A Success Story

River StonesI’ve worked for some fine people over the course of my career.  One of the best was my old manager from my past employer, Chuck Reedy.

I worked for Chuck for two years.  He was a good manager, treating everyone with dignity and respect.  He was dedicated, hard working, and pragmatic.  Unfortunately, Chuck was laid-off in November, 2007 due to a company downsizing.

It was only after Chuck was gone that I fully appreciated the quality of his leadership and character.  In the span of one month, I reported to three different managers due to firings for performance.  Chuck had done an excellent job of insulating our team from the craziness of his leaders, never once complaining or blaming them to us.  He was a class act.

I kept tabs on Chuck’s job search through his son, who continues to work at that company.  But as the weeks turned into months and then stretched beyond a year with no full-time employment, I stopped asking about him. I justified myself by reasoning that it was rude to keep asking about such a painful issue – I’d be rubbing salt in an open wound.

Now that I’m unemployed, I see things very differently.  There’s nothing like walking in someone else’s shoes for a while to give you a new perspective.

Recently, I had to phone Chuck to ask if he’d be willing to be a reference for me.  I was nervous calling him – would he be upset that I had done a poor job of staying in contact, that I hadn’t been more supportive? But the warmth in his voice put my worries to rest.  He’s still a class act.

He said that he searched for full-time work for over a year.  Twice he made it as far as the final interview, only to lose out to another candidate or a hiring freeze.  Now Chuck sees this as a blessing.

“I always wanted to have my own business, but never took the time to pursue it.  God opened that door for me, but I spent a lot of time looking at the door He had closed.”

Now Chuck is running his own contracting / handyman service.  He has several remodeling and building projects in the works.  The same qualities he demonstrated as a manager serve him well in his new business.  The work is hard, but he’s happy and fulfilled, and wakes each morning with a new sense of purpose.

Chuck told a story of a recent church study group meeting where the leader asked everyone to share what they’re thankful for from the past year.  “I’m grateful that God led me to where I belong,” Chuck said.  “I never realized I could be this happy.”

A Vision Of Two Worlds

I missed last week’s post.  I’m in danger of missing this week’s as well.  There’s so much to do…

When I was laid-off in February, I didn’t anticipate how busy I would be in unemployment.  In the last two weeks, I spent a day’s time applying for food stamps and almost two days reapplying for financial aid for our two college-aged children.  And then there’s the job search, which has settled into a frustrating daily effort.

I’m working harder now than I have in years, but with very little to show for my efforts so far.  In fact, this is the answer to the question I posed in the last post:

I’m not unemployed, I’m under-compensated.

Compensation can be corrected – that’s the good news.

Unfortunately, I can’t correct it all by myself.  That’s the crux of my challenge; my problem, my opportunity to grow.

I’ve enjoyed the extra time I’ve had at home with my family over the past two months.  Our relationships are growing stronger, and the flexibility in my schedule is a real benefit.  It’s exciting to envision all the new career paths available to me with my friends and family.  These have been mountain-top experiences.

But I still find it daunting to reach out to “weak” network connections.  When exploring potential leads not perfectly in alignment with my previous career tract, I drag my feelings of lack and self-doubt with me into the conversations.  I stack the deck against myself before I even pick up the phone.  The truth be told, sometimes I lose faith in myself and don’t even make the call, unwilling to risk possible rejection.  A valley like that can feel very deep indeed.

I’m trapped between two visions of competing worlds.  In one, we’re all connected at a deep level, sharing one spirit, brothers and sisters working together in peace and strength.  Success comes through our connections, providing an abundance that is mutually shared and beneficial.

The other world is a far darker place, dog-eat-dog, where our success comes at the expense of others.  Those others I see as my competitors at best, my enemies in my weaker moments.  I fear they hold a power over me that keeps me from fulfilling my purpose on this earth.

These two worlds are mutually exclusive.  They cannot both exist.  One is true, the other is false.  Yet I’ve experienced both over my lifetime.  And I continue to vacillate between the two, with more and more frequency.

A loving person lives in a loving world.  A hostile person lives in a hostile world.  Everyone you meet is your mirror.  — Ken Keyes Jr.

The time has now come to choose.  I made a plan in share group today with my friend Jim.  Starting today, I plan to reach out each day to at least one person that challenges my comfort.  In this way, I will test whether I can perceive the Savior that faith tells me is in each one of us. I share this plan with you so that you can hold me accountable.

May we all behold the light that others hold out for us.

Stories From Unemployment – 4

Graduation Cake Guy image by CarbonNYC.  Click image to see his entire photostream.

"Graduation Cake Guy" image by CarbonNYC. Click image to see his entire photostream.

Earlier this week, I heard a news report stating the last time the national unemployment rate was this bad was back in the early 1980’s.  I graduated from college in 1983, at the height of the Reagan recession.  I had no interest in pursuing a graduate degree, and there were very few recruiters who visited our campus that year.  Consequently, I found myself at the end of my senior year saying goodbye to my friends and heading back to my parent’s home with no job prospects and no idea what to do next.

My time back home only lasted about a week before my mother was counseling me, “Douglas, I love you, but there’s nothing here for you anymore.  You need to go back to Alfred.  Get an apartment.  Get a part-time job.  Take some art course if you’d like, but keep in contact with your profession there.”

And that’s just what I did.

The Fifth Year of College

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about that extra year I spent at Alfred University.  I supported myself working at the sub shop, selling some short-run custom pottery pieces, and working as a lab assistant.  I even did some substitute teaching in my old high school during the Christmas break – the horror.

When I graduated from high school, I had a dual college prep / art major.  I decided to pursue a degree in engineering for the financial security that career offered.  You can always be a full-time engineer and a part-time artist, I figured, but it doesn’t work so well the other way around. The price of that promised security was four solid years of math, science, and technical course work that left me feeling empty in spite of my academic success.

I made it through my college years by taking every art option I could.  I even discovered a model design and mold making elective that could be counted for either art or engineering credit.  Wally Higgins, the instructor of that industrial pottery arts course, didn’t fit comfortably into either school.  His class was considered too rigid by the artists, too low-tech by the engineers.  I was drawn to him as a kindred spirit.  I even took my senior thesis under him.

When I returned for my fifth year, Wally accepted me as a lab assistant, and helped me get into a number of upper level art courses most engineering students couldn’t access.  I took advanced drawing, neon, sculpture, and glass courses.  Here at last was my opportunity to unleash my creativity.  I should have been in heaven.

Instead, I was miserable.  I judged myself a failure.  All my college friends were either working or enrolled in graduate school.  Why didn’t I work harder to find a job?  Why didn’t I apply for grad school? I allowed myself no satisfaction in my art work.  I’m an engineer, I thought.  I don’t belong in these classes.

The only accomplishments I valued were the dozens of job applications I generated over the long winter months.  But even that work was frustrating: I rarely received acknowledgement the letters had been received.  It was seven months before I got my first job interview.

The tide finally broke my way in May of 1984.  I landed two job offers, and left with great relief for my first job choice in Syracuse, happy to have the long year at Alfred finally behind me.

It took several years before I realized just how badly I had missed the opportunities of that fifth year.  I was supporting myself and doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, but my self-judgements turned a potential heaven into a hell.  No one considered me a failure but me, still that was all it took.  I cut myself off from the support and friendship that was mine for the asking.

I looked past all I had, and focused on what I felt I lacked.  I reaped the bitter harvest that I sowed.

All This Has Happened Before…

And now, twenty-five years later, I’ve been tempted to fall back into the same trap again.

I learned Friday from the hiring manager for the job I wrote about in the last post that his company just went through a down-sizing earlier that week.  They’re filling that position with an internal candidate from another division to avoid one more lay-off.

He was very kind to call me, and I felt well-treated through the whole experience, but as the weekend dragged on the stormy weather outside mirrored my internal frame of mind.  Now what do I do? I brooded.  There are other applications out, but no real prospects on the horizon.

Thankfully, the quote in my planner Monday morning helped me start to turn my thinking around:

I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow.  It is dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us. — Dorothy Dix

When I stopped and took stock of all we have, instead of what I lack, I couldn’t help but feel deep gratitude, and peace, and hope.

I enjoy the support of my family and we’ve grown closer over the past month than ever before.  We’re making ends meet financially with the full family’s cooperation and a little assistance from the government.  This experience has also helped me to see how many good friends I have, far more than I would have guessed before the lay-off.

For the first time since I took that first job in Syracuse, the possibilities for my career are wide open.  I limited myself during that fifth year at Alfred by thinking of myself as an unemployed engineer.  In fact, I further limited myself by thinking of that time as my fifth year of college instead of as the first year in my career.

And the world I experienced mirrored the internal thoughts I held closest to my heart.

So, some changes are in order.  This will be the last post titled “Stories From Unemployment.”  I’m excited for what the future holds, and unwilling to carry the “unemployed” label anymore.  Any suggestions you have for new titles for this series would be appreciated, but please don’t suggest the dreaded “seeking opportunities elsewhere.”

Where will my career go – writing, consulting, free lancing, teaching, full-time employment, or some blend of each?  I don’t honestly know at this point.  I’m on a journey of discovery. But I’ll find the answer with the help of my friends and our extended network.  These relationships will show me the way.  They’re the most important asset I have on this journey.

Ultimately, our relationships are all we truly have, or need.

Stories From Unemployment 1

You cannot teach a man anything.  You can only help him find it within himself.  — Galileo Galilei

It’s now two weeks since the layoff.  What a wild ride.  Each minute is an adventure.

Following is a short story from earlier this week.  I’m going to do my best to share more of these stories as they occur, if for no other reason than I to help me remember.  Hopefully you’ll find these stories as meaningful as me.

The Outplacement Seminar

Monday I was scheduled to start a two-day seminar with an outplacement consulting group as the final part of my severance package.  I had signed up for the first class available, hopeful it would help me shift my job search into high gear.  However, I was a little disappointed to learn the seminar was being moved from the consulting firm’s Columbus office to a site owned by my former employer.

Great! I thought.  Saving money again.  They probably won’t even have coffee available.

I woke up crabby on Monday morning, and even my journaling did nothing to improve my mood.  When the rest of the family woke up later that morning, my sour mood erupted into a full-blown meltdown – my first since the layoff.  I barked at the boys, then I barked at my wife.  I even barked at the dogs who barked back at me.

I retreated back to my office in the cellar.  What in the world just happened?

Slowly, over the course of the rest of the day, I began to understand: I was worried that the seminar would be a total waste of time, which is in short supply right now.  How good could it be if my old company was supplying it?

I’m angry at my old company.

Deep down in a secret compartment of my mind I’ve been stuffing all the resentment, anger, and fear collected over the past several years of my career.  I thought I was past it all when I was let go, but I was wrong.

And my family suffered for my mistake.

Now that I’m aware, I’m doing my best to bring those suppressed feelings into the light to release them.  It’s a bit like peeling an onion, each layer reveals a new, deeper level of grievance.  But it’s worthwhile work, perhaps the best that I’ve ever done.

Is this why I had to leave under these difficult circumstances – to make me stop and pay attention to all the baggage weighing me down? I wondered as I signed in for the seminar.

As it turns out, the seminar was extremely helpful and the instructor excellent.  He challenged us with his quiet confidence to pursue our careers with passion, to answer our callings.  Times may be tough, and we’ll all have to work hard at our search each day, but opportunities are still plentiful.

Our instructor, a retired Air Force Colonel of 30 years, was truly inspiring and supportive.  He commanded our attention for two straight days, faltering just once, when he noticed there weren’t any amenities in the meeting room.  “We usually offer coffee and snacks at our site,” he said.  “They don’t even have water in this room.”

It sucks to always be right, I thought.

Ah well, one more layer to peel.

A New Beginning

Image by _gee_s photostream.  Click on the picture to see more images from him.

Image by _gee_'s photostream. Click on the picture to see more images from him.

The rumor mill was buzzing at work when I arrived there on Wednesday:  layoffs were beginning again.  Coworkers were gathered in small groups, speaking in hushed tones.  As the morning dragged on, I overheard anxious and tearful clips of conversations as people passed by in the hallway beyond my cube.  The rumors were true.

I focused on performing my normal Wednesday morning activities.  At lunch, I went to the fitness center to work out.  The effort and sweat of the work out was therapeutic.  The chattering voices in my head cleared as I focused on the physical effort of exercising.

And in that quiet place, I realized that I couldn’t have planned for what was happening at work by judging from my past experiences.  I needed to trust to the Spirit’s guidance in the moment, just as I did at the ice skating rink (click here to see that post).

“But what would I do if I got laid off?” I thought.  “That would be a huge challenge to my ability to follow the Spirit’s guidance.”

But almost as soon as I had that thought, a sense of peace came over me.  I was being answered, “Of course you able.”

When I returned to work at 1:00, my fellow cube-dweller Roy said that my manager had been looking for me.  I spotted her down the hall and walked over to her.  “Can you come with me?” she asked.

And I instantly knew: for the first time in my life, I was being laid-off.

I have always had a clear picture in my mind of how I would feel and act when I finally got the tap on my shoulder.  Let me tell you, it would not have been pretty, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, in that moment, I felt something far different:

Acceptance.

Peace.

Liberation.

A smile spread across my face, and I couldn’t wipe off that silly grin through the entire termination process.  I even found myself comforting my manager and the HR representative as they conducted my exit meeting; they were both obviously struggling under their day’s responsibilities.  The healing offered wasn’t of me or for me, but blessed me more than words can describe.

“I don’t have to worry about this place anymore,” was the first thought that crossed my mind.  I didn’t realize until that very second just how much the worry of my old company’s economic health had been weighing on me.

I also clearly saw the opportunity that I was being given.  I couldn’t go back to my old industry – all three pottery companies where I had previously worked had closed their doors in the past few years – and the basket company I was working for is one-of-a-kind.  This chapter in my life was now coming to a complete and final close.

My future career will have to be in a different industry, perhaps a different field all together.  I have no idea what it will be, but a strong, peaceful feeling of hope filled me, assuring me it will be far better.  And I realized that I now have to be completely focused on the present, just as I was at the skating rink, in order to negotiate the countless steps necessary to find that life.  I have to rely completely on the Spirit’s guidance.

That’s the best place that I could possibly be.

I’m Responsible For The Economic Crisis On Wall Street

The news out of Wall Street and Washington over the past week has been grim.  We’re on the verge of an economic meltdown.  Congress needs to pass a record $700 billion bailout package or we could see the US economy grind to a halt.

When the House of Representatives failed to pass their version of the bailout bill on Monday, the Dow Jone’s Industrial Average plunged 777 points, the most in history.  Some economists and politicians are even tossing around the word “depression” to describe the dire potential of our current situation.

How did we get here?  I’m not an economist, so I’ll spare you my half-baked explanations.  The Cliffnotes summary: mortgage-related investments from the sub-prime lending crisis that caused the collapse of several large financial institutions are now causing a credit crunch that threatens the entire US economy.

The talking heads on the TV have been holding a finger-pointing festival.  The Democrats are blaming the Republicans for excessive deregulation.  The Republicans are pointing right back at the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.   Others are blaming greed on Wall Street, or corruption at the local banking levels during the real estate bubble before the sub-prime bust.

I’m To Blame

The truth is, I’m to blame for the current economic crisis.

No, I’m not a Wall Street investor, nor am I wealthy by any US financial definition.  In fact, I don’t care one bit if they raise the FDIC limit up from $100,000; I only need about 1% of the current limit to cover my savings.

That’s precisely why I’m to blame for the US economic woes: my lifestyle has caused this crisis.  I’m living beyond my means.  I’m not saving enough.  I have more house than I can afford.  I have too many cars in the driveway.

I complain about the price of gas, but I keep right on driving.  I worry about manufacturing jobs going overseas, but I demand the lowest prices at Walmart.  I have cell phones, computers, and multiple televisions with satellite feeds, and I call them all necessities.

I live pay check to pay check.  I make large purchases at 12 months-same-as-cash sales.  I’m too busy chasing the “American Dream” and keeping-up-with-the-Jones to worry about the consequences of my daily financial decisions.

Once or twice a month, I do the bills and balance the checkbook.  I feel anger, frustration, and fear.  I vow to do better, but I make no plans, I take no action.  And the next time that I feel too tired to cook dinner, I’ll take the family to the restaurant.

It’s Time To Make A Choice

We live in a land of plenty.  There is more than enough for all of us.

But I have been greedy.

The ends don’t justify the means.  My comfortable life has come at a great cost.  What I have somehow became more important than how I live.

I’ve done harm not only to our economy, but to my family, my fellow man, our nation, our environment, and our world.

We have an important national election coming up shortly.  You’re welcome to your opinion on who’s best suited to lead us through the issues we now face in our country, Obama or McCain.

But keep this in mind: you have the opportunity to vote for the President just once every four years.  You have the opportunity to vote daily on our collective future with your spending decisions.

As for me, I’ll be focusing on the more important campaign.

Feel free to hold me accountable.  I need all the help I can get.  I’ll be writing more in the future on the choices I’m making.  I’d appreciate any coaching or suggestions you care to offer.

Oh, and sorry about the mess I made.