Laid off and learning to like it


By Stefani Zellmer

 Sunday, June 01, 2008

 As I write this, it's six months from the day I was let go from GSD&M, Austin's biggest ad agency. In my severance letter, they used the word "terminated." But "let go" better captures the emotion I've felt in the months since. Like a fish thrown back in the water after being caught.

OK, I'll be honest. It stung a little bit. In any relationship, it's better to be the heartbreaker than the one getting dumped. But it was also hard to take it personally. Especially when I was one out of hundreds let go that week.

You're familiar with the phrase "blessing in disguise"? Well, it started flying out of everybody's mouth soon after the layoffs. Six months later, the disguise — in this case, the blessing wore a clever outfit of panic and uncertainty — has been shed and most of the "Idea City" ex-pats I know have landed in a good place.

But I'll admit to going through a roller coaster of emotions in those first few days. The first one was shock. Even after months of speculation, I naively hadn't thought I'd be affected.

I was likely pregnant when my name was added to the future termination list. And I was just three weeks into my maternity leave when I got the call. "Is that even legal?" people asked. Actually, it is.

I had a brand new baby — I hadn't slept more than two hours at a stretch since he was born. As a result, I often hallucinated. The smallest details in life — making coffee, showering — overwhelmed me. I cried a lot.

It wasn't the most ideal time to be told I was out of a job.

Then I got angry. I spoke with an attorney. I had the requisite pity party. Luckily, I gained perspective and moved quickly into a state of compassion, taking a mental assessment of others I knew in the club.

One woman was still pregnant when she was laid off. One was the sole breadwinner of his family, which includes five children. One had to sell her house. One had a newly pregnant wife who could not change insurance companies until after her pregnancy. COBRA coverage for their family is $1,600 a month.

Then I thought about those who had worked at GSD&M for eight, 12, 15 and 20 years. Or those who had moved here from another city just for this job and were thinking, now what? Yes, others probably felt a bit inconvenienced, too.

From compassion, I slipped into the 'so what?' phase. I got laid off. So what?

This was the only attitude in which I found peace. In fact, I started to feel lucky. Here I was being given the chance, as all of us were, to re-evaluate my career. Was I truly happy at work? Eh.

Honestly, I had been thinking about quitting in order to freelance. Not because I didn't enjoy the work or the people I worked with, but because as a mother of two children in diapers I needed a more flexible schedule.

Sitting in my cubicle at Idea City, I had fantasized about a life in which I could work when and where I wanted. As a writer, why couldn't I do that?

Now I can, and I do.

As a self-employed writer, I set my own schedule. I'm often able to work while overlooking the hills of West Austin, right here at my own desk. My desk. Not a desk that was issued to me. But a '70s-style desk that I bought at the monthly flea market at the Santa Monica Airport. A desk I love.

When I want to take a vacation, I don't have to ask anyone's permission. I just go.

I should mention that my husband is a freelance writer as well. And while I have his support, it's not the kind that comes with health insurance. We had to shop for and buy our own.

So, yeah, it's scary. But I truly believe — and this is going to sound New Age-y but it's all part of the So Whatness — the universe rewards those in a position of risk.

So far, knock on wood, I've been very busy. I've spoken with others on the let-go list. They've been busy, too. Or they've embarked on new careers. Or they've taken a position with a fancier title than they held before, making more money than they've ever made in their lives.

My husband asked me an interesting question a few weeks after the layoff: "Would you have wanted to move here if you knew you'd eventually lose your job?"

Without hesitation, I said yes. I was working at an agency in New York when I was recruited for the job at GSD&M. But I grew up in Texas. I went to college in Austin. My parents are here. And I had promised myself that someday I'd move back.

When I got pregnant, that someday was now. GSD&M brought me home. The company still holds my respect. And I wish it well.

The recruiters do call. They call about jobs in Richmond. San Diego.

Boulder. I have to admit, it's tempting. But I've moved cross-country several times for a job. Now I'm settled in Austin, where I had two babies and bought my first house.

The first question the recruiters ask is always the same: Would you relocate?

I can't tell you how liberating it feels to say no.

I've made a career in advertising. But this is my chance to do other kinds of writing as well. This article is just a start.

And the reason I was able to write it is because I was let go.


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