I was laid off in March 1986, a casualty of falling oil prices and a downturn in the industry. This was incredibly stressful. A little over four years since graduating from college I was now unemployed and my wife was seven months pregnant with our second child.
The company provided decent severance benefits and “outplacement” services. These included the use of temporary offices, telephones with unlimited long distance service, and clerical support for typing resumes. They also arranged for a psychological counselor to conduct some group therapy sessions as many of us were reeling after the sudden loss of our jobs.
It has now been over thirty years since those outplacement counseling sessions, and I don’t remember much of what was discussed, with two exceptions. The counselor led the group in a couple of very useful exercises designed to help us understand and accept the proper perspective on our situation, and to remember what was most important in our lives.
She asked each of us to start with a clean sheet of paper and to draw a line down the middle of the page, top to bottom. At the bottom we were to label the end of the line with a zero, and at the top of the line we were to put our age (I was twenty-six). We were then directed to recall major events and meaningful experiences in our lives, such as key relationships, marriages, births, deaths, graduations, vacation trips, anything we thought was personally significant. We were to make tick marks and labels for these events in the appropriate place on our life time line. Each of us marked our page and we all included a tick mark at the top of the line just below our current age that was labeled “Laid Off” or “Terminated” or some other sarcastic (or profane) description for what had just happened to us the week before.
The counselor told us to look at our life lines and consider the nature of the events we had noted. They had emotional impact at the time they occurred, but the significance and relevance for most of them had now faded. They were still important memories but likely did not affect our current feelings and thoughts as they once did. They were now just part of our history.
She asked us to imagine the line extending up from the top of the page, and depending on our current age stretching two, three, or even four times its current length to represent our total life expectancy. The age at the top would now be 75, or 90, or 100. She encouraged us to think of the multitude of future significant life events we would experience and to mentally add them to our lines. Could we see that the tick mark representing the layoff was just one of many marks that would appear on our final life line? This exercise helped us gain perspective on the relative meaning of our recent job loss compared to the sum of our past and future life experiences.
For the second exercise she asked us to imagine that we had died at the end of our extended life line. She told us to write down what we would want to have inscribed on our tombstones to indicate that we had lived a successful life. We all gave it some thought and wrote our responses. After a few minutes we were surprised when she had each of us read our definition for success out loud to the rest of the group. There was a mix of answers. Many had to do with family: “He was a good father.” “Successfully raised three kids to be responsible adults.” Some were religious: “Lived a good Christian life.” A few were materialistic: “Traveled around the world” or “Retired rich and lived debt free.”
After all twenty-five of us read our descriptions of a successful life the counselor pointed out that not one of us had said anything at all about working for the company that had just laid us off. No one mentioned the oil and gas industry. Our definitions of successful lives had absolutely nothing to do with working as engineers or geologists or accountants. We all got it: she had helped us gain a reasonable perspective on what had just happened to us, that it was a big deal short term but was not going to define our lives forever going forward.
Stopping occasionally to consider the big picture is a valuable exercise that helps us maintain a healthy perspective in our lives.
(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)