wife and children went to live with her parents in Omaha. I stayed in the city to try to find a job. I registered for unemployment, finally.
You then got the back unemployment?
No, I applied for credit for time that I had not filed and was denied. They didn’t accept my excuse of being proud, stupid, and stubborn.
That’s when things started to turn around. I got a very interesting lead from an executive recruiter. During the summer I’d started a blog to keep in touch with the hundreds of people who’d been calling me from all over the world and document my story and job search. She was impressed with that. The guy who hired me at Weiser wasn’t that aware of my publicity or blog, but he liked my resume.
How did you get the idea to do the sandwich board thing?
I was having dinner with my wife. We used to go out every Saturday night on a date, leave the kids with a babysitter, this was possibly our last one before she left the city with the kids. I had been e-mailing resumes, making phone calls, networking, nothing seemed to be working.
There are people in the streets of New York out with signboards for barbershops or pizza parlors. It just popped into my head. That moment of inspiration, the apple dropping from the tree. I deduced the laws of gravity.
In a way, were you trying to use embarrassment as a strategy for publicity? Were you thinking, “OK, this is slightly humbling, so people will notice me”?
Not at all. I didn’t want to go. Monday morning it was drizzling and I wanted to back out. I said I'm not going, first of all, it will be embarrassing, second of all, it's drizzling. And my wife said, “No, go, you have to find a job, that’s more important!”
The first couple hours were embarrassing. I had to overcome that fear. My wife is a photographer, and she took a picture of me, sent out a press release. The newspapers and TV stations showed up and the story went all over the world.
When you started out, did you know you were stepping into the limelight?
Not at all. All I wanted to do was get some leads, get a job. It was a very narrow and specific goal.
When you first went out and felt embarrassed—tell me more about that feeling.
My perception of the streets of New York. It’s a tough place. I didn’t know how people would respond to me.
I’ve loved the attention, but prior to this I’ve considered myself stage shy, not an aggressive personality. If I’d been more of a salesman and more aggressive, I wouldn’t have done the signboard, because I would have just gone out and met people and chatted and handed out resumes.
But because of my own personality, I thought, “I better let people know what I’m doing.” This way I didn’t have to approach anyone. Immediately the response from people on the street was different from what I expected having been born and raised in New York. Suddenly people were smiling, saying “Good luck, that’s a great idea, give me a resume.” I was very surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response by so many people that passed by, and the smiles and the looks.
What was your lowest moment?
Watching my wife cry as she left for the airport with the kids, when she left the city.
How did you feel at that moment?
I felt terrible. We didn’t know where we were going to live in the future, how our lives would be, where we would go, and what we would do. We’d sold off most of our furniture.
The flipside was Inside Edition was filming us pack up our apartment. The contrast was odd. I was sleeping on a couch in my sister’s house in a room in the garage, and studios would send town cars to pick me up for interviews in the city. It was a very strange juxtaposition, to be famous but unemployed.
How do you feel now that things have worked out for you and you have a job you enjoy?
I’m trying to rebuild my life. It’s still a difficult situation. It'll take time to rebuild our lives, get back on our feet, repay debt. It’s still not easy. It’s not all glory. It’s great to be sitting in my office looking out over the city and speaking with you. Life has many challenges.