March 18, 2014

How the Truth Got Me Fired…& Set Me Free ~ Wendy Zumpano


As a self-employed pencil portrait artist, I enjoy working with pictures—but I love words more.

Choosing them, reading them, hearing them…I love the naughty ones, and the true ones that tell secrets.

My compulsion to over-share is exacerbated by Adult ADD. I struggle to stay on task because I can’t stop talking or thinking of the next inappropriate thing I want to tell you.

My urge to blurt out every other thought in my head proved especially dangerous when I worked for someone else.

Once upon a time, I had a corporate job in downtown Chicago. Despite creative aspirations, I worked for an accounting software firm. I tried hard and liked it sometimes, although it often felt like I was being punk’d by my career path. 

The IT world is methodical and precise.  Add accounting and it’s almost hilarious that I worked there, especially if you looked at my hair or desk. Plus, I cannot multi-task. Mostly, work involved grownups with stern expressions obsessing over numbers while trying to ignore my off-color jokes. 

Boardrooms require comedy relief, in my opinion. Within that rigid, straight-laced world, I carved out a small, creative niche for myself. I was the Director of Client Relations and I was proud of caring about customers and how often I could make coworkers laugh.

As my list of responsibilities grew, my ADD became increasingly inconvenient. I struggled to focus. Too many people were starting to pay attention to whether I was actually working or writing long personal emails to my college roommates.

I’ll never be certain whether it was my compulsion to be brutally honest or drugs that were my undoing.

Vyvanse_capsulesI began taking my first ADD medication, but couldn’t really feel any effects. It was the kind of medicine that ramps up from a low dosage to the amount that is supposed to make you stop throwing your keys in the garbage. When a slight increase in dosage was prescribed, the pharmacy goofed and tripled my dosage instead.

I was either ADD drug-addled or laser-focused when I told my boss to stop lying all the time. He lied to customers, to employees, to himself… I thought I was being helpful by pointing it out. I could have told him to stop starching his shirts into poster board and dousing himself in old dude cologne, but I left that part out. Editing is key.

I cleverly wrote my truth suggestion in an email. This proved useful for him to print out and angrily wave at me later while firing me. I learned an important lesson that has served me well in business and in my marriage: Nobody wants unsolicited advice, especially frightened executives who are in over their heads, or husbands who think they are doing you a favor by doing the dishes wrong.

After waging a 20 year losing battle to balance corporate life and home, it was suddenly over. 

They say that men define themselves by their work, but women do, too.  All I’d ever been was a professional person. Okay, maybe not a particularly mature one, but still. I’d had success, gained respect in my role.  Now I was fired, rejected, reeling.  

I woke up each morning, momentarily unaware of my new status as a failure. I’d open my eyes and my unemployment was lying there, staring at me lasciviously, like a onenightstand who’d overstayed his welcome. I was humiliated and I wanted my words back, no matter how true they were. I cried over my lost job for two months solid.

I mistakenly believed that I was indispensable.  And yet, as much as it hurt, there was a shiny satin bow on the axe that fell on me.

Each time I had complained (loudly and often) about work, my husband, Joe, and my mother urged me to try drawing fulltime.  I never ever would have had the courage to quit a good job to draw pictures for a living. 

In utter fear of impending poverty, I started my portrait business; I draw anyone, and anything, precious to my clients. I celebrate relationships for a living, and it is a scary, beautiful life. Sometimes I write about the stories behind the portraits, the tender reasons why my clients ask me to draw.

I lost my job when my youngest, Max, was starting kindergarten and Joey was starting third grade (the first big homework year). Suddenly, I was home each day for hugs goodbye and hello, school help, friend-rides.  When Joey bypassed daycare pick up and took the bus straight home for the first time, he walked in the front door, his sweet, husky voice calling out, “I’m home!” It was completely worth my professional free fall.

Words can take you places. And sometimes it’s exactly where you wanted to go, and you just didn’t know it.

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Editorial Assistant: Travis May/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photos: Villers Young Woman Drawing, Vyvanse



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