It was 30 minutes before Star Trek came on. I needed my TV snack, so I grabbed my keys before I went to my mother’s room.
“Mom, you want anything?”
Binge-watching Star Trek was our weekly innocent existence — a mother and son bonding over one of TV’s all-time, most popular series. We watched Colombo too.
“Yes, baby. Get me a honey bun, a Dr. Pepper, and some Doritos.”
I checked my pockets to make sure I had cash. With ten dollars, I was about to create miracles at the liquor store on 69th street. I hopped into my beat-up, burgundy Dodge Aries. After four attempts, the car started, and I was on my way.
Unbeknownst to me, a tragic event was about to change me forever.
I pulled up to the first stop sign. The inner-city teaches you to stop short of the intersection. You don’t look left and right; you look back first, then to the front. If a robber were going to bust my window and rob me, he’d come from the rear.
To think: four days prior, I had run to my mother’s room with a college acceptance letter. I thought it was a trick. “Mom, read this. Did I get in?”
Growing up, I never thought I would see an official-looking letter with my name on it — at least not from a college. The official-looking seal on the envelope gave me the creeps. My stomach gurgled — somehow, a rejection felt certain. It turned out to be a life-changing letter.
The art of defensive driving.
Four days later, I cruised the streets. The smell of gasoline was giving me a headache, but I couldn’t roll down a window — not at night. It would be too easy for a would-be robber to knock me upside my head and take whatever I had — including the car. To complete their “smash and grab,” they’d at least have to bust my window. I knew two seconds could be the difference between losing my life or the car.
I made it to the main street. I was no longer looking for criminal behavior, but the police terrified me — my backward-facing baseball cap signaled terror to those who protect and serve. College acceptance letters would mean nothing if I didn’t make it home.
Careful to drive below the speed limit, I made a left turn. Heading south, I exhaled — the police passed me up. At least for a moment, I didn’t need to worry.
I approached the liquor store and observed a few men smoking outside while talking. They were harmless. I could tell from their body language.
I parked the car under a light. Before I got out, I looked in my mirrors. The reflection in the store windows confirmed no one was under my car. I was safe-ish.
I got out of the car and walked into the store. I grabbed an orange crush, a Dr. Pepper, Doritos, a honey bun, and vanilla wafers.
I was in a hurry because I had to see what Captain Kirk was up to tonight. I took my items to the counter, and the sales clerk told me the price. I pulled out my rumpled ten-dollar bill and slid my cash under a bullet-proof glass. He dropped my change in a sterile change return thingamabob.
I grabbed my change and headed to my car. I never locked my door. It’s silly to lock your car. I mean, if something happens, who wants to fumble for their keys in a panic? I placed my right foot inside the car and put my bag on the passenger side.
Before I could close the door, I had a gun pressed into my ribs.
“N-Word, this is your unlucky day. Get out of the car!”
Strangely, past trauma helps.
I recall these experiences when corporate America weighs on my psyche. I summon the past to squash the knots in my stomach. Vivid images of a distressed childhood put work stress into perspective. Corporate enemies may lurk across conference room tables, but they have no clue. An accident of existence created a tough that corporate America can’t crack. The white-collar elite is ill-prepared for this brand of toughness.
This experience would teach me many things. I’ve been able to turn this tragedy into a survival guide for corporate America. I share my lessons below.
Trust Your Instincts
The true thugs wear suits and ties.
On the day of the carjacking, my spidey senses were going off. There was a bad feeling in the air. There was no wind, and the street noises went silent. The rhythm of the night was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
When I came out of the liquor store, my skin crawled, and I felt a sudden urge to rush to my car.
As the carjacking happened, things slowed down. I realized what my intuition was telling me all along.
Your work friends will leave you hanging.
I’ve experienced this eerie feeling in the halls of corporate America many times. Sometimes you feel things aren’t right. You sense an uneasiness. You feel a sudden urge to check your email even though you know you checked it already.
I remember walking into the office one day, and things were different somehow. My so-called work friends diverted their eyes as I walked by. I didn’t know what it was, but something told me the CEO wanted to fire me.
I started to pay close attention to everyone’s body language. Convinced I was right, I called a board member who was a friend. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew I was on to something. I’ll never forget what he said: “James, if I were you, I’d take a look at my contract. After you do that, give our friend Jack a call.”
I called Jack and negotiated a verbal offer out of paranoia for a consulting gig. I went back into the office and gave them a 60-day notice.
The secret buyout.
I would later find out that a bigger company was buying us out, and there couldn’t be two CTOs. The acquiring company’s CTO would take over.
Instinct had saved me. I paid attention to that voice in my head and the feeling in my gut.
The sad truth is you have to watch your back. People surround lies and deception with ten-dollar words to hide their true intentions. The week before the almost-firing, another board member had told me I was in it for the long hall.
Deceptive people “bro” you to death while they contrive plots for their gains. There’s no street violence, but corporate thugs use deception as a weapon. I’ve learned that it’s the information they leave out that gets you.
Don’t take corporate America personally.
Like a carjacking, corporate America has all sorts of things waiting to jump out of the bushes. Your survival could depend on knowing what to do in specific scenarios. You must prepare for the worst but hope for the best.
One of the hardest lessons to learn is that none of it is personal. That carjacking could have been someone else. I could have gone to another store that night or ran out of gas. The streets are an ecosystem that defines your existence. You learn to survive and thrive. So it is with corporate America.
There’s Nothing Like a Backup Plan
A failure to plan is a plan to fail.
In high school, I had countless conversations about carjackings with friends. We’d share our plans about how we’d respond if a criminal carjacked us. Each of us recounted real-life stories of victims in order to foretell what we would do.
We found that the best solution was to own a bucket, because living is more important than a fancy car. We vowed to drive crappy cars until after college.
But what happens if your strategy doesn’t work? If that situation occurs, criminals won’t let you monologue your way out like in the movies. You need a plan, and you need to be decisive.
You don’t plan for things to go wrong, but you plan for things to go right when they go wrong. In desperate situations, if you’ve visualized your response ahead of time, it helps.
Nothing in corporate America compares, but your career survival requires a plan. It helps to think about your next career move before circumstance forces it upon you. Talking with your network about what-if scenarios can be priceless. I was lucky to be a step ahead when bad things happened.
It pays to have a playbook. Here are a few scenarios someone once helped me think through:
- What happens if your company runs out of money?
- What happens if your contract is not honored?
- If your boss fires you tomorrow, what will you do?
- What if your stock plan isn’t what they promised you?
- How do you grow?
A backup plan is an outline of what you’ll do next should a random thing happen. You won’t think of everything, but anything is better than nothing.
Learn To Move On
The milk already spilled, so clean it up.
There’s nothing more crippling than fear. Experiencing a carjacking could make one not go back to the same store — at least for a while. Other lessons in the inner-city taught me to face my fear. The morning after the carjacking, I went back to the same store and parked in the same spot.
Having tweaked my backup plan, I was returning with more awareness and improved ability to respond to risks. The point is you have to move forward today. Tomorrow’s pain doesn’t have to take hold of you. You can’t help what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.
Like most things, corporate America comes with lots of failures. You fall a lot, but if you get up, you get better. You become more aware of potential dangers and better prepared.
For my first CTO job, I got raked over the coals. My offer was terrible, and I didn’t even know it. But, when I got my next opportunity, I posed better questions. I asked to meet other executives. I took notes as I interviewed them. I knew similar enemies would arise and that work challenges repeat themselves.
With each experience, I updated my plan.
How The Carjacking Ended
Once the gun was in my ribs, I took a deep breath. I noticed that the carjacker was as nervous as I was. I could tell by the criminal’s grip on the gun; he wasn’t used to this sort of thing. A real thug would’ve thrown me out of the car and taken off already or worse.
Since I started my car already, I stepped on the gas pedal and backed up out of the parking lot as fast as possible. I then continued to back down a street towards another gang territory. The guy who had the gun was wearing blue. There’s no way he’d follow me in that direction. So I was safe-ish.
For a while, I drove past my house to make sure no one followed me. Twenty minutes later, I made it home. I parked around the corner because you never know.
I walked into the house, and my mom tells me that the crew lost Mr. Spock on some weird planet.
It took me 20+ years to realize these experiences were extreme. No one should grapple with such trauma, but you come to realize, life is about perspective.
A backup plan for the backup plan is essential. It pays to understand the intricate webs corporate America weaves. There’s no way around understanding politics and protecting yourself. To extract value, you have to pay attention to the tea leaves.
Navigating the streets and avoiding being carjacking is strangely similar to corporate America. I wanted a future, so survival was a must. All 100 episodes of Star Trek made me want to emulate Dr. Spock. My goal was to “boldly go” where many in the inner-city never go. A professional career as a software engineer seemed impossible. Amid the gang violence, drugs, police sirens, and civil unrest, I had to dream big and use what they’d already taught me.
Food for thought:
- Homicides by gang members in Los Angeles reached a new record in 1988. They increased by 50% in three years.
- In 1989, the year I graduated from high school, “the number of gang-related killings reported by the Police Department jumped from 205 in 1987 to 257 last year, an increase of 25.3%.”
- From 1980 to 1989, gang-related deaths doubled.
- The U.S. Department of Education cited this stat in 1991: Hispanic and black students in the 1988 eighth grade cohort dropped out at almost twice the rate of whites and Asians.