My 7 Most Significant Life Lessons of 2007
Why does this post seem like a confession? Maybe because it catalogs the major events of my life over the last 12 months in an effort to capture everything I learned during that time.
What follows are some of the most important life lessons I’ve ever learned, and if you want to learn them too (insomuch as one is capable of learning through another’s pain without experiencing it personally), all you have to do is keep reading.
This is a long post, but I promise you that reading about the last year of my life will be much easier for you than living through it was for me. Strap up, boys and girls. We’re going for a ride.
At the beginning of 2007, something happened that would change my life forever.
A high ranking manager called me and my 80 some-odd co-workers (computer programmers mostly) into a large conference room. There she stood, a middle-aged manager in a sharp suit, looking very unsure of herself. She refused to make eye contact with us as she began to read from a prepared statement. Her voice trembled.
She was about to drop bad news on us; any fool could see that. The only question was, How bad would the news be? I distinctly remember one of my friends turning around to look at me, a big Cheshire grin on his face, cupping his hands around his mouth and whispering, “She looks like she’s about to tell us we’re going to be executed.”
And he kept smiling his silly grin right up until the moment that the purpose of the prepared speech became undeniably clear.
The manager nervously shuffled her high-heeled shoes and proceeded to tell us we were being downsized, re-organized, laid-off, fired, pink-slipped, told to hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back. Our office was being closed. Some of us would be offered jobs at corporate headquarters, half a state away, if we were willing to re-interview for our jobs and relocate, but there were no guarantees. Times were tough. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Yadda-yadda-yadda.
After 6 and a half years as a loyal, hard-working employee, I suddenly needed to find a new job. I was scared to death. But I was also excited. After all, hadn’t I been looking for an excuse to find a more rewarding career? Hadn’t I been telling myself that it was time to find a job that truly inspired me?
Here I was, a bright and highly motivated man on a mission to find a great new job. And where did all this motivation get me? Right into the middle of hell, that’s where.
Shortly after starting my new job as a project manager for a well-known financial institution, I found out my new boss was crazy. Maybe bipolar? Maybe on steroids? Listen, I’m not accusing him of actually being nuts or taking ‘roids, I’m just saying that’s the way it seemed to me, the new guy.
He reminded me of Jesse the Body Ventura back in his pro-wrestling days: lots of yelling, screaming, exasperated hand movements, posturing, and carrying on. “This work is NOT acceptable,” he was fond of saying, spraying spit in every direction, flexing his shoulder muscles. “Listen, I’m getting VERY frustrated now.”
I half expected to hear him say, “Don’t make me angry, Mr. McGee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” and then turn green, like Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk, and start throwing book cases and laptops around the room. Come to think of it, his forehead did have a slightly neanderthal slope to it.
The Hulk never actually directed his anger at me, but I’d seen quite enough of him yelling at other people to know I didn’t want any part of it. After a month, I quit.
Yes, it was that bad. And yes, I knew that soon.
If anyone’s curious, the job I left has turned over 4 times in the last 9 months, so apparently I’m not the only person who found the place unbearable.
Thankfully, I had a decent chunk of change in my savings account, which I slowly drained to nothing during the next 6 months as I drifted in unemployment limbo: a slow succession of weeks, one rolling into the next, all that time spent aimlessly pondering the career aspirations that lay before me, the endless possibilities, so close yet so far, lost in a graveyard of daytime television, long afternoon naps, and directionless walks under the hot summer sun.
After a while, I decided it was time to stop drifting and start doing. I’d wanted to escape software development for a long time; this was my chance!
But if I didn’t want to work with software, what did I want to do? Be a doctor? A lawyer? A farmer? A homeless guy?
My personal theory is that we have a way of knowing what we want to do with our lives, and we usually don’t need any fancy process or career handbook to help us figure it out. The hard part is learning to listen to that inner voice.
Since I was 12 years old, I’d wanted to be a writer. In my younger days, I had grand visions of writing best-sellers and hosting book tours, but I realized that was exactly the sort of pie-in-the-sky dream likely to derail if not grounded in something more realistic. So I decided to forget about writing the Great American Novel (at least for now) and to start this blog instead, which would allow me to help people in addition to providing a creative outlet for my writing.
For six months, I worked on building this blog. I learned a lot about writing: rhythm, story telling, flow. I also learned about deadlines and pressure.
And near the end of that six months, I was starting to go a little stir crazy, and I discovered something very important about myself: I need a schedule. I need to be expected to be somewhere at a certain time every morning. And above all, I need to get out of my house on a regular basis.
Sitting around in your underwear sounds like a great way to spend your life, but believe me, it’s one of those ideas that’s much nicer in theory than in practice.
So finally, after 6 months, I went back to work, partly because I was out of money and partly because I was ready.
I landed a new job in October. The work itself wasn’t very interesting, but the people were nice and the boss was great and overall it was a huge improvement over the days I’d spent working with The Hulk.
I developed software during the day, my blog at night. For the first time in a long time, I felt good.
And then, something unexpected happened. My old employer called me out of the blue and asked, “Hey John, how would you like to have your old job back? You know, the job you lost 10 months ago?”
Well, well… What an interesting turn of events. The old place was willing to let me telecommute from a local office, meaning I wouldn’t have to move, and I could pick right back up where I left off.
“I have to think this over,” I said. “I mean, if I come back to work for you, my work record during the year 2007 is going to look like a black hole.”
My old employer said, “Okay, you think about it. Call me when you’re ready.”
And eventually, I said yes. In the months since the lay-off, I had learned to appreciate all the wonderful things my previous employer had offered: flexible schedule, moderate hours, excellent pay, reasonable expectations, friendly co-workers, and nice managers. And other things, like my many years of company-specific experience, solid relationships, and respect.
So now, I’ve come full circle. The story ends where it began. But my journey has not been wasted, for I learned many things along the way!
At this point, you’re probably wondering if all my turmoil over the last 12 months is evidence that I’ve flipped my lid. I assure you, it’s not, though it is evidence that I’m human, a trait I share with all of you (unless you’re the world’s first reading cat), which means the lessons I learned might be helpful for you too.
So with no further ado, here are the 7 biggest things I learned during the chaos of 2007:
1. Don’t wait for an excuse to chase your dreams: It took losing my job to finally motivate me into writing articles for this blog. I never should have waited so long! This is probably the most important lesson I learned all year.
2. You can chase your dreams on the side: Even if you have aspirations of becoming a full-time author, or musician, or singer, you don’t have to sell your financial future down the river to test the waters. As this blog proves, it is quite possible to pursue your purpose on the side, allowing it to build over time, without tearing your life down to its foundations.
3. Every day, be thankful for what you have: I didn’t realize how good my job was until I lost it. And now, I am keenly aware of that particular blessing. Human nature is such that we “don’t know what we have ‘til it’s gone,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t fight our natures. Research has shown that an attitude of gratitude makes a huge contribution to a person’s overall happiness.
4. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side: this particular cliché exists for a reason. Before you jump, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
5. Always keep 6 months salary in your savings account: Financial advisors tell us as much, and this is definitely advice worth taking. All that money might come in handy if you ever decide to have mid-life crisis. Or if you ever find yourself working for The Hulk.
6. Don’t worry so much about what other people think: Nearly every decision I’ve made this year has been met with a lot of criticism. People thought I was silly to leave my job working for The Hulk after only a month (of course, those people didn’t have to work there), they thought I was silly for starting this blog, and they still think I’m silly for going back to work for the company that laid me off. But you know what? Those people don’t have to live my life. I do. All you can do is make the decision that seems right to you and be willing to live with the consequences.
7. Life is not a destination; it’s a journey: Yes, it’s another cliché. But no, I honestly don’t think that most of the people who have heard this particular cliché have truly internalized its wisdom. Happiness doesn’t come from big houses or fancy cars. It doesn’t come from achieving goals. Happiness, true happiness, comes from a feeling that you are on a path toward something important. Achieving goals only offers lasting significance if those goals serve as mile-markers on the path toward something greater.
Bonus #8. A life of liesure is not a worthy goal or a desireable end state: Having seen firsthand what happens to a man when he drifts rudderless for too long and the hard lessons that await the independently wealthy at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, I no longer have any desire to get rich and retire to a tropical beach somewhere. I am thankful for every day that I get to go to work. To some of you, this will sound crazy. But that’s okay, since I’m taking my own advice about not caring too much about what other people think.
Truth be told, I learned quite a few other things last year. But these are by far the most important lessons. And I hope they serve you as well as I know they will continue to serve me. And here’s to believing that 2008 will be a happier year.
For the first time in many months, I feel a deep contentment in my soul, the sort of contentment that comes from living through uncertain times, emerging victorious, and learning to appreciate life’s blessings. I wish you the same peace.
And I wish you just enough hardship to appreciate all the wonderful things you have, and not a trifle more.
February 15, 2008 Friday at 10:30 pm