The house was cold at 5:30 am. James hadn't slept well, but that was nothing new. He huddled on the couch in PJ’s, heavy wool socks and his orange hoodie. He set the timer for twenty minutes and pressed start. Each thought surfaced slowly and with some resistance, like a child trying with all his might to hold a toy boat under water in the bath tub. He remembered what his teacher had told him, "We don't resist or try to control a thought." He waited for the mantra to appear like an invited guest, fashionably late. Soon, thoughts came easily. He settled in.
The wind chime alarm was so faint that he wasn't sure how long it had been ringing. He pushed the button on the top of the phone turning it off. Thoughts of the day ahead poured in. Again his teacher's voice, "Allow two or three minutes to come out of it.” He was out of it.
The fridge was nearly empty. He grabbed the almond milk and a lime green bowl of blueberries. He sat at the kitchen table eating, dropping blueberries in as needed. Dottie, the girl who came in once a week to clean, was coming this morning and he hadn't picked up yet. There was time. He turned the radio on and turned it off just as quickly. He avoided the news lately. It was too depressing, so much inaction. James wondered how anything ever got done. Outside the window, a finch landed in the empty bird feeder, looked at James, and flew off.
James drove the two miles to work and parked outside Building C. He had been with Windswept Industries for nearly a decade, first as a copywriter, now as Marketing Director. He still wasn't sure how he felt about the job or the company. So much had changed, and a career that began with some reluctance hadn't become any more, or less, comfortable. Not that James wasn't successful. His numbers looked good. The sales teams were happy - “They were always happy, provided they had enough brochures and branded stuff to hand out to potential clients at conventions and conferences,” James thought. Now, there were all these new channels, social media, email campaigns, and content creation for the website. James resented the notion that providing so called needed information built customer loyalty, or that Facebook posts got customers to buy. He didn't want to be cynical. Forty-three seemed too young for that. But, the fast pace of change made him feel even older; much older sometimes. He couldn't help longing for a simpler time, although, he was pretty sure that no such period had existed in his lifetime.
His staff meeting went as usual, each of his team leaders reporting on their various areas. He took notes for a meeting he had scheduled for later in the day with Don, the President of Windswept. After the meeting he went to the cafeteria for a second cup of coffee. It was there he ran into Sandy. Sandy was new to Windswept. She worked in compliance across from Jim's Marketing team. James figured her to be in her mid-thirties, no wedding ring. He noticed that right away.
"Good morning," he said, reaching past her for the cream.
"Hi," she stepped back.
"Jim Stevens, I'm in Marketing."
"Oh, Sandy Diaz, Compliance."
"How do you like it?”
"Everyone's been really welcoming so far."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that. If there's anything you need, a cup of sugar whatever, don't hesitate." He felt himself blush, embarrassed by the cliché that he was sure dated him even more than his thinning gray hair. He smiled wanly and headed back to his desk. He checked his email, returned a couple of calls and prepared for his meeting with Don Shelton, the President. He and Don got along well. James felt he managed to do a fairly decent job of hiding what had become a general disdain for the work he was doing. Besides, it hadn’t always been that way. James was well paid. He had the house and the car. But of late, none of these things seemed to make a real difference when he opened his eyes in the morning. As long as Don couldn't see it - James’ secret was safe.
James looked into Don's office. His boss was nowhere in sight. He took a seat and waited. In the ten years that James had been with the company he had seen a lot of changes. When he first started, Don had read some business book or other on quality management and steered the organization in that direction. Just a few years later he was preaching something called Six Sigma, which focused on measurement. James couldn't remember what belt he was headed for (“green or maybe black”) when Don shifted to something new. James prided himself on his adaptability, at least when it came to work.
He looked at his phone to check the time. It wasn't unusual for Don to be late for a meeting. He was easily distracted. Somehow he turned that distraction into some form of success - Windswept was one of the larger players in the green energy sector. A success due in part to the fact that before they were swept away by the wind, they were Consolidated Petroleum. It was Jay's handling of the brand transition that won him his post as Director.
"Thanks for coming in Jay, how are you?"
"Fine, Don," he said, trying to pull himself out of his chair.
"Don't get up. Listen, Jay, you know I have a great appreciation for the work you've done here. We could never have transitioned from CPI to Windswept without your guidance and creativity." Don paused, his phone had suddenly awakened. He glanced at it and then held the button down until it went off. James tried again to sit up in the soft chair.
Don continued, "You know we've seen a lot of changes. Frankly, I think this social media thing is a tempest in a teapot. I have no doubt that by the time we get the hang of it there will be something else. The thing that isn't going away is big data. We have all this consumer information and I just don't think we're getting the most out of it."
James thought he should interject something at this point, but Don continued, his hands pressed together as if in prayer. "I know you've got the guys working on it..." James nodded.
"Look, Jay, I think we need to make a change, bring in a fresh perspective, some new talent." Now, Don paused deliberately. James thought about his data team, cranking away. The rest of marketing referred to them as "the geniuses.”
"What are you suggesting, adding to the team? You know as well as I do how hard those positions have been to fill, not to mention the cost."
"Besides," James continued. "I think Ken and Ji-young are beginning to make real progress."
James noticed that Don had closed his eyes. Maybe he was praying. James wanted to continue. The silence was unnerving, and he was afraid anything he said might sound defensive. The two sat in silence for what seemed like a long time. James noticed dust suspended in a shaft of light coming through the blinds. The sun had come out, but James could still feel the cold. He realized that he had crossed his legs at the knee and held both hands between them for warmth. He tried to relax.
"Jay, I'm letting you go. Of course, they'll be a good severance package. As I said, you've contributed a great deal to the success of the company, but Marketing has changed, and I don't believe you have with it. I want a Data person running the group. I think we've finally reached a point where the creative is secondary, Data is what should be driving."
Jay's hands were cold. He squeezed his legs tighter. His mind was blank. He hadn't expected this.
"Don, I don't know what to say. Obviously I'm in..”
"Shock," Don said.
"Yes, shock," Jay's voice trailed off.
"Here are the details of the severance," pushing an envelope across his desk. "If there is anything further, Len in HR can help. I'm glad to give you a fine recommendation, and I have no doubt you'll land on your feet." Don was standing. James struggled to pull himself from the chair. He felt like a child. As if somehow he had disappointed his father. He should be angry - he should be something. For a moment he held back tears.
They were walking toward the door now. Don had picked up the phone from his desk and turned it back on - a black apple with a white background glowed on his desk. But James was walking away from the light. He was heading toward his office, which was no longer his office, to gather up the few things that made it his office. Someone had told him years ago, “Don’t bring in personal stuff just in case you’re ever let go. There is nothing more embarrassing than walking out of the building carrying a big box.”
James was carrying a large printer paper box filled with the few personal possessions he kept at work - books mostly, some certificates and awards he'd won for the rebranding - when he saw Sandy walking toward him. Even in his current state he couldn't help but notice how attractive she was. He almost forgot for a moment that he was headed out to the parking lot for the last time.
"Hey, you ok?"
"Yeah, I mean no, I.."
"What's going on," She paused, suddenly seeing the box he was trying now to hold off to one side.
"I was just let go." He feared tears might well up again and that was the last thing he wanted. James lifted the box balancing it with one knee. Sandy smiled, not at him but for him. He tried to smile back.
"Oh, God, I'm so sorry. Why?"
"Something about needing fresh blood,” He’d meant to say new blood. “It's a long story. I should go. It was nice to meet you."
"Jay, please." She paused to pull a pen out of a notebook she was carrying."Look, here's my number. Call me." She wrote the number on the box.
"Thanks, I will."
"It will be ok," she said,
"Yes." And, for that moment James believed it would be.
If you missed the previous installment of Success Through Failure click here: