On being laid off: ‘Nothing stays the same’

Editor’s note: This essay is published in the next issue of Design, which will be mailed to Society for News Design members this spring. The new double issue, “Hitting the reset button,” helps you reboot your career, your soul, your creativity and your journalistic moxie as the industry faces epic transition.

‘Hello, this is the Universe calling – your message is ready’

We hear about the “restructuring” on Romenesko first. The official e-mails follow; this vice president is retiring (35 years of dedicated service), that one is leaving the company
(to pursue new challenges), this magazine will cease publication (award-winning with 900,000 subscribers.) The fallout has started at the top of the company and it’s barreling downhill.

Weeks later we’re informed that there will be layoffs at Fortune but there is a catch, we must wait several more weeks for the Guild buyout period to play out. The tension is unbearable. The office becomes like “Lord of the Flies.” We split into tribes and dredge up weaknesses in our colleagues. We speculate. We make lists. It’s our survival mechanism. It’s awful.

To make myself feel better I have a rationale: “I won’t get laid off because graphics editors are specialists… They’re happy with me…It’s not like the editors
can do what I do…Chances are it won’t be me.”

I also have unrelenting anxiety: “It’s all about the bottom line… They’re not protecting the journalism… Maybe I should try to find a stable job where I can ride out the recession.”

So I recalibrate. I make a spreadsheet of household expenses, bring lunch to work every day, sock every extra dollar into savings. I calculate how long I can get by without a paycheck and obsess over what to keep, what to live without. My husband and I talk endlessly about the implications of the layoffs. So much so that our 6-year-old Isabel notices, “Work/jobs, work/jobs, you’re always talking about work/jobs.”

I think, “If only I can keep my job, everything will be fine.”

I think, “If only everything stays the same, I will be fine.”

Of course nothing stays the same. My moment comes with an e-mail from the managing editor, the subject line: “Come see me at 10 a.m., please.” The rationale flies away, anxiety does a victory dance. Months before the layoffs were announced I started worrying about the direction Time, Inc., was heading, and by extension, myself. I couldn’t sit still, so I set up lunches for down the road with former colleagues, and with folks that I admired and wanted to meet. I also made lots of phone calls to lots of people to talk about the state of the industry. I wanted to hear their views and solidify my own. I began to rebuild my portfolio. I didn’t think I’d need it, of course, but it was a good way to take stock.

The night I was laid off my cleaning lady Lillia called to thank me; she had gotten three new gigs because I had recommended her to friends. The next day Vickey Mouze, who had attended my seminar at SND Las Vegas, got in touch out of the blue. She was starting her new job and my talk had given her the inspiration to take the next step! My head felt scrambled. What kind of twisted karma was this?

I found out the next week — one of my industry friends called about a potential job. The next day a design firm called after finding me through a friend. Then those lunches I had scheduled started to happen. Maybe I was going to land on my feet? Potentially, but it was by no means tidy. I was in complete shock, losing track of entire conversations. I felt exuberant in the morning and overwhelmed by bedtime. I alternated between not sleeping and sleeping like a dog. I had this raw feeling that there was a message for me out in the universe and if I sat very still I would hear it.

My first day of unemployment I was sitting on the top of a stoop in SoHo talking on my cell phone when a young woman walked by with her coat open, draped over her shoulders. It was freezing outside. From my vantage point I watched her as she sat on the curb between two parked cars. She took off her right clog, removed a pack of cigarettes from her coat and unwrapped
the cellophane — with her foot. Next, she pulled her cell from her pocket, opened it, checked it, closed it. Took out a cigarette, the lighter. Lit the cigarette, smoked it — with her foot. Put the clog back on and walked away. She had no arms. No one else on the street had seen her.

When I came home I found out that my friend Kris, her son, Bennett, and her significant other, John, had gone down in a small plane crash. The engine had failed during landing at 900 feet. They had all survived. My message from the universe had arrived. My recalibration hadn’t been deep enough. What was it I was worrying that I couldn’t live with out? In the scheme of things, what had I lost?

We all have these rationalizations that we string into stories to frame our decisions. When I left The New York Times to join Fortune my rationale included “Magazines are more stable than newspapers. Readers come to linger on long form, not for breaking news.” So my story went, I would jump ship and learn how to make magazines, carry-on the great tradition of Fortune graphics and buy myself 5 extra years, maybe 10.

This was a nice story. It helped me understand the arc of my life, but it also served as an excuse to avoid an overwhelming situation. I was convinced that my personal narrative encompassed the extent of my abilities. What it really encompassed was the extent of my rationales. What happens after the worst happens? Everything shifts, you grow in ways you never expected, and then you figure it out.

RESOURCES

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Sarah Slobin spent 15 years at The New York Times and the last two as the infographics director at Fortune.
When Design went to press, she was still unemployed. Find her on Twitter: @sarahslo