James Adams wrote the book on rebounding from failure—literally. The author of Waffle Street: The Confession and Rehabilitation of a Financier learned to stay grounded after navigating a career dotted with setbacks, including a stint working the graveyard shift.
Related: 5 Ways to Reframe Failure
He began as vice president of a product management group in North Carolina. But then, like countless Americans during the recession, Adams lost his job in January 2009. He went from handling $33 billion in assets to working the night shift at Waffle House, earning $2.13 an hour, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.
COURTESY OF JAMES ADAMS
“It was kind of traumatic to wait on those drunks every weekend,” Adams recalls. “I needed a day or two to recover and not in the sense of just being fatigued.”
Six months later, he quit to pen Waffle Street, a book turned movie starring Danny Glover.
But his story doesn’t end there. He tried careers in everything from investments to risk management software—while also preparing for the birth of his first son in 2011. Finally in 2012, he landed a career as a senior research analyst, only after reaching out to 1,200 family and friends via an honest and vulnerable Christmas letter.
“It was a rough road from 2009 through 2012. It ended up taking a lot longer than I would have imagined,” says 35-year-old Adams, who lives with his wife and two sons in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Although the book and movie highlight his blue-collar journey, Adams’ bounce-back lessons transcend beyond waiting tables.
1. Don’t get attached.
Adams’ life from 2009 to 2012 indelibly transformed him. His newfound skepticism allowed him to realize that everything is ephemeral, including your career and your health.
“I accept ‘in the moment’ as being good and a source of contentment, but I realize that it’s not always going to be there. I think it’s the same way with bad things; they’ll come and go.”
Even success, Adams says, could be short-lived: “You see that in the entertainment industry. One day you’re on this big show or you’re out of work for two years…. I don’t get bitter about the downdrafts or exuberant about the windfalls.”
2. Divorce your ego from your career.
Adams grew up wanting to be like his dad, a company man, “the hot shot businessman, very much that alpha male.”
Separating Adams’ self-worth from his career was eye-opening.
“That took a long time and now that things have turned and I’ve got a great situation with another script I’ve co-written, it’s just humbling. You realize so much of what happens is a function of luck and serendipity, whether it’s working for or against you. I had some very, very dark moments.”
3. Rely on a support system.
Adams’ wife and mother played pivotal roles, as did church friends. “Just having a community of folks that were supportive of the writing was helpful,” he says.
He had to realize he wasn’t an island and he couldn’t control everything. “You learn to let that go, but when you get to a sense of uselessness that you’re no longer needed, that’s real hard. I give my faith a lot of credit for buttressing me in that regard.”
“It was a matter not so much of income, but of being productive one way or another that’s so important psychologically. Rigorous exercise certainly helps.”
Adams teaches classes two days a week at a jujitsu school and helps guys train, serving as a corner man during fights. Training fighters for cage matches gives him a sense of purpose. “If I can help him protect himself when someone is trying to punch his head off, there’s something useful in that.”
5. Ditch the pity party.
His first wake-up call came in the lobby of the state employment office when he noticed other claimants were accompanied by small children. Adams didn’t have kids yet at the time and thought how having little mouths to feed must considerably change how someone perceives a job loss.
“While my biggest concerns were a bruised ego and stock market losses, these people were worried about putting food on the table.”
6. Learn to trust again.
It took Adams three years to feel secure in a career again. “I was so worried the rug was going to get pulled from under my feet again,” he says. “I couldn’t let myself believe that the company wasn’t going to go down. I got really paranoid. If the only thing I know about horses is they throw me, I’m going to be very reticent to get back on one.”
It starts with one step at a time, one day at a time.
If there was one thing he learned from his journey, Adams says it’s reassessing the important things in life: “Your health and your wealth can prove a little bit more fleeting than we tend to appreciate.”