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Life After Career Death

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by Chris Westfall, author of “Easier: 60 Ways to Make Your Life Work for You” 

They beat me to it, the Client thought to himself. I wanted to leave but they pushed me out. Bagged, tagged and gagged. He sat back in the seat, unable to start the car because he didn’t know where to go. His thoughts went to his wife. How could he tell her what had just happened? What about his daughters? The lower school semester would be over soon, but that private school tuition wasn’t going to take care of itself…where would that money come from? Of course his wife had her earnings, from her business, but they shared the expenses. It took two to keep the boat afloat. Considering his paycheck had just been eliminated, he had a sinking feeling.

What would his wife do, or say, or think of him? He started the car. He didn’t know where he was going but he needed to drive. Needed to get out of that parking garage. Needed to distance himself from his former employer.

The post-rush-hour traffic was light, and before he knew it he was on the other side of the airport. The only thing going faster than the cars around him was his mind. He was beaten. Robbed. Powerless. He found himself, two hours later, cruising in the general direction of his neighborhood. Along the journey, he had played out the conversation with his wife 397 times in his head, finally deciding to go for an even 400 before pulling into his own driveway. His imagination had become Groundhog Day.

Turning off the engine, he realized he had gone through nearly every possible scenario: divorce, separation, high anxiety, stomach ulcers, a Xanax addiction, massive relentless disappointment, humiliation, mistrust and 360 degrees of disgust. His wife would bail out, he was sure of it. She was brilliant, beautiful, capable and successful. She deserved better. She couldn’t count on him. He couldn’t count on himself.  But who was counting?

He was damaged goods. Returned without a refund. His former company had been gutted like a fish; he was a discarded bone. His unimaginative CEO had used her imagination (and his detailed reporting) to sell the company to the investors just the way they wanted it: namely, without him in it.

Sitting in his garage, he wondered if he had heard all of the conversation that had taken place in the conference room. Details on the severance package were fuzzy, as well as timelines and even how he would return his laptop. They hadn’t confiscated anything in the meeting, and he had a bunch of files at home that would probably be useful to the new ownership. He thought they said his team had been fired as well. Or that they would be?  Why hadn’t they told him about that? Or had they, and he was too preoccupied with the lawyer’s knuckles and patchwork beard to really consider what was discussed?

At some point, he decided the speculation about his impending divorce wasn’t getting any better inside his car. Time to go in, say what happened, and face the music.

His wife was cleaning up a broken dish when he entered the kitchen. “Well hello there,” she said, from a kneeling position near the sink. She stood up, placing a dustpan filled with blue ceramic chunks on the counter. “You’re home early!”

He told her everything. “They beat me to it”, he said. She knew he had wanted to leave for a very long time. “They got me. The division was cut to the bone and sold. I’m done.”

She came to him and touched his face with one hand, and then two, cupping his chin between them. She pulled him closer, leaning in on her tiptoes, and kissed him ever so softly on the mouth. He shut his eyes and wondered if he deserved it. If he deserved her.

She shut her eyes and every fiber of her being was filled with gratitude. At last, she thought to herself, we have everything we need.

Her almond eyes looked up at him, with the tiniest of tears coming to rest inside her bottom lashes. Her skin, impossibly beautiful from any angle or distance, caught the light perfectly without effort or intention. He loved her deeply, and wanted to take care of her – not because of some antiquated gender ritual or outdated family concept. He simply wanted to give this woman what he believed she deserved. Which was, in a word, everything. But how could you give someone that which you had lost, that which you had not, that which had been taken from you?

“Oh,” she said, her brown eyes darting ever so slightly as she looked up at him. He was bracing for impact, the scolding that would begin with her deep disappointment, leading to the imminent logical and well-deserved conclusion that separation, and ultimately divorce, was what he really deserved. After all, if his job was gone, how could she stay?

His wife saw a man who wasn’t broken. The door that her husband wanted to unlock, but couldn’t, had been opened for him.

Did the change happen in the exact way he wanted? She didn’t care. Victory was his – and theirs. All was not lost. Everything was gained. They were together. What more did they need?

Would they be able to step into the simple pleasures of life, somehow, and embrace what he had been given? She knew the answer was yes. The barrier that was keeping them apart was finally removed. That barrier had been keeping her husband from himself, and by extension, from her.

She saw the diligence in this man. He tried so hard. He worked hard. Wanted to be more, do more. She knew he had hired a Coach to try and break free from his professional prison – they talked about the experience of his weekend near Austin. She was encouraged with feelings of progress, and knew that he would be able to make a change in his career. The break didn’t go as planned, but he was out nonetheless.

Looking into his eyes, she saw the tears he was fighting to contain. His tears were trapped behind his eyes, kept back by that same fighting spirit that held him back in his job. She cried for him, the tears he would not allow himself to shed.  But her tears were tears of joy.

At last, he was returned to her. A dark spot had been erased. They had been separated by his work. Now they were reunited.

She held both his hands. A shiny gold and silver wedding band rested on his third finger. Did he know that ring would always be her favorite piece of jewelry?

Supporting his hands, she spoke.  “You are free.” And then, lifting her eyes to his. “You. Are. Free.” She hugged him close and whispered in his ear. “Look at us! We are OK. You are OK. Oh my God,” she said, pulling back to look at his face. “Thank God that’s over.”

And she laughed.

Before he knew what was happening, so did he. They held each other in a deep embrace, hugging and laughing. They shared the same breath.

His career was imploding. But he was not.

The dishes were broken. But he was fine.

His wife saw that everything was not only OK. Everything was just right.

Soon, she knew he would feel something he hadn’t felt for a very long time. Because, inside of the tears in his shining blue eyes, she saw it.

Hope.

There is always hope.

She had been holding on to it for so long, and all she wanted to do was to give it to him. She didn’t know how. She struggled to find a way to let him see who he was. To tell him of the universe she saw inside of him. To help him find the freedom that, today, this morning, was finally his. And hers. And theirs.

“This is the absolute best thing that could have happened to us,” his wife said, wiping away a tear. He laughed even harder. She nearly shouted, “It’s a gift!”

In the middle of awful circumstances, what looked like the greatest defeat of his life, and career, the Client was held. Supported. Surrounded by nothing less than love.

He was OK. In his wife’s smile, he was more than his career. Much more.

He didn’t know if the universe had his back, but he could feel his wife’s hands there. Which was close enough for him. He glanced at the dustpan.

She always picked up the pieces. Always.

He was so worried about supporting her. Then he realized that she was supporting him. And that they supported each other. And their daughters. And their dreams.

Perhaps that’s how love works?

Where he imagined disappointment, he found joy. When he stepped outside of the story inside his head, he saw the natural state around him. Namely, he knew that he was loved. He was love.

Not a corporate castaway. Not a failed foot soldier. Not a discarded fish bone.

Standing next to the kitchen island, beside the dishwasher, and just four feet away from the microwave, an idea started to sink in.

He was OK.

He had everything he needed. What more could he ask for, in this moment, right here and right now?

His thinking settled down.

He began to realize that he hadn’t listened very well in his final meeting. Either that, or they didn’t tell him much about the details of his separation. Whichever was true, he was noticing the gaps in his memory.

Behind the closed door, he had filled those gaps with anger, frustration, indignation, disappointment and other versions of punishing self-talk, as well as some misdirected seething at the poor skinny-suited bastard who was just trying to do his job and share some important legal details. Which the Client still refused to consider or digest.

Like a scene in a movie or play, everyone had their roles to play. He couldn’t see the scene, because he was wrapped up in his own personal turmoil. But, time, space and distance brought him some clarity.

Inside the conference room, the voice inside of the Client’s head had drowned out the words of the other players in the scene. The other three people who, quite frankly, were there to help him with his transition.

“What was the mood in the room?” his wife wanted to know. She got up to get a glass of water and returned with two.

From the kitchen table, instead of the conference table, realizations popped up all over the place. He saw that there was nothing sinister in their morning conversation. A business decision had been made. He was informed of the decision. He had some decisions to make himself. The first one? He had decided not to listen.

Companies get bought and sold all the time. He had not been consulted on the decision. But that consultation was not part of his job description. So why was it part of his expectation?

His Coach would say that he was making the impersonal personal. And the Coach would also say that taking things personally was perfectly normal. How could someone not take the disintegration of their company (and potentially, their livelihood) personally? Somebody pulls away the career you’ve held for a decade, you’re going to have some thinking around the transition. Who wouldn’t?

 

*Excerpted from “Easier: 60 Ways to Make Your Life Work for You”  by Chris Westfall (Wiley, 2022)

 

Chris Westfall

Chris Westfall is one of the most sought-after business coaches and keynote speakers in the world. He helped launch over five dozen businesses. A regular contributor to Forbes, he has worked with thousands of leaders at Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations and high-tech startups. He is the author of three other books, including “Easier”  and “Leadership Language”.