It was just after four on a grey Wednesday in January. I was sitting at my desk, filling the last hours of my day with doing those little niggling tasks that remind you it’s a job. Not a dream, not a calling, not a passion. Not a career. And then my phone rang.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that day. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking since that day. I’ve looked at it through each of the lenses of the stages of grief. As I write my way through this Flight of the Ideator series, I may not be able to do all of them justice because I’ve come out the other side, but I’m grateful for your continued curiosity.
The Show Must Go On
While it’s most certainly a natural inclination to dislike change, I take a certain pride in bringing an old-school theatrical approach to it and its related challenges. Continuing to work towards a set goal despite the bumps that pop up in the road. Rerouting like a map app. And I’ve gradually become aware that my perseverance is best fueled by external doubt. My optimism is stubborn and contrary: I go out to prove negativity wrong. There are times when that’s a good thing, but it may not be entirely healthy, despite the result generally being seen as a positive. But I digress.
The Only Constant
Change is inevitable. I started working in a true corporate environment after almost a decade of unionized employment in the public sector. Unknowingly, somewhere along the way through my employed years, I’d developed a very old-fashioned attitude of workplace loyalty. So, learning that it isn’t unusual for people in professional services to regularly move from firm to firm was a surprise. And it wasn’t just a matter of my coworkers looking at their current jobs as a stepping stone towards the next ones (usually with a different employer). There were also mysterious and sudden departures. But, when the dust of those settled, they always felt like strategic corporate manoeuvers, put into motion by people with concerns high above my pay grade. Not the sorts of things that would affect someone like me, keeping my head down and working in a client database all day, every day.
“The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” He gave a shrug. “They never are.”
― George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
After a couple of years of relative stability at my workplace, personnel dominoes started to fall. Through each change, I kept working with dedication to a platonic ideal of my company. My team. People with whom I spent more hours than my blood relations. There were frustrations, as with any familial dynamic, but those were quickly forgotten when the time came to celebrate team wins. Change, however, had become the new normal. And the show went on. I started making that joke made in and about windy cities ― that I was doing fine and if the wind stopped blowing I’d probably fall over. I had my work to anchor me. My work was a constant. Annual performance reviews suggested that my employer considered my contributions above average. My duties weren’t deeply fulfilling, but they were satisfying. And I had external interests and projects to fulfill me.
Sleight of the Ideator
Being a classically trained actor who spends his days in the corporate world, I have always felt like an obvious impostor. But that hasn’t all been bad because it has meant I’ve maintained an outsider’s perspective. I’m a perennial new guy… which, I believe, only amplifies my potency as an ideator (you did read all about that in the prologue, right?). And when new leadership encouraged bold thinking, I started to believe the time had come for real, meaningful change. For me, through new responsibilities (which might reach beyond technical data work to also draw on my creativity), and for the firm. My stubborn optimism was poised to slingshot forward on a stable foundation. With so many new members on the team, all of the brainstorm clouds were set to coalesce at a departmental retreat. A family pre-union. A calling of the clans from different cities to join together in one place. Each member of our rejuvenated crew received a card welcoming them to the multi-day event in the Rocky Mountains. On my card were these words:
Thank you for being a good sport + team player throughout all these changes. It’s all upwards from here! Have fun and keep the humour coming—it’s energizing.
A Different Direction
It was as though I had been invited, in the new world order, to continue bringing more of my truest self to the office. So I did. And I felt, to my core, that I was no longer seen as a member of the old guard, but an integrated part of the new initiative. I had made it through the storm.
Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.
― George Washington from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton
The words “It’s all upwards from here!“, which I didn’t originally attribute to a delusional Sisyphus, would prove prophetic. I wouldn’t recognize it until months later, but when the glow of the retreat had grown dim, the wind had stopped blowing and the sails went slack. Through its repetition, the word bold rang hollow. Now it was an empty campaign promise made after an election win. But I didn’t want to give it up. What I could do was continue doing what I’d always done. After all, I was very good at keeping my head down and making progress in hostile conditions. But now, there was no negativity for my optimism to overcome ― and, after what I’d been promised, comfortable apathy was not something I could accept as an improvement. I was in a stable, stagnant environment, trying to muster enthusiasm for a drab, poorly-refitted status quo. I’d say I was even having some success. Particularly because I felt a connection to my coworkers that I hadn’t felt since the multi-year period of staff changes had begun.
And then my phone rang. HR was calling.
I can’t confidently remember what went through my head when I was invited to the HR Manager’s office. Her voice was simultaneously insistent and not urgent. I was happy to oblige. It was late on a Wednesday afternoon ― dealing with some bit of paperwork or other was a great official excuse to leave my desk for a few minutes and stretch my legs.
Would I have acted differently if I’d known those papers were a notice of termination?
We’ll all pick up from here next time.