Office Heavens, Office Hells

This is what it’s like to lose your job.

Somebody comes to see you. It’s early. This is by design. They want to get it over with, before the day gets started, before you can settle in. They have a Plan. You don’t know about the Plan, but they have known about the Plan for a while. They want to get the Plan over with, so they can move on and settle in with their day, return texts, go out for a mango smoothie at 10:35, and return to their computer and read that story about Ryan Gosling rescuing a beagle.

They find a quiet place and they tell you right away. There is no small talk. No weather, no American League standings, no Good God, did you see Game of Thrones last night?

This is what they say: We’re going to have to let you go.



This is a polite way of putting it, but it’s also accurate, because it feels less like a door being slammed and more like somebody releasing a grip as you’re dangling off a bridge. A minute ago you were sitting in a chair eating a cinnamon raisin bagel, starting to dig into your day, and now you are in free fall, a blur of panic rushing at you—what does this mean, how did this happen, how am I going to pay the bills, what am I going to do next?

Meanwhile the person who just vaporized your job is babbling about details of the split—severance, vacation, COBRA—and you are hearing none of it. It’s just noise.

You want to lie down. When people lose their jobs in movies, they’re always tipping over tables and throwing phones through windows and giving the entire room a brilliant, Oscar-winning F‑you speech, in which they triumphantly promise to create a new company that will put this ungrateful dump out of business. In real life, you sit there frozen, incapable of summoning anger, much less an Aaron Sorkinesque soliloquy.

You’re told it has nothing to do with your performance. But you don’t really know, do you? This morning you came in to your job, and you thought you had a job.

This happened to me in 2008. I’d been working at Rolling Stone magazine for about eight months as the financial crisis unraveled and the economy cratered and advertising went poof. For weeks, very talented and hardworking people started getting canned all around me. Cardboard boxes were brought to desks; there were hugs and farewell e‑mails and short, teary walks to the elevator. I kept my head down, but I felt secure. I thought it wasn’t going to happen to me. I was new, but I had a pretty senior-­level job, and people with jobs more senior than mine told me many times to relax, that there was nothing to fear, the worst of it was over and everything would soon be fine.

Then, just a week before Christmas, someone came to visit me first thing in the morning. We’re going to have to let you go. I remember thinking it was a prank. I smiled and didn’t get a smile back. Rolling Stone wasn’t a perfect place—I had dreamed of working at the magazine ever since I was a kid, but by the time I got there, it felt more like a museum relic; its iconic owner, Jann Wenner, seemed pretty distrustful of anything that had happened after 1977—but it was a good job. I was proud of the stuff we’d done, enthusiastic about the future. I thought I was safe. They’d told me that I was safe. Again and again.

I wasn’t safe.

In the panic, I attempted to rationalize it, spin it, make it seem not so bad. This was happening everywhere! I was not alone! I wasn’t even alone at Rolling Stone that day—I was among a handful of employees the magazine swept out in a preholiday purge. But even though this kind of layoff was happening everywhere—literally thousands of people around the country were losing their jobs every day, banks were collapsing, John McCain was suspending his presidential campaign—it was hard not to let the moment brew into something hurtful and personal. A dull, sludgy feeling of humiliation crept in.

The rest of the morning was a haze. I was sent to a human resources–type office I’d never seen before, where I was asked to sign papers and agree to severance and basically forget the whole thing ever happened. It’s simultaneously clinical and one of the most vivid moments of your life, and you are spending it with a stranger who just wants to see what’s up on Perez Hilton.

Back at my desk, a cardboard box appeared. Time to pack and leave. Colleagues began gingerly to approach, saying Dude and Why and I can’t believe it. I hugged people as if I were about to board a spaceship, never to return. Then I walked to the elevator and down to a hired car waiting on the street. This was a strange gesture: they’d just cannonballed my life, but they would give me a sweet ride home. I got in the car with the stupid cardboard box on my lap, and I sobbed.

When you lose your job, people tell you as a reflex that it’s going to be the “best thing that’s ever happened” to you. You get sick of this very fast. How is this possibly the best thing that’s ever happened? At the time, Bessie and I were getting married in a couple of months, the economy was in free fall, magazines were closing by the shelf-­full, never to return. I didn’t want to go out, see anyone. I was so embarrassed. I went to see my therapist, Doctor Gerry, where I focused on my feelings of shame. I’ve been so wronged! My layoff had been written about in the New York Post. Everybody in town knows, Doctor Gerry! I could feel it. I had been to a friend’s holiday party a couple days after getting sacked, and I’d gotten out of there within minutes, dreading eye contact.

Doctor Gerry sat there at the other side of the room in his wool sweater and began talking in his low-­medium voice.

“Do you mind if I tell you something?” he said. This was always a big deal: Doctor Gerry wasn’t a huge fan of telling me anything.

I liked him very much—he was smart and comforting, and when I was bored I’d beg him to tell me about his craziest clients—but mostly his style was to nod, let me talk and reach my own conclusions, and then charge me the price of a lobster dinner for four.

“Okay.”

“This is going to be blunt, but it’s true.”

“Okay.”

“Nobody gives a shit.”

Doctor Gerry argued that while being laid off may have been a seismic moment for me, to other people it was just Something That Happened. Sure, some people who knew me might have been briefly stunned or sympathetic or even titillated, and yes, some may have even gossiped about it to others, but it was quickly forgotten and pushed to the side in the daily crush of information. It wasn’t an emergency to anybody but me. I thought of how quickly I’d forgotten this type of news when it happened to other people.

When you’re starting out in the workforce, you can quickly become immersed and confuse your job with your life. There are times that I miss that kind of obsession—long nights out with coworkers after closings, the close attention to office battles, the comical pettiness of the usual workplace grievances. Hopefully, the pettiness declines as you get older and develop other, bigger, healthier obligations outside the office. We are many generations into the fetishization of work life, and while sacrifice and hard work are often essential, we have placed too much personal value on how we fit into a workplace. All of us want to make our work work. But we are not our jobs. Doctor Gerry was 100 percent right. Nobody gave a shit.

I’ve never opened that stupid cardboard box.

This post has been adapted from Jason's new book, "Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living," on sale now. 
 
 Jason Gay

Author, “Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living" and columnist at The Wall Street Journal
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