Friday, December 4, 2009

Unemployment Diary: Life Is Long, Be Nice

Oh life's ironies can be cruel and fast. Just about two and a half months ago I was if not on top of the world at least at the top of my game at my former job. The project I had helped launch was about to celebrate its one year anniversary and in honor of that the powers-that-were decided to hold a party. I was asked to invite pretty much everyone I worked with on the project and I did.

The party ended up being a whole lot of fun. It was about two or three hours, and even though the hors d'oeuvres looked like they came fresh from a Staufer's box (which should of been a tip off to me about what was in store) I had a great time. I may even have been the life of the party. Not because I drank so much, because I didn't. I didn't put a lampshade on my head, no thanks.

But because I knew just about everyone. This was MY network, in many ways. The project was successful, at least in part, because of the people I had brought on, or became close with along the way. And now I was mingling, laughing, making connections among people who didn't already know one another. I had a great time, and left feeling like I had just completed a pretty good year.

Of course a little over a month later the axe fell. Not just on me, but all the people at my level in the firm, with a few exceptions. I didn't take it personally, but as I waited in the rain for my cab, with my few cardboard boxes of possessions, I felt a little shocked that they were willing to throw us all a big party not long before they canned me. If it didn't feel wrong exactly it did feel a little perverse.

Still, I was kind of grateful for the party. Even if it hadn't been intended that way I felt like I had gone out with a bang. Seldom had I enjoyed a work function that much.

Now tonight I got to experience the reverse of this experience, far more completely than I had ever imagined.

About three months ago I booked a well known financial professional to appear on our video network. I liked his style, I liked his writing ability (he heads a well known financial website), I liked his outlook on life. As it went we hit it off, more or less, although I can't say we got to know one another all that well on a personal level. It's business, after all.

Well, tonight I attended his big holiday soiree, and just had a stone lousy time. It wasn't anyone's fault, it's just that the wheel of fortune has turned, and now that I'm the guy without a job the feeling was somewhat less celebratory for me than for the other guests.

The party was held in a loud, crowded but excellent BBQ place in Manhattan (and, no, not Dallas BBQ), a place I had been twice before and enjoyed. The food is excellent, although it's a bit on the noisy side.

Tonight before heading out Randi and I had a pretty strong disagreement about stuff I won't get into. Suffice to say I was not in the best of moods as I boarded the F train into the city. But, I thought, this is free barbecue, a chance to network, I like the guy throwing the party and I might even know a few people there. We'll see.

Long story short I show up, and almost immediately I feel like I had made a mistake. First, the invitation advised everyone to wear Western wear. I showed up in a flower print cowboy shirt, and am just about the only one who could even begin to pass for even an urban (or suburban) cowboy. Thank god I didn't wear the even more gaudy one, although initially I had planned to.

As I walk in they can't find my name on the guest list. After that's solved I am advised to "drink and have a good time!" The music is blaring, about a thousand people are milling about, in small or smallish groups, and immediately I am transported back to parties in high school and college that I hated: looking for people to talk to, alone, feeling like a loser.

The idea of "networking" here, at least for me, at least tonight, in the mood I am in, is hopeless. The music is too loud, and there seems to be no way into anyone's conversations. Whereas people at the party two months ago joked laughed and mingled, I felt like I couldn't break through, in any way. Maybe it was me, it probably was. But that was how it felt.

Making matters worse I wasn't even hungry, thanks to a "light" early dinner and the residue of feeling upset. But I did see my host, so I walked over.

He was speaking with someone else, and since he threw the party I knew he would be in high demand tonight. I wanted to thank him for inviting me, but the person he was talking to kept on talking. This lead to one of those awkward "hovering" situations, where I stood around like a ghost, waiting for my chance to pounce. Not good. In fact very uncomfortable for all concerned.

I did perceive a small break in their conversation, and I said hi, and thanked him for letting me come to his fabulous party. We chatted for about 30 seconds and I felt like such a goofball that I decided to shuffle on.

Then I looked to my left, oh great. Two young women that I used to work with at my old job, at the gambling tables. I didn't want to talk to them, because:
1. We were never that friendly anyway.
2. I would probably enjoy an additional 30 seconds of even more awkwardness.
3. I didn't want them to feel sorry for me.

That's the thing, when you've been laid off there can be a certain odor, I guess that seems to come over you. It's almost like Axe body spray in reverse, I suppose. Those that used to work with you, even if you had outranked them, now just kind of feel bad when they talk to you. As if someone just died, and that someone was you.

I then went downstairs and saw two journalists who used to work for me, who both now work for the financial website owned by our host. We had a pleasant enough joint conversation, but after not too long I could tell they wanted to move on, and felt, maybe, a little bit sorry for me too. Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself, and just imagined this is how they felt. I can't tell. They were nice to me, and asked me how I was doing, how Stella is, and all that. But it was awkward, again, there was no getting around it. After not too long one guy excused himself to go the bathroom (which is a move I do when I want to end a conversation gracefully) and the other one, a young woman, started a conversation with someone else.

By this point I'd had one beer, and checked my coat. That was about it. I didn't want to stay any longer so I then unchecked my coat, gave up, and went home. I wanted to see my wife, even if we'd had a pretty serious disagreement. I missed her.

The lesson in this? I guess it's that you really better be nice to people, because who knows how fast fortunes can change. I had felt, and hoped, that I had been a good person, a good co-worker, and even a good boss, and I think I was. But now the shoe is on the other foot, and I am the one looking for a job, and my former direct-reports (who both had been laid off in advance of me) could be in positions to help me, or not.

It's hard to know if you've got enough good will in the "favor" bank with people you used to work with, so you better try and be good people all the time. Did I reach out to them enough when they needed help, when they were laid off? Even to buy them a drink or a meal? Probably not, though I did reach out. Now I wonder.

(Of course the best reason to be nice is simply because it makes the world a slightly better place. And you should do so without expecting anything in return.)

The other lesson is that in this world you can feel perfectly great, or perfectly lousy, but all some see is your job. If you don't have one they see right through you. Until it's time to see you once more.

A last irony: the last time I saw both of my former journalists was in the same BBQ place. We'd convened a meeting of the "markets" desk of the well known financial website where I had worked. I had been the deputy editor at markets, where they had both written for me. After that I moved onto my erstwhile "succesful" new project. So at the dinner I was the one in the catbird seat and they were both fairly down and scrambling for work. I was even giving advice. This was about six months ago. Tonight it was the complete opposite of that, in every way.

You know, maybe I should just avoid that place next time.


Matt said...

Hey Dave,
I lost your email a while ago when my email service suddenly deleted my accounts. Just stumbled upon your blog. We haven't seen each other since Thanksgiving 2008. Man, where did 2009 go? My email's now, what's going on?

Matthew Honig

David Serchuk said...

Hi Matthew,
This is quite the shocker to hear from you, but in a good way! I will get in contact.