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Independence Day

June 30, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, June 30, 2009: A dear friend loses his job.

Quoth the raven: "Independence! Evermore!"

It’s getting harder and harder, with cat tails in both hands and one in my mouth, to keep this Tuesday regimen of self-review and exposition.  Today is actually Thursday, July 2, 2009, two days before Independence Day.  Today, since I’m working diligently toward some form of independence of my own, I figured I’d give a progress report of where I am.

We do these in Corporate America all the time.  In fact, sometime before the end of July, I have to write a self-evaluation for 401K STALWART and push the proverbial bullshit up the slope.

Not that this is a bad process; on the contrary, progress tracking for goal achievement is essential if your goal is, in fact, to achieve your goals.  Luck is a fourth-dimensional phenomenon that allows some people to win the lottery and others to stumble, willy nilly as it were, into success — but we don’t cut our teeth on luck around here; we cut our teeth on practice and rigorous goal-setting.  We make our future and dare that bitch Lady Luck to stand in our way.

But still, things are not the best for 401K STALWART.  If I didn’t tell you before, my first manager with the company (who I no longer report to) was let go as part of a second round of head count cuts, and his last day was Tuesday, June 30 — the end of the month.

Last Friday after work, a fellow co-worker and I, who struck up a good relationship while coordinating on that disastrously planned two-year Puerto Rico project, took my friend and former boss out to dinner at Chili’s.  We talked; we laughed; we bitched (mostly about Puerto Rico and how it was a plan only an accountant could draw up, but also about how or friend had gotten ram-rodded); we drank (they had beers, I had sweet tea with lemon); and then, when it was done, we left our friend, our compadre, to master the waves with a ship only he can steer now.

Tuesday.  June 30.  Glorious.  Frightening.

Independence Day.

You would think, of course, that after the payroll reductions that I’ve survived before, that the lay-off of a former boss would be commonplace to me.  Even the fact that this is the third boss of mine who’s seen the rather unfriendly side of the employee-employer relationship testifies to a certain forced apathy on my part, if only as a coping mechanism.  What’s that saying from the 90s?  Been there?  Done that?  Sure.  Whatever you say.  And if I stick around the slop bin and keep swallowing down this paycheck gruel that they serve, I bet my antacid that I’ll see it again.

Ah, but the hunter comes out in me instead, that wild-eyed hairy thing that can’t conceive of fences and knows not what a collar is.  And though it’s happened before — though I know I will see it again — never is that wild, unflappable urge to get out and hunt and kill for myself stronger than when a friend, someone I’ve rubbed elbows with at the barrel many a-night, is sent out to pasture long before he’s ready.  The call of the wild, Jack London called it.  The call of independence.

I suppose, to a certain degree, I feel this way because I know it can happen to me.  I can go to work one day and, like my friend, get a surprise visit from the HR manager.  It won’t take much.

But it’s deeper than that, more philosophical (as if this is a surprise with me), and, hopefully I’d like to think, more appropriate than simple self-preservation.   Because I see the risk between succeeding in Corporate America and pursuing writing (or any other dream for that matter) on a different spectrum now.  Before, there was light year’s worth of space (and risk) between the two; now it’s more like an astronomical unit.

Why, you ask?  Because it comes down to people.  An accountant looks as the bottom-line of a spreadsheet and says X amount of dollars in payroll must be reduced in this quarter, but they don’t make personnel decisions.  They simply say “Get it done” and MOPs (managers of people) and human resource types decide who among the lesser mortals will fall on the knife.  There’s no greater truth than this in American business, I’ve found: Forget what department you’re in, or what your diploma says — we all work for Finance.  The sooner you figure that out, the happier you’ll be.

So the MOPs and HR managers have their marching orders and, site by site, staff by staff, they decide who they’re going to keep and who they’re going to scatter in the wind — but what are they basing their decisions on?  They have performance reviews and other supposedly fact-based tools with which to help them draw the line between who stays and who goes, but how is their methodology any different or any more rigorous than an agent reading a query letter or an editor considering a manuscript, or for that matter, a record executive listening to a demo?  What’s the gap?  What makes us think one decision matrix is more risky than the other when people are the ultimate gatekeepers and winning and losing, success and unemployment, are two halves of a paper-thin coin split by subjectivity?

There’s no difference, I offer — absolutely none whatsoever.  We find safety in numbers and use seemingly reasonable statistics to sway Lady Luck in our favor, but when you find yourself unemployed, as my friend did, you see the incorrigible truth: no difference.

Here’s another timely example.  The project manager for Puerto Rico, who spent 2+ years of his life traveling at least 90% of the time (remember, I traveled 50%) — he got his Independence Day back in January only a month after the project was finished.  Why?  Because his manager, a West Point graduate, alpha male if ever there was one, died while driving late one night from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.  Why he was never replaced is a mystery only the higher-ups can answer, but the sad truth is that the Puerto Rico project manager had suddenly lost his layer of protection.  When things didn’t go as well as hoped on the islands, there was no one in those closed-door boardroom meetings to fight the PM’s battles, no one whom the Big Wigs respected enough to listen to.  Consequently, when the marching orders from the accountants came down no one said, “Not my project manager, I need him”, and that reason, and that alone, is why he lost his job.

Work hard and you’ll get rewarded?  Bullshit.  In the land of paychecks and pre-paid healthcare, all it takes is the absence of one strong “Yes” and you’re out on the high seas by yourself.

Likewise, all it takes for me to become a published author, and then perhaps an international bestseller, is the same thing, but inverted: the presence of one strong “Yes”.  From an agent, or an editor, or the head book buyer at Barnes and Noble — it doesn’t matter because it all comes down to people.  Not science or anything else — ordinary people.  Who you’ve got fighting for you in battles you’ll probably never know about until you hear a fateful rapping at your office door.  People make the difference.

I have yet to find that person in my life but the search continues; my hunter’s eyes stay trained to the horizon.  Until I find that person so long, my friend, and safe travels… but soon, it’ll be my Independence Day, too.

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