Raygrets; or, Adventures in bureaucracy

In my hand I am holding an unopened farewell card from M, dated March 2008. I am going to open it.

Later. I will open it later.

See, anticipation is the best part, and anxiety is the worst. The trick is to balance the anticipation with the anxiety, the promise with the purgatory.

The point I'm not getting at is: I am now a free agent.

Since being laid off from Raytheon last Monday [1], I've had plenty of time to... ponder. That's a funny word. Ponder. Pondering. If I say it often enough, it sounds like I'm doing something deep and meaningful, not just pacing around an apartment, cleaning the kitchen counter for the sixteenth time and trying to avoid the urge to write a vicious screed about my recently concluded Professional Experience. I hope you understand what I'm hinting at, otherwise you might have to sit down with me over a beer or two and let me give you the full theatrical performance, complete with hand gestures and full body spasms and grinding teeth.

Instead, I'll leave you with an iconic line from one of my managers, and we'll move on to other things. I believe this is called mentoring:

"When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but I had it beaten out of me and I'll beat it out of you, too."


And with that, I throw the last nineteen months of my professional life on the pyre and burn the thing to the ground--ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

* * * * *

Do you know what occupies my mind right now? Not much. That's really why I'm writing these words, not for pity--and the first one of you that says, "I'm sorry," will be the first against the wall--but for clarity. I follow my instincts, but I also try to edit and salvage the Idea from the Junk.

Did I learn everything I know from working at Boy Scout camp? Maybe. What occurs to me now is the summer of 1999, when I helped teach knot-tying to hyperactive twelve-year-olds. P, an assistant Scoutmaster from Troop 200, taught me how to untie knots. Have you ever tangled a rope or cord so thoroughly that throwing the thing away seemed more fitting than investing the time to untangle it? Some knots will frustrate you. A frustrated human will pull rashly at the rope, tightening the knot, making the problem worse.

The trick is, paradoxically, to make the knot bigger--to "bird's nest" it, as P said. Leave the free ends of the rope alone and pull the constricted loops out until the result is a pillowy ball of rope, a bird's nest. Then you have room to trace the ends back through from where they came.

That's what I tell myself I'm doing. I like that version of the story. It sounds like a parable, that I'm unknotting the rope before starting again. If I told you that I've actually been mulling around for eight days in a fog because I haven't summoned the constitution or the maturity to do exactly what I've often threatened to do--to define what I want and to do it my own way--then I'd have to tell you some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself... that I'd rather not admit to right now. [2]

Anyway, it is a good place to start: untangle, then untie, then... [This space intentionally left blank.]

I never understood the revulsion that some friends had to working for superbureaucracies, but now I get it. To work for a large organization is to trade control for security. Oversimplifying this as a continuum of control versus pay, I'd rather have more control than pay. The pay was handsome, but it wasn't enough to offset the emptiness. Now, I don't think money is the root of all evil or that large organizations are bad, but I've learned from experience that there are certain environments that I like and others that I do not like.

And who chose the job in the large corporation? Me. I should thank them for cutting the cord because I didn't have the courage to reach over my wallet and do it myself. I am aware of how sanctimonious this sounds.

I haven't worked out what's next yet, except to say that what's next isn't a hellbent dash to Get a Job. I have ideas. They don't belong in this post.

* * * * *

Let's step backwards for a moment. Let's touch down briefly at Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. It is March 2008, I am a systems engineer on an actual aerospace system, and I am still invincible. I am leaving to go to Texas for something that will not turn out well. I have a farewell card from M, but since I have not opened it yet, I do not know that it says:

Good luck with taking a new path in life!

Stay positive, confident, and you can achieve anything. Our short conversations were enlightening and entertaining, and I'll miss the riddles you speak. Take care.

Indeed, M, it was an immense pleasure to work with you, as well. I wish you had packed some of my confidence in that envelope so that I wouldn't have to take responsibility for creating it myself now.


  1. Erin Allworth, "Raytheon is trimming its workforce," The Boston Globe, 9 Nov 2010. Now, I'm not angry at all about being laid off, not even a little bit. What makes me angry is that they also laid off A, a college new hire that had been on the job for six weeks. Welcome to the workforce, kid, now get the hell out of here. [back to text]
  2. "I woke up at 3am with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on about she'd rather live in his world with him than live in her own world alone, and I laid there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep, and I thought to myself, 'Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh, get a life!' " [back to text]





Hope your new explorations bear fruit. Laying off on a Monday is the worst day to do it psychologically speaking - i'm not impressed. It's so ironic, the Raytheon out here is hiring like mad, some 200 people in a few months... not that you'd necessarily want to relocate, or work for a soul-sucking machine again :)

Looking forward to hearing where you land and how the rope looks when it's all untied. - C.

Hey Cherissa, thanks for the comment. The best part wasn't that it was done on a Monday. The best part was that our managers sent us cryptic emails on Friday inviting us to an "HR discussion"--thinly veiled enough to know what was coming all weekend. It's funny that they're hiring out there. When I applied to the Colorado positions last year--and these are the only positions in the company that ask for aerospace engineering backgrounds--I was rejected by the filter as unqualified. And then they stuck me on radars for six months. Someone in HR is a master of irony, I think.

Honestly, it's folks like you--and also some at Raytheon, to be fair--that kept me re-writing the post so I could try to make the point that big organizations and the people in them aren't by definition bad. It works well for some people, and some people work well in them. The problem for me came when some folks used Process as an excuse to be truculent.

In response to this:
"When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but I had it beaten out of me and I'll beat it out of you, too."

Once upon a time, I was a US Marine.
I was 19, and a Private First Class - and oh so very proud of my rank and position in life!
I had a 35 yr old Captain that was making a mistake. A damn big mistake. One that was going to cause me endless trouble, require weeks worth of extra work, and make our unit look bad to the Colonel. So, being conscientious and professional, I told the Captain 'a better way' of doing things.

He then tapped his shoulder, where his rank insignia was, and then tapped my shoulders and my single chevron, (He outranked me by 14 levels) and said these words: "Son, it's my job to 'think', it's your job to 'do'..."

I still had 3 more years on my enlistment contract. It was rough! I turned off my brain, and did what I was told...

That sums up my 4 years in the USMC, and is precisely why I will never work for another superbureaucracy.

I learned everything I could - the good and the bad - about operational leadership and management and team building from the USMC. I am grateful for that experience. But I never, ever, want to repeat it.

If you ask me, I think you just escaped with your life.

Take care. mjl

Thanks, Michael. I never would have pegged you as a Marine--you don't seem like the type to take orders. You learn something new everyday, etc.

Turning off your brain, eh? Yeah, that's what last week felt like for me: some kind of detox from having my brain in the off position for a while. So, I'm past that stage and now I just can't seem to find my discipline, I know it's around here somewhere...