What Getting Laid Off Taught Me About Work-Identity Balance
by Gray Chapman
In 2014, I got laid off from a job that had, in some ways, come to define me. It turned out to be an exercise in not just work-life balance, but work-identity balance.
A year ago, I became subject to a fate that befalls countless people every single day, but one that I felt deeply certain would never, ever happen to me: I got laid off. Big deal, right? It isn’t a unique experience. I was merely one in several million people who have lost their jobs in recent years. But as our co-founder informed us that “the company had to make some cuts, and unfortunately you all are part of that,” my world shifted on its axis. Life had suddenly veered off-course.
We would be paid through the end of the week, and that was that. We filed out unceremoniously, a group of people whose bonds had been forged in the trenches of shaping a nascent company together.
I wasn’t the most-tenured employee of the group, and I certainly hadn’t been on the founding team. There were others who had been there before the company had a name. There was one who had actually named the company. But I had been a part of this venture long enough to remember it as just that: a venture. A risk. A bet. Many of us, including myself, had begun our work with the company out of the CEO’s cave-like loft bedroom, jamming our desks together in Tetris-esque formations, working elbow-to-elbow, using the tiny bathroom unfortunately tucked mere feet away from our CFO’s desk. When we eventually outgrew the space and signed a lease on a “grown-up office,” we took a tour before moving in.
Our lone developer took a look at the sprawling space and breathed a sigh of relief. “I can finally take a shit at work.”
For the next few years, our jobs were fun, exhausting, hilarious, and maddening, a shameless caricature of wacky, but back-breaking startup life. In the beginning, we had no human resources, no official vacation policy, no 401(K) — but we did have a ball pit and a beer fridge. We also had the joy of watching the fruits of our labor take shape, seeing this scrappy fledgling startup transform into a genuinely successful endeavor. Outsiders cheered us on. Media began to notice. We were underdogs, and it felt like our city was rooting for all of us. We worked our asses off. Most of the time, it felt worth it. It became who we were. We wore it like a badge.
By the time I found myself sitting in that dark, windowless board room a few years later, I hadn’t shaped the company as much as it had shaped me. My role required having a finger on the pulse of all things, food, music, and art in our city. Friends asked me for restaurant recommendations. Strangers asked me for jobs. I took pride in all of it. This work had become inextricably linked with who I was as a person, so when it ended, I felt as though I hadn’t just lost a steady paycheck — I’d lost a small chunk of my own identity.
Saying that now makes me cringe. How utterly ridiculous, to let yourself become so personally entangled with what was just, at the end of the day, a business organization. To allow yourself to be so torn asunder by a single, necessary budget decision. Either way, a piece of me had been crudely amputated. I had no idea what to do with myself.
This ordinary Tuesday, once booked up with meetings and office life minutia, instantly warped into a blur of beer pitchers, intermittent tears, vacillations between rage and betrayal and grief. Again: nothing out of the ordinary. Millions of people — one in five since 2009 — have been laid off, many of whom in situations more dire than mine, with mouths to feed or huge debts to pay. Everyone probably knows someone who has experienced this day. But when you’ve foolishly allowed your work to swallow you whole, you just never expect to see it for yourself.
When I finally got home that night, drunk and completely alone, I laid down on the floor and howled. For the first time all day, I was by myself with my newfound circumstances. I had lost my tribe, and my badge of honor. Something into which I’d invested an extraordinary amount of emotional stock had vanished before my eyes, and taken bits of me with it. There, on my bedroom floor, three years’ worth of starry-eyed naivety caught up to me, ripped me off my feet, and crashed over me like a tsunami. I choked and heaved for an hour, my body racked. I was a fucking wreck.
The next day, two things happened: I woke up looking like Quasimodo with a nasty hangover, and the phone started ringing. A neighbor whose girlfriend works at CNN. A creative director whose team I’d breezily abandoned three years earlier for the intriguing allure of startup life. Restaurant owners who suddenly had room on staff for an extra server. More than one fellow local writer, many of whom I’d never actually met before, sharing contacts and job leads and words of consolation. Phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook posts, a seemingly ceaseless outpouring of unsolicited help. Help: something I’ve never felt comfortable asking for, but it came anyway.
The next two weeks were a bizarre hodgepodge of networking meetings and trips to the unemployment office. Professional contacts I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out. I met my former colleagues at coffee shops (only the kind with free refills) to work on our websites and set up meetings. At no point did I ever feel alone. People — an unexpected community — were somehow giving me a sense of bravery that I would have never been able to drum up on my own.
Being a writer in the 21st century means that, for the past several years, I have watched a great deal of insanely talented writers and editors lose their jobs. Some of them hopped right back into full-time positions. Some of them switched careers entirely. And some of them actually managed to keep writing as freelancers maintaining their independence. I used to watch them from afar, secure but creatively atrophied, not to mention bone-tired, in my full-time employment, with a mix of envy and unease. To go it alone, to put blind faith in your ability to drum up work, to be completely at the mercy of your own hustle — it all seemed so reckless. So impossible. But once I was confronted with the prospect myself, things suddenly seemed eerily possible.
I take zero credit for “making the freelance leap.” I can say with utter honesty and confidence that I would have never, ever had the fortitude nor the conviction to jump ship from my job and try to make it as a freelancer. Unlike most of the people I admire, I am afraid to do the harder thing. I am now on my own, not because I’m a ballsy person who has unwavering faith in my abilities, but because my former employer essentially left me out on the sidewalk in a basket with a note attached. And in a twisted way, I do feel a little grateful to them. Yes, health insurance and a steady paycheck would have made 2014 that much easier, and two weeks’ pay would have been a nice parting gift. But in the past year, I’ve done things I never thought possible. I’ve written about topics I’d never written about before. I’ve been paid actual, real, not-Monopoly-money dollars to write about lipstick, architecture, bad wine, good gin, and cheap underwear.
I’m still spending most of my days hunched over a laptop in a dark bedroom (and still with no retirement benefits in sight), but this go-round, I’m happier, more productive, and more creatively satisfied. I’m more aware than ever of the powerful force of nature that is a community who is there for you when shit hits the fan. And I’m no longer tricking myself into thinking that my role within a corporate entity has the slightest bearing on who I am as a human.
Mostly, I’m still working my ass off. This time, though, it isn’t for someone else’s dream.