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Sure, my career had provided me with a lot of useful things. I had a house and a car and all the requisite toys. I had the beginnings of a retirement nest egg, and excellent benefits while I was employed. My career had filled me with a sense of accomplishment, worth, and purpose. Work responsibilities had taken me all over the country and allowed me to meet lots of fascinating people (and a few absolute bores). Travel is something I very much enjoyed, and still do today when I can justify the expense. My career certainly made me feel engaged, if not fulfilled.
So I began to toy with the idea of obtaining income in a less traditional way. I had an entrepreneurial spirit in me, and I certainly relished a work lifestyle where, although I definitely could and quite likely would fail, I’d never be fired. The only factors determining my fate, other than luck, would be skill, hard work, and the free market’s acceptance or rejection of what I had to offer, but not a board of directors. I began to think that starting up my own business would be a much more rewarding experience, even if the hours were longer and the pressures were higher. And let’s face it; it’s very difficult to ever become financially independent (pronounced rich) while accepting a paycheck from someone else.
So I kept my eyes open for any local businesses that were for sale. I wracked my brain for new enterprise ideas. I extensively researched all of the available franchising options, but I never really got close to pulling the trigger on any of these. No businesses that were for sale and no franchise opportunities stood out to me. I was disappointed in my inability to cultivate the next Microsoft or Subway Sandwich idea in my head. Nothing.
In parallel with this new business exploration, I also pursued traditional employment avenues. But even in the best of times the great State of Maine does not offer a Chemical Engineer/MBA a wealth of opportunities outside of the paper industry, and I was not going back to the paper industry. Since I was unwilling to relocate to where the jobs were then I had to be patient, and I was, for a time.
One evening my wife and I were having dinner with our good friends Mark and Carrie, in a quaint little restaurant carved out of the first floor of a massive, abandoned, turn-of-the-century textile mill. It was preserved by one of those urban renewal projects that keep these historic edifices from being demolished and replaced with an Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s. Of course, in the early 1900’s when men, women, and even children were laboring long hours there in a sweatshop environment, the place never looked this good, and the workers definitely never ate this well. So this very spot, where so many employees had come and gone over the years, was an appropriate backdrop for the dinner conversation that followed.
Mark, who is a Vice President for a high-tech manufacturing company, asked, “How is the job search going?”
I explained, "The fact that I have MS is definitely complicating things.”
“Really? I don’t understand why it should.”
This caught me a little off guard. Mark is a smart guy. I said, “I'm afraid that if I reveal my condition too early in the interview process they are going to find some excuse not to hire me. Yet I feel this obligation to let them know. I don’t want anyone to regret hiring me."
Mark replied, “You are over-thinking this. If someone revealed that fact to me in an interview I would be more likely to hire that person, not less."
Ah, if there were only more executives and friends like Mark, this would be a better world. But in the end he was right, as he usually is, at least regarding the opportunity I eventually pursued.
Over the months that my quest for income dragged on I experienced slow and steady progression of the disease. I began to wonder how I would have functioned in my previous job as a project manager even if I hadn't been laid off. As the months went by without any promising opportunities developing, I began to ask myself if this was the end of the line for my working days. I knew the statistics on MS and employment. Less than half the people diagnosed with MS are fully employed. I had purchased a COBRA long-term disability policy when I was laid off. I began reading the policy. But my heart really wasn't in that approach. I still felt that I had gas left in the tank. Disability just didn’t feel right, yet.
Finally, an exciting employment opportunity came along with a local environmental engineering firm. I interviewed, and it seemed like a great match except for one thing. This job required no less walking than my previous job had required. Yet, in every other way this was the best employment prospect to come along since I'd been laid off. I was tiring of sitting home and looking for jobs, and I was starting to worry about my family’s financial situation. It was time to get back in the game. I had looked around, and hadn’t found any better way to make a living.
So my dilemma was that I had a company that would hire me into a position that was appealing to me, at a salary that was similar to what I had been making in the past. But what was my obligation to them during the hiring process? Should I tell them about my MS up front? Should I simply describe my physical limitations, but not overtly discuss the diagnosis? Should I do this in the first interview, the second interview, after receiving the job offer, my first day on the job…or never?
What if I took this job, only to find out that I simply could not meet the basic requirements? Of course, there was really only one way to know for sure.