The Long Walk Home:
How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life's Purpose
The Great Letting Go
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. —Lao Tzu
A few weeks before my fifty-sixth birthday, I was sitting in my office at the headquarters of the technology company where I had worked for twenty-eight years when I received the call that no one, especially at that age, wants to get.
It was the chief marketing officer, calling on his cell from wherever he was traveling that week.
“Bad news,” he said. “Paul’s restructuring.”
Paul was the new CEO who had joined the company earlier in the year. Everyone in the firm had been on pins and needles for news of a downsizing, since that’s what usually happened whenever a new CEO came onboard. As the company’s head of communications, I was usually among the first to know about these things because my team would have to put together the plan for communicating the news to employees and spinning it to the media and investors.
“All right,” I sighed, already searching through my computer files for the playbook we used for communicating corporate restructurings. “What do we need to do?”
“No, Jim,” he replied. “This is about you.”
I went quiet as he gave me the news. The new CEO was shaking up his management team and wanted to bring on a new head of communications. The good news, the chief marketing officer went on to say, was that the change wasn’t happening right away. A search was underway for my replacement, which would probably take a couple of months. In the meantime, I was still in the job, but I would be advised to start looking around for something else, because my long run with this company was coming to an end.
“Wait,” I said when I was able to find my voice. “I’m being let go? Why?”
“It’s nothing personal. He’s just looking for a different style of leader.”
Nothing personal? What could be more personal than being let go from your job? I found myself protesting uselessly. This made no sense. I had a stellar reputation in the company. I had been getting excellent performance reviews for as long as I had been there and had just gotten another good one in the spring.
“Yeah, well,” he replied, “there’s a new sheriff in town and everything’s different now.”
After hanging up, I sat for a while in my office sorting through a churning blender of emotions. The month before, I had celebrated my one-year mark of completing chemotherapy for colon cancer. My scans were clean, and though I still had miles to go on my cancer journey, I was feeling like I had dodged a bullet with my name written on it.
And now this.
I had kids in college. A mortgage, medical bills, aging parents. Would I be able to find another job with a salary anywhere near what I was being paid? Would another company even be interested in me, considering my age and the fact that I had worked so long at one place? Would this precipitate another plunge into the hell of clinical depression? I had a long history of brushes with the black beast, but he and I had come to a détente and it had been more than a decade since we had wrestled in the pit together. The last thing I wanted to do was poke his sorry hide and get him riled up again.
So many questions, so many emotions. Fear. Anger. Disgust. Disbelief. I had given so much of my life to this company. I had always been a star performer and had a shelf full of awards to show for it. Now, suddenly, I was expendable? How could they be doing this to me?
At a certain level, having worked as long as I had in communications and investor relations, I knew the answer to my own question: This was about cutting costs. The company had been restructuring and downsizing from the day I first got there nearly twenty-eight years ago. What was then an IT giant with a hundred thousand employees and ten billion dollars in annual revenue was now down to less than a quarter of that size. In my time with the firm, I had seen literally tens of thousands of people—entire cities—ushered out the door. But those reductions had always happened to other people.
Now my time had come. The restructurer’s scythe had come for me.
As I sat in my office reeling from the news, my mind went back to another dark day a couple years earlier.
I had gone in for what I thought was a routine colonoscopy, my first after hitting the half-century mark. I had been putting it off because I was super busy and, well, who wants to have a colonoscopy? There was no history of colon cancer in my family. I wasn’t overweight, had never smoked a cigarette in my life, and watched what I ate and worked out regularly. Why bother?
But at the urging of a colleague at work, I made the appointment and went in for the scope the Friday before Christmas. After I woke up from the procedure, the gastroenterologist took me into a private room and closed the door.
“It’s a good thing you came in,” he said gravely.
This was not what I was expecting. I was expecting to be handed a pack of peanut butter crackers and a bottle of grape juice and be sent on my way until my next roto-rooter in ten years. Instead, here was this bespectacled young doctor looking quite serious. They had found an overgrown polyp in my right ascending colon, he informed me. The polyp was too big to be clipped off, but they had taken a snip for testing.
“We should have the results back within a week,” he said, “but from the looks of it, I am quite confident it is cancerous.”
The biopsy results the following week confirmed his suspicions of adenocarcinoma. They didn’t know how advanced it was and wouldn’t know until they did more tests. But I was going to need surgery to cut out the tumor, and maybe chemotherapy as well.
That shock of learning I had colon cancer had been existential in nature. It had woken me up to the reality of my own mortality in ways that all my past accidents, mishaps, depressions, and illnesses had not.
This latest news, of losing my job, was a cut of a different kind. It went to the core of who I was, or who I saw myself to be. I had worked for this company for half my life. I had been employed there for twice as long as I had been married to my ex-wife. For all of its faults and seemingly endless flows of red ink, this place was home. I was familiar with it, and it with me. There was something comforting in that familiarity: the people, the struggles, the shared history. Even this office. Sure, I didn’t have a window view. But it was a damn nice office. All my things were here. Pictures of my boys and my parents. My awards. My books on the shelf. My files. Everything was where I knew it would be when I walked into the office in the morning.
Now that ground was being pulled out from beneath my feet and I felt like I was free falling. Who was I without this company? What was I? Where would I go, what would I do?
There are many awesome things about working for a big company: the pay, the benefits, the opportunities to work with really smart people and learn new skills and travel to cool places on someone else’s dime. But do it for long enough, as I have, and you begin to feel like one of those tiny remora suckerfish that spend their entire lives riding the backs of sharks and whales. You’re not sure who or what you are outside of this creature you’re riding. Am I a fish or mammal? Is this the only view there is of the ocean? Why does everything around here taste like whale meat?
And when the leviathan you’re riding is perpetually restructuring, life becomes an exhausting roller-coaster ride of near-death experiences. Every year, it seems, there’s a new round of fat-trimming, except all the fat is long gone and the cuts are now going deep into the muscle. People you’ve worked with for years are no longer around, and the relief you feel for still having a job is mixed with heavy doses of survivor’s guilt. Hey, what happened to Joe? Jeez, why would they lay him off? He’s the only one around here who knows how to do that job!
The thing about big-company restructurings, at least the ones I’ve been through, is that though the people get downsized, the work does not. The processes remain in place; the customers still need to be served; the systems still need to be serviced and kept running. Invariably, all this work gets laid on the plates of the people who remain, who end up doing two or three jobs. Meanwhile, the executives at the top are always changing. It’s like a turnstile up there. They stay for a few years, bring in their buddies, take their big bonuses, and then move on to the next gig, while the long-timers are left holding the bag. With all the changes at the top, you’re never sure exactly what the strategy is or where the company is supposed to be going.
Do this for long enough and you develop a certain scab of skepticism about yet another restructuring aimed at doing what the last few had not. Maybe the new management team sensed that with me. I don’t know. All I knew was that I had never been “let go” from any job before and I didn’t know quite what to do, what to think.
Aware of a rising tide of panic within me, I got up and stepped out of my office onto the second floor.
This was before COVID-19, back in the days when people still congregated freely without masks and mandatory six-feet distancing orders at corporate offices across America, and on this day, the floor was bustling with activity. Doing my best to avoid eye contact with anyone lest I get pulled into an impromptu hallway meeting, I moved quickly to the side entrance.
It was a stunning mid-October afternoon: crisp and cool, sun shining overhead in a cloudless blue sky, trees ablaze in their fall colors. As soon as I got outside, I felt an immediate shift in my mood—lighter, clearer, able to separate myself a bit from the anxiety I was feeling and gain some perspective. Anxiety had been part of my journey for so long that I had come to accept her as an ugly but necessary companion in the carriage next to me and to do my best to keep her as comfortable as possible. Acceptance was one way to do that. Distraction was another. But the best way was to get outside into nature, which was why I spent as much time there as possible.
I took a few steps up the campus road. Every step farther away I got from the headquarters building, the lighter I felt. I began to be aware of another emotion rising within me amid the blender swirl of fear and anxiety and anger. I felt a palpable sense of relief, gratitude almost, as if I had been let out of jail. It had not been easy being at the company of late. Morale wasn’t good and my health had been suffering. I was working nights and weekends, unable to take time off and spend quality time with my kids and my aging parents. I was having trouble sleeping. I had developed a searing pain in my neck that the doctors were at a loss to explain. At times the pain was so bad, I could barely sit at my desk.
I was fried. Used up. A cinder. Deep down, I didn’t want to be at the company any longer, and the fact was, it was long since time for me to go. After all, who stays twenty-eight years at one company anymore? I had done well there, rising from a lowly editor of new product announcements to head of communications for a multibillion-dollar technology company. But now those opportunities had dried up. I had ridden this whale for as far as it could take me.
It was time to move on.
I stood on the entrance road for a long while staring vacantly at the office building. I had spent more time in that building over the past three decades than I had at home. I had given this once-proud company the most productive years of my career. I had learned a lot, had a chance to work with some really great people, had some fun times. But it was just a job, just a building. It was not me and it was not my home.
I was aware of a raw, welling energy inside of me, a thrumming mix of terror and excitement, like a skydiver about to jump out of the plane. The leviathan had served me well, but I was not attached to it any longer. This remora fish had let go.
Turning away, I continued walking up the campus road away from the building. I walked past the lot where my car was parked. I walked by the copse of trees that I would pass on the drive home, where I often would see deer out grazing on warm summer evenings when I had to work late. I walked past a couple of other businesses at the end of the corporate campus, and when I came to the intersection, I turned right, in the direction of home.
And then I just kept walking.