After the Lay-Off: The Year of Living Thoroughly

7 years ago

It's been a year since being laid off from my corporate job and consequently, one of the best years of my life. After representing the interests of global enterprises for nearly a decade, unemployment provided a valuable opportunity to step back and examine my interests. What exactly were they?

Without perimeters, I was drawn to things like filmmaking, technology + entertainment, alternative energy, food politics, eco-consumerism, zoology, gardening and tackling that God question once and for bloody all.

Message slip

Being let go was no surprise. The client was scaling back, and remote operations are easiest to cut -- none of those awkward face-to-face conversations. (I worked for a New York-based global PR firm out of the San Francisco office but lived in Denver -- story below.) In all honesty, the relationship had come to its natural conclusion, so I've no bitterness. I was ready to move on and they were ready to let me. Done.

I spend the first couple hours of every morning absorbing the screaming headlines of The Wall Street Journal and NPR, which has been my habit since college. Clearly, after many years of careless debauchery, America was sobering up and every industry had been gifted with a gnarly headache. Waiting for the financial crisis to touch me personally ... well, quite frankly, the suspense was killing me.

I get it; the business world is a bit bi-polar and not unlike riding a bus in San Francisco -- keep your knees bent and hang on. For me, the key is autonomy -- a concept unwittingly introduced to me by my previous employer one bright spring day in 2006. I had marched into my boss's office and did what any cubicle rat dreams of: I quit. Or rather, I tried to. 

My boss was one of those tiny intense women that's all serious muscle and intellect, like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. She does not suffer fools, ever, and for this reason alone, I kind of liked her. (She was programmed into my phone as "Executive Superhero.") As she worked away on her laptop (I don't think she ever stopped), I made my big announcement, all adult-like: "I'm actually putting in my notice today" and laid my resignation letter down on her desk.

She did look up long enough to determine that I was not moving to a competing agency (never a warm send-off when that happens) but that I was, in fact, moving to Colorado (a place I'd never been) to live with a hunky monk who slept on plywood. I was, I declared with sparking eyes, leaving for love! I expected a dubious eye-roll and maybe a hearty, "Good luck!" at best.

Instead, she glanced at the letter and went back to her laptop, typing away furiously. Finally, she said, "No."

"Um ... no? What do you mean 'No'? But I've got a letter and everything," I said.

"No. I've got a special project lined up for you." She wasn't even blinking. It was kind of scary.

"Ummm ... but, uh ... " I stammered. Oddly enough, when I'd rehearsed the resignation scene in my head the night before, these lines never came up in the script. So I pointed out that I'd already given up my San Francisco apartment and secured a new place with a view of the Rocky Mountains, figuring that would be the end of this curious exchange.

"That doesn't matter. Just live wherever you want and work remotely," she said and went back to her typing. Finally, she looked up and locked eyes with me, "Heather, I live in Aspen." (This I'd known but somehow forgotten.)

Ever the multi-tasker, she went back to her typing, "Now then, the project is really quite interesting ... "

And that's how I ended up managing a large account for about three years from a spare bedroom in my Denver apartment. (She was right, it was fascinating.) And so, a new level of self-discipline was developed, out of pure career necessity.

With no one to monitor my physical comings and goings, it was squarely up to me, and I turned out to be a tough boss. There was one main rule: I must be dressed -- no PJs -- and working at my desk by 9:00 a.m. (Being in the Mountain Time Zone gave me a one-hour jump on my California colleagues.) I prided myself on 24-hour availability and spent many late nights on the phone with China or India. I also spent many a boring conference call pulling weeds in my garden. (The mute button, when used properly, can be your best friend.)

Every six weeks or so, I would fly back to the Bay Area for some solid face time. At the close of one Important Meeting, myself and the two gentlemen exchanged business cards, and it went something like this:

Guy #1: "Here's mine. It says London, but I actually spend most of my time in New York."
Guy #2: "Here's mine. It says Santa Clara, but I'm really in Mumbai."
Me: "And here's mine. It says San Francisco, but I actually live in Denver."

(Pause, and then laughter.)

Guy #1: "Everybody's business card is a lie these days!"

Yes indeed, my previous job spoiled me in many ways but one in particular -- people quality -- I was determined not to give up. New rule: No soul suckers. Hey, if you have to work anyway, at least make it with humans who are not dumb, petty, mean, insecure or, worst of all, humorless. Those lacking passion or carrying inflated egos also not welcome. Bat-Shit Crazy is only acceptable if the boss is a major genius, which can actually trump everything else.

I fielded several high-dollar offers from individuals wanting to hire me as their publicist, including one guy who wrote a book about social media -- a book? -- that included three exclamation points on the first page. Then there was the well-meaning woman (another author) who admittedly had personality disorder, had survived eight heart attacks and would sign off her e-mails to me "Love you!" though we had never met. The fact that she'd cold-called me early on a Saturday morning and demanded an answer by the following afternoon was also a telling first impression.

New rule: No representing individuals, unless they were sane, kind and kicked major ass.

This concept gelled in my mind one evening as I watched noted filmmaker Michael Brown speak in Boulder. "Now THIS is the kind of person I could work for," I thought to myself. The world is filled with intelligent, happy, talented people -- why settle for less?

So, over the next few months, I showed up at his film company's homey office overlooking Pearl St. Mall, trying to make myself useful. Though there was no budget for me, I honestly didn't care and soaked up the experience for all it was worth. (They were a bit mystified, I'm sure.) I couldn't have articulated it at the time, but I knew it was helping to clarify something within me.

Eventually, I ended up with business cards and company e-mail. Just working around contented artists felt comforting, a valuable reminder to me that brave, creative energy is mandatory in the workplace. Sitting next to the window sill lined with Emmys and hearing Michael mumble to himself in the next room, "Dammit, I forgot I have to learn Bulgarian by next Thursday!" made it all the better.

Continuing in this vein, I volunteered all over the place -- animals, music, spiritual, culture -- whatever I was drawn to and wherever I was needed. Work-wise, I did a few useful things, like helping with this and this and orchestrating this. Some paid, but mostly they didn't and that was fine, as long as my inner journey progressed. The point was to keep digging around, following my own interests until I landed in a comfy spot that involved brilliant, fun co-workers and a solid living ... which is exactly what happened.

Ultimately, I landed a wonderful steady client who not only understands my desire to work autonomously but also with a product that lines up nicely with my personal interest -- in this case, alternative energy. (Their "Made in America" aspect also appeals to my considerable patriotic side.) So now when I arrive at my desk at 9:00 a.m. with my Uggs on and the cat lounging next to the desk geraniums, I feel gratified. I'm exactly where I want to be, driven there by my very own interests and desires.

And I still have my Rocky Mountain view.


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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