There are a handful of movies that have had an impact on my life. I recall wanting to learn more about autism after watching Rain Man, and I had a sickening feeling for days after watching Schindler’s List. But no movie has had as much impact on my life as American Beauty. It’s my all-time favorite movie.
I’ve thought about writing this blog post for a long time but never had the guts to start it. I figured it was a bit too personal and that nobody else would care what I thought of some movie or how it drove me to make changes in my life. I’ve told very few people about what I’m about to write, and I’m not proud of how I handled certain parts of this experience. Yet it’s something I think back to often, and it’s shaped how I view my work and my family.
Back in 1999, I moved into a job I thought would be challenging and rewarding. It came with promises of responsibility, advancement, and rewards. But I soon realized that it was none of the above. I had several job opportunities at the time, but I selected this position because I was told it wouldn’t require as much travel as the others. Plus, my manager seemed nice enough, and the group was one of the largest, most stable at the company. It seemed like an ideal situation for me at the time.
Sometimes when emotions run high, I fail to notice the red flags. They might have been small flags but they were there from the start. The first red flag came when my travel increased over my last position. I hadn’t been married long, and Kim and I wanted to start a family soon. The idea of being away from home for days on end was not what I was after. Another red flag came when I realized one of my closest friends left the group to join another. One of my biggest regrets is the fact that I didn’t listen to him well enough when we met for lunch. All the signs were there though, and I failed to take them seriously. Maybe I didn’t want to see them.
I worked for a self-absorbed jerk. We called him a “volunteer” because he owned enough Microsoft stock to retire a millionaire many times over. This guy had no life. He arrived at work before anyone else and stayed long after everyone had gone home. And he let everyone within earshot know. He was a miserable person to be around, and those who reported to him closed their doors and tried to go about their business in a fashion that would avoid his wrath. Each morning I’d arrive at work around 7:30 am. My office was on the third floor. I could take the elevator or the stairs. Which choice would take longer? I’d slog my way up three flights of stairs as slowly as humanly possible. With each step, my stomach would turn into a tighter knot. Step after grueling step. When I finally reached the top, I could almost puke. The hours at work felt like days. I couldn’t enjoy my weekends because I was thinking about how come Monday morning, my hell would return.
One summer afternoon, my manager came into my office and demanded I travel with him to help prep for a presentation. I stayed up all night preparing slides and helping him understand the product and how it would benefit the attendees. The next morning he gave the talk. It was clear that he didn’t feel it went over very well. I’m sure part of that was due to the last minute preparation, but he made it clear that he was done speaking at these small events, and that I’d be called on to handle the next one. Although I stayed up all night to help him prepare for a talk he committed to, and yet I felt like I had screwed up. No matter what I did, I felt I was making the wrong decision.
I felt very alone at this time. Kim was the only person I could talk to, but I didn’t want her to worry about my job. I wasn’t supposed to complain because I worked for one of the largest, most successful companies in the world. A company that turned away thousands of talented people each month. Most would do anything to get a foot in the door. Who was I to complain? I carried a lot of self-doubt around, wondering why I wasn’t happy with my job and my boss. My life didn’t suck. Only the place where I spent 10 hours of my day sucked.
That’s how I felt as I walked around Disney World. I was so tired, yet I felt maybe a movie would take my mind off my predicament. It just seemed wrong to be depressed in the land of Mickey, Goofy and Pluto. So I made my way over to the theater and bought a ticket to American Beauty. I’d seen the trailer and figured it was worth a shot. I bought a Coke and popcorn and sat near the back of a nearly full theater.
As I watched the movie, I was stunned at how much I related to Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham. especially the scenes where he was dealing with a job he hated and how it affected his self-esteem and relationships. Some parts are painful to watch, yet many hit me like a violent crowbar to the chest. I sat there in my seat absolutely transfixed to the screen. I felt like I was watching a mini film that covered sections of my life.
“I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.”
When the movie came to an end I sat there for at least ten minutes and thought about my job. I was pissed off at the toll it was taking on my life. I grew up in a family where my father worked as a school teacher for 30 years and subsidized his income as a coach and driver’s ed instructor during the school year. He also managed a large public swimming pool in the summer. I don’t recall him complaining about his job and, until I saw American Beauty, I figured it was just a sign of weakness to complain about mine which was a piece of cake compared to those my father held.
Although the movie isn’t the most cheery, it was uplifting to me because it gave me hope that I could get out of the situation I was in. I didn’t have to continue climbing the stairs to a job that made me sick. I didn’t have to take the abuse this manager dished out on a daily basis. So I decided to talk to my boss when I returned from Orlando and explain to him how I felt and the changes (less travel) that needed to occur so that I could enjoy my job. At least that’s what I thought would happen. Yet a quick meeting with him convinced me nothing was going to change. So I did something I’ve never done before in my life:
I WALKED AWAY FROM THE JOB
I didn’t wait around, clinging to the belief that things would change. I didn’t notify HR of the abuse (something I regret). I didn’t offer to work another two weeks in the same environment. I came into the office one night and packed up my belongings and emailed my manager that I wouldn’t be returning. He was shocked and forwarded my email to HR who called me the next day and asked me to reconsider my decision. They asked what had made me leave so suddenly, but I couldn’t say, “Oh, I saw a movie that inspired me to quit”. They offered to hook me up with another group, but I’d made up my mind that I needed to fully remove myself from that environment. It was toxic.
“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself.”
That was nearly nine years ago. I know I made the right decision to leave. I wasn’t happy and the daily dread was taking a toll on the relationships that matter most in my life. I’m glad I didn’t “suck it up” to the point where I became unbearable to live with at home. I’m glad I didn’t change my style to fit that of a company built on internal competition that thrives on pitting employees against each other. There are those who are adept at playing that game and can separate it from their family and friends. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t treat people at work like crap and then turn around and be this kind person to my friends and family. I felt my only choice was to remove myself from that caustic environment.
I’m happy I did just that.