(the following piece did not win the Real Simple Essay Contest. I am unable to publish it elsewhere, due to their fine print.)
On a day like any other, it only took five words to change everything.
“Your position has been eliminated.”
One minute you're sitting in your cube, formatting a report or listening to a conference call, and the next—this hushed, tearful conversation that ends in a final paycheck and some boxes you can use to gather your things.
How many times did that simple, horrible sentence bounce off workplace walls last year? I was not alone in my panic. My situation was so common, a whole culture of not-having formed to speak for me: I was a piece of data in reports on an economic trend and a consumer in a new market that would be offered bankruptcy at little or no cost. The topic of news stories, I had a house you could buy cheap and could be found desperate at job fairs, perhaps staring into the camera with still-shocked eyes murmuring, “I just don't know what I am going to do.”
Later that night, at a bar where my friends were buying me conciliatory drinks, an acquaintance was jovial, “You're in high-tech and this is your first layoff? Wow! Well don't worry, they get easier.”
My friend Rachel brushed his comment aside and assured me, “Someday this will be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
It didn't feel like the best thing, but the worst. I had no savings to fall back on and no second income to ease the strain. All I had was the severance they had given me. I felt alone and scared.
For the first few days I cried everywhere. At the bank, depositing my final pay I was a tearful shaking mess. The teller—perhaps afraid I had been sent in under duress—had a manager help me. When I explained that I had not been kidnapped, just laid off, the teller slipped me a job application before I left. Everywhere I went people were so kind, so sorry.
After the initial shock, came denial. Denial became the new business suit I put on every morning. Rachel's words had stuck with me, I wanted this to be the best thing, so I turned it into a vacation. The money slipped through my fingers as I took trips to see old friends. I registered for college classes that I had never had time for before. The classes weren't related to my former work, and the trips involved very little of the “networking” I had used to justify them. I was pretending the severance check had been a lottery and that there was no tomorrow. My laughter was abundant, even if there was a tremor behind it.
Because there is a tomorrow, and you can only pretend for so long. One morning, you take a deep breath and sit down to the resume and you start taking calls from headhunters who are looking for someone with just your qualifications. But at the interviews, they always ask some question like “Describe your ideal workplace.” Then I would falter. It would feel like a hard-boiled egg had materialized in my throat. I couldn't even imagine an ideal workplace. I wanted to say, “One that will never cut me loose, like a sandbag on a hot air balloon.” Or, “One that will care about me in direct proportion to how much I care about it. Can you give me that?” That job just doesn't come in a cube.
As the calls dried up, the soul searching began, I started thinking about how unfulfilled I must have been. No matter what the human resources people tell you, it is never just a position that gets eliminated, it's you. You have to wonder if you had displayed a bit more passion, more team work, more … what? They wouldn't have let you go.
It was true, I hadn't sought out my career, but rather slid into it slowly. A series of small tasks that I had done well had led from one job to another in my company. I had no more passion for software development than I did for balancing my checkbook. My motto for most of my life had been “Everything works out.” Because it always had: an opportunity for adventure or career growth or love had always presented itself to me when I wanted a change. Even at the worst of times, a path would appear and wrong or right, I would take it. I had no long term plan, no over-arching goal that each move had been a step towards. Life had been happening to me for as long as I could remember. Like a child at the beach, I let the waves roll over my feet and tried to make the most of whatever the ocean brought me.
Now I had been given something new: the chance to decide what my next step would be. For months, I went to school and did a few odd jobs and waited for a decision to appear pre-made for me. But there were no clear signs, no shining light pointing the way; the universe was staying tight-lipped.
What I really wanted was to find my passion, the job that would move me to excellence. And slowly, through the weeks filled with worry, a plan started to form. It seemed a bit crazy, so I tried it out on a few close friends.
The conversation would always start out tentatively, “I think I might... go back to school.”
What a great idea, they would say, it's the perfect time to get more training!
“Yeah, I thought so too! I was thinking about going back into creative arts... Maybe teach?”
It is worth noting that I have the greatest friends and family, because not a single one of them ever said “What are you, nuts?” No one kindly reminded me about the completely whacked-out economy and suggested that I consider something slightly more sensible. My notion started to take more substantial shape as I plotted out individual steps.
My bachelor's degree is in fine arts. Back then, I thought I would be a starving and respected artist, but after graduation and with the rent due, I chose the paying job that would eventually lead to a career in computers. Yet it never felt like I had left my creativity behind: I had done commissions for family friends over the years, submerged myself in crafts to fill my need to create, kept a journal. And I had always jumped at teaching opportunities in my former role. I love the “a-ha” moment when someone suddenly gets it for the first time. Whether the it is a software application, or how to write a sonnet—being able to help someone else get there has always been very satisfying. Once I really thought about it, teaching and art were the perfect combination, even if they would never bring me the money computers once had.
There had been times, especially on lovely vacations that my high-tech job afforded me, that I looked back on college as a fun, but childish endeavor. Now, the decision to go back seemed like the most adult thing I had done in my whole life. To take control of the wheel, to decide what the next step would be—even if it seemed in complete disagreement with all of the economic indicators—felt like a very grown up thing to do.
I started to downsize even more than I had already. The artist's life is very rarely an opulent one, and a student's even less so. There were no more severance funds that I could use to bankroll my plan. I had to get out of debt first, and made perhaps the most difficult decision: to rent out my house and move back in with my parents. They were happy to have me, but it was hard to move home as a thirty-something and not feel that my life had failed somehow. Friends began to encourage me, I was an inspiration, they said. They wished they could be so brave. I asked, do you mean brave as in crazy?
I keep Rachel's prediction in mind, especially on the harder days. Days when each rejection from a publisher or school feels like an omen, every setback, a harbinger of doom. But more and more, I am looking inside for direction. Does this still feel right? The answer is yes, even when it is hard. This stretching and growing is with purpose.
My new motto is: Enjoy everything for every minute, because tomorrow it can all change. When my job was taken from me, I found within myself a resolve that I had never known before. My life had been easy and ultimately, without fulfillment. Now, it is a new thing—a sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes joyous thing—but one that I look forward to learning more about every day.