See the World As It Really Is, Not As It Used to Be, As You Wish It Were, Or As You Fear It Might BeSocial Sciences
Charlie McKeever had sensed that things were going downhill for some time. It began when he noticed a faint wisp of apprehension hanging over his head on the way to work last week. At the time it seemed harmless enough, a benign little cloud that would soon blow over. But in the succeeding days it grew biggerand darker, until this morning he woke up with a dark thunderhead of dread blocking out what on most days was a blue sky brightly illuminated with enthusiasm and optimism. “Today the storm will come,” the cloud seemed to promise.
He’d started with Logistics Plus as a junior analyst right out of college, forsaking the MBA route taken by most of the other kids he’d become friends with through St. Johns’ Entrepreneurship Club. “LPI is the hottest consulting company in the country today,” the campus recruiter boasted. “We’re growing fast, and the demand for the type of management consulting we do will keep on growing as technology gets more complex and competition more intense.” Charlie had liked the recruiter immediately: bright and enthusiastic, and barely out of school himself.
“The opportunities for advancement are limited only by your energy and initiative. Who knows, you could become the youngest partner in the history of this firm – you’ve certainly got the intelligence and the work ethic. It’s really the perfect job: the excitement of entrepreneurship plus the security of working for an established firm.”
Charlie had worked hard for the past 14 years, and had been well-rewarded for his efforts. He and Pam bought a nice house in the suburbs, and their children attended an exclusive private school. But he never did make partner. Each year, there was a different reason – no vacancies, the firm was having a tough year, and finally the fact that he lacked an MBA degree – but the disappointment was always eased with a healthy pay raise and the promise that he would be at the top of the list for consideration next year.
Except this time. When his annual performance appraisal was completed three months ago he was, as usual, praised for his hard work and dedication. “But we really need you to raise the bar, Charlie,” Dick Dierdron, the new managing partner, told him. “When I took this office last year, I made it pretty clear that I expected everyone to produce new business. You just haven’t stepped up to the plate. You haven’t brought any new clients into the firm, nor have you extended the contracts of current clients.”
“It’s no secret the competition is heating up, and that we’ve lost some important business to the Lipton Group.” He scowled as he spit out the name of LPI’s toughest competitor. “Profits are not what they should be. The partners,” and he said this as though speaking of some outside body over which he had no influence, “have told me that we’ll have to make cutbacks if the situation is not remedied, and remedied very quickly.”
Dierdron leaned back in his high-backed leather chair and thumbed through Charlie’s personnel file, which had been the only thing resting on top of his perfectly-polished desktop. “You’re one of our best consultants, Charlie. We can’t afford to lose you, and the partners know it. I personally don’t want to lose you, because you’re good, and because you’re the best teacher we have for new kids coming into the firm.” Dierdron adjusted his gold cufflinks in the way he always did to signify that a meeting was almost over. “But you’ve got to bring in business, Charlie. Don’t just sit here in the office waiting for someone else to bring it to you.”
Dierdron dropped Charlie’s folder on the desk and was about to stand up when Charlie blurted out, “When am I supposed to be finding all this new business, Dick? I’m working about eighty hours a week now, and you’ve just charged me with installing the new computer system.” In fourteen years, Charlie had never lost his temper, not even raised his voice – especially not at a partner, let alone the managing partner – but suddenly it seemed like a mental dam was stretching to the breaking point, about to release a flood of emotions that Charlie didn’t even realize was up there. “I’m in here before the night shift guard leaves every morning and I’m still here when the janitor locks up every night, including Saturday. I’ve given my life – for cryin’ out loud Dick, I hardly know my own kids! Other parents talk about coaching their kids’ soccer teams. I don’t even have time to see my kids’ soccer team play!”
Now Charlie was leaning across the desk, jamming his finger into the fat manila folder that chronicled the history of his working life for the past fourteen years. “Just when do you want me making cold calls, Dick? Between the hours of midnight and six a.m. when I’m not working on projects? Or do you want me to stop running up billable hours during my waking hours?”
As Charlie’s emotions flared, he felt the old familiar pop of a mental circuit breaker somewhere up there, shutting down his anger and causing him to take a deep breath and sag back into his chair. “I’m sorry, Dick, but I just can’t do it all. I don’t know what you expect of me. I’m working as hard as I possibly can, and even now I can’t keep up. But if you want new business, you know me, I’ll do the best I can to bring in new business.”
Dierdron scribbled something onto a sheet of paper and passed it across the desk. “That’s your raise for this year, Charlie. With everything so tight, we’re not doing very much for anyone.” Charlie picked up the paper and stuffed it into his shirt pocket without looking at it, and stood to go. Dierdron rose as well, then walked around to the side of the desk and propped one leg on the corner so as to be half standing, half sitting. “Charlie,” he said, and though his expression seemed to have mellowed slightly, his voice retained its stern edge, “I want you to be clear about one thing.” Charlie had stopped by the door and now stood with one hand on the knob, the other in his pocket. “What’s that, Dick?”
“You’re working these crazy hours because you choose to, and for no other reason.” Dierdron let the accusation hang in the air for a moment until, uncomfortable in the silence, Charlie retorted, “What do you mean, because I choose to? The work must be done.”
“Of course the work must be done, and of course you will be held accountable for getting it done. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all by yourself. After fourteen years, you’re still doing a lot of the same kind of thing you did as a brand new junior analyst, and you haven’t grown into the work we expect of an experienced associate – like growing new business. You’ve got to learn how to delegate more, to ask for help more, so that in turn I can delegate more important work to you.”
This was the first time in his entire tenure with LPI that Charlie had been directly criticized, and he didn’t like it. It wasn’t the LPI way to stick someone’s nose in their faults, and he could feel the hair rising on the back of his neck.
As if reading his mind, Dierdron cut off Charlie’s train of thought. “It’s Thursday afternoon, Charlie. Why don’t you go find one of the new analysts to pick up for you. Take a long weekend away from the office. Go off by yourself somewhere and think about it. Are you going to grow with us or not? You’re at a fork in the road, Charlie. It’s time to make a decision, time to commit.”
Dierdron walked back to his desk, picked up the phone and punched in a number. “Hey Ben, it’s Dick. I need to talk to you about that Consolidated Banking deal. Is this a good time?”
The performance appraisal was over.
Charlie went home early that day, but was back in the office on Friday, being careful to avoid being seen by Dick Dierdron. He only worked half a day on Saturday, and surprised his son by showing up at his soccer game that afternoon.
Things fell back into a routine over the next few months. Charlie brought several junior analysts in on the big computer project with him, made a few cold calls, even bagged a three month extension on the consulting contract with National Warehouse Systems Corp.
He’d almost forgotten about the performance appraisal as he burrowed himself back into his work. But lately bad dreams at night, a periodic sensation of breathless anxiety during the day, and that gathering cloud of dread hanging overhead contributed to a premonition of pain to come. Soon.
It finally did come at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. Dierdron was not one to make small talk. “The partners have decided that we must make reductions in force, Charlie, and your position has been eliminated, effective now. As you know, your contract included a generous severance provision. When you leave my office, Marcella will give you your final paycheck. The partners have all asked me to convey to you their deepest appreciation for your dedicated service, and sincere wishes for a successful future. And on a personal note, I want you to know that if there’s anything I can do to be of assistance, you only need to call.”
Dierdron came out from behind his desk and extended his right hand. “Charlie, now that you are no longer an employee here, I can tell you something I’ve believed for a long time, but simply could not say.” When Charlie refused to take Dierdron’s hand, rather than turning away his former boss stepped closer and put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, looking him square in the eye.
“Wake up, Charlie. You don’t belong up here, hidden away in a cubicle with your nose buried in computer printouts. You’re just too smart, too talented. Why don’t you use all that talent to build something for you, not for someone else?” Dierdron’s eyes bore in, and Charlie looked at the floor.
“You’re not an analyst, Charlie, you’re not a consultant. People like you can make big things happen. People like you change the world. You’ve got more potential than me and all the other partners here wrapped up together. What are you waiting for?”
Charlie broke away and turned the doorknob. For the last time he looked at the photo of Mt. Everest that was on the wall opposite of Dierdron’s desk, with the inscription that read “Big Hills Are The Only Ones Worth Climbing.”
“I know you’re pretty upset right now, Charlie, but I hope you’ll think about it. That’s where you belong, up there on top of the mountain, not down below as part of the support team. You’ve got the brains and the energy and the work ethic, Charlie. You just don’t have the dream. Why don’t you use this opportunity to look for your dream. Who knows, you might find the real Charlie McKeever buried under all of those duties and obligations you don’t have to shoulder again for a while.”
Charlie looked from the mountain back down to the door handle, hesitated for a moment, then twisted it slowly.
“I’m really sorry, Charlie. I meant it when I said I’ll help in any way if you just...”
Charlie stepped out of the office and pulled the door shut behind him, cutting off the tail end of Dierdron’s last sentence.
* * *
Charlie sat on the deck of The Patio, a favorite after-work hang-out of the executive and professional crowd, looking out over the bay. The sun was high and a soft breeze was blowing across the bay, momentarily transporting Charlie back to the family vacation in Belize several years ago. He was tempted to just let go, to drift with this moment. This was the first time he’d really ventured forth from his house since being fired two weeks earlier, and the first time in many years that he’d sat in the sun on a weekday (a workday!) with nothing more important to do than sit in the sun.
But Cheryl von Noyes would be arriving at any moment, so he had to remind himself to not look too chipper. Cheryl, an old friend from the Entrepreneurship Club at St. Johns, had recently lost her job as controller of a local manufacturing company. Charlie knew she’d received only a meager severance and suspected she’d be pretty desperate, so he didn’t want to make her feel bad by being too happy or upbeat himself. He slumped down into the chair, put his cheeks into his hands, and looked out over the water, conjuring up mental images of Dick Dierdron giving him the axe.
“Hey, Charlie McKeever!” Cheryl had slipped up to the table while Charlie was working to resurrect his anger. “You don’t look very happy for a man who’s just been liberated after fourteen years of hard labor!” Cheryl plopped joyously down into the chair beside Charlie and leaned over to wrap him in a bear hug. Over his shoulder, he could see how interesting he had become to everyone else on the deck, now that they thought he was a newly liberated ex-con.
“My word, Cheryl,” Charlie exclaimed, trying to keep his balance as his chair tipped toward his friend, “you sure are happy for someone who’s just gotten canned!”
“Are you kidding,” Cheryl laughed, “I wasn’t canned, I was let out of the can! And with every new day of freedom, I appreciate all the more how big a favor they did for me.”
The couple at the next table picked up their drinks and moved inside. Evidently, the thought of sitting adjacent to two people just out of “the can” was too much for them.
‘So how are you doing, Charlie Swordfish?” That was his name in the computer stock market game they used to play, and she still used it.
Charlie sighed and looked at his feet, now sporting Velcro-laced sandals instead of the polished black wingtips he’d worn nearly every day for the past fourteen years. “Oh, well, I guess...” Charlie sighed again and looked at a point far beyond the horizon. “I guess I’m doing as well as any unemployed bum could be doing, after his life’s work and his future dreams have been ripped away from him.” The phrase sounded every bit as eloquent as he’d hoped it would be when he’d rehearsed it earlier that day. “I’m looking around, but it’s pretty hard when you’ve got the Scarlet “F” – Fired! – as the last line on your resume.”
Charlie sighed again, and glanced to see if he’d hit a sympathetic vein. Instead, Cheryl was laughing.
“Oh, Charlie! You always did know how to crack me up!” Charlie started to smile with her, and soon was laughing himself, overlooking his annoyance that she was laughing at him, at his carefully prepared little speech. “What’s so funny, Cheryl von Nosey?” That had been her nomde guerre for the computer game.
She hardly looked any older, Charlie thought. Her hair was now cut short in the layered pixie style that so many women executives seemed to be wearing these days. She was wearing a white shirt with a silk scarf and a red blazer, prompting Charlie to wonder if she had a job interview scheduled later that afternoon. On the blazer’s lapel was a large gold pin forming the letters “FPN” in bold block letters. There was a small jewel at one end, with indentations evidently marking the planned homes of more in the future.
“Sorry, but as you were talking I had this picture pop into my mind of you and your family sitting under a bridge, warming your hands over a trashcan fire.” Cheryl laughed again at the image. “Can you imagine anything more ridiculous, especially for the guy voted most likely to win big by the Entrepreneurship Club?”
“Well, yeah, as a matter of fact I can,” Charlie sniffed. “You must obviously have a new job already lined up to be taking this so lightly.”
“Well,” she smiled, “yes and no.” Charlie hated that answer – it was how the accountants usually responded when he asked if one of his projects was making money. “But I take it from your sad face that you’re still looking. How’s it going?”
This was not at all what Charlie had envisioned for this meeting. Not only was Cheryl not a broken woman, she was positively ebullient. Instead of raising her up from the depths, he now saw the very real likelihood that he was going to bring her down. He wanted to say something, but was afraid he might cry instead if he tried. Charlie choked a sigh, and as Cheryl’s face grew suddenly serious he looked back out at the bay, wishing he were anywhere else in the world but here with this old friend, whose equanimity in facing a catastrophe that had left him an emotional invalid made him feel acutely inadequate.
“Since you asked first, Charlie, I’ll tell you. I’m not looking for a job. I am determined that never again will I look for a job, never again place my future in the hands of someone whose only interest is how much money my work puts into their pocket, and whose interest dies the minute creating a more prosperous future for me becomes economically inconvenient for them.”
There was no rancor in Cheryl’s voice, but her words were wrapped around a steel reinforcing beam. “You know what the letters J-O-B stand for, Charlie? ‘Jilted, Obsolete, and Broke!’ Why, the word itself comes from the Old Testament – you know, Job, the character who had everything taken away from him? That can happen to anyone who’s got a J-O-B.”
“But Cheryl,” Charlie protested, “not everyone’s cut out for entrepreneurship. It can be a big risk.”
“I’m not talking about entrepreneurship, Charlie,” she replied. “I’m talking about getting back to what’s really important: to having work that makes a difference, work that has meaning beyond just making a paycheck. Work you can be passionate about, work you love to do and can do with love. Work that...”
Cheryl was bouncing slightly, and starting to trip over her tongue in her hurried excitement. “Work that can be love made visible. That’s what Kahlil Gibran wrote in TheProphet – work islove made visible. Wait, listen to this...” Cheryl pulled a small book from her purse and turned to a paperclipped page. “Let me read you a little poem that changed my attitude about work forever.” Charlie read the book’s cover, unadorned except for a title of apparently hand-calligraphered letters reading Little Nuggets of Wisdom by McZen. Cheryl read aloud:
Someone with a job
is never secure;
Someone with a calling
is never unemployed.
“It’s true, Charlie. If you only have a job, you’ll never be secure, no matter how much money you make. If your work is a calling, there’ll always be important work to be done, even if the pay is occasionally low.”
Charlie shook his head and snorted, “The only calling I want to hear right now is a headhunter calling to tell me about a great high-paying job.”
“So you can once again wind up jilted, obsolete, and broke?” Cheryl actually looked angry. “Life’s too short to trade it away for money, and if you don’t love your work like it’s a calling, all the money in the world won’t bring you peace.”
“I don’t know,” Charlie replied. “I wouldn’t even mind losing a job if I got one of those top-tier golden parachute packages. I could get used to being insecure if I had a bank vault loaded to the brim.”
“Don’t bank on it,” Cheryl retorted. “You remember reading about Mad Dog Dunleavy, the so-called turnaround artist who would come into a company and hack away thousands of jobs to pump up short-term profits – and the stock price – then walk away with a multi-million dollar bonus before the empty shell collapsed behind him?”
”Yeah, sure,” Charlie replied. “Only he didn’t get away fast enough at the Top Drawer company – the shell collapsed on top of him and he got fired.”
“My point exactly,” crowed Cheryl. “No matter how high up, someone with a job is never secure.”
“No,” Charlie shot back “my point exactly. “Mad Dog was a dismal failure, but you know as well as I do that his lawyers willsqueeze millions out of the Top Drawer board to make him go away. I could live for a long time with that kind of insecurity!”
Cheryl leaned back in her chair and looked at Charlie as if with fresh eyes, and Charlie sensed that she might not like what she was seeing. “Mad Dog is exactly what is wrong with our country today. The man had no values, no guiding vision, no central principles beyond padding his bank account. He didn’t care about the people whose lives he affected – whose careers he trashed! He didn’t care about whether his company’s products made a difference in other people’s lives. All he cared about was fattening up an obscene bank account that he built on the backs of the people whose livelihoods he shattered in the name of boosting quarterly profits.”
“Why, Cheryl,” Charlie said somewhat defensively, “if I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re becoming a socialist.”
”Quite the contrary, Charlie. In fact, I think what Mad Dog and people like him are doing is the opposite of capitalism, and of entrepreneurship. Capitalists and entrepreneurs create value; mad dogs destroy it. Someone like Mad Dog Dunleavy doesn’t belong in the same breath with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, with Herb Kelleher or Mary Kay Ash, and the others we studied in school. You wanna know what the difference is, Charlie? Those people, those heroes of American capitalism, had a dream, a big dream, a dream that involved creating jobs and growing people, not destroying jobs and humiliating people.”
Cheryl realized that in her excitement she was preaching to everyone on the patio, and as she sat back in her chair smiled to think that they must not know what to make of this “ex-con” who so passionately defended the art of capitalistic entrepreneurship. “Charlie, I just can’t see you, of all people, wanting to be anything like Mad Dog Dunleavy. In school, we all wanted to be like you – Charlie the Swordfish, Charlie the Swashbuckler, Charlie the man of mountain-sized dreams.”
Charlie sipped his Coke. “It’s not so easy, Cheryl, when the kids come along, and the mortgage payments and the car payments, and pretty soon the college tuition payments. I guess if I had a bank account the size of Mad Dog’s, I’d be a little more adventurous.”
“You think Mad Dog’s happy? You think he’s secure?” Before Charlie even had time to think about answering, Cheryl went on. “Let me tell you, the other day Iwas going in for an appointment with my shrink and...” Cheryl noticed Charlie’s shock at the confession and interjected, “Yeah, I have problems that I can’t figure out on my own, and I’ve learned that being ashamed to ask for help when you need it is a sign of weakness, not strength.” Then she continued, “So guess who was in the waiting room when I came out? Go on Charlie, give it a shot – who was sitting there, looking miserable as a starving hound in a rainstorm? That’s right Charlie, the Mad Dog himself.”
Charlie stared quietly into the depths of his Coke, looking to Cheryl like a poor beaten dog himself. “Sorry I got so carried away, Charlie. I just hate to see you wasting your time, your life, chasing this phantom of security. You can’t get it from a job, you can’t get it from money. It’s got to be from something bigger. You have to have a mission, a vision, a calling.”
“What does he do for you?” asked Charlie, still not looking up from his Coke.
“What does who do?”
“Your, uhm, your shrink?”
“Dr. Connors? He helps me see things the way they really are. It’s the ultimate challenge in life, you know? To see things as they really are, not as they used to be; not as you wish they were or think they ought to be; not as you’re afraid they are or might become; but just simply as they are.”
Charlie looked at her, not quite comprehending.
“You just lost a job that, truth be told, you really didn’t like and certainly wouldn’t have been doing except for the money. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Charlie shrugged, still not in sync with her.
“The answer is yes, Charlie. The answer is yes. That’s what Dr. Connors helps me figure out. The world is what it is; part of becoming a real adult is to see the world as it is and for what it is, without having that perception distorted by the lens of your ego, your emotions, your ambition. And to accept it as it is, without judging good or bad, because that’s the first step to being able to change it. To understand that Shakespeare was right when he said that something is made good or bad only by the way we think about it.”
“Is he nice?”
“This Dr. Connors, is he... I mean ... What I am really trying to ask, Cheryl, is if you have his phone number in case I want to call him.”
Cheryl smiled, warmed by a flood of affection for the wounded “swordfish” in front of her. Though he probably never even knew it, she thought, it was his very weakness and vulnerability, his willingness to ask for help, that made him the natural leader of the Entrepreneurship Club. She lifted her purse, extracted one of her business cards, and wrote Dr. Connor’s name and number across the top.
“FPN,” Charlie commented, trying to be nonchalant as he scanned the card, but already nervous at the prospect of making an appointment to see a psychiatrist, “I noticed that on your pin, as well. What does it stand for?”
“Future Perfect Now,” Cheryl replied. “It’s my new business.”
“Future... Perfect ... Now?” Charlie asked. “What is it, what do you do?”
Cheryl pulled another book from her purse, this one bigger than the little book of poetry. “This, Charlie, is my Dreamcyclopedia. It contains photographs, news clippings, and other records of my future.” She said it with a straight face, so Charlie wasreluctant to laugh, but he did smile when he asked, “Your future? Have you discussed this, ahh, dream book with your shrink?”
“Yes Charlie, actually I have. We’re working on it together. Rather than trying to take me back through everything that was wrong about my past, he wants me to move ahead and think about everything that’s right about my future.”
Charlie looked at Cheryl, then at her Dreamcyclopedia, then back at Cheryl, searching for some hint that he was about to be socked with a punch line. When it didn’t come, he asked, “Well, it sounds, umm, interesting. Will you tell me more about it?”
“Not now Charlie. You’re not ready.” Cheryl put the book back in her purse and stood up to leave. “Frankly, Charlie, it’s not something you’d be interested in right now. Your dreams are too small. As long as your primary fixation is on money and the vain hope for security, FPN has nothing to offer you. Doctor Connors works a lot with a lot of displaced executives. See if he can help you figure things out. Then maybe we can talk again.”
She gave Charlie a quick hug and turned to go. “Thanks for the Coke.” With a wink toward the eavesdropping neighbors at the next table, she was gone.
* * *
Midway through the third appointment, Dr. Connors walked over to the picture window and looked down. It had never occurred to Charlie to wonder what was on the other side of that window, engrossed as he had been in telling Dr. Connors his story, and answering his periodic questions. He was beginning to wonder what Cheryl saw in the man, since so far Charlie had done almost all the talking.
“Come on over,” the doctor said in a tone that was more directing than asking, “take a look at this.”
Charlie looked down into the courtyard below, in the middle of which was a swimming pool shimmering in the sun. “It’s the therapy pool for PT patients,” the doctor explained, adding with a sly smile that on particularly hot days other inhabitants of the complex were known to take a dip. “Think of that pool as your subconscious mind, Charlie. It’s the real you, the authentic you, a ‘you’ that has total clarity, perfect serenity, and that is connected with infinite wisdom and knowledge of all things.”
Charlie looked into the pool, trying to imagine himself in that form, peaceful and all-knowing. The surface was so calm he could read the lane marker numbers on the bottom as clearly as if there had been no water in the pool at all.
“Uh-oh,” said Dr. Connors, “here comes the little troublemaker that has deceived you into thinking that he’s the real you.” He pointed down to the walkway that linked the swimming pool with the entrance of the physical therapy unit, where an adult therapist was futilely trying to restrain a young boy in a bathing suit who, despite a noticeable limp, was surging toward the pool.
“What do you mean, the little trouble...”
“Shh!” Dr. Connors held up a finger to his mouth. “Watch what happens to the letters at the bottom of the pool.” Just then, the little boy leaped into the pool with alopsided cannonball, his splash forcing the therapist to make a quick retreat from the pool’s edge. He came up laughing, arms flailing, and splashing water in the direction of the therapist now standing a safe distance away.
“Read the words embedded in the tile at the deep end of the pool.” Dr. Connors instructed. “What do they say?”
“You’re kidding, right?” The surface of the pool was now so furiously rippled that Charlie couldn’t even see the bottom, much less make out any words that might be printed there.
“Sit down, Charlie.” Rather than going back to his chair, Dr. Connors perched himself atop the desk as Charlie took his place back on the sofa against the wall. “Now, close your eyes and just relax. Let the image of the pool, before it was disrupted by that little boy, come gently back into your mind. And just to help you hold away the disrupting influence of the little troublemaker for a moment, I’m going to recite some words that are probably very familiar to you. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not...’”
“Goodness and mercy!” Charlie blurted out. “Those are the words in the pool! Goodness and mercy. I saw them in my mind as clear as day, as soon as I knew you were reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm!”
Dr. Connors smiled. “When I was in med school, someone had posted a sign on our locker room bulletin board that asked ‘what is it you know but are pretending to not know?’ Tell me, Charlie, what did you know fourteen years ago when you were involved in the Entrepreneurship Club that you are pretending to not know today?”
Charlie closed his eyes again, let his thinking drift back to the classroom where they met every Thursday evening to share their big dreams. As clearly as he’d seen the letters on the bottom of the pool, Charlie now saw the faces of his fellow students riveted as he described his dream of building a worldwide organization of people who were not only committed to making the world a better place, but who received economic rewards commensurate with their individual contribution toward that goal. “My God,” Charlie thought, “look at them. They actually took me seriously! They thought I was really going to make it happen.”
From a deep recess of his mind, Charlie thought he heard his mother’s voice yelling out: “Not yet Charlie! Don’t you go in that water until I can come and watch you.” Then he heard the slapping of bare feet and a boy’s voice – his own voice as a little boy – shrieking. “The pool! Last one in’s a rotten egg!” He could hear the feet slapping against the pool deck, close now. Then he imagined himself back in the classroom, looking around at the faces of his fellow students. Cheryl was speaking: “And Charlie is so right! The most important thing about what he’s saying is...”
The image of the classroom erupted into a maelstrom of ripples. “You can’t keep me out of the pool,” the little boy’s voice was shouting, though Charlie wasn’t sure whether the youngster was talking to him or to talking back to the voice of his mother. The little boy was splashing everywhere, creating chaos and confusion. The earlier clarity of his thoughts dissipated into a confused kaleidoscope of images, complete with a soundtrack of criticism, disappointment and pity – all directed at him.
“What did you see, Charlie?”
Charlie opened his eyes, realized he was crying. “I don’t know. Cheryl was trying to tell me ... it was something really important ... but the kid jumped in the pool before she said it and I lost the image.” Charlie started crying again, feeling stupid for crying and thankful for the Kleenex on the table next to the sofa.
“Charlie, we’re almost at the end of our hour, but I’d like to do something I almost never do. Because it’s coming up on noon, my next hour is open. I’d like to help you learn more about that little troublemaker who’s playing around in your pool. Can you stay?”
Charlie forced a smile. “I’m unemployed, Doc. I’ve got no place to go and all the time in the world to get there.”
Dr. Connors brought them both a cup of coffee, then pulled the blinds to darken the room. He asked Charlie to close his eyes, relax, and let his mind just drift freely.
When Charlie seemed sufficiently relaxed, Dr. Connors continued. “Now, I am going to describe several situations to you, and you tell me in a sentence or two what you think is going on. Don’t worry about trying to get what you think is the right answer, just describe the first scenario that pops into your mind. OK?”
Charlie nodded his assent and Dr. Connors went on. “Number one. You’ve been called into your boss’ office. He’s there with the company lawyer, the head of security, a uniformed police officer, and another man you don’t recognize. They’re all frowning and everyone seems distinctly uncomfortable the moment you step into the room. What’s about to happen – first thing that comes to your mind?”
“I’m about to be fired and escorted to my car by the security guard and the cop to make sure I don’t cause trouble or steal anything on the way out.”
“Alright,” said Dr. Connors, “here’s the next one. You’ve applied for a job, one that you really want, and it seems to be going very well. They call to say you are their preferred candidate, but they want to check a few references, including the boss who just fired you. One week later you get a letter regretfully informing you that you were not selected for the job. What happened?”
“That’s obvious. The S.O.B. wasn’t content with just trashing my job, he had to trash my career as well, so he gave one of those politically correct references that between the lines says that he thinks I’m a loser and that they could do better.”
Dr. Connors paused for a moment and Charlie could hear the scratching of his pen before he went on. “Here’s number three. It takes you ten months to find another job, but the chemistry just isn’t there with the new boss, and very quickly you get fired. The next search takes almost a year, and in your thirdmonth on the job the company announces a layoff that wipes out your job. Another two years go by and you still don’t have a job in the traditional sense. Describe your circumstances.”
Charlie groaned. “Pam and I have moved back in with my parents and I contribute to the household budget by mowing lawns and delivering pizza.”
“OK. Next one. Instead of taking a traditional job, you decide to start your own business.” Connors noted that Charlie grimaced at that prospect, and went on. “Things come together much more slowly than you had anticipated, and you exhaust every available source of cash – savings, retirement accounts, everything. You’re starting to bounce checks and still have no sales on the books. What happens next?”
“Bankruptcy.” Charlie spit the word out as if it was an insect that had somehow crawled into his mouth, and when Doctor Connors remained silent, he added, “Bankruptcy, humiliation, divorce; I’m sure you’ve seen it all, Doc, what comes next? Drugs and alcohol? Suicide?”
“Relax, Charlie. Let me ask the questions for now. You’ll have your chance soon enough. Now, for these next three, I want you to put yourself in the state of mind you were in right after you got fired. Try to bring back, as vividly as possible, all the emotions you were feeling, as though it had just happened.”
Charlie looked as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. Connors went on. “You’re sitting at home going through the want ads when suddenly a memory pops into your head from college days. What is that memory, the first thing you think of?”
“Failing calculus during my freshman year.”
“Number two. You’re sitting at home going through the want ads and the phone rings. It’s a headhunter who tells you that you’re one of two final candidates for the job you really want. She says that you know the other candidate, but she can’t reveal who it is. Who do you immediately suspect?”
“Jeremy Potts. Lord, I don’t have a chance. Even I would offer the job to Potts before I gave it to me.”
“One more, Charlie. You get a call from your banker. He tells you that the big conglomerate to which they sold your mortgage has a policy against carrying loans on people who are unemployed. If you don’t have a job within six weeks, they’re going to demand full and immediate payment of your home loan. You take out a pad of paper and start making a list of all your options. Tell me what’s on your list.”
Charlie thought for a minute. “All I need is to have a job? Any job?” Eyes still closed, he took Connors’ silence to be acquiescence and continued. “Well, I could get a job down at the Stay-Put plant. They’re always looking for people to fill the night shift, and really don’t care what your qualifications are as long as you can make your arms go up and down in time with the assembly line. I could ... let’s see. I could go to Pam’s dad and ask him to list me as one of his employees, but with the understanding that hedidn’t have to pay me a salary. I could always go back to delivering pizza like I did in college. Is that enough?”
“That’s enough Charlie. Go ahead and open your eyes and let’s talk about what you’ve said. What you just completed is a standardized test. The first series of questions measure where you fall on the optimism-pessimism scale, and the second set measures how you respond to anxiety. Taken together, Charlie, thesetwo tests often show how seriously your conscious mind – if you will, the little troublemaker in the pool – can distort your perception of reality. Actually, there is a correct response to each of the questions you just answered. And you missed every single one, Charlie, which suggests to me that your future success and happiness depend on doing some reprogramming up here,” and Dr. Connors pointed to his own temple.
“Let’s go through them one-by-one,” Connors said, returning to his chair. “In the first scenario, when you were called into your boss’ office, you automatically assumed you were about to be fired. In fact, the boss’ car had been stolen from the parking lot. The person you didn’t know was his insurance agent. The only reason you were called was to see if you’d noticed anything unusual, and for the boss to ask you for a ride home.”
“Oh come on!” Charlie protested. “That’s so unlikely! You can’t just...”
“Charlie,” Doctor Connors cut him off, “this question measures your tendency to jump to pessimistic conclusions. At least you didn’t automatically assume that you were about to be arrested because someone had planted illegal drugs in your desk – you’d be surprised how many people do – but your response is toward the negative end of the scale. It’s especially important for you to watch out for this, because over time people tend to find what they’re looking for.”
“Are you saying that after fourteen years I got fired because I expected to be fired?”
“You tell me, Charlie. Did you expect to be fired? Were there times youimagined it happening? Planned what you would say when it did? In fact, Charlie, were there times that in your imagination getting fired was actually a relief, the lifting of a burden? Were there times when being able to tell the boss what you really thought felt pretty good?”
“Guilty on all counts.” Charlie smiled sheepishly.
“The second scenario, the one where your boss was asked for a reference? Here’s what actually happened. The hiring company hit hard times and imposed an across-the-board hiring freeze. But rather than tell you that, it was easier to just send the standard rejection letter. Your boss actually gave you a very nice recommendation.”
Charlie looked skeptical.
“Remember what you told me his last words were as you were walking out? Something about wanting to help? Do you think he was lying to you? Laying a trap so he could deliberately wreck your opportunity to make a living?”
“Well, when you put it that way.”
“It’s another of the problematic behaviors of the little troublemaker in the pool. Needing to have someone to blame when things go wrong, rather than accepting that sometimes things simply go wrong. He ends up creating villains where there are none. But if you react as though there are villains out there, you invariably create enemies – in your own mind first, and then in the real world as you respond to situations in inappropriate ways.”
Charlie shifted uncomfortably, recalling the satisfaction he’d felt at closing the door on Dierdron’s parting offer to help. It was sincerely meant, Charlie knew in his heart. Dierdron would have given a reference so glowing it would have embarrassed him to hear it. And if that’s true, Charlie thought, then maybe he was also telling the truth when he said I had more potential than to spend the rest of my career at LPI. Instead of being a villain, maybe he actually believed he was doing me a favor by pushing me out the door.
“In the third scenario, where you lost two jobs almost as soon as you got them, your response was that you moved back in with your parents, and took on menial odd jobs. What really happened,” and at this Dr. Connors smiled at the paradox of claiming to know more about Charlie’s future than he did himself, “is that you went back to Logistics Precision and signed them up as the first customer inwhat very quickly became a multi-million dollar business called McKeever Enterprises.”
Charlie rolled his eyes.
“Wake up, Charlie,” Dr. Connors admonished. “Isn’t that a more likely scenario than moving back home and delivering pizza?”
Charlie nodded, reluctantly.
“In each question, you were mentally projecting the inevitability of the worst possible outcome. I see it all the time. Someone loses a job, and next thing you know in their own mind their family is starving because they’re the only one who can’t seem to find another job, even in this booming economy.”
Charlie smiled, even more sheepishly this time. He’d been doing an awful lot of awfulizing lately.
“In scenario number four, where you ran out of money and start bouncing checks, your first response was a declaration of bankruptcy. Actually, Charlie, that’s the all-too-common practice of blowing things out of proportion, something else the little troublemaker is good at. In fact, you have significant equity in your home, don’t you?”
Charlie nodded, thinking of the frequent letters from his bank and others offering him home equity loans. He could support his family for a long time on what he could borrow in that manner if he had to.
“The next three scenarios measured your response to anxiety.” Dr. Connors pulled a form from his desk drawer, stuck it into the clipboard, and scribbled a few notes on it. “Anxiety is the mortal foe of creative thinking and decisive action. A mind that is clouded with anxiety conjures up all sorts of fears, fears that paralyze your initiative. Fear is the most malignant of all emotions. Your own fears can create a prison more confining than any iron bars. Let’s see how you did.”
Connors looked back at his clipboard. “When the mind is full of anxiety, memories of past failures loom very large and seem very likely to be repeated, while past successes seem diminished and in any event unlikely to repeat themselves. When I asked you to put yourself in a state of acute anxiety and then to remember something from your college days, what was your first memory?
“Failing calculus,” Charlie responded.
Dr. Connors nodded, and asked, “You have a lot of wonderful memories from college, don’t you?” Charlie smiled, seeing a torrent of images flashed by: meeting Pam in the library, the night on the beach when he proposed and she said yes, being elected president of the Entrepreneurship Club, even delivering pizza in his old beat up Honda.
“If, instead of asking you to experience anxiety, I had put you in a frame of mind that was at peace and full of courage and confidence, you would have selected one of those other, more positive memories as your first choice. When you’re anxious, the little troublemaker becomes like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of fear. He dredges up memories of past failures and frustrations to frighten you out of taking any risk. The unfortunate paradox is that only by taking some risk will you ever alleviate the root cause of your anxiety.
“The second thing that happens is the anxious mind distorts your perception of current reality. When you’re paralyzed by fear, your problems always seem bigger and more intractable than they really are, while your own resources seem to shrink away to insignificance. When I asked who you thought the other candidate was for the job you wanted, you immediately came up with Jeremy Potts. Why was that, Charlie?”
“Can you think of anyone, anyone at all, who you would less rather be stacked up against in the competition for a job than Jeremy Potts?”
Charlie shook his head. “Nobody. He’s the best. At everything he does. He could walk into any job he wanted.”
“So why assume Jeremy? Why not Elmer Fudd or Mr. Magoo or Dilbert? Surely you know people who are down at that capacity level, don’t you?”
Charlie smiled, broadly this time. “Absolutely. In fact, I used to work with quite a few people like that.”
“And what if I told you the job you had applied for was assistant librarian over at the college, rather than being the high-powered executive job I think you probably had in mind. How would Jeremy do in that job?”
“He’d go berserk the first week, with no enemies to conquer and no troops to lead, just books to take care of.”
“And what if you got that job, at least as something temporary. How would you do?”
“Actually, John,” Charlie used the first name without eventhinking about it, the first time he had done so, “I’d love it. Two things I love are good books and being left alone to do my own work, and that job would give me both.”
“So any library board that hired Jeremy over you would be making a grievous mistake, right?”
“In that case, yes.”
“Between now and the next time we get together, Charlie, why don’t you try assuming things in your favor? Assume a field that plays to your strengths and desires, not someone else’s, and see if that doesn’t give you a different – a bigger and brighter – picture of your own future.”
“Which brings me to the third anxiety scenario. When you are under anxiety’s fat thumb, you simply close your eyes to opportunities right in front of you which, if you took them, could lead to circumstances that would chase the anxiety away. When you had to have a job or risk losing your home, all you could think of were menial jobs – jobs that would not challenge you, satisfy you, or reward you.”
“But you told me I had to have the job right away,” Charlie protested.
“Yes, I did. And how long would it have taken for you to go down to Kinko’s and have them make up business cards for Charlie McKeever, president of McKeever Enterprises?”
“That wouldn’t have worked!”
“Why not? Many of my clients do exactly that. They make up business cards, but have no idea what their business will do until they sign up their first customer. And guess what, Charlie – they usually end up with more money and greater security than the people who think they’re opting for money and security by taking jobs they really don’t like.
“The hardest job in the world, Charlie, is to see reality as it really is – to not believe the twisted caricature that the little troublemaker wants to paint. You’ve got to break out of what I call the Iron Triangle of False Personality – Ego, Emotion and Ambition – before you can become the real you, the authentic, meant-to-be you. But that has to wait for another time, because my waiting room’s going to start backing up if I don’t move along here.”
Charlie stood up and extended his right hand. “Thanks, John. This has been more enlightening than you’ll ever know. You’ve really given me some things to think about.”
“That’s good, Charlie. Let me give you one more – sort of the ultimate paradox that I feel you will soon confront face-to-face. Your success depends upon your ability to first see and accept reality as it really is, but then at the same time to expect the miracle that will be necessary to change that reality into what you want it to be as you create your own future.”
“Now there’s a thought,” exclaimed Charlie. “Creating my own future!”
“I don’t think we’ll need much longer,” Dr. Connors said, patting Charlie on the shoulder as hestepped out of the office.