Ben Popken's moment of rock-bottom clarity came when he got unexpectedly laid off from Consumerist.com, the site he had spent six years building, in 2011. Luckily, Popken, now in his early 30s, was somewhat prepared, thanks to the prevailing attitude among his generation that no job is permanent.
"Anyone, after six years of doing the same job, starts thinking, 'What's my future?' and making preparations. In the last year, I realized I needed to have something besides Consumerist happening for me. I started up my blog and made sure I had an established presence, so people knew where to find me," Popken says. He also started putting more energy into his second passion, improv comedy, by taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, in New York, where he lives.
That preparation paid off. Within minutes of tweeting a link to his final "goodbye" post on Consumerist, an editor contacted him about a freelance gig. From there, Popken built his freelance and improv careers side by side. His comedy website, benpopkenisjustkidding.com, features a goofy-looking photo of himself along with funny observations and comedic videos he's made. In one, he plays the role of a newscaster and argues for melting down copper and paying off the U.S. debt to China with the proceeds.
As Popken found, a side business, even one as simple as a comedy website and Twitter account, can help protect you from a layoff, or at least provide essential connections and temporary income as you hunt for your next full-time gig. It can also help you shore up your finances during periods of under-employment or lack of salary increases.
Popken might eventually overlay advertising on the videos and promote them on YouTube to earn money. Meanwhile, his journalism website, benpopkenwrites.com, features a much more serious-looking photo and hosts his latest consumer reporting. Despite the divergence of his two pursuits, he moves seamlessly between the two: On a typical weekday, he wakes up around 7 a.m., makes a big cup of coffee, and sits down to start writing either comedy sketches, a blog post for his own Tumblr site or a freelance article — "whatever seems most important and urgent," Popken says.
He typically spends a few hours each week practicing and performing with his improv group, the Thesaurus Ninjas. They practice long-form improv, which means they take suggestions from the audience and then create 20 minutes of scenes that "have never been seen before and will never be seen again."
While Popken dreams of eventually becoming a comedy writer for a show or getting paid for his sketch comedy another way, for now the work is giving a boost to the rest of his life and career. Improv, he says, helps him learn how to be in the moment, how to interview people and how to think on his feet — all valuable skills for journalists, too. "I had lost touch with some of those interpersonal skills, so in a lot of ways improv has been helpful in retraining me how to be a human. It's like the cheapest therapy out there," Popken jokes. "I'm more comfortable being interviewed and more comfortable talking to new people and being in the rat-tat-tat of conversational flow."
Like so many people who have experienced what feels like crushing disappointment at the time, Popken is now grateful for losing his job. "Getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. It forced him to question his self-worth, evaluate where he was and where he wants to go and to make conscious decisions about his work instead of coasting along a well-worn path. He can now pour his energy into building his improv skills and taking on new freelance assignments. "It was really an unexpected gift," Popken says.
Today, he works as a senior staff writer and editor at NBCNews.com. Not a bad recovery from a 2011 low point.
This article is excerpted from U.S. News money senior editor Kimberly Palmer's book, "The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life," which comes out this month. Copyright © 2014 Kimberly Palmer. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.