Six years ago I swiped my Fiat Chrysler Automobiles badge for the last time, walked through the turnstile and extricated my Jeep Wrangler from the lowest level of the employee parking deck, drove home, poured myself a Jack Daniels on the rocks and told my wife I was now her slave for my remaining days.
I don’t think she was all that amused since I owned no particular skills that would benefit her aside from pushing a vacuum or unjustifiably killing spiders. But then again, I thought I could figure out whatever it is she wanted me to do in the future since I made a very nice living jumping into positions outside my comfort zone. I highly recommend it!
Here’s my long-ish story of a life totally enhanced simply by being willing to step outside my safe place—my comfort zone.
We can start with my very first shot at broadcasting. My brother and I used to make up fake radio shows using a music stand as a faux microphone and reading, singing (badly) popular songs using lyric sheets you could buy at the neighborhood candy store or newsstand. It was fun but I never thought of making it a career. Yet.
That changed when I entered college as a speech and theater major because I thought I could be an actor. Before I could audition for even one production, a month after arriving as a freshman, an upper classman decided I was funny and dragged me down to the campus radio station. He told the guy on the air at the time, “put my friend on the radio.”
He did. Gave me my own show. I was awful. I got better though and made the life-changing decision to pursue a broadcast career. That was pivot number one.
I worked in local radio in Central New York for a few years but that was a dead end. Pivot number two coming up. My wife and I decided we wanted to earn our Masters degrees, she in library science, me, in journalism because I loved news and to write and was better at it than making bad jokes as the goofy morning guy on the radio.
We planned well, quit our jobs, sold a lot of our stuff, put the rest on a moving van and hauled out to Tucson, Arizona to attend the University of Arizona and start new lives.
Single best move ever. She went to school full time, I went part-time and landed a radio job after a couple of days. It wasn’t because of my “talent.” The program director was intrigued that I typed my resume’ in blue instead of black.
“Who types in blue?” he asked. “I figured you had to be fun and different.” Whatever you say. I did morning drive until the program director quit and his replacement wanted my slot. I stayed for two more weeks.
Pivot number three. While I was working at the radio station I saw a notice on the wall in the UA journalism building the local ABC affiliate was looking for a weekend weather guy. Ha. Never did the weather, knew nothing about the weather, wanted the job.
I called the number, the news director granted me an audition and I took a couple of weather books from the library, cramming like it was finals to get just enough weather stuff in my head so I could fake it.
Worked out. Got the job. Now I was a weather guy…but I really wanted to be a reporter, so the assignment editor tossed some stories my way. One night the news director called me up and told me to meet him at a neighborhood bar in an hour. Over a couple of Olympias he told me one reporter quit and another got fired, so if I wanted a reporter job it was mine. I accepted without taking another sip.
It just gets better. About 18 months later our newscast producer with 20 years experience suddenly jumped to a station in Phoenix. News director calls me in. I’ll give you a six grand raise to ditch reporting and start producing.
I don’t know why he chose me but when you’re in the 82nd market six grand is a treasure so I took it. First night producing, President Reagan gets shot. The show didn’t crash. I didn’t get fired.
Six months later I get a tip CNN was starting a new network, what eventually became Headline News. Called the number I was given, flown out to Atlanta and got the job. They didn’t know I had only been producing newscasts for a few months but the boss liked my resume’ reel so I guess I fooled ’em.
Suddenly this green kid just in from Tucson is tossed into a 24-hour network newsroom tasked with producing big time broadcasts under massive time pressures and constantly changing conditions. Out of my comfort zone into an inferno. Didn’t get burned. Was promoted to the main network.
I still aspired to be a full-time reporter. Again, a sympathetic assignment editor came through, giving me stories during weekends. Bosses were happy. Gave me a full-time correspondent job out of the Southeast bureau based in Atlanta.
Ready for more? One day I see the anchor schedule on the bulletin board. I always looked there because I still produced occasionally and wanted to know who was anchoring my shows. Ha! I see my own name up there for the late night, west coast show. Well..I’d never anchored a full newscast in my life and now I was going to solo anchor a network show that included a live interview and audience call-ins.
So…okay! This comfort zone thing just seemed to have no boundaries. I guess I did well enough that they kept scheduling me to anchor. Until things changed again.
Not only did I prefer reporting but I aspired to be a bureau chief. I got wind the Detroit Bureau chief was being transferred overseas to Rome. I applied. Got it. Great job because you were both the BC and the correspondent and the team there was terrific.
All well and fine for the next 12 years until the disastrous merger between CNN and AOL. They ended up closing some small bureaus, including Detroit, laying off about 1,000 people. I was one of them.
Shit. Local stations wouldn’t hire me because I’m not really Mr. TV in terms of looks or flamboyance. Once local news director told me “not looking for journalists. We want street characters like you see in New York.”
Major comfort zone move. At the least I knew I was a good reporter and could write. Eternal thanks to Ed Lapham at Automotive News who made me a deal. He’d give me some stories to write on a freelance basis. If I passed the test, when a job opened I’d have a strong shot at it. Deal. Wrote a few, they like the stories, but there weren’t any available jobs.
Fair enough. The Associated Press chief of Detroit Bureau Charles Hill saw my resume on JournalismJobs.com. He needed a national auto write. We had a couple of lunches where he tried to figure out my real story and decide if an old TV guy could write for the wire. I didn’t enough know if I could write for the wire but boy, what an honor it would be to write for the AP knowing its reputation and exposure my stuff would get. I took a writing test and that, plus my performance at the lunches convinced him TV boy could do it.
Compared to a TV reporter package a wire story seems VERY LONG. So many words! I was allowed to use bigger ones too! But bless my editor Randy Berris who was extremely patient and instructive and turned me into a wire reporter.
Must have been OK. About 14 months after I started at the AP the auto editor at The Detroit News approached me about taking over the General Motors beat. I never worked at a newspaper but I was intrigued with the opportunity. During my interview lunch I mentioned that to the assistant managing editor. He said, “you write great stories. I’ll worry about how it actually gets into the paper.”
Suddenly I was a newspaper guy. I loved it—the opportunity to take a few days to work on and craft stories and build relationships. But three years later my comfort zone was challenged again.
I was approached about managing a new blog Jason Vines, the head of communications at then DaimlerChrysler was starting. This was 2005. Blogging was still fairly news and the term “social media” wasn’t yet in common use. Blackberrys were considered state of the art. Smartphones weren’t yet born.
Sure, why not? It was a big decision to jump from news to PR but this seemed like a chance to get in on an emerging communications mode and I had thought for a long time about working at one of the automakers I had covered for so many years.
I not only got to launch and manage Jason’s blog which was unlike any other. It wasn’t open to just anyone. He wanted to admit only “working media” so he could use the blog to comment on published stories and plant ideas for new stories. It was pretty controversial.
Of course I had zero experience blogging but again, out of the comfort zone and into the fire of cutting edge corporate communications. A year later things went so well, a new team was created around me because they never had anyone on staff before who had worked in virtually every corner of the media world. The new team was DaimlerChrysler Electronic Media. We later updated the name to Digital Media.
Our new team would handle broadcast media relations, the media website and social media. We soon added video production and pioneered the concept of “corporate journalism” creating owned media telling the company’s stories in a journalistic style.
I loved my team not only because they were good humans and talented and creative people but they were always game to try something new.
It’s with them I spent my final 11 years in the full-time workforce before retiring at the end of July, 2016.
Yes, this was a long story but one I hope convinces you to have the confidence in yourself and your skills to have the courage to jump out of your comfort zone in the event your current job suddenly ends or an unexpected opportunity presents itself that had never before been under consideration for you.
It can be scary to find yourself in a new work environment, expected to complete tasks with which you have scant, or no, experience, alongside co-workers with habits and sensitivities very different from those of your former colleagues.
But it’s also the most wonderful feeling in the world to discover your core skills and experiences are absolutely transferable opening doors to opportunities that will enrich your life and frankly, your finances.
Oh sure, I officially “retired” six years ago, but I can’t conceive of not continuing to create and learn, which is why I’ve taken on part-time freelance positions writing autos and mobility stories for Forbes.com and as an integrated media consultant for Franco.
I guess you could say working out of my comfort zone is completely within my comfort zone because the one thing I’m most comfortable with is growing. Try it. Yup..it’s a bit of a tightrope but you don’t need a net, because the only thing to fear is by not taking a risk you may miss the best opportunity you didn’t know you would love.
It’s Father’s Day and Juneteenth. That unusual confluence has me thinking about a professional underground railroad of sorts that kept my father, mostly, employed, and my family with a very modest roof over its head and a lifelong appreciation for opportunity, kindness and in today’s terms, a damn good network.
My father grew up without, as he would say, two nickels to rub together. After serving in World War II where he was a decorated hero for capturing a house of 32 Germans, he used his aptitude for math to become a draftsman, then chemical engineer. He soon became well-known in the trade in the New York City area but that didn’t mean job security.
For most of his life he didn’t work directly for a firm, but rather as what was known back then as a “job shopper,” basically a freelancer. Competition was fierce for those jobs which paid well but last only as long as the project. The key was to land the next gig before the current one ended. To wait too long meant missing out on a limited number of openings.
Knowing that, my father and his most trusted fellow job shoppers formed their own secret network decades before the internet and sites like Linkedin changed the game.
We knew a job was near its end when our phone would start ringing more than usual in the evening and the calls were for my dad or he grabbed the phone and started dialing. The conversations were short and serious. The jobshopper network was deep in its mission, trading information on when projects were believed to be ending and where the next ones were starting and staffing.
It was a tenuous way to make a living. Sometimes the network’s information was a little off the mark or too late and spots were filled. While it served my father fairly well over the years, there was a time it didn’t and he was forced to sell air conditioners at Sears for a short time to earn a paycheck.
Oh, while on an engineering job, my father made good money but we never moved from our 440 square foot garden apartment in Queens. We’d go out to Long Island and march through model homes, my mother would fall in love with some and hopes were high we’d finally move to an actual “private house” as we called them back then.
Didn’t happen. My father was spooked by the poverty in which he grew up and the whole Sears salesman experience and feared another period when engineering jobs dried up, making it too risky to get tied up in a 30-year mortgage.
So we stayed in that apartment with its balky heat and crappy circuits that died when we attempted to use window air conditioning units in the heat of summer.
But the jobshoppers network kept at its work. My father never actually had a lull again, working steadily until he finally landed an on-roll position at an engineering firm for the final decade of his career, after a tip from the network.
Only after he retired and my brother and I were gone and married did he feel confident enough to buy a home in Florida where he and my mother enjoyed the final 20 years of their lives. In the end the jobshoppers network completed its mission.
So here’s the epilogue.
While I was in college and seeking summer employment the network showed it never forgot a favor. One of the members named Colin who had opened his own engineering firm called my father. He said, “Dick, you helped me all through my career and I want to repay you in some way. I know you’re not looking but maybe one of your sons needs a summer job. I have an opening for a clerk.”
It was a great job. Paid well and I learned a ton about how the piping in a nuclear power plant is created and how the plants operated.
The next summer I was in need of a job again. I went calling on Colin to see if he could use some help. At first he frowned, saying he now had a full time clerk and I thanked him for his time. Before I could leave his office he called after me.
“Ed! You start Monday! There’s plenty of work for two clerks and you did a good job last summer…besides, it’s the least I can do after all your dad did for me.”
A tribute to my wonderful dad…and his network. Always appreciate your father. Always cultivate your network.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are always a little tough because I lost both my parents nine months apart back in 2007. But what gets me through it many times is the fact they were both brilliant and hilarious and taught me many of life’s lessons. Since this will also show up on Linkedin, I thought I’d relate some of the valuable lessons they imparted to me about getting along at work. Hint: they vary between serious and, well, satisfyingly snarky.
From my Father: If your boss requires everyone to wear a tie, do so, but feign shortness of breath a few times a day to let the boss know the health risks involved in working all day with your neck in a noose.
From my Mother: Always look your best on the job. She always did, even when she volunteered as a lunch lady in our grade school. The payoff was an 8-year old gushing, “Mrs. Garsten, you look beautiful today!” The other lunch ladies would suddenly find an excuse to refill the napkin dispensers.
From my Father: If someone acts like a jerk, try to ignore it. But if they persist, you have to act. My father was a chemical engineer. Back in his day engineers worked in rows of drafting tables, and so, in close quarters with each other. He didn’t like it when one of the other engineers was disruptive, so he learned how to shoot rubberbands accurately at long distances. Many a workplace jerk suffered a welt from my father scoring a bullseye on the back of his head. Indeed, my father passed on to my brother and me his secret which I have used sparingly, but effectively, especially in movie theaters to neutralize a loudmouth in the audience.
From my Mother: Don’t be lazy! Early in her career my mother was a buyer at a big New York City department store. A high-pressure job. She despaired when she saw a co-worker just sitting around yakking or otherwise goldbricking. When I started my work life at age 9 at the local laundramat, I hated folding people’s underwear and other unmentionables, but my mother scolded me about being lazy and that no matter what a job entailed, you needed to do it because that’s why you were being paid. Considering I earned exactly one shiny quarter each day I worked, this turned out to be a motivational challenge, but the lesson always stayed with me because I worked in broadcasting which has roughly the same pay scale.
From my Father: If your boss is a moron…DO NOT SAY SO to his or her face. I worked for several morons over the years and never broke my father’s rule. Instead, I ignored idiotic directives and went about my business in what I thought were more sensible directions. The corollary to the rule was: don’t let the boss take credit for your good ideas! This may seem counter-intuitive to some who believe in the concept of “managing up.” However, if everyone else in the office knows the boss is a moron, they also know he/she could never have come up with a good idea and would know the boss attempted to steal the credit and you would look like a hapless doormat.
From my Mother: One of my mother’s favorite phrases when discussing a person attempting to stick you with a thankless task was “tell him to go shit in his hat!” She used an endearing baby voice when saying this, which took away some of its sting but still made its point. The one time I tried that my target kinda stammered before saying, “Um, I’m not wearing a hat.” That caused me to do a quick pivot to “Right. Then go fuck yourself.” The twin burns impressed my co-workers which came in handy when I was made the boss. But lesson learned from my mother, don’t let someone stick you with a crappy task.
From my Father: If you become the boss don’t be a wimp. He had been a boss on several jobs and his underlings feared him. In fact, when I worked a summer job at an engineering firm where many of my father’s former underlings were employed, I could hear whispers of “Be nice to the kid. He’s Dick Garsten’s kid and you don’t want him ratting on you.” At the same time, my father was much beloved because he was also respected for fairness, sense of humor and how much he truly cared for those who worked for him. I was never a tough guy boss. Just not in me, but I did use my father’s lessons in empathy and respect to win loyalty during the times I led a job or department.
I don’t know how either of my parents would have reacted to the social distancing we’re stuck with during his pandemic because they were both social, fun people who enjoyed close, interpersonal relationships. Besides, if someone acts like a jerk on Zoom, it’s damn near impossible to hit him with a rubber band.
Before I sort of retired five years ago I had a great career in news and PR and am enjoying a scaled back version of both in my semi-retirement. I have my parents to thank for setting great examples of how to survive and thrive in the workplace through a combination of hard work, humor and a little bit of recalcitrance.
I miss ’em both every day and honor them regularly by eschewing the wearing of ties and silently instructing those who deserve it to go shit in their hats.
Been reconsidering the hashtag #wfh—“work from home” and it spark something my late, great father always told my brother and I when we were kids. “Whatever you choose as an occupation, don’t choose a job where every morning the first thing you say to yourself is, ‘oh shit.’”
Both of us heeded that admonition and ended up in careers for which we have passion, skills, satisfaction and enjoyment. Since retiring, sort of, four years ago, I’ve been doing a few freelance gigs, for the most part, yep, #WFH. Now, during the pandemic, it’s all #WFH.
But here’s the deal. #WFH isn’t enough. I’m a firm believer those three letters should mean more than simply working from home. You see, if you’re just working from home, it’s just work. So permit me to offer some additional suggestions—ones I’ve been practicing no matter where I happen to earn a paycheck.
Work From the Heart: Love what you do and everything seems a little easier. The results will be a lot more satisfying too.
Work From the Head: That softball size pile of gray matter in your noggin’ isn’t technically a muscle, but if you don’t exercise it the results are the same—it just doesn’t function as well. So allow yourself the luxury of giving your brain a challenging workout and watch the great ideas, more logical reasoning and personal enthusiasm take you into the zone where it all makes sense.
Work From Humor: Sure, we are all faced with tasks and situations…and pain in the ass co-workers that can stand in the way of a great workday. Filter it out with a little bit of humor to neutralize the tough stuff. A good laugh, even to yourself, is good for your heart and mind. Your work will turn out better too.
Work From Handling It: You’ve got this. You’re in this job because you have the skills and experience to do it. Regarding of where you are physically, you should go into every task with the confidence you’ll succeed.
Work From Hell Yes!: I once had a boss with a thick accent and quite often had no idea what he was asking me to do. At first I’d say “could you please repeat that?” Well, that pissed him off. So I got in the habit of always saying “sure!” Then I’d run the conversation over and over again in my mind to see if I could divine exactly what my orders were. More often that not, my positive attitude carried the day and the boss was satisfied. Don’t get me wrong. It makes sense to be clear on your marching orders, but sometime just telling yourself “yes!” puts the rest of your mind and body in the right place to do succeed.
So there you go. #WFH all you like. It doesn’t just have to only mean “work from home.” That just happens to be where you’re sitting. Working from different mental and physical venues can keep you from waking every morning, thinking “oh shit.” In fact, you’ll feel better traveling that mental journey from “H” and back.
This is me in my closet with the dozen suits and sport coats that helped create “the uniform.” Remember, all the way back to February or January, before the pandemic hit and people still schlepped into the office wearing this stuff? Since semi-retiring four years ago, my uniform pretty much has been put out to pasture except to infrequent forays to business meetings or funerals.
Oh, they served me well over the years. Especially the one Brooks Brothers suit I splurged on when I was still a TV reporter. It pains me that BB, like other men’s clothing chains is going bankrupt, because, in the era of Zoom meetings, we not only don’t wear the uniform, we barely wear pants.
I have a lot of ties. See them whipping around on the little merry go round in my closet? Some, I’ve never actually worn. They are instruments of torture but pre-pandemic, they represented an often-compulsory punishment to our respiratory system in the name of adhering to a “dress code.”
Ah…the dress code. I also kinda got that wrong. When I joined CNN in 1981 I had come from a TV station in Tucson, Arizona where I was producing newscasts. Since I wasn’t on the air, I could dress like shit. I was joining CNN in a similar capacity and assumed “dressing like shit” was the dress code there too. On my first day I showed up in corduroy jeans, a buttoned-down sport shirt and scruffy shoes. I made an instant first impression because everyone else was wearing “the uniform.” My boss, who wore his own version of the uniform, featuring a crumpled white shirt and suspenders, kindly took me aside, smiled and informed me “we kinda have a dress code here.” Would have been nice to know in advance but with most of my wardrobe back in Arizona, I had to do some fast shopping.
Many years later it worked the other way. When I made the jump from journalism to corporate communications at then DaimlerChrysler, which is now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, I show up the first day in a pressed blue suit, white shirt and red tie. Damn! Missed again! Sure, there were a couple of guys with a shirt and tie and sport coat hanging on hooks, but I looked more like one of the German taskmasters looking to take over the company.
A couple of years later, the company was sold by the Germans to a U.S. capital management slumlord company from New York City. They all dressed up while they fired a large percentage of our staff as the company headed towards bankruptcy. I suppose it’s appropriate for the executioner to at least show some respect for the condemned by throwing on a decent tie.
It all changed again when the late, great Sergio Marchionne and Fiat took over the company. He never work a tie and rarely a jacket. His uniform was a black sweater or golf shirt, depending on the season and dark pants. He once explained it made his busy life less complicated by not burdening himself with daily wardrobe decisions.
From then on we felt we had permission to dress down a bit, but didn’t take it to extremes. I may not have always worn a tie but at least had a jacket handy in case we had an important meeting. I’d wear it into the office, then immediately take it off and hang it up until it was needed, or it was time to go home. You could always tell who the visitors were in the building–they were the suckers who were wearing suits and ties.
In my semi-retirement I’ve been working from home since I walked out of FCA for the last time on July 28, 2016, so there was basically no adjustment for me when the pandemic hit. I don’t mind Zoom or Google Meet meetings, and the only concession I make sartorially is wearing a decent shirt, but don’t ask me what’s covering my lower regions. To put your mind at ease, it’s, um, something, but I assure you it’s not the pants from that abandoned Brooks Brothers suit, nor is it a pair of pressed Dockers. It’s just something, okay?
Once this is all over and we’re compelled to meet in person again, I’m not so sure many folks will revert to a version of the uniform, having gotten used to being dressed more comfortably, and probably less expensively.
I do feel sorry for the abandonment my old work wardrobe must be experiencing. That’s why every once in awhile, I’ll go to the section of my closet where they suits and jackets and pants are hanging, thank ’em for their service, then hit the switch, watch the ties go round and round and round and round, hoping those now-useless instruments of torture are starting to feel a little nauseous. Payback is sweet.
It’s been almost four years since I walked out of my last full-time job a free man into what’s become semi-retirement and a life of doing what little work I do, in my home office.
I want to warn many of you who are now working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic…you may not want to return to your offices.
Before I retired in 2016 I worked from my own glass-enclosed, private office. I didn’t like it, but in the idiotic way some corporations operate, your workspace reflected your “band level” AKA, if you’re standing in the payroll/title hierarchy. When I got promoted to a level that “awarded” you an enclosed office, I asked to remain in my spacious, but open, workspace because such perks seemed stupid and also cut me off from my team. I asked if I had committed a felony, warranting my confinement to a 12×12 cell. HR said if I didn’t move it would “send the wrong message.” Company politics being what it is, several people were actually jealous of me and said nasty stuff about me, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I spent my final three years before retirement in that office and hated every minute of it. So I would constantly get up, walk around, touch base in person with my teammates. When another glass office denizen would pop by congratulating me on “finally getting the glass office you deserve,” I thanked them and expressed my anticipation of one day being paroled, which in all their shallowness, they did not understand at all.
Now that I’ve been working from home in my very comfortable workspace..I don’t call it an office..I get more done in a day than what I accomplished in my old office in a week. For one, there are none of the dreaded “got a minute” drop-bys. You know how that goes. “Got a minute,” really means I’m bored and I’d like to waste as much of your time as possible to avoid going back to my desk and doing actual work. Many minutes later your plan for the day is blown so you may as well get up, get some coffee, take a walk, or retreat into a zen state in order to purge yourself of thoughts of committing that felony.
One day, in answer to “got a minute?” I replied that I didn’t. No problem. The annoying inquirer had his rejoinder locked and loaded. “Oh..it’ll take less than that!” Bullshit. Sigh.
Other aspects of the office life I don’t miss are random comments you can’t unhear even with a closed door. Examples include: “This fuckin’ printer doesn’t work!,” “This coffee tastes like burnt jerky!” “Bob sucks!” “Just like you,” “The boss has his head up his ass,” “I wish 5 o’clock came at noon.”
Then there are the endless meeting invites. When you work remotely, you can call in, put your phone on mute, do other, more productive, things while someone blathers and then chime in when appropriate or called upon. You can also make faces as an immature, but satisfying demonstration of your opinion of the proceedings.
I do enjoy popping into the office about once a week for an hour or two at one of my fun freelance gigs. Great people who are fun, smart and talented. We see enough of each other to cement our bonds, I appreciate the chance to get to know the staff on a more personal level and they quickly understand I have what I would describe as a “very limited” wardrobe with some items probably older than many of my colleagues.
Then I hit the freeway for the 25 mile drive home, and retreat to my cozy, personal workspace where the only ambient conversations I may hear are “Dinner’s burning!” or “The Jones’s schnauzer shit on our lawn again!” It’s so suburban. So natural. Then I get back to work, unimpeded, un-interrupted until my wife ventures down to my subterranean refuge, stops at the door and asks, “got a minute?”
I’m retired, but I’m not totally retired. I’m retired from full-time work, but I do some freelance things which means I’m not interested in climbing the corporate ladder and I certainly don’t care about a better title or office with its own bathroom. So it makes things a little tricky when I’m at an event that includes time for networking.
Oh….don’t get me wrong. It’s not difficult for me. I’m always happy to make new friends. I don’t even need benefits. Plus, networking has served me very well in finding freelance gigs. But it sure sucks for the non-retirees who made the mistake of striking up a conversation in hopes they’ve made a new connection that will result in new business or the inside track on a better job.
Take, for instance, an event I attended this week. The networking breakfast lasted an entire hour before the main presentation. I grab some food and coffee and camp out at a high-top table with three seats. I’m a sitting network duck. A guy aims his two-blue lasers at me, pivots to the empty seats and gamely asks, “these seats taken?” Me being a wiseass reply, “only by a layer of dust, but I’m sure it won’t mind if you sit on it.” The guy is intrigued and sits anyway. Oh boy, I’m guess I’m gonna get networked. We introduce ourselves and he stops and gives me an appraising look before asking the inevitable question, “So what is it you do?”
My answer always stops ‘em at square one. “Oh, whatever the hell I want,” I reply with a smile. “I’m semi-retired!” His face drops as he thinks to himself, “oh shit, now I’m stuck with a guy who’s useless to me and my career until I can find a graceful way to escape.” I know this and amuse myself with that thought.
He seems like a nice guy so I get a little serious and explain that I freelance as a journalist and also work as a consultant for a PR firm. The guy looks a little happier although it’s obvious we have no common ground.
I, of course, know networking protocol, and make the required inquiry as to his line of work. “I’m in real estate. Commercial real estate.” An excellent profession. Now, hoping to justify wasting 10 minutes with me he gives it his best shot, asking me, “so where’s your office?” I love this one because I get to shatter his last hope by responding, “My basement. It’s awesome. Has a window that looks out into the woods, a microwave and a bathroom four steps away.”
Poor guy is ready to eject from his stool and uses the excuse I certainly have used many times. “Well, I’m gonna go get some more coffee.” He gets up and thinks he’s done with me. I decide to give him a scare. “Hey, me too!” But I’m not a complete jerk. I hang back and let him make his escape.
I actually do refill my coffee, grab a pastry and return to my high-top perch. I’m on reset. Here comes another one. “Hi! My name is Ralph, what do you do?” I go through the act, thoroughly disappointing him and this time it takes only 3 minutes before we both decide we need refills.
But this being a sort of game for me, I know I won’t always win. I see an old friend and we start to catch up. A woman who knew my friend pops by and I’m introduced. I have a feeling about this one. She’s looks really confident, and happy… and is carrying an empty coffee cup. “Oh, what do you do?” she asks, half expecting me to bullshit her with a fancy executive title. But being honest, as well as a wiseass I give her my stock reply. “Whatever I want. I’m semi-retired.” She half smiles, gives me a knowing look and says, with a conspiratorial air, “Me too. But the coffee is free and I need a refill.” “I do too!” I gratefully respond. “Damn right,” she says.
I’m not a violent person, but if you tell me to do one thing in particular, I may become surly, to the point of hauling off and throwing inappropriate punctuation at you. That one thing is so obnoxious I immediately forget how much I hate “The Ranch” and instead, visualize you as Ashton Kutcher.
What could be so offensive as to cause me to lose all sense of comity and turn to thoughts as dark as wondering if the late Mister Rogers ever wore that cardigan without a shirt?
I bet you’re with me now. You’ve been there too. If you haven’t, you’ll soon understand and immediately empathize. Yes..you guessed it. Someone at work has looked you squarely in the eye, and with all seriousness, demanded you stay in your swim lane!
The very first time I heard that idiotic term was during my time working for a car company. Someone from another department complained to me that a member of my team was not staying in his swim lane and I needed to do something about it. Realizing I had just heard a grown person say something inane I asked exactly what the problem was? I was very sure the member of my team was an excellent swimmer and regardless of stroke, never strayed beyond his lane. Of course I knew what she meant but I wanted to make it known I thought what she had just said was the daily double of dumb: arrogant and stupid.
Not having much of a sense of humor she went on and on about my excellent team member not sticking to his job description to the letter in his quest to use his imagination and initiative to expand and improve his portfolio to the betterment of the company. What was really going on was this person actually felt threatened and sought to quash the efforts of someone who might earn kudos and maybe even a promotion for being an excellent employee.
Me being a good teammate, I promised I would do something immediately. I called the apparently errant swimmer into my office and related my conversation with the moron upstairs. I told him to learn the backstroke so he couldn’t see where he was going in an effort to further stray from him swim lane. I left him with the firm directive to continue to be as creative and imaginative as possible, within reason. You don’t want someone straying willy nilly into someone else’s area, but you also don’t want to kill an employee’s creativity, drive or enthusiasm.
Just keep up the communication so you know what your folks are up to and step in if you think it’s not merely a swim lane infraction but a dive into a completely new pool. Who knows? That idea may be an opportunity to work with the person or team who may otherwise feel aggrieved and, if successful, you both win.
But just blatantly ordering someone to stay in their swim lane represents the depths of paranoia, haughtiness and pathetic power play. You tell me that and I’ll not only dunk your ass, I’ll pee in your pool.
I just can’t seem to do this correctly. Three years this week I walked out of my last full-time job, took a breath of free air as I exited the Fiat Chrysler Automobile headquarters tower and looked ahead to a well-earned retirement filled with doing whatever the hell I wanted to do…and whatever my wife wants me to do.
That lasted three months. First Automotive News and said they could use someone with my network (CNN) news experience on a part-time basis to assist with their video operation. Fun while it lasted. It lasted a year and 10 months. Was only a max of 29 hours a week and I rarely put in that many. Perfectly fine balance of a little work, a lot of spare time.
About a year ago that job ended, which was fine. I mentioned it on Linkedin and within a day or three, I was offered two more part-time gigs–as a consultant at Franco PR and as a contributor at Forbes.com. Both great organizations. Both fun positions and both as freelancers, which was important. No desire to get sucked into a corporate bureaucracy again matched with a strong desire to keep using my skills in the service of respected companies.
A couple of months ago, one of my hockey buddies asked if I was open to a little freelance writing for his company that’s building a website for a client. Oh, what the hell. That sounded like fun too. Add that one to my roster of retirement recreations.
If you’re keeping score, my “retirement” is now up to three gigs. They’re all fun and rewarding and then out of nowhere I received an email from someone at Forbes that I’ve been promoted from “contributor” to “Senior contributor.” She said it was a reward for doing good work. Well, that made me smile, because there’s so much ageism in the workplace today, so it was a nice feeling to think even as I’m closer to 70 than 60 someone, I’m sure much younger, thinks an ol’ scribe like me still has something to offer and it’s pretty decent. It’s that sort of small gesture that gives you the confidence you haven’t lost too many steps, and in fact, in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve picked up the pace since I’m now working for myself and because I want to, and thankfully, not need to.
I’ve been very lucky in my work life as a journalist and communications executive working for mainly large, respected companies and never feeling what I was doing was actually work, but rather very rewarding fun.
It’s no wonder, then, I can’t seem to totally retire. And besides…if I keep working, even just a little, maybe I’ll earn another promotion! Heh..maybe I AM doing retirement right!.
In a couple of weeks I’ll celebrate two years into my retirement and just in time for that anniversary I’ve been faced with a little change. Three months after I walked out of my full-time job for the last time in 2016, I began a part-time position at Automotive News in their video news department. They came to me looking for someone with many years of network TV news experience to give them a hand.
On Monday, that came to an end with a morning phone call from my boss and I wasn’t surprised since there really wasn’t much for me to do there anymore. It was fun while it lasted and I have to admit, I did feel bad to see the job end because it was a nice little glidepath between working fulltime and being totally retired. My livelihood certainly depend on this job..I planned well for retirement…but it certainly did wonders for my self-esteem and mental health. But not my diet. With the office a block from Detroit’s Eastern Market and all of its food emporiums, one never faced a work day hungry.
I posted this change on Linkedin and Twitter and the response was heartwarming, supportive but not surprising….because I’ve always had faith in my network of friends, associates, colleagues and folks I’ve been in contact with over the years. Still, I received an unbelievable number of messages and comments consoling me, promising to keep eyes and ears out for any opportunities, complimenting me on my skills and predicting I wouldn’t “be on the bench” very long. I heard from people with whom I hadn’t had any direct contact in ages but still, they were kind enough to take the time out of their days to buck me up or simply write something supportive. People who do that are quality people. They’re people who know the shoe may be on their foot one day. I hope it never happens, but if it does I will reciprocate the support.
In this world where it’s so easy to tear down people, spew negativity, and show selfishness we need to take care of each other. Even if it’s a quick line, post, text, email or..yes..a call.
No..the loss of my little part-time job was not cataclysmic at this stage in my life, but my network simply took it as an unfortunate setback in my life and these wonderful people knew I might be feeling badly and need a few kind words.
Retirement? From the fulltime rat race? Yes. But we must never retire from the fulltime effort to take care of each other.