Note from the editor: In the spirit of the secular New Year, this week’s East Village Mamele column was written by Marjorie Ingall’s husband, Jonathan Steuer, who’s been waiting patiently to get a word in edgewise (on this page, that is) all year long.
Yes, I’m officially one of those people now: I was just laid off. After three and a half years as a consumer researcher and strategy consultant, with no notice or severance, I was kicked to the curb. Sales were down and my former employer, Iconoculture, was focused on profits. Pushing the most experienced (and therefore most expensive) people out the door was indeed one way to balance their budget. But I thought I was safe. I built and managed a team, tripled our business, developed new products. No matter. I was out (along with 11 colleagues) just like that. Legal, but harsh!
I’m hardly the traditional “provider” — our family finances are very much a collaborative effort. When Marjorie and I got together I was in the midst of starting my first company (note: 1995 was too early for a social media startup). When I got laid off from another startup job post-9/11, I spent nearly two years freelancing and building another company (note: 2002 was too early for a new media measurement company too… notice a pattern?). Fortunately, Marjorie does well as a writer, so our financial circumstances are not (yet) dire. But to my mind, being a mensch is about contributing, about taking responsibility, and about working to one’s potential. And as “Tradition” (“Fiddler” Edition) teaches, musn’t The Papa scramble for a living and feed his wife and children?
Our nontraditional family logistics have eased the transition to “jobless Jonathan” for everyone but me. For many years, Marjorie and I have both worked from home. So, luckily, when I lost my job, there was no disruption in the daily rhythm of life. I’m still the breakfast-wrangler, making lattes, toasting waffles, boiling eggs and sitting with Maxine and Josie at our kitchen counter as they eat. The kids aren’t worried because “Daddy isn’t going to work.” Marjorie shuffles the kids out the door to school; I clean up the kitchen and head into my home office to tackle my work. The only difference is that right now I’m not getting paid for any of it.
That’s a bit of a blow. I just turned 43, and as an “officially-mid-life male,” I’m supposed to be bringing home the bacon. Metaphorical, not real bacon — I do have a pre-nup carve-out for bratwurst, but other pork products remain verboten. My new position has been imposed upon me by someone else, without my consent and beyond my control. I’ve been alternately pissed off, depressed, scared, and ultimately a bit embarrassed at my externally-imposed non-providing.
My next move might be easier to plot had I followed one of the two traditional Jewish career trajectories: I had nearly completed my pre-med requirements by senior year in college, and could have become a doctor like my maternal grandfather and like Marjorie’s father; failing
that, I could have stayed to finish my LSATs (rather than walking out, to my parents’ utter befuddlement) and become a lawyer like my father. But neither of these directions interested me as much as the intersection of media and technology. So instead I pursued an undergraduate degree in philosophy, a doctorate in communication theory and research, and a career as an entrepreneur, researcher and strategy consultant. “Tradition” has been relevant to my career path only as the baseline condition, the current state — the place innovative businesses try desperately to leave behind.
My lack of employment has focused my attention on what it means to have a traditional job. The blessings of both my Iconoculture gig and the (unpaid) startup before it, were that they were very flexible. Indeed, though I have worked long hours, I haven’t had a job that required me to spend all day, every day in an office since Josie (now 7) was only 10 months old. I love interspersing my work days with gardening, cooking and swimming with the kids. Do I want to give all that up? Might I have to in order to be a “good provider,” to be a mensch, to be The Papa? These are the hard questions.
Unemployment (the state of mind) presents a fine opportunity to ponder such questions, a kind of job-focused Days of Awe. Everything is up for examination. There’s time to think, to consider, to reflect before one is inscribed for the duration of the next gig. This is especially true right now: Looking for full-time work in November and December is tough going even in the best of circumstances, which these times surely aren’t. Few companies are hiring or are likely to do so before the Obama inauguration. Change may be something we can believe in, but it’s not happening yet!
A good strategy consultant helps you to develop a long-term plan or set of goals and work backwards from there to fill in tactics. Without vision or goals, it’s impossible to know next steps. What are my visions and goals? I’m starting with what is clear: It’s clear that I need to feel like I’m creating something beyond myself, something tangible — as I’ve said for years, “Making not just the brochure for the thing, but the thing itself.” It’s clear that I value building teams of people I respect and trust. As my longtime friend and newly-credentialed fellow Ph.D., Jenny Cool, recently reminded me, it’s clear I have an uncontrollable desire to teach — to infect my friends, colleagues and clients with the reasons why and not just the answers. It’s also clear that I’m not one of the standard-issue corporate cogs that Josie fights in the online game Toontown and that abound in many traditional workplaces. It’s also clear that I need to be practical, which means making money to support the family.
As I consider the long-term, I realize that the needs shaping my career direction are the same ones motivating me as a parent. Every day, Marjorie and I help “make” Josie and Maxine into the best people they can be by setting examples, teaching and just being there. We encourage respect and teamwork in our family. Marjorie and I are hardly “cog” parents either (our kids don’t even have the same last names!) and we’re practical problem-solvers who try to balance needs and wants and teach Maxine and Josie to do the same.
I’m still not sure what my long-term plan will be — it’s a work in progress. Short-term tactics include networking for full-time positions and consulting gigs, working on a pending technology patent and trying to write the book that has been gestating in my head for a decade. But whatever I do next and in the long term, I’m comfortable that my goals for providing emotionally and educationally for my family are in sync with my goals for professional achievement. I may not be following the traditional path, but I do always manage to uphold tradition, to pull my weight, to provide and to contribute in the ways that matter. And I’m confident that one way or another, I’ll be able to score some tasty bacon again before too long.