Have you ever been fired?
While the polite thing for me to say is “I hope not”, that’s not actually how I feel about it – I kind of hope you have been. Not because I’m being petty in a “misery loves company” kind of way but because it’s a pretty humbling and eye-opening experience. Can you even imagine my ego before being fired? Exactly.
If you have been fired, I hope that it’s happened only once. Personally, and I say this having put significant thought into the subject, I think one firing per lifetime is enough. Maybe even one firing per family would be acceptable; you can even include your in-laws if you’d like.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that the “HR” thing to say is here is that there is a difference between being fired, laid off, downsized and severed (or, in politically correct terms, involuntarily separated). But tomato, tomato – one person’s firing is another person’s severing. For me, firing is what happens when there exists a disagreement in direction at the senior levels of the company, and you, the junior of that team, are the one who discovers what it means to be fired.
I’m sure there are other events in life that are equally impactful, but none that influence your day-to-day life quite so drastically. After all, we spend more awake time at work than we do anywhere else in our adult lives. In 2012, I realized how much time I spent at work when I came home to a family I had not spent much time with over the course of the previous few years and had to sit down and explain why starting at midnight that night, they were no longer covered by reasonable cost health care and why, in spite of years of absence, I would not be going back to work tomorrow because I no longer worked there.
“The Event”, as I refer to it (even more politically correct than involuntary separation), is a massive shock to your soul. Nothing says failure quite like the termination of income when you have a mortgage, a wife who gave up her career to raise kids so that you could focus on yours, and a four and a six year old who know you live with them, but they aren’t totally sure what your role is.
Being fired lends perspective to where you are in life, how you define yourself, and gives you the opportunity (which when written in Mandarin is the same character as crisis) to reset and chart a new course. I did not have this perspective in the days and weeks that followed but the sun did rise, life did go on, and for the first time in a very long time, I was forced to look at my life and evaluate it for what it was, not what I had planned on it being a few short weeks prior. I believe that few other things in life allow you to do that.
If you haven’t been fired, I don’t think that you totally understand what I’m saying. People learn best by doing, or in this case, by being done. In my big company days, I had fired more than my fair share of people, but I didn’t understand it until I experienced it myself. I liked to think I did it better, but fired is fired, like dead is dead. It sucks to be fired.
I imagine if you have never been fired, you are going to smile, but maybe not entirely absorb what I’m saying. Regardless, I will still share my learnings with you because being fired was a huge turning point for me, and, well, I like you. I really like you. You are reading my book and we are really getting to know each other. Accordingly, if I can help you so I can be the in-law you take credit for and you don’t have to be fired to find happiness in your new course, then it was worth it.
The days that followed “The Event” were the hardest few days of my life. That I remember particularly clearly.
I had been stressed out, miserable, and working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week–by choice of course–in the months and maybe years leading up to it, but nothing could compare to how I felt in the days that followed.
In my mind, January 31st (the day before I got fired), I had purpose; I knew what 6:15 a.m. meant. I knew what I was going to do every day, with every crisis. I was important. I was creating millions of dollars of value every single day for the organization in an asset I had built from scratch. I was the captain, with two or three trusted lieutenants, and we had answers to everything. And then, it was gone.
Healthcare taken away at midnight; no place to go during the day; absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I went from a job that pulled me in twenty different directions all simultaneously that I had willingly sacrificed my personal life for to absolutely nothing. As I write this today, I am appalled to know that is how I felt, but I know it to be true.
There were two little boys who hadn’t really seen their father in years and I wasn’t particularly present when they did because I was too busy and important with other things to think about. And now I didn’t even have a job to show for it. Don’t worry boys, University is overrated anyway…
As for marriage, I had a wife at home who had given up her career, moved countries, and endured some pretty tough times with the husband she had–a husband who was significantly different than the one she had chosen to marry—taking care of two little boys basically on her own. “‘Til death do us part,” they say. In 2012, she was strongly contemplating the “death” part for me.
A few weeks prior to “The Event”, I had told my wife that I wouldn’t be joining our family on a ten-day trip to Hawaii, a trip that had been booked for over a year beforehand. My reason: I couldn’t be away from work for that long.
Her entire family was going. I wasn’t. Divorce was imminent, and I didn’t care. I surmised with 100% confidence that she was planning on packing the kids up and moving back to Canada upon her return from Hawaii. I also knew that I was staying in Denver to continue my career. Some might say I’m exaggerating the divorce part since I have been known to embellish on occasion. So it is important to know that I have subsequently confirmed that this was, in fact, the case. My wife and kids would have passed go (in this case Denver) and collected a few hundred (thousand) dollars on their way back to Canada, for good.
And then, “The Event” happened.
For me, my first thought was not of my life, my family, or the free time I was about to have. It was not about the relief that I would no longer have to fight every day at the office with people who took for granted what I did for the company and the direction I wanted to take it. It was not even about the inequity of my own personal perception of value and what I received to leave.
No. It was that I wouldn’t be going to work on February 2nd. No emails. No phone calls. No meetings. No decisions. No lunches with salesmen. No dinners with vendors. It would be just my family–the four of us–in a house we could no longer afford, looking at each other with three of them wondering, “Who is this guy sitting across from us on the couch and why does he look so sad?” My entire self-worth; my entire purpose; and all the years I had spent building this career gone in a moment.
I am quite confident there were a number of people on both sides of the aisle that cheered that day. On the left, those who I pushed at work–the “B-“ and “C” players that I, quite frankly, could have been more patient with–cheered because I was gone and their daily lives got easier. Karma, payback and the hubris police had simultaneously caught me and in the world, there was “Justice.” “Work isn’t everything, calm the F@&K down.” “I just want to do my job and go home.” “Leave me alone. And stop emailing me at 8:30 at night, it’s stressing me out.”
On the right, those who were closest to me cheered too, much more quietly of course, but hopeful that the David that I used to be would return and the person that I had become would be rocketed back to outer space. Remember that guy that power washed the paint off the wrong deck? That was funny. Tell that story again, it always makes me laugh when you tell it. Why don’t you tell it that way anymore? Please come back.
The job, my career, and the choices I had made had morphed who I was. In the opening blogs, I may have characterized it as unhappy. We didn’t know each other that well back then. I feel now like our relationship has really grown, so I can say it: I was an asshole. Not a mean asshole. Just a one-dimensional, self-important, confused asshole. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t going to change. So it is ironic, of course, that being fired saved what little of my personal life I had left. It is also the reason for which I now drop my kids off at school every day, coach them in hockey, head the fundraising efforts for their school and am on the PTA.
But on February 2, 2012 I got up just like I did every other work day with a few small differences: My eyes were red. I was hollowed out from the inside. I hurt and I had absolutely no place to go.
So I put on my suit, went downtown and had coffee with, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty people? All of whom were former colleagues.
From some, I was looking for validation; from some I was hoping for a job offer. But more than anything, I needed to get back in control of my life and this seemed like a pretty good place to start. I ended up extremely over- caffeinated. I ended the worst day of my life, went home and started writing.
I now know that being fired was the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time, I didn’t have that perspective. I did, however, have anger. I needed validation of myself and a structure for anger. I needed an outlet. And fortunately, I had a killer title and first chapter. I’m thankful I did.
Back to 2018. As it turns out and you may have figured out on your own, I did go to Hawaii. My wife didn’t take the kids back to Canada. We didn’t get divorced. And day after day; month after month; I began to return to the person I was coming out of college. I realized that for all our good intentions in our careers to steer success, it’s a meandering river not a whitewater course you race on to your pre-planned pick up spot. And so, for the first time in my life, I resolved to let the river take me where it wanted to go and to make the most out of every opportunity it gave me.
“The Event” led to the self-reflection that brought forth a much better version of myself; a much humbler version of myself and ultimately led to the incredible success of OneEnergy. Most importantly, the river taught me gratitude. Heaps and heaps of gratitude.
I’m back in Hawaii this week with my extended family, minus my father in law. I have no recollection of the resort or the building complex or the golf course from 2012. Apparently, I blocked out almost all of the trip. But I do remember the pool side spot very well. It’s the spot where I sat and watched my kids play for hours. I watched them because I didn’t have anyone emailing or calling or needing my attention. So I watched them for the first time in their lives. That was the day I started to have a relationship with them. Today I’m taking them golfing and they are fighting over who gets to ride in the cart with me. When I have lived my life and I join George on the other side, I hope it’s this story, the personal story of how I rediscovered my self that they remember and learn from.