by David Swenton, MBA (likely from a better school than most of our readers will ever get into, so listen up)
Full-time MBA programs end precisely at the point when the stops and starts of two years of networking and casual alcoholism have your mind and body on the verge of collapse. Many, with lucrative jobs offers often signed a year prior to graduation, revel in these last throes of freedom, blocking out the creeping re-emergence of adult responsibilities and the dark day those first student loan payments come due. Two years of flexibility, spontaneity, luxurious international travel, and age-inappropriate decisions permitted only in this bubble, all for the low price of $150K (travel not included). As most slog their way back into the crushing world of meetings and office politics to pay the bills, we tell ourselves, “This is why we furthered our education. For THIS.” The drawbacks of your average white collar office job have been covered in film, television, and writing for decades and even underpin the existence of this very website. But what happens when you fall from the promised path of escalating responsibilities, titles, and salaries? What happens when not only do you no longer want THIS, but it no longer wants you? I met my ceiling this past Fall. After months of corrective “performance improvement plans” and carefully-worded (legally-compliant) grilling around my “organizational fit,” I was finally let go in November.
While I do subscribe to the notion of “what got you here, won’t get you there,” the company’s decision was still perplexing. I had entered out of my MBA program and found rapid success. Less than two years later I was promoted to a managerial role, a track that usually takes four, and it seemed my career was blossoming. In retrospect I can point to this transition as the beginning of the end; the moment where what I bring to the table ran up against the limit of what the company wanted out of its middle managers. Understanding what happened along the path from promotion to dismissal in only 18 months is still a bit confounding, but can likely be summed up by: the work and skills valued at this level and at this company no longer matched those that gave me creative energy and drive.
The cultural fit cliché is overused but it has a way of proving accurate the longer you stick it out. Mix all this with a dose of token (fringe) millennial indecision and you’ve cooked up a fine recipe for a deteriorating relationship. Throughout, my self-reflection on the situation had never been one of questioning my capabilities. What felt most uncomfortable, rather, was that I had never not thrived in any job. For the first time, I had to face the possibility that everything I had worked very hard for professionally and academically was something I no longer wanted. What now?
On the final day, my office being in New Jersey, I walked back to Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge. It was something I had never done. This isn’t the point in the story where I pause on the bridge, look at the sun setting on the city skyline, and come to discover my true calling. As I walked, however, I thought about how for the first time in my life and career there was no path forward, no prescribed track to fall into. My time, my life, and my energy were mine.
As we were entering the holiday season, much of the raw processing of days unstructured and without alarm clocks didn’t really take hold until the dawn of 2016. As holiday parties and family gatherings faded into the rearview and friends all got back to business, I had to figure out how I was going to fill my time and, of course, pay for shit. While a modest severance package and unemployment benefits continue to cover beers and vet bills, reservoirs all dry up eventually.
Another of the starkest changes I needed to habituate to was silence. I live with my girlfriend, but she’s generally not home from 9:30am to 7:00pm every day. Soon, I found it rare I was even using my voice during those hours, other than yelling at our cat or telling the guy at the corner bodega that I don’t need a bag for that egg and cheese. The silence provided a mental mirror; a chance to sit and think. It’s rare we have these opportunities. It’s rarer not to douse them in a deluge of digital distraction. Losing hours, days, a week to catching up on saved articles is a slippery slope, one I’ve been down way too many times since. Further, when the one beer left in the fridge from last night’s six pack stares you down as you are looking for an 11am snack and the local dive bar opens at 1pm, it takes some discipline to not quickly run the day off the rails.
So, how to deal? Only a few months into this new life, I’m still figuring it out. It’s challenging, but positive, helping me pare down those things that sapped so much time and energy. What’s helped has been committing to exploration. Learning something. Doing a thing. Most importantly, talking to people. Not long after my exit, I began to hear about interesting project work and opportunities from friends of friends of friends and just began diving in. People are doing great things outside the “career” construct and they need help. In reinvention, I’m finding what’s most helpful is to be helpful. Not everything might lead to to something, but I’m realizing that not everything has to. There’s merit and rejuvenation embedded in the process.
While most days no longer wrap with a series of to-do-list checks against the traditional markers of corporate success, liberation from this world has unlocked new channels of energy, creativity, and growth. In embracing for the first time that I’m on no trajectory, no structured path, I’ve finally found the fit I’ve been looking for all along. None of these epiphanies will stave off the unrelenting nature of rapidly accruing student loan interest, but I’m confident that cobbling together the next thing(s) from a place of renewed passion will prove invaluable. Moving forward…