The Worst & Best Day of My Life

This weekend, as I competed in a Toastmasters contest in my local area with a theme of optimism and realizing your dreams, I was immediately reminded of a speech I gave last spring about this very topic and how a seemingly horrible situation turned into one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’d like to share my story here:

+++++

November 12, 2008 – a date that will live in infamy.

I walked into the office at my usual 6:30 that morning, planning on a regular, normal day at work. I got my coffee while I waited for my computer to boot up through its long start-up process. By 7:30, coworkers began to trickle in, and by 8:00 we had a full house. I was engrossed in putting together the agenda for an upcoming training meeting when my boss stopped by my cube.

As I turned to look at her, I could tell by her expression that I wasn’t going to like the reason for her visit. I was right. She simply said, “David, can you come with me, please?” Without saying a word, I rose from my chair and followed her silently down the long, carpeted hall toward the HR department.

The rumors that had been swirling around the office for the past month had come true. Today was layoff day. We all knew it was coming, just not when or who would be affected.

Before we reached the door, she stopped, turned toward me, and through the beginnings of tears said, “Please understand, I had nothing to do with this. This decision was made above my head and against my wishes.” I told her I understood and said it would all be okay. Would it really be okay? I had no idea. But I hoped my words would ring true.

See, Jeanne had hired me and groomed me for advancement within the company. But the decision to lay me off had come from the top and was based solely on seniority. I had none. Instead, I was one of over 35 employees in my building who were cut that morning in a layoff that saw over 100 people company-wide get the axe.

Just over a year earlier, my pregnant wife and I and our 1-year-old daughter had moved from St. Louis to Hickory, North Carolina, my wife’s hometown, to work for this company, fiber optic technology giant Corning Cable Systems – a division of Corning, Inc., makers of Corning Ware and other glass products. Our son Jacob was born in February, we bought a house in June, and now in November I had just lost my job. Needless to say, the timing was less than opportune.

After turning in my name badge and company credit card and cleaning out my cube, I drove quietly home, calling my wife on the way to let her know why I was coming home early and why.

It was the worst day of my life.

What was I going to do? I didn’t know anyone in the area, except my in-laws. I had zero business connections. And now here I was, with a one-year-old, a brand new baby, a new house, and absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I was completely lost.

After I got over the initial shock, I pulled myself together and started to list of all the things I needed to do to get back to work.

  • File for unemployment
  • Put my resume online
  • Join local networking groups
  • Look for part-time work in the meantime just to get by

The list went on…

As I thought of what to do next, I immediately thought of baseball. Not playing it – umpiring. I had started umpiring high school baseball here in St. Louis before I moved, so I knew how it worked. Immediately I hopped online and found the local umpire association in the Hickory area and got connected for the upcoming season. I also registered to work basketball, which I had already done here, too, and then decided to try something new: football.

I also realized that with all my newly-found “free time,” I would finally have an opportunity to finish something I had started almost seven years before: writing my novel.

During the time I was unemployed, many other opportunities opened up to me that I would never have found otherwise.

  • I worked my way up to umpiring college baseball and met some amazing people along the way.
  • I added football to my officiating repertoire.
  • I got to spend amazing amounts of quality time with my family, which was especially great since the kids were so little.
  • And I finally got to finish my novel.

Don’t get me wrong: financially, times were tough. We barely made it through some months. But it was an experience I will never forget – and one I will look back on fondly. I learned many lessons, one of which is how to distinguish between what I NEED and what I WANT.

It’s amazing what you can learn to live without when you don’t have a choice.

By necessity, we cut out cable TV and other extraneous expenses, and you know what we found? We became much closer as a family. We wasted less time and spent much more time doing things together.

We have five fingers for a reason: to show us what we really NEED in life:

  1. Air
  2. Clothes
  3. Food
  4. Shelter
  5. Water

There is a big difference between what we want and what we need. For instance,

  • We need air, but fortunately, it’s free.
  • We need clothes, but they don’t have to be Ralph Lauren.
  • We need to eat, but we don’t have to have gourmet food.
  • We need shelter, but it doesn’t have to be a big, fancy house in the suburbs.
  • We need water, but it doesn’t have to be Perrier.

Everything else in life is a WANT. Everything.

After nearly three years of unemployment, having exhausted what few resources I had in North Carolina, we decided it was time to make a drastic change and begin looking for jobs back here in St. Louis. We knew the job market was better here and that I had more connections here. So I put out feelers and almost immediately found the terrific job I now have with New Balance.

Thanks to being laid off four years ago, I now have a better life than I did, with more opportunities to live life the way I want to.

November 12, 2008: One of the worst days of my life. And one of the best.

An Industry by Any Other Name…

Who here remembers a little film from 1977 by the name of Star Wars? It did pretty well at the box office. And for a few years after. Almost 40. Do you remember which major Hollywood studio produced the film? 20th Century Fox eventually picked up the project so it would have wide distribution, but not until it was finished. George Lucas wasn’t a big fan of the studio system, having had commercial but not personal success with American Graffiti, which he felt wasn’t entirely the film he had envisioned. So with Star Wars he went out on his own, shot the whole picture with his own production company, Lucasfilm, and grafted in the special effects through his own Industrial Light & Magic.

After a rather paltry (by today’s standards) opening weekend taking in just over $250,000, the film has grossed over $800 million. That’s just the original, not the sequels. Not bad for an indie film.

It was this spirit of independence that allowed Lucas to make the film he wanted, rather than the film the so-called experts in Hollywood, many of whom poo-pooed the concept, wanted. It’ll never work, they said. Nobody wants to see a movie about robots. It’s too elaborate and won’t make back the cost of production.

Once again, Hollywood was wrong. (For further examples, see most Oscar-nominated pictures.)

Of course, Lucas is by no means the only successful independent filmmaker, a fact Hollywood would really rather overlook, thank you very much. The established film studios hate competition. With each other is fine, but not with outsiders, the unchurched of the movie biz. After all, independent director don’t make quality movies, right? Nobody wants to see a movie about robots.

So it is too with publishing. The Big Six publishers don’t exactly hate indie presses, as so far indies aren’t a huge threat. In fact, sometimes they like indie authors. Vince Flynn, for example, self-published his first book. Then someone at HarperCollins read it and signed him to a lucrative contract. Flynn became a very rich man, thanks in part to the indie publishing world.

But so far, the indie publishing industry is still regarded by many readers as second class drivel, a burgeoning collection of crapola that wasn’t good enough for “real” publishers to consider worth the ink. Tell someone you self-published and they politely set the book back down and smile as they slink away.

But that’s changing. Partially because of semantics.

Slowly, independent books are climbing the status ladder, thanks in part to better quality books, but more because of the way they are positioned in the market: not as self-published, but as “independent,” like films.

After all, it’s still the same deal. An author, like a director, gets an idea and crafts a story, only on paper instead of on screen. A few loyal supporters spread the word, often through social media and low-cost channels, and awareness begins to rise. There are book signings and blog posts, and if enough people agree that it’s a good book, they recommend it to friends and off it goes!

Is the self-publishing industry really that much different from the self-filming industry? Not really. The advantage the self-filming industry has is that it never called itself that. They were always independent films, which lent a certain credibility to the art.

So I propose we do away with the term “self-publishing” and stick exclusively to “independent.” It’s really a more appropriate term anyway.