On November 7, 2013, user “Stromm sarnac” replied to Loyalty and Layoffs with a pretty strong comment about keeping my head down and my mouth shut. I started to reply, but it got so long that I’ve decided to post this as an open letter. Because I’m doing this, and because Stromm’s stance is pretty strong, I want to emphasize that I am grateful for his comment and I am not posting this as a reply troll, but rather I am replying with total transparency and sincerity. More importantly, since my message is that “no, I absolutely should not keep my mouth shut, and neither should you or anyone else”, I’m publishing it here for general consumption. Part of daring to open your mouth is owning the consequences, and sometimes that means owning “getting yelled at”. While we are certainly within our rights to retaliate if the scolding is harsh–and this is a very human thing to do–we may also have a brief window of engagement if the person doing the yelling is also coming from a place of sincerity.
I feel like I’m setting you up for a scathing swearfest here, but to be honest, Stromm’s reply isn’t really that harsh. If it had been, I’d just have deleted it and moved on. No need to engage when there’s no chance of connection. I found his reply pointed, but at the end of it I found myself realizing that he is exactly the kind of audience I am trying to reach right now. I’m adding all this preamble so that nobody reads this open letter and thinks I’m trying use my forum to publicly shame this user.
Stromm, if you’re still out there, this one’s for you.
“It didn’t really hit me for about a week that I’d just been screwed out of the best job I’d ever”
You weren’t screwed out of a job. You had no right to that job or any other, same as the rest of us.
You were let to because the numbers didn’t work. Same as almost all of us who have been let go like that.
Instead of burning bridges and showing future employers that they shouldn’t trust you either, you should have kept your mouth (fingers really) shut.
Thank you for this comment. I mean that sincerely. I found your post challenging at first–as I’m sure you intended–but then I found it interesting, so sure, I’ll take a moment to reply. First, let me say that this post was absolutely intended for you. You were–you are–my target audience. Secondly, yes, I wrote that post in anger, and though I don’t regret it I do recognize that I made a key error: I failed to clarify the difference between loyalty and trust, and this has led to a lot of reactions similar to yours. If I haven’t permanently lost you as a reader I hope you’ll take a moment to read Loyalty and Trust, but if you’re done with me and my last communication to you will be the email notification of this reply, let me say that I agree with you completely, and that we should show loyalty to our employers, but we should not trust them with our careers, because–as you say–nobody has a right to a job or any other.
I appreciate that you want to look out for me and my career, but you’ve missed some key points along the way. What you have taken away from my post tells me that you are conflating loyalty and trust, which is my fault. But your fear of burning bridges also tells me that you, sir, are not curating your own career properly. You think I should be afraid of something I have faced and whipped so many times that I almost don’t remember it even exists. And the reason you have this fear, and I don’t, all comes down to owning your own career.
But you wanted to make this about me. Maybe you’re a jerk–nothing personal; the internet’s full of them and I’m just saying it’s a possibility. But then again, maybe you deflected the issue back to me because it feels safer for you, and I’m fine with that–and again, I mean that. I’m not challenging you, and I’m not trolling you. I am trying to meet you with openness and sincerity here. We feel angry when somebody breaks a rule that we think should be in place, and many of our rules come from decisions we make about our fears. You missed the point I was trying to make, and that’s okay. The fact that you felt engaged by it enough to comment means maybe I still have a chance. You are rejecting your interpretation of my message, and I want you to hear my true message, or at least understand it enough to agree that it’s not for you. I’d rather you reject my actual point rather than your misunderstanding of it. So let’s talk about your reply for a minute.
Let me start by saying that you are right about every single thing you said, right up until the last sentence, where you tried to slip in a whole lot of implicit assumptions under the radar in order to arrive at the exact opposite conclusion that my logic–based on different assumptions–should have dictated. Let’s start with where you’re right.
Did anyone owe me a job? Certainly not. I agree with you. Life doesn’t owe me anything. Life is totally unfair. It has to be; otherwise winning wouldn’t be any fun.
You’re also right that I lost my job because the numbers didn’t work. You’re not wrong, but I want to point out a subtle nuance that you may have overlooked: the numbers didn’t work because somebody else was incompetent. I did everything right–better than right, really. And somebody else screwed up, and kept their job, and I lost mine. Is that fair? No! Did I have a right to that job? No! Do I have the right to feel betrayed about it? N–well, actually yes! My feelings are my own and I have the right to feel whatever the hell I want. You not only don’t have the right to vote on my feelings, you don’t even have the right to have an opinion out loud about them. Well, actually you do, because free country and stuff, but the point is I don’t have to listen or care. But since I also opened my blog for comments, I did give you a place to sound off about my feelings, so I’m not scolding you. Right now I choose to be transparent about my feeling process, but I wanted to point out that this is my whim, and not your right. Anyway, the process is this: I have a rule in my head that says my actions affect other people, and another rule that says I am responsible for my actions. Now I don’t have a rule that says I am responsible for other people, but I definitely do feel that I have a responsibility to other people. As it happened, some people very high up in that organization were consistently making bad choices, choices not based on reality or understanding of the market, but choices based on ego and shame and fear of looking bad to the board of investors. Rather than choose to examine their profits and losses and invest where costs were low and potential was high, they chose to sink vast sums of money into projects whose glory days had faded in the hopes of making the world somehow go back in time. In order to pay for that folly, staggering amounts of intellectual property was abandoned and projects with genuine promise were first bled dry and then discarded. In order to make the numbers work on those doomed projects, those men and women, who had responsibility for the company, and to me–because their actions had an effect on me–made choices that caused the numbers to not work where I was concerned.
They screwed up, but I had to pay for it. Did I feel wronged? You bet! Was I angry? Yep! Did I stay angry? Nah. It wasn’t really a useful emotion. I had no ability to take any action that would have any effect on them, and besides, I don’t know that I could have run the company any better. Even if I could have forced them to make a different decision, the company was spread too far at that time, and had to contract to stay alive. All I would have done differently is choose to unemploy the engineers on that big, fat, doomed project instead of mine. How is that any better?
But even still, at the end of all that, you are right: in order to arrive at that feeling of betrayal, I had to have some assumptions about my career that were out of whack. No employee should ever feel betrayed by an employer upon being let go. Especially when it’s an impersonal mass-layoff like I went through. You’re absolutely right.
But here’s the thing: I did feel betrayed, and I know countless other people who also have felt this sense of betrayal. I shouldn’t have, but the fact that I did isn’t going to stop being a true thing anytime soon.
Some people, like yourself, have observed this feeling and responded with a sort of self-oriented “tough love”. You tell yourselves “nobody owes you anything, sweetheart” when life gets crappy. That’s okay. I’m fine with that; it’s actually a rather useful attitude.
But there’s two ways to take this attitude: with hope, or with hopelessness.
Hope says “nobody else owes you anything, so if you want something you gotta haul yourself up by the bootstraps and go get it.”
Hopelessness says “nobody owes you anything… and there’s nothing you can do about it. So you’d better keep your head down and keep quiet, because if you complain you might never get anything again, or if you do have something they might hear you and come take it away.”
This is exactly the recipe for learned helplessness. It is a message you can send your brain and, if repeated often enough, will actually change your brain chemistry from healthy resilience to clinical depression. Ask me how I know. No wait, I’ll just tell you: I’ve been there, and I’ve done that. And then I learned a whole lot of stuff about it from some very smart doctors who happened to be experts in that particular field, and I learned to stop doing that, and that’s why I can say been there instead of am still there.
So that’s where you’re right.
I wrote that post because ten years ago, I felt betrayed, and even though it felt absolutely horrible, that turned out to be a useless attitude. So I decided to haul myself up by my bootstraps. I turned the betrayal into anger and the anger into action and the action into a resolution to never let it happen again. I learned that in order to do that, I had to learn to stick my head up. I had to learn to open my mouth. Sure, I’ve spent the last ten years getting smacked on the head and punched in the mouth (figuratively speaking). But I’ve also spent the past ten years watching other people try to get by by keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. And I’ve watched them toil away miserably, choose to stay in bad places because they fear losing their job, and then get laid off with no warning (which is, as you say, a fact of life) and no preparation (which is, as I say, inexcusable).
You and I are, in fact, in violent agreement. I said loyalty in that post, but as I clarified in my followup, what I really meant was trust: Trusting a corporation to take care of you is sick. Why? Because you have no right to your job. Forgoing improving yourself today, in order to help the company succeed today, because you believe the company will reward you for it–or even just be there at all–tomorrow, is foolish.
And the most interesting thing about that foolishness is this: if you forsake that foolishness, and build yourself, suddenly you realize that the job market is absolutely heaving with abundance. At least it is for people who build themselves and invest in themselves and stay at the top of their game. 14% unemployment is only terrifying if you’re at the 15th percentile. If you’re at the 90% percentile, the only way unemployment will catch you is by anonymous actions such as “the numbers didn’t work”. When unemployment is high, employers can afford to pick and choose the very best. And you know what that means? It means if you are on top of your game, you can switch jobs in the middle of a recession just by parking in a different lot.
I’m not trying to brag. I’m not the best developer in the world; some days I wonder if I’m even a good one. My head is full of outdated ideas that have worked in the past and never been reexamined. But I’ve learned how to get things done well enough that I feel confident in my skills, and I’ve learned I can back up my promises–if only because I know what promises I shouldn’t make. I have utterly no fear of unexpected employment. Not because I think it won’t happen to me, but because after I became a freelancer, I had to go through it so many times that I just don’t even think it’s special anymore.
Thank you again for this comment. I really do appreciate it and I hope that, if you don’t think I’m right, you at least think I care enough to reach out to you in good faith.
I’ll close with this thought: there are countless thousands of employers who want–who need–people who dare. People who speak up. People who not only poke their head up, but stick their neck out. Those are my peeps. I seek them out, and they’re everywhere. And they are desperate not just for me, but for hundreds more just like me. There are also countless employers out there who are afraid of people who dare. People who rock the boat. People who upset the balance. Those might be your peeps; I don’t know. There are people who are happy working at organizations like that. I still think they should still be curating their careers, in case someday the “numbers don’t work out”, but I certainly recognize that people can choose to be happy in those places.
I am not one of them.
Between me and that type of employer lies a vast chasm, spanned by a rickety wooden bridge, tinder dry, covered in pitch. Burning it will cut me off from many opportunities, it is true. But when that bridge goes up, it will send up a flare to all the other employers: startups, small companies, innovators–the ones looking for good people who understand and accept the risks and dangers and are willing to take a stand, even if it means cutting themselves off from some people.
I’m not burning a bridge. I’m advertising a self-selection process.
Tell me honestly: If you were me, would you really not light the match?