An excerpt from
Paul barely noticed when a woman, apparently in her mid-sixties, took the other corner seat beside him. His face was buried in his mobile phone, scrolling through alternative flights to connect through other cities, none of which were likely to get him home sooner. She was well dressed and trim, her shoulder-length hair in perfect order but, at twice his age, a bit imperial. For all he knew, she was just another executive at the bar ordering a drink. Her taste was Scotch.
“What’s the matter?” she asked without invitation. “The look on your face tells me it’s something more than the delayed flight.”
“It’s the delayed flight,” he said, scowling at the mobile screen that offered no more news than the flight to LAX was now TBD. That would be the last flight of the night. If it went, it went. If it didn’t, the next one would be in the morning.
“I checked with the gate agent. They’re saying fifty/fifty for LAX,” she said.
“How did you know I was going to LA?” he asked.
“Lucky guess,” she said. “I’m pretty good at reading people. My name is Daphne.”
“I’m Paul Beckett. They told you fifty/fifty? Sounds more like seventy-five/twenty-five against.”
“You’re not much of an optimist, are you, Paul?” replied Daphne. “The equipment is at the gate, but they wouldn’t say what was wrong with it. They offered me the chance to rebook to an early morning flight with hotel on the house. I’m sure they’d offer you the same.”
“I’ll take my chances until they cancel,” said Paul. “I need to get home.”
“Family commitment?” asked Daphne.
“No, I’m not married. Maybe someday. I have to rescue this new project I botched before we release it. I’m not sure how we’re going to fix it.”
“I’ve been to that launch party,” relayed Daphne. “Are you having a bad year?”
Paul wasn’t sure why she was asking him so many questions. He hadn’t been in the mood to talk, but suddenly he found the words emptying out of him.
“No, actually I’ve been having a stellar year,” answered Paul. “Three good years to tell you the truth. Three amazing years. We created this new videogame three years ago. It’s stayed in the top ten since its first week on the charts, which doesn’t happen often.”
“That sounds tremendously exciting,” said Daphne. “I don’t know anything about videogames, but I do know when they are hits, they make a lot of money for the people who produce them.”
“Yes, barrels of cash delivered without delay to the front door,” said Paul. “I got a big bonus, stock options, and they promoted me to vice president. A year before the release, I was a lowly product manager living in a small apartment and driving a ten-year-old junk heap. Six months later I bought a condo with a view and a cool new hybrid.”
“A bounty of treasure, yet you’re staring at your sour reflection in a glass of cheap red wine,” commented Daphne. “It doesn’t add up.”
“Do you always offer barstool psychotherapy to strangers in airport clubs?” Paul wasn’t quite sure how this conversation had begun or how she had gotten him to open up so quickly, but Daphne had an impressive presence and seemed to know a bit about business.
“I’ve figured out that flight delays go a lot more quickly with good conversation,” laughed Daphne. “Long flights, too.”
“What do you do?” inquired Paul.
“I’m with an electronics component company here in the Bay Area,” replied Daphne. “We manufacture the less visible elements of circuit boards. I came in with the turnaround team about a decade ago—a few years after the company went public and then got crushed by overpromising Wall Street. I wasn’t sure we could resuscitate this one, but I saw pockets of strength hiding in the shadows and I was up for the challenge. We got most of the things that matter aligned and the stock recovered nicely.”
“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” said Paul. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“I’ve had my ups and downs, like everyone in business,” offered Daphne. “I’ve learned a few things along the way, and it certainly hasn’t been a cakewalk. In this last job, a lot went right for me, but I think it might be time to do something else. Follow-ups are hard, but reinvention keeps your thinking fresh. Change is always on my mind, certainly at the moment.”
“I can’t imagine giving up my job, not willingly,” gasped Paul. “You really are confident.”
“A job is never yours to give up,” said Daphne. “It’s a box on an organization chart you fill for a while, until someone else fills it, or until the company goes away. It ends when it’s time.”
“I don’t get it—how is it not my job?” asked Paul doubtingly.
“If you don’t own the company, it’s their job, not yours. They lease it to you for a while for the value you create beyond what you cost. At the end of the lease, if you paid off the tab and have more valuable knowledge and skills than you had when you signed on, it’s a good deal for everyone. If you take their money but don’t get better at what you do, you got burned.”
“That’s a scary way of looking at the business world,” stated Paul.
“The alternative is to go out on your own, but of course that comes with its own set of costs. There’s no easy way to stay in the game. If you’re looking for certainty or shortcuts, forget it.”
Paul looked Daphne in the eye and tried to make sense of what she was saying. She seemed to know something he didn’t know, but did it matter? The few extra decades of experience she had on him had brought some wisdom, yet their conversation was a bit circular and it was making him uncomfortable. As she suddenly pushed back her barstool and began to step away, he saw the exit opportunity he needed to make the coming hours more productive. At the same time he felt like he might be losing the answer he needed before he even asked the question. If only he knew what the question was.
“This flight is outbound for me, another weekend on the road,” said Daphne. “I need to step away for a moment. Okay if I leave my drink here and we continue our conversation in a few moments?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” blurted out Paul.