Chip Conley agrees. "There is a really valid and logical argument behind the idea of starting a business during a difficult time," he says. "It's that classic Frank Sinatra if-I-can-make-it-here-I'll-make-it-anywhere thing." During flush times, people often cling to jobs because of the perks, whether that means a plum stock-option package or an endless bacchanal of expense-account lunches; when the perks vanish, Conley says, you're forced to ask yourself "Is this something that I really want to do?" After the market meltdown of 2000 followed by 9/11, Conley found that his Joie de Vivre chain—perched perilously on the West Coast—was in danger of becoming another scrap of venture-capital carnage. Business was way down. The easy California cash that had puffed up the dot-com bubble evaporated overnight. During a random stroll through a Borders, a depressed Conley picked up a copy of a book by Abraham Maslow—the psychologist who came up with the famous "Hierarchy of Needs" pyramid—and decided that he would try to reinvent his company based on Maslow's principles. At the bottom of the pyramid are a person's most basic needs: food, shelter, safety. At the top are the most aspirational longings, the desire for esteem and personal growth. The way Conley saw it, the people who worked at his hotels should feel as though they were getting every part of the pyramid: They weren't just bellboys; they were part of a mission. It might sound like a lot of Haight-Ashbury hokum, except that it kind of worked. "In the last downturn, I could've hunkered down and said, 'Okay, it's all about lowest common denominator. Let's just get through this,'" Conley says. "Instead, I said, 'Well, let's try something new. Let's look at this Maslow stuff.' Between 2001 and 2005, we tripled in size. We got a lot of wisdom out of it—at a time when we were frankly left for dead on the side of the road."

Ironically, the next boom will likely be driven by the unlucky chumps, guys in search of a break like Conley was. "The economy will not reboot with our human capital slogging off to jobs that don't tap into people's creativity and energy," says Po Bronson, author of "We have to innovate ourselves out of this mess." In other words, snap out of it. You've got nothing to lose but that stash of paper clips.