Teaching a Memoir Workshop at Garden Spot Village, 2011

Teaching Womanhood in America, ca. 1986

Did you know that, according to a Gallup Poll, only 32 percent of all employees can say “yes” to this statement:

“At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

Are you one of the 32 percent or one of the 68 percent?


Perhaps you have been excited about your work in the past, but can no longer honestly subscribe to that statement? Read on!

Without doing so consciously, I used the criterion above to guide my whole career:

  • to do work I love

  • within a set of values I deeply believe in/aspire to

  • get paid to learn and grow

I moved from high school teacher to college professor to college president to foundation executive. In each of these jobs, I could do all of the above. My heart sang when they all aligned, which happened more often than any one human being has a right to expect.

And then, after a lifetime of heart-singing over-achievement, I got fired.

Well, that’s not what anyone called it. “Restructuring.” “Moving in a new direction.” “We no longer require your excellent services.”

Until these words refer to you instead of someone in a newspaper article, you will never know the dizzy unreality and fear they can drive you into.

Three  Shock Waves

Choice: The first wave that hits is that you are not in control of this situation. Someone else has made a decision for you. Depending on how much you need to be in control, you may or may not survive the first wave. I hated this feeling.

Money: The second wave goes right to the amygdala, the place in the brain where our survival fears reside. No matter how much one has saved or invested, one can begin to catastrophize. Will I lose every material thing I’ve ever worked for? Losing a job is always scary. Losing a job in the midst of a housing crisis even more so. The thought of selling our new house in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime caused my blood to run cold.

Identity: “Who am I now?” The third wave can be huge. The more fused one has been with work as identity, the deeper and stronger this wave becomes. It hits hardest after the first two waves recede. One begins to dread the question, “What do you do?” knowing this is how Americans sort the status structure.

And internally, also, one can wonder “what is my new calling? How will I find it?” I had to wallow for a while in what William Bridges, expert in transitions, calls the “neutral zone,” trying on possible new identities. It’s taken me two years to name clearly, bluntly, and publicly what happened to me. I have written and spoken about dancing with change, and I’ve implied what kind of change occurred. But naming it is important.

Three Waves of Transformation

I found the key to thriving in the midst of shock began when I chose to forgive, forget the bad, and forge ahead. Then the energy of all three shock waves became energy I could re-incorporate into my life.

Choice. “You can always choose your attitude,” Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, has famously said. There’s power in taking a situation back into your own hands and taking action based on the “new normal.” You can see benefits where first losses were only visible.

Money. Today our income is less than half of what it was before. We sold our house at a terrible loss. I have to pay for my own health insurance which covers a fraction of my former employer’s wonderful plan.

Yet we are lucky. My husband, who had been a consultant, found a new part-time job he loves. And I was asked to take on some free-lance consulting and signed a book contract. Our lifestyle, which thankfully was modest in the best of times, has continued relatively unchanged. In fact, our lifestyle now is more open to travel and adventure than ever before.

Identity. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m writing a book. This identity feels vulnerable and new. At age 63 I am starting over again! I have so much to learn. The real lesson, however, is that I am not my job.

I am “being” as much as “doing” now, even though all my jobs have contributed to who I am today. Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem we at Goshen College always paired with the reading of The Odyssey, speaks forcefully to me and for me:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move

From Fired to Fired Up

I got fired on a Tuesday. Ten days later, knowing we would likely leave our home in Michigan, we took a wonderful July vacation to the northern regions of the state. We dreamed together like we used to do as newlyweds and as newly-minted PhDs. We asked what was most important to us at this stage of life. The answer was simple: family.

A month later, when I was the speaker at the fall faculty/staff retreat at our alma mater Eastern Mennonite University, we happened upon a house that overlooked the Allegheny Mountains. So we pulled up stakes, left a beautiful home we had built, and moved to Virginia. Then we decided to become granny nannies and live in Brooklyn for the academic year 2011-2012.

Recently one of my facebook friends posted this link about twelve ways to live a better life.

These bits of wisdom, gathered from 1,200 Americans over 65 by researcher Karl. E. Pillemer, resonated with me and explain why, despite having been fired, I am feeling energized, light on my feet, “fired up.” I already had a compatible spouse (#1). Now I was able to spend more time with my children (#8), travel more (#6), say yes to opportunity (#5) and find freedom (#11).

After telling the world I was fired, I can also look everyone in the eye (#4).

And you know what? The job I have now is the best job of my entire career. I am granny nanny and work-in-progress, writing a book about my own childhood as I care for my grandson by day and explore New York City by night.

Once again, I am:

  • doing work I love

  • within a set of values I deeply believe in/aspire to

  • getting paid (a little) to learn and grow (a lot)

While I was in the “neutral zone,” of transition and transformation, I wrote out a mission statement for my life: “To prepare for the hour of my death one good day at a time. And to help others do the same.” I’m not as heroic as Tennyson’s Ulysses, but yet these words stir me:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

What words stir you? Are you doing work you love? Have you lost work you love? Do you know someone else who has?

Please pass along this post if you think it might offer encouragement and hope to someone. And please add a comment below, sharing your own story of transformation, even if you’ve never had the honor of being fired. We still have an 8.3 percent unemployment rate in this country. What can you offer?

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