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The Big F

At 50, I was fired. It was awful. I lived. Learning to embrace failure in a city fueled by success.

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The year I turned 50 I was fired from a job. I hadn’t been doing well in the job. I didn’t have my heart in it, and it showed. I wasn’t making a significant contribution. I was superfluous. It was just a matter of time.

Anxious about my performance, I had already gone to see my boss once. “I don’t feel encouraged,” I said to him. “I’m not invited to meetings, I’m not given assignments.” He was new to the job; I had flourished under the previous boss, who had hired me and given me a lot of responsibility.

My new boss was gracious but perfunctory. “You work here, you belong here. There’s all kinds of stuff for you to do, but you’re the one who has to make it work.” He called out to his secretary. He was awaiting a report and wanted to know if it had arrived. “Stop worrying,” he said and rose from his chair to see me out.

Three months later, I got a call from his secretary asking if I could come in to see him the following week: Thursday at three o’clock.

Why had he summoned me? It was a call I’d been waiting for without quite knowing it. But when his secretary called, my stomach knotted up. My mind became strangely blank.

The days passed slowly. I could think of nothing else. Endless scenarios played themselves out in my head as I went about my work. He was going to propose that I take on a special assignment. He was going to ask for advice on some matter. But I knew what it was about. You always know. I got to his office at ten of three and sat down in the waiting area. I picked up a three-week-old issue of Newsweek and leafed through it without comprehending—something about the dangers of high cholesterol. I glanced at my watch every minute, sometimes twice a minute.

The secretary was young, in her early twenties. She sat at her desk talking on the phone in a low voice, her hand cupped over her mouth so that I couldn’t hear. Was she talking about me? At two minutes after three, my boss came out of his office, shook my hand, and invited me in.

It was a nice corner office, with slatted wood blinds over the windows, mahogany bookshelves, a table beside the desk piled high with magazines. The furniture was sleek but comfortable—white fabric everywhere—and the room had a casual, unpretentious air about it, more like a college dorm than an executive’s office. The books on the shelves weren’t for show; they were the books of a person who read books. The covers were scuffed; the lettering was faded. The newspapers scattered about on couches and tables and chairs looked as if they’d been gone through that morning. Clearly, work—intellectual work—got done here.

My boss motioned me toward a chair and sat down on a couch across from me. He had on khakis and a striped blue-and-white shirt open at the neck. I’d hardly ever seen him in a tie; he was confident, at ease with himself. This wasn’t a corporation and he wasn’t an executive, his dress-down style was meant to communicate. It was a place where creative, interesting people worked. Hierarchies didn’t matter. He’d never been a manager himself until he was tapped for the job; he’d been one of us, and the open-necked shirt made the statement that he was still one of us.

He was a handsome man, tall, vigorous, with tousled black hair. He was a full decade younger than me. (Nearly everyone I worked for was younger than me in those days.) He had distinguished himself on the other side of the desk, and this was a self-enclosed, intimate fiefdom. It was natural for management to be reluctant to “go outside” when the time came to recruit a new leader. Now he was management himself. He didn’t sit around like the rest of us, waiting for the boss’s attention: He was the boss.

What’s the protocol for getting fired? Leap up and storm out? Burst into tears? Be mature and try to help?

He seemed uneasy. “I don’t want to drag this out,” he said. “I’m not going to renew your contract.” We didn’t have actual “jobs”—we had renewable contracts, usually by the year, and no benefits. But the fact remained: I was being fired.

He looked at me. I looked at him. “I can’t afford it,” he went on, brusque and efficient—or at any rate, trying to be brusque and efficient. This was all new territory. “I need to bring in people who can do the work.” He reached down and grabbed a can of Diet Coke off the table.

What was I supposed to say? What was the protocol for getting fired? Did you leap up and storm out of the room? Burst into tears? Be mature and help him out? I quite understand. I’m sure this must be tough for you. Don’t give it another thought. In some region of my mind, I thought he was just floating an idea; it was hypothetical. I was welcome to stay on if I wanted.

Something was happening to me that had happened to so many people before me. I was undergoing a nearly archetypal experience—like watching a child being born or losing a parent. This was one of the events that life threw your way. My chest tightened; I could hardly breathe. The small clock on the desk said five after three. Was it possible that I had been here for only three minutes? It felt like I’d been sitting in this chair for hours. I noticed that the cuff of my shirt was frayed.

The room had the eerie silence that comes over the landscape just before a storm, when the dark clouds are gathering in the distance: Birds cease their chirping, and everything is still. I could hear the bleat of traffic down below on 42nd Street, trucks grinding their gears at a light. I felt alert, aware of the panic clawing at my throat.

It was time to get up and leave, but I wasn’t ready. I thought of Willy Loman refusing to leave his boss’s office the day he’s fired. You’ll have to excuse me, Willy, I gotta see some people. Pull yourself together.

“Why can’t you just put me on a reduced contract?” I pleaded.

“Because I can’t afford it. I’m on a tight budget.” His predecessor had spent a fortune throwing lavish parties, hiring expensive consultants, handing out lucrative contracts. Our expense accounts had been limitless. It was a different company now. The new boss had been instructed by the owner to enforce a measure of fiscal discipline.

“But what am I going to do? I’ve got a family to support.”

“That’s why I asked you in now,” he said. His face softened. This was no fun for him either. “Your contract isn’t up for three months. That should give you time to find something.” He stood up. The interview was over.


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