The Radical Redefinition of My Self Image: How I Went From Corporate Executive to Garbageman
I Was Forced to Take Off My Three Piece Suit, My Silk Tie and My Italian Shoes But I Found a New Identity
My former career, my former self-image and much of my identity came to an end eighteen months ago when I was informed that my job as Vice President of Corporate Finance had been downsized, and me along with it.
This was just before the recession hit along with the market crash and I was certain I would find another job. What I didn't realize was that the entire industry I was working in would never again be the same.
For months I looked for another position comparable to what I had once been. I was at first stunned by my failure to find another job and then eventually depressed. The need for insurance within my family and the demands of debt and bills required that I find another job quickly.
At no time in my thirty year career in finance did it ever occur to me for a moment that I would ever take a blue collar job. My identity was in my white collar, my office, my MBA, my pinstriped three piece tailored business suits and my silk neckties, my Lexus, my expensive mirror-shined Italian shoes, my Cartier wristwatch, the suburban home I shared with my family and my executive job title.
I have since lost all of it except the most important thing - my family. Our house and my Lexus are gone. But before we moved into a small apartment, I had the challenge of my life from our former garbageman.
I had seen him every Monday for years as I got into my car and he emptied the trash cans. That last day, however, the invisible wall of privilege and status that had kept me apart had collapsed, and he offered me a job as a garbageman.
A garbagemen! Me! Mister White Collar Executive! Impossible. That was a different world. A different status. I did not belong there. Never.
I responded with annoyance and sarcasm. He then proceeded to tell me to swallow my pride and my arrogance and get down off my high horse.
He said and I quote: ?You?re not a suit anymore. Stop acting like one.? I had to face facts. He was offering me a job with benefits. I was in no position to turn it down.
With the support of my family, I made the decision to accept and started the following day.
I would like to say it went well immediately, but it didn't. I rebelled and fought the final stripping of my former white collar identity every step of the way.
I had not had a menial job since high school. I was sore and sweating and tired when I got home, like all the others in my position. There was nothing special about me, and I had to realize that. I did indeed have to come down off my high horse and throw away my former definition of success. I had to accept and finally embrace the new blue collar self that I had become.
Everything has changed, and a hundred small details illustrate this.
I used to be neat, clean shaven and dapper. That is impossible now.
I no longer put on a crisp, tailored pinstriped business suit in the morning. I put on dirty coveralls with a name tag. A silk necktie and a starched white shirt for a garbageman are ridiculous.
I am picked up by a garbage truck now; I no longer step into a Lexus. A lunch bucket has replaced my leather briefcase.
I tried to keep my corporate haircut but gave up after a few weeks. My new boss caught me with a comb in my hand and smirked: ?You got a meeting? Forget the hair, suit man, and grow a beard!?
So after a few more pushes from my new colleagues and the experience of working outdoors in a hot summer, I surrendered my thick head of hair to a much cooler buzzcut, and I have even allowed a beard to grow: unimaginable in my old life of corporate appearances.
My new boss also told me to take off my "fancy" watch, so that too is gone.
I must admit that others no longer see me in the same way, and the attitude of my boss is an example of how things have changed. There is no hostility ? but there is less respect. I am treated with a condescension that I had never experienced. I am a laborer now and I'm no longer called sir!
Even my name has been changed. Well, it has not changed literally. My first name is Roger. I was told that is not a name for a garbage man! So I am now 'Jimbo', which is short for my middle name James.
And the mirror-polished Italian leather shoes I used to be so proud of and kept in perfect condition in their shoe trees have given way to work boots and I even wear a different shoe size: my size ten wingtips fit with the black dress socks I once wore. Now heavy white sweat socks fit with size eleven work boots.
Every small change is a symbol of the transformation I have experienced. Yet as this has happened I have realized that so much of my identity was formed by my career, my clothes and my car that I did not know who I was.
I had to admit, very slowly, that my definition of success was shallow and inadequate and the self-image based on it was inadequate. I also - slowly - came to realize that I was working hard at my new job and bringing home a paycheck again and that was something to be proud of.
I found myself thinking less and less of my old life and started finding satisfaction in my new job. I was still looking for another corporate position but the recession was gathering steam and only part time work was offered. I had to have the insurance and the security of a regular job.
So my blue collar self has taken over more and more of my identity as Jimbo the garbageman pushed out the last traces of Roger the executive. I have put on extra weight from the job and my three piece suits no longer fit - in more ways than one!
My self-image and understanding of success are completely different now. All of the outer symbols have been taken away in a purging process. I have had to find a new success based on my inner self.
It is a work in progress, but I am on my way.