This op-ed made the papers on 4/5/09 and revised for AARP's Bulletin online on 5/14/09.
|When I received word late last year that my executive position in engineering and support operations at a local biopharmaceutical company was being eliminated as part of a reduction in force, I was understandably disappointed, but moderately optimistic. Since then, I’ve seen the bottom drop out of the job market and the ranks of the Brotherhood of the Vocationally Detached swell to almost unprecedented levels. Mom always told me, “Cheer up, Bob, things could be worse.” So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse. The colonoscopy that I’d been putting off for several years while I was too busy at work revealed early stage cancer.
My purpose in writing this is not to garner sympathy. I’m writing in hopes of a catharsis for myself, and possibly to encourage someone else who might be faced with similar circumstances. So here’s my advice in a nutshell: Learn from the past; deal with the present; and plan for the future. You can’t change the past; you live in the present; and your future will be what it is, but can be guided by how you prepare for it.
With regard to my medical condition, the lesson is a hard one: I should have listened to the expert advice (including my wife’s), and had a colonoscopy five years ago. There’s no certainty that it would have uncovered my problem, but it certainly would have reduced any anxiety about the procedure itself. For those who haven’t had it yet, the prep is not so bad, and the procedure is done while you’re in a blissful state of sleep – the doctor definitely has the worst view. So for the present, I’m dealing with it fairly well - gathering information, aggressively pursuing treatment, and now, announcing it to the world! As for the future, I’ve awakened to my mortality, and am taking the time to organize notes and records so that it won’t be such a chore to figure out where things are or how circumstances should be dealt with whenever my time is up.
The road ahead is not clear yet, but with age and otherwise good health on my side, the prognosis is excellent. Also a comfort, my wife’s medical plan is a good one, so loss of coverage with my job wasn’t a double-whammy. It may be a defense mechanism, but I’m even able to see humor in the situation, although most of it is probably too graphic to recount here. Odd as it may seem, I’m feeling pretty lucky. Usually, this type of cancer isn’t found until it’s further advanced. Ironically, if I was still working, I might have continued to make excuses for not having the procedure until it was too late. As such, I’m offering myself up as somewhat of a poster-boy, although anxious to know what the poster will ultimately look like, especially in light of pending healthcare reform.
With regard to my vocational detachment, the lesson is also a hard one: I had a good run, and my company treated me well, but I focused too hard on the job and didn’t prepare adequately for the inevitable changes that were occurring as the company shifted focus and was sold several times. The present is rife with challenges, but opportunities as well, and I’m reaching out in many directions to find the right mix of both. For the future, the networking I’m doing now (and have neglected in the past), will continue to pay dividends for both me and those in my network.
The current job market is daunting, and with so many layoffs being announced, the competition for relatively few job openings is fierce. The flip side, though, is that many companies are not only downsizing for the sake of reducing costs; the smart ones are learning from the past, and dealing with the present by reorganizing to realign themselves for the future. They’re also realizing that experienced people who have seen ups and downs before can provide an immeasurably valuable perspective to help focus their vision. The opportunities that result are ripening for those of us who understand where we can truly add value to a company as the economy recovers, as it surely will. For those of us whose finances are drowning in the perfect storm of unemployment coupled with tanking retirement investments, adding value is also the best hope for our own economic recovery.
Some would regard these life events as an emotional roller coaster. They’re actually more like the stock market or the current financial crisis – you never know when there’s going to be a rise or fall (opportunity or challenge), but you know something’s going to happen. As an engineer with an MBA, I’ve learned that meeting a challenge or solving a problem requires an understanding of the situation, identification and analysis of alternatives, planning for the chosen solution, implementation of the plan, and follow-up with adjustments when needed. The challenges that I and many others are faced with require a thoughtful and diligent problem-solving process, and the opportunities are there for full recovery for all of us.
Learn from the Past. Deal with the Present. Plan for the Future. And for goodness sake, if you’ve been putting off seeing your doctor, schedule that appointment now!