It seems to me that except for acute actions that it’s almost never one moment that changes your life but a series of small, seemingly insignificant things that add up to a tipping point. In my life I suppose I have had many of these things that tipped me over. One was getting hit by a car while training for a triathlon. It took me two years to learn to walk again and now, almost twenty years later, I still occassionally pull a piece of asphalt from under my skin. That accident ended my athletic pursuits. I went from an in-shape athlete to a fat, lazy couch potato writing on Quora. I still run a little and bike a little but my motivation for those things evaporated completely. In those days I couldn’t wait to get home, hop on my bike and ride til the sun went down. Now I have to force myself to get on because it’s “good for me”. That was a big change, but it wasn’t the biggest change.
The biggest moment was actually a series of moments that lead up to the collapse of my entire life such as it is. I was progressing in my career, moving up the ladder of responsibility, ability, knowledge and position. I had reached a certain point where I felt I “deserved” or warranted certain accolades or recognition. But the truth is, the bigger the business, the less ability is valued over political skill and ambition, sucking up, and a host of other factors that might seem superfluous or even counterproductive in a start-up where performance really matters. I worked at Cisco, a massive, highly political company where showing up for work every day is like jumping into a shark tank. If you have something good, someone else wants its and they will take it if they can. You cannot sit back. You cannot ignore it and just do your work — unless you are one of the very, very few who are so highly capable, genius and critical that you have risen about that maelstrom and that wasn’t me. I was just another Joe Shit the Ragman trying to generate revenue for the company on a daily basis, revenue that was dumped into a giant revenue pot and forgotten while the Masters said, “What have you done for me lately?”.
My big moment was innocuous in the way cancer starts — invisible, painless but utlimately deadly. I worked for the Vice President of Marketing. Working for the VP is a prestigious position. It’s like Al Capone saying “You can get a lot more accomplished with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word alone.”. Working for the VP was like having a gun. The VP was the gun. I didn’t have to go to him, all I had to do was mention that I worked directly for him and doors magically opened, resources appeared, work got done, objectives met.
Then one day in a re-shuffling I was re-assigned to a Senior Director, a man I was told hated me. He hated me because I was from a an acquired company, had moved up rapidly, was in the limelight for awhile. I was warned that I was doomed. People I knew told me to move to another role in the Business Unit as soon as possible because the door was closing. Even my old boss, the VP, suggested I do something else. I didn’t listen because I was happy and comfortable in my role and forgot the true saying about business, “Every day the world turns and crushes some person who was sitting on top of it” and one day, that Moment came. I thought I was safe because my business was successful. I still thought competence mattered for something.
I was re-assigned to work for the lowest man on the totem pole, a nice enough guy, but someone who had never managed people, who was, at one point, at the bottom of the ladder. And now I worked for him. I was even lower than the lowest rung on the ladder now. I was the Janitor of Product Management, the laughingstock of my Unit. But I had been warned. At that moment my fire went out. I gave up. I stopped fighting and just went through the motions. By then I knew I was Marked. It was over for me no matter what I did or didn’t do. The previous year I had been classified on my review as “within top 10 percent” of employees. The next year I was marked “bottom five percent”. And everyone knows that Cisco fires the bottom 5 percent every year, period. Nothing had changed except their perception of me. I was on the way out. My Business was making over 100 million dollars a year and doubling every year in revenues. I was assigned another 60 million dollar businees because I was doing so well. But none of that mattered. At Cisco it was about “Who Did You Blow Today?”. It was an oft-repeated trope to say to the favored ones emerging from the Head Office, “You still have some around your mouth.”. It was bitterly recognized that favoritism, yessing the boss, ass-licking and sucking up were rewarded far more than performance.
But I wouldn’t play. I have never been an ass-licker in my life and I wasn’t going to start then. My boss was sympathetic. He told me one day, “You make a great deal of money. You’re not working that hard. You should just roll over and play their game. There are lots worse things in life than this.”. He was so right. But I didn’t play their game. I fought them. But guess what? “I fought the law and the law won.”. The law always wins. The little guy ALWAYS loses. Companies like Cisco are just big steamrollers. They don’t care. Your pitiful rebellion is meaningless. It’s not like “Star Wars” where the Rebellion wins. That never happens. They don’t even notice. They don’t care. They just roll over you and move on. They don’t even notice it. It’s totally stupid and pointless. My Moment was a series of choices, bad choices, where I should have either moved when advised to move or just curled up in my foxhole and let the war rage around me while I cashed the paycheck. But I didn’t. I fought back for almost a year, a year of misery and degradation until finally I could no longer tolerate the disrespect being served me and my customers. I had it out with the big cheeses — in a public forum. And that was that. I was gone. My life completely changed at the moment.
It’s so funny too as I look back. There’s a piece of advice I give everyone who gets laid off or fired. Never leave the office with anything but your laptop bag. You might have a big box of shit in your office or cube, but arrange to have it shipped. Nothing is more humiliating than walking out of a company with that box in your arms. Instead, just take the laptop bag as if you are going to a meeting. And laugh all the way to the elevator. Tell a stupid joke. Make them think it’s YOUR idea you’re going. Never let them see you sweat. That’s what I did. It’s stupid and means nothing but it’s great for your ego and it’s one last stab as the bastards. You didn’t win, but you didn’t lose the way THEY wanted you to. It’s your last act of defiance. I still remember my last words to the HR rep walking me out to the elevator. I took them from the “Godfather”. As the elevator opened the HR Rep said to me, “Is there anything else?” And I looked at her with a smile and I said that famous line of Abe Vigoda’s: “Tell them it was never personal. It was just business.”. And then I laughed as the doors closed and I went out to my car.
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