"Year-in-the-life" books are enjoying a vogue almost hotter than vampire books. In fact, someone should write a book chronicling the last few years' worth of titles devoted to a year of doing…well, you name it. Such a tome would overflow with accounts ranging from Robyn Okrant's Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk to Lee Kravitz's Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.
Yet none of those seems as presciently timed as The Year I Saved My (downsized) Soul, Carol Orsborn's latest offering (and her 16th book), which puts one woman's bewildered, middle-aged face on the anonymous downsizing of corporate America. It's a perfectly lovely visage, mind you, but her state of affairs was not a pretty picture.
Those who have confronted downsizings of their own will recognize the sick dread that Orsborn feels as she senses change in the air. A senior executive at a global marketing firm, Orsborn was informed by her boss that "unless she got her numbers up—fast!—hers would be among the next wave of pink slips."
Orsborn's journey through tough times takes a close look at the recession's grip on our spirits, but it aims to accomplish something more than cultural commentary; it is also a blend of secular self-help book and spiritual memoir. To her credit, the author sidesteps much of the narcissism and victimhood common to the genre. The result is a genuine account that reads like the diary of a middle-aged woman searching for the Holy Grail of hope.
Even as she reminisces about the good old days of corporate paternalism—those lasted into the early 1980s, in her view—Orsborn attempts to formulate some truths about the contemporary workplace:
You can be fired pretty much anytime.
Technology or a machine or someone from India may replace you.
No one owes you a good job or security for life.
Try as she might, however, Orsborn simply couldn't put work in perspective. As the economic meltdown engulfed her, Orsborn took it personally. She made some stark calculations, asking herself, "How much more insecurity and pain would I be willing to suffer in exchange for keeping my health care coverage?" and "Was I the kind of person who became a victim of circumstances or the kind who had it in her to thrive, regardless of what came her way?"
As her boss dropped hints that the future wasn't looking so rosy, Orsborn simply tried harder. For weeks after that initial tocsin she networked, pitched, brainstormed, and built a pipeline of new business prospects. Despite her best efforts, her boss broke the news to her in simple terms: her work was "not billable." That is, she hadn't brought in enough paying clients, so she was being "let go"—a bizarre euphemism that suggests liberation but is in fact designed to spare the employer the unease of saying, "You're fired."
Orsborn retreated to her home, morose at the thought that three decades of work experience, countless business contacts, and years of education culminating in a Ph.D. now meant nothing. Depressed and hoping to divert herself, she attended an art class a few days after losing her job. There she found distraction, all right—but not the sort she'd gone looking for. While enjoying the therapeutic repetitions of dipping and brushing, she dumped yellow paint all over her Burberry jacket.
At that moment, the tough last few months caught up with Orsborn, and for the first time since her firing she broke down and blubbered like a baby. Then she spied her paint-drenched self in the women's-room mirror—and began to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The episode helped her regain some perspective: "Life resumed coursing through my veins."
More self-scrutiny ensued as Orsborn questioned whether it's possible to keep one's spirit intact in the midst of losing a job, facing rejection, and seeking a brand-new way to earn a living. Some readers may find the answer predictable—it's a resounding, if ironic, yes. But Orsborn's tale is satisfyingly original, and insightful, when she tackles a larger issue, one she never anticipated: that finding her next safe perch on a career ladder would turn out to be much less significant than "saving her soul." (By that Orsborn means she ultimately discovered her reason for living is bigger and more important than the fluctuations of her career.)
Carol Orsborn is an affecting writer, one whose gift for connecting with people stems from her fearlessness at exposing her own flaws and vulnerabilities. She engages you on her journey for the simple reason that you want her to land on her feet. At the end of her story, with Orsborn ensconced as a senior strategist in an organization that welcomed her work and life experience, you feel lifted by her rise from the mire of her career-induced existential crisis.
A caveat and an encouragement: don't scour The Year I Saved My (downsized) Soul for practical advice on networking or landing that next job interview. Other books are far better equipped to help you with the practical aspects of highlighting your strengths, discovering your purpose, and finding a job. Do, however, look to Orsborn's memoir if you feel "broken to the core" but have not given up on discovering your own supersized spirit in the face of a downsized career.
Dave Singleton works for AARP Publications and is the author of two books. He previously reviewed The Red Leather Diary for AARP the Magazine Online.