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WORKSHOP #18: "You're Fired!"

According to LanguageMonitor.com, this year's most popular phrase from television is "You're fired!" I guess that makes some kind of sense given that, according to BusinessWeek, the U.S. is currently experiencing the slowest job growth of any economic recovery since the Great Depression(1).

In any event, watching as people are coldly dismissed on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" reminds me of one of my own traumatic experiences. Many years ago, I was "let go" from a church job. If I knew then what I know now, I might have seen that I was being fired simply to satisfy someone's ego. Instead, I took the whole thing personally. The situation was handled in such an unprofessional, and, might I add, un-Christian manner, that the experience caused me to question my worth, not just as an organist but as a person. With my self-confidence shaken, I wasn't much fit to work. When I thought about the position I was in, I alternated between being furious and feeling victimized.

While organists certainly aren't the only ones in the world who get fired, it does seem that on average our firings are more dramatic and traumatic. One side of the equation involves organists. We're vulnerable because our craft is tied to personal expression, hence wrapped up in our self-worth. The other side of the equation involves the people doing the hiring and firing. Many lack any business experience whatsoever and shouldn't be supervising other people in the first place.

If you've never been fired, congratulations! If you have been fired or fear you may be, perhaps you'll find the following few suggestions helpful. I'm not a lawyer or a career counselor but maybe I can keep you from making some of the same mistakes I made.

1. Make sure you have a contract in writing:
This would eliminate many of the problems that occur. If something's not in writing, there's no record of it and therefore it's up for dispute down the road. It helps both parties to have everything spelled out in advance. This eliminates the possibility of a range of misunderstandings, from the scope of the position's responsibilities to the terms for either party terminating employment. The poet Robert Frost said, "Good fences make good neighbors." It's the same principle.

2. Never be afraid to seek legal advice:
In my situation, I probably could have made a case for wrongful termination, not because of why I was fired but because of how I was fired. The written agreement I had with the church stipulated that I could be terminated after two written warnings. Fine, but I was fired without warning. No written warnings were ever issued to me. At the time, I considered pursuing legal action but I was young and na´ve enough to fear that the person who fired me might try to bar me from ever having a church job again. However, if I'd been able to obtain a financial settlement of some sort, perhaps I wouldn't have had to suffer financially while I was getting myself together emotionally.

3. Try not to let the situation get the better of you:
Though it was a long, tough road getting there, I was eventually healed enough to work again, even in that denomination. In other words, getting fired isn't the end of the world. In fact, as anyone who has been there will tell you, it's really just a beginning. Now, I wouldn't have believed that at the time and you won't either but the fact remains and eventually you'll come around to it. Just keep saying, "This too shall pass." Getting fired forced me to make a new start. It also gave me a chance to try some different ways of doing things and eventually I ended up in a good place both emotionally and career-wise. That's why I can look back now and say it was one of the best things that could have happened to me.

Sometimes I think it's in our musical training that causes us to not deal well with change. When playing classical music, you can see what's coming whether you know the piece or not. In improvised music, musicians ask, "What are the changes?" because they want to know in advance what chords they'll be playing over.

It would be nice to know what to expect in life. If life was a song and Bach was the composer, the song would be full of nice surprises. In reality, life is sometimes like a series of unexpected chord changes. How we deal with these sudden changes comes down to how we think about change in our lives in general.

I recently came across a book that I wish I'd known about a long time ago. Fortune.com offers a newsletter called "Ask Annie." People write in with questions about employment: getting it, keeping it and losing it and Annie provides the answers. Recently, Annie mentioned a book entitled "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson. Because it discusses how to deal with change, this book is frequently given to employees of companies that are undergoing mergers or layoffs.

The centerpiece of the book is a parable involving two mice (Sniff and Scurry) and two mouse-sized humans (Hem and Haw) who all live in a maze, surviving on a big hunk of cheese. One day the cheese is gone and the characters must decide what to do. Their very different personality types result in their very different responses to this sudden need to find some new cheese.

The subtitle of the book is "An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life." The author suggests that by comparing ourselves to the characters, we will be able to see where we come up short when confronted with change, and thereby learn to develop the ability to anticipate and prepare for change well before it happens.

If we could just predict the future, all of our problems would be solved. Until then, organists will keep on being fired. I hope you're not one of them but, if you are, don't forget that on "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's last words of the season are "You're hired!"

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Related Links
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(1) "There's Nothing Macho About Soaring Deficits" by Laura D'Andrea Tyson, BusinessWeek, September 27, 2004
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_39/b3901038_mz007.htm

The Global Language Monitor -- Monitoring the World's Languages
http://www.LanguageMonitor.com

Related Books
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cover Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson
Book Description
Change can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. The message of Who Moved My Cheese? is that all can come to see it as a blessing, if they understand the nature of cheese and the role it plays in their lives. Who Moved My Cheese? is a parable that takes place in a maze. Four beings live in that maze: Sniff and Scurry are mice--nonanalytical and nonjudgmental, they just want cheese and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Hem and Haw are "littlepeople," mouse-size humans who have an entirely different relationship with cheese. It's not just sustenance to them; it's their self-image. Their lives and belief systems are built around the cheese they've found. Most of us reading the story will see the cheese as something related to our livelihoods--our jobs, our career paths, the industries we work in--although it can stand for anything, from health to relationships. The point of the story is that we have to be alert to changes in the cheese, and be prepared to go running off in search of new sources of cheese when the cheese we have runs out.
cover Who Moved My Cheese? for Teens: An A-Mazing Way to Change and Win! by Spencer Johnson
Book Description
Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese? has helped millions of people around the world adapt and succeed in changing times. Now Dr. Johnson introduces his simple parable to teen readers-an audience whose lives are chock full of change-and provides a teen discussion section to address the unique problems that teenagers face every day. A group of friends are discussing a difficult change in their class schedule. To help them out, Chris tells the story of Who Moved My Cheese?, where four characters-Hem, Haw, Sniff, and Scurry-search through a maze for Cheese, a metaphor for what you want to have in life. As they find and lose the Cheese, some of the characters learn to move with the Cheese and discover how to deal with change. After Chris finishes the story, the friends discuss how it applies to the changes they all face, such as doing well at school, divorce, relationships or just feeling good about one's self, and how they might react more positively in the future. Using simple language and engaging characters to which any teen can relate, Who Moved My Cheese? for Teens offers a wonderful and entertaining way to get teens talking about the changes in their lives and provides insight that will last a lifetime.
cover The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Book Description
In "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," author Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centered approach for solving personal and professional problems. With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity -- principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.
cover Bach (Master Musicians Series) by Malcolm Boyd
Book Description
Though he begins by bemoaning "the difficulty of writing anything on Bach remotely worthy of its subject," Malcolm Boyd goes on to do exactly that. This volume from the Master Musicians Series (which also includes Julian Budden on Verdi and Michael Kennedy on Richard Strauss) intermingles chapters on Bach's life with chapters on his music (also roughly chronological) in a delightfully clearheaded way. Boyd is perfectly willing to say whether he finds a piece of music to be substandard and freely takes issue with the scholarship of earlier analysts. Taking nothing for granted, Boyd disproves common assumptions about relative dates of compositions. The section on cantatas begins with brief notes on the genre, a few antecedents, and the subtypes of secular and sacred. Boyd then briskly reviews the surviving works, dwelling on a few for some enlightening and representative details. In "Canons and Counterpoint," he sorts out the Musical Offering in a remarkable few paragraphs before having a go at The Art of the Fugue. Boyd's charts are very easy to follow (appropriate for a composer whose music is often compared to architecture), and his musical examples--especially in the chapter titled "Orchestral, Instrumental, and Keyboard Music"--are spectacularly well chosen. There is room for a few choice incidental observations (e.g., cantatas for the winter months were shorter, sparing the choirboys time in the unheated organ lofts). A 22-page work list (revised in 1997), a life calendar, and a brief chapter on numerology round out a highly rewarding volume.

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