Y DAD FOUND A JOB he liked and worked it all his life. I assumed I would do the same. I managed the first part. Straight out of college, I joined a television company, loved what I saw, and settled in for the long haul. We were a big, big deal — we were all over Masterpiece Theatre for two decades, we ran out of space for all the Emmys we won, we opened a movie division and won two Oscars our first time out. And though I was a brand-new hire, I had only two layers between me and the board of directors.
The company was owned by old showbiz people. They ran the place like the family they were, and we responded like family. We had each other’s backs. Our loyalty was fanatical. Once, I worked 60 days in a row, got a day off, and worked 30 more straight. My wife was pregnant at the time, but we thought it was worth it. I was building something that would carry us to retirement, with a pension and a body of work behind me that we could be proud of. l got promoted, early and often. The family trusted me, and I trusted them right back. For 13 more years, I was happy as a clam.
Then the management changed.
We were always profitable, but the new guys wanted more. They got it by cutting costs to the bone. I was a cost. I got cut.
I felt a lot of things. First, anger and frustration. My “family” was getting trashed. It was like watching an uncle getting kicked to death by a mob and being unable to intervene.
Second, I felt betrayed. Not by the people I had worked for — they went in the very first wave. I felt betrayed by my own naiveté. The modern world had snuck up on me, and I hadn’t seen it coming. The rules had changed, and I hadn’t noticed. My fault, basically.
Third, I felt scared. Remember that old saying, “one missed paycheck from disaster”? That was me. I had a mortgage, a car loan, and a daughter, and if we cut costs to the bone we might survive seven months on what we had in the bank. Then what? I had no transferable skills. Jobs were hard to get. Especially jobs I would want to do.
I was grieving. I didn’t want to leave the world of entertainment. It was all I knew and all I wanted to know. I loved the idea of making an audience happy.
And I was 39 years old, soon to be 40. Not a great age to be unemployed. But there was a certain symmetry about that upcoming mile stone that nagged at me. It was the halfway point of my working life. If there was ever a time to make a change, this was it.
I’m a naturally belligerent person. Show me a challenge, and I’ll beat it or die trying. I took all the anger and fear and frustration I was feeling and channeled it into implacable determination. I said to myself, “I’ve tried it their way, and now I’ll try it mine.” I said to myself; “I don’t want a boss.” I asked myself “What can I do to keep myself in the entertainment world?”
I decided to write thrillers. My real family backed me. My wife got a job to help tide us over, and my daughter waitressed on Sundays. I decided my main character would be Jack Reacher, downsized out of the U.S. Army, just as I had been downsized out of television. It was therapy, for me and for lots of other people suffering the same thing. The books went on to become international best-sellers.
But that’s not the point. The point is, if you’re fired at 40, it’s not all about hurt and betrayal and fear. It’s about opportunity. By that time in your life, you’ve learned a few things. You’ve got skills and work habits. You’re in charge. I’m not suggesting you become a novelist. In fact, I’d prefer it if you didn’t — I don’t need the competition. But try something. Anything. Sit back, take a breath, believe in yourself; identify your dream, and go for it 110%. Trust me, your motivation will never be as strong. And the chance might never come your way again.