In February of 1998, my wife and I decided that it was time that we take the plunge and perform that quintessential act of Great American Dream-ism and buy our own house. At the time I was working at America Online as its in-house writer/editor, and we were living in an apartment in Sterling, about three miles from AOL’s corporate offices. We liked the area and most of our friends lived nearby; it was a good place to put down roots. So we started house hunting and near the end of the month found a place we really liked. Back at work I told a co-worker that we were likely to make an offer on the house the next day.
My immediate boss, who had the cubicle next to mine, suddenly popped her head up and asked to talk to me privately. “Don’t make that offer,” she said.
“Why not?” I said.
“I can’t tell you yet,” she said. “Just don’t.”
Two days later the reason became clear: The group I was in at AOL was being disbanded, and while everyone else in the group was transferring into other departments, no one wanted me. The reason for this was somewhat ironic: As AOL’s in-house writer/editor, I was used as a company-wide resource — but no one wanted someone who was a company-wide resource on their department budget. I wasn’t being fired, I was told, I was being laid off. It was a layoff action of precisely one person. Also ironically, the layoff was coming about a week before my two-year anniversary at AOL. In one of the nicer things they could have done, AOL decided to make the termination date one day after my two-year anniversary — which meant I could vest stock I had in the company. My official termination date: March 10: Ten years ago today.
How did I take the layoff? In a word: badly. Up to that point my professional career had been fairly charmed: I helped pay my way through my senior year of college by writing music features and concert reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and the New Times, and then got a very sweet job as a full-time newspaper movie critic at a time when most newspapers weren’t doing much hiring. Then at the very upswing of the 90s Internet explosion, I was hired by America Online as their first in-house writer and editor. Basically everything was going great, I had no reason to think it wouldn’t continue to go great, and if I hung around AOL long enough my stock would make me a millionaire and then I really wouldn’t have to worry about much. So, yeah, charmed career, and I was pretty cocky about it.
Given my high opinion of myself and my career, the layoff was a smackdown of monumental proportions. Because my career had been so charmed, so much of my self-worth was invested in my work; not to have that work anymore left me spinning. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Krissy and I had been planning to buy a house; in the space of a day we went from young people who had the means to get a nice house in a nice area to people who couldn’t get a house on their own — no bank would have lent us the money with me being laid off and Krissy, who worked part-time, making the income that she had.
While I was literally stunned into immobility, Krissy took control of the situation and did the smart thing: She started to downsize us. We looked at the jobs in the area that I could get; none of them at the time seemed likely to pay what AOL had been giving me. That meant not only was a house out of the question, but the apartment we were currently living in was probably too expensive. Krissy started looking at cheaper places for us to live, made appointments for us to view them, and dragged me along to look at these new places.
And thus it was, standing in the living room of a cheap apartment that we were being shown in Leesburg, Virginia, I had what I expect was the lowest moment of my adult life. I was standing in the living room with gray walls, gray carpet and gray window blinds, on an overcast day, listening to my wife ask about the much reduced amenities relative to the apartment we lived in at the time, and it felt like my life had hit some sort of rewind — that I had managed to come so far, and now this was the bend in the curve, where things started their downturn.
Note, if you will, the possibility that in my depressed state I may have been being overly dramatic about this. But I’m telling you how I felt, and this is how I felt: Low, depressed, and like all the forward momentum I had had in my life — and especially in my personal life — had smacked up hard against a wall. And it had landed me here, in this crappy apartment that I might be living in from now on because it’s what we were likely to be able to afford. How low was I about this? Let’s just say that on our drive back to our soon-to-be ex-apartment, Krissy was vaguely concerned that I might open up the passenger side door and toss myself into traffic.
I spent another couple of days being blackly, blackly depressed, and then something interesting happened, which was that I had one of those epiphany moments you hear about people having. And the epiphany was this — that how I and Krissy reacted to what was happening to us right now was going to echo through how we faced the rest of our lives, individually and together.
In this case, there were two ways this could play out. We could play it safe, take that depressing-but-affordable apartment, live within our reduced means and grind it out. Or we could say screw this, go back to house hunting, buy a house, keep moving our lives forward, and have faith in ourselves that we would find a way to make it work.
Now, I’m sure you think you know what I was going to choose. But I want you to remember two things. The first was that for the very first time in my professional life, I was hit with a setback, and it hit me incredibly hard. Not only in the ego department, but my decision-making. I’d never even considered that I would ever be laid off for any reason at all, and I was clearly wrong about that. What else could I be wrong about? I was uncertain and I was gun-shy. The second thing is that would be one thing if it were just me going for broke. But I was married, and whatever happened to me would happen to Krissy, too. If I screwed up, I would take her down with me. It was bad enough I was already laid off; this added another layer of complications to things.
So despite what you think you might know about me, you should know that my decision could have gone either way. This was a time in my life that I was really and truly without a compass. I didn’t know what to do. So Krissy and I sat down to talk about what we would do next.
And it was Krissy who said, “Well, I want a house.”
Which was enough for me. Because while Krissy wanted a house, I didn’t want to live in that damn, gray apartment. So we called our real estate agent and told her we were ready to look at houses again.
“You got a new job!” our real estate agent said.
“No,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, that will make things difficult.”
“Let us worry about that,” I said.
Here’s how we did it: With help. I called my Uncle Gale and Aunt Karen asked for their trust and their signatures as co-signers on our mortgage loan. They gave us both. And like that, we were back.
And we were back in more than one way. Krissy and I decided to have faith in ourselves and in each other and to find a way to make it all work — to live the lives we wanted to live, not lives dictated by circumstances outside our control. And almost as soon as we made that decision about our lives, things suddenly got better. Krissy’s job, frightened that she would leave and they would have to hire two people to do what she was doing, put her on full-time status with health benefits, replacing the benefits I’d lost at AOL.
On my end, it turned out that people at AOL suddenly realized that when I wasn’t around, their writing wasn’t getting done; all the various departments that didn’t want me on their head count were happy to hire me as an outside contractor. That started happening almost as soon as people realized I was gone. Shortly thereafter I was hired by MediaOne — an early broadband company — to write music reviews for their online portal. And then I got a phone call from a marketing company; I had been recommended to them by a friend at AOL for a project. Would I take it on? Sure I would.
In sum, very quickly I was making more than I had been making at AOL, and actually working a bit less. And from home. Home being the house we bought shortly thereafter; on the day we closed, Krissy and I took the keys, walked into our new home, turned on a boom box, and danced around the place to Madness’ “Our House.” Because it was, and because we could.
Would have all this stuff happened if we decided to play it safe? Oh, probably, minus the house portion. But the point of it was how we reacted to it. When this good fortune came in, we didn’t feel like we had dodged a bullet and had gotten lucky. We felt that it justified our belief that we could make it work, and that our faith in ourselves was not misplaced. And, yes, that made a difference in how we viewed the world, going forward. It still makes a difference now.
And this is one of the reasons why I tell people that being laid off from AOL was one of the best things that ever happened to me — because as much as it knocked me for a loop, it made me ask myself who I wanted to be in control of my life — and it made me make a choice about how my life would be. It was the right crisis at the right time; it was something I think was necessary for me. In a very real way, it’s the moment I can point to and say “this is when I knew I was a grown up.” It’s maybe a silly way to put it, but it was important all the same. So: Thanks, AOL, for laying me off. I appreciate it. It’s done more for me than you know.
Oh, and there’s one other reason to thank AOL for laying me off. On March 10, 1998, the actual, official date of my layoff, I was feeling understandably a bit low about it, even though by that time things were already beginning to look up. But still, waking up and thinking “I have no job to go to” was a little off-putting. So Krissy decided to cheer me up. This is what came of that:
So, yes, this day ten years ago was a life-changing day in more ways than one.