It was either the best job I ever had. Or, it was slowly hollowing out my soul, bit by unnoticed bit.
Or, here’s a third option: it could have been both at once.
Big life questions are always the ones most likely to defy easy answers. That’s what makes them life questions. The most thoughtful analysis by the most careful thinkers can still end with a shoulder shrug: “Eh, it’s a tough one, no? Could go either way.”
The Best Job Ever
There’s no use delaying this, so let’s just get it out there: last month, I was laid off from my job as Director of Content Marketing for US Acute Care Solutions.
I have described this job a thousand times to a thousand people: mostly positive, but never with the commitment or enthusiasm of someone who derives their identity from their work.
To strangers, I would lead with the benefits: it paid well, I liked the people, and I worked almost entirely remotely. Can’t argue with that. Then I would tell them about the company: it’s a national physicians group that manages and staffs emergency departments for hospitals.
If the conversation went deeper, I would tell them how I ended up at such a strange place: back when I was a marketing consultant with my own practice, I won this other physicians group called MEP Health as a client. Then that one got bought (or merged, as the PR people would have it) by a bigger group that was going around buying a bunch of other physicians groups, and together they made a new national group. When that happened, I got rolled in to the national marketing team as their content guy.
“Oh,” they would nod, and the conversation would mercifully move on.
For the past six years, my job at USACS has financed a posh, lavish lifestyle. I traveled often, and often for weeks at a time. I was earning much more money than I needed, so a lot of it got saved, invested, put away. I bought a house in New Hampshire next to the Northeast’s premiere sport climbing crag. Life was good - and easy.
Plus I really did like the people. I got along with the emergency physicians who owned and led the company. They were smart, fun to have a beer with, and they struck me as clear-headed about healthcare’s many failings. Amongst the different medical specialties, ER docs tend to approach their work with a clearer sense of mission than others. After all, they see the worst of it.
My job, at its most essential, was to tell their story, and I’m proud of a lot of the work I did there. A good example is when I interviewed the clinicians who worked through Hurricane Florence, the 2018 storm that pummeled two of the company’s sites in North Carolina.
I had to stay positive of course, and the bigger the company got, the more was at stake, the more positive I had to stay. Which is to say: I was writing a version of the truth, but not the whole truth. No one who does marketing and communications for a living ever does.
The Hollowing Out of My Soul
One of my skills as a marketing and communications professional is my ability to easily switch voices. I put this to good use at USACS, ghostwriting articles for more than a dozen of the company’s senior leaders. Take a look through the USACS blog and you will see many stories I wrote, but few or none with my name on them.
I enjoyed this work. It was gratifying to hear an ER doc tell me that I put into words for them something better than they ever could have done themselves. ER docs are good at many things, but clear and compelling writers they are generally not.
But it wasn’t the ghostwriting, or the need to write a version of the truth that was getting to me. I have no problem helping a company tell its story per se - telling stories always involves some selectivity in what gets told.
It was simply that a good portion of each day was spent in service of something I didn’t care all that much about.
I know, sounds like a privileged position to take, and it was.
About six months ago, my sister and I were catching up, and she asked how the job was going, and I said the thing I usually say: can’t complain, like the people, pays well, I enjoy writing the stories. It’s a good job.
Good, good, she said.
Or… it could be slowly hollowing out my soul, bit by bit.
There is some truth to both of those assessments obviously. It was a good job. I wanted to keep it for as long as I could. But I always expected to leave on my own terms. Sadly, it was a decision made for me.
Why I was laid off
Honestly, it was nothing I did. The morning it happened, I had my usual weekly check-in with my boss. We always tried to do it over video chat, but the second I saw his face I knew something was off. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. Plus, an HR person was on the call.
He told me we had to have a difficult conversation. That I did great work, that I was a great person, that it was nothing I had done, but that, sadly… my world did in fact start to blur a little, the sounds coming out of his mouth devolving into a sort of echoey base rumble. My heart started racing. Some sweat started forming on the back of my neck.
Then the HR person stepped in: severance package, yada yada, COBRA, yada yada, returning my company equipment, yada yada. My boss looked on despondent while she recited her bullet points. I was in a bit of shock.
Just a few months earlier I had received maybe the best performance review of my life. My boss had given me the maximum raise, and the maximum bonus. I had heard from all corners of the company that my work was excellent. A company magazine I had written had been distributed to the board, and word was they loved it.
But this didn’t have much to do with me.
The real reason I was being laid off at that moment had to do with forces much bigger: a healthcare industry consolidating, a private equity firm seeking ROI, our patients’ switch to high-deductible healthcare plans, the valuation of company stock, and the often peculiar logic of American capitalism (I will have much more to say on this in a future forum).
It wasn’t just me. Many others were also laid off. Budgets were being cut. Senior physicians lost leadership positions - and the stipends that went with them. The company was tightening its belt all around. I was a casualty.
As I told my closest friends, my partner, and my family what had happened, there was no denying: the loss of income, the loss of stability, the loss of the flexibility it offered - it all sucked.
On the other hand…
The job was a crutch. I knew that almost immediately. In fact, I had known it for a while. It had led to stagnation, both in my work and my thinking. My extracurricular creative pursuits (namely, making movies) were just that: extracurricular. They didn’t have stakes because it didn’t matter if they succeeded or not. I was set, financially.
In an odd way, the job closed off as many possibilities as it opened. Because I was so set with money, I was also set in my thinking about the future. That’s what happens with too many givens.
Losing the job has led to a re-evaluation of everything: my future plans, my identity, what I want to do for work. It has forced me to clarify and re-think the central question of this newsletter, What Really Matters.
And being forced into that is, at least, one upside. I am actually relishing it.