Who are you? …Really?

By Russ Privitt


Russell Privitt is an engineering and operations leader with expertise in aerospace design and manufacturing. He is a subject matter expert on sensors for harsh environments, and currently consults on designs, failure investigations, and manufacturing methods. He resides with his wife and daughter in the Sierra foothills; the Gold Country of California. Prior to his engineering career, Russ worked for several construction firms in the Los Angeles, CA as a journeyman electrician, mechanic, and welder. He enjoys photography, playing guitar, classic cars, and has a collection of Navajo rugs…he also enjoys listening to The Who (which will soon become apparent if you read his post below).



The Golden Years

I was one of the lucky ones. After graduating from engineering school in 1993, I accepted a position as a manufacturing engineer with a small aerospace sensor company. I moved 500 miles to a beautiful little Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Northern California Sierras, where I began a career that would last over two decades in the same place. For many of those years, I had absolutely no idea what I had.

This first job turned out to be a winning lottery ticket on the first try. I was given almost complete autonomy to experiment, and I learned rapidly. It was a safe place, a close-knit family environment, a place where I was appreciated. It was home, a place I thought I would stay forever, and I gave my heart to it.

Twelve years passed like a freight train. I moved steadily up the ranks to engineering director. Around that time the company’s owners were forced to sell to a small corporation 30 times our size and 2,400 miles away. Without equity, I feared my job might be eliminated if the sale went through.

However, things turned out alright. Over the next six years I became an integral part of a larger team and learned a tremendous amount about business, relationships, and performance expectations. I settled into my new role and felt safe again. But in 2011 the entire corporation was acquired by another company that was interested in consolidating the core businesses of our corporation (which, fortunately, did not include our division).

Two difficult years passed, but then, once again, the winds of fortune changed in my favor. Our division was divested to a premier sensor corporation. Soon after, I was offered the opportunity to take over operational leadership for our entire manufacturing site. It was a chance to take a big step forward in my career as it would mean working closely with the company’s C-suite. I accepted this role, moving out of engineering for the first time in my professional life.

I woke up in a Soho doorway

A policeman knew my name

He said "You can go sleep at home tonight

If you can get up and walk away"

I staggered back to the underground

And the breeze blew back my hair

I remember throwing punches around

And preaching from my chair…

The Unraveling

Less than 18 months after taking the helm of my manufacturing site, this new parent corporation was itself swallowed up by a global behemoth ten times its size. As the honeymoon of this new marriage faded, the upper echelon of executive management I had worked closely with for 18 months was decimated. Once again, I felt the weight of an impending layoff.

Nevertheless, my team continued to meet our performance goals and I began to relax. I thought about how to establish new relationships and find my fit. I told myself things would eventually settle down just as they had every time before.

Another year passed, and my efforts to establish working relationships were derailed as management turned over yet again. My boss was fired, headcount cuts continued, capital dried up, and mandate after mandate was imposed on a team stretched so thin that delivering basic business needs was a challenge.

As we desperately tried to juggle the torrent of demands from a detached corporate team, our performance suffered. We were beat up and our customers began to notice. It was then, after 13 years of adapting to relentless change, a switch in me flipped.

I was burnt out. I lost my motivation and mojo. For the sake of my team, I fought to meet my objectives, but my heart wasn’t in it. A new boss arrived who was both demanding and unsupportive. At my annual review that year, I was told in vague terms that my behavior wasn’t meeting expectations. I’d get no raise and no bonus. I took it without comment.

Three months later, they came for me. I sat in my office signing a severance package. I felt a surreal detachment, a long-anticipated relief, and a crushing defeat all at the same time.

I took the tube back out of town

Back to the Rolling Pin

I felt a little like a dying clown

With a streak of Rin Tin Tin

I stretched back and I hiccupped

And looked back on my busy day

Eleven hours in the Tin Pan

God, there's got to be another way…

Reflect, re-energize, renew

It’s a cold November morning. The leaves have mostly fallen. As I look outside, I realize that last Thursday marked the 10th month I have been unemployed. Our house is bustling as my wife and daughter go about their routines of getting ready for work and school. I feel a slight twinge of jealousy as I realize I have nowhere specific to go today. Most likely I will spend some time reading, spend some time in prayer, and then continue the difficult work of seeking work; researching companies, improving skills, networking, writing cover letters, and submitting applications.

Some of the hardest days are when I feel completely useless, left behind, and cast aside like damaged goods. These thoughts overwhelm and suck me down into a vicious and dark whirlpool. I swim like crazy to escape, but it’s hard to see if I’m making progress. Losing a career that has been such a part of you – that has defined your self-worth and your identity, – can crush your spirit...

I know there's a place you walked

Where love falls from the trees

My heart is like a broken cup

I only feel right on my knees

I spit out like a sewer hole

Yet still receive your kiss

How can I measure up to anyone now

After such a love as this?

My Advice

Being pushed out of your job can feel like being pushed off a cliff. As you plummet downwards and fear grips your heart, you suddenly realize that you have wings. My advice for someone going through all of this? Find your wings and fly toward a new place that feeds your fire. Where inside of you is that young person with the boundless enthusiasm for learning and improving? Find that person.

You may think you’re never going to find another job like the one you had. I get that – I feel it every day. Think instead, about where you came from, your parents, your teachers, your peers, your bosses, your thought processes, and the experiences that have shaped you in meaningful ways. What are your fears, your values? Most importantly, what are your dreams? What did you once love? Dig down, search and find them, dust them off and bring them out into the sunshine again.

During this time, as you experience a profound change of pace, consider the current circumstances as a blessing; a window of brief opportunity. While we are working and dealing with the day-to-day busyness and stress of work life, most of us don’t reflect much on who we are, what we are meant to do, and what we really hold valuable. Your job was not you! You’ve been given a special opportunity to learn, to reflect, re-energize, and renew yourself … take it!

…Who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Oh, tell me who are you (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

I really wanna know

Oh, I really wanna know

Come on tell me, who are you, you, you, you?

Who are you?*

*Lyrics from The Who’s “Who Are You” written by Pete Townshend and released in 1978 Polydor Records, MCA Records.