What I Learned From Being Fired

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In a previous blog, I posted “Why Being Fired May Be The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You.”  The response was overwhelming.  It means a lot to me when people reach out with personal notes and stories and I’m grateful for it.

I also received an equal amount of “I can’t believe you shared that” and “Thank you for sharing that” but my favorite response was “I hope you are ok now.”  Yes, all good.  Thank you!  Always room to improve but I have come a long way from February 2012.   7 years later, I feel totally resolved and at peace.  The truth is, had I not been fired, none of the last 7 years would have happened.  We never would have started the company and sold the company and I certainly wouldn’t be blogging about it.

I have had a couple of requests to share “what were the specific learnings?  Can you make a list?  I’m going to take you up on your suggestion that one firing per family is enough.  I agree.  That sounds right.  And to be honest, I’m starting to think of you as family.  So tell me what I need to know so I don’t have to go through that.”

Fair enough. The intent of the blog is to be helpful and so I want to give everyone what they want.  There are no support groups, no church basement meetings but it comes up in conversation and we find each other nonetheless.  Some are still deeply bitter and really struggling to come to grips with it.

For most of us, our career was our life.  Everything we did and every interaction we had was centered around our careers so when it was gone, it was as though a part of your core being was taken away.  But I now believe that you need to view it as a gift.  And the gift is getting the best part of yourself back.  Here’s what I learned.

Lesson 1:  Be aware of your place in an organization.  You always have a boss, no matter how incredible you are at your job, and they can stop liking you really, really fast.  I’m not saying you have to turn off your brain, but if there is friction, you have to be aware of what can come next. Everyone is replaceable.

Lesson 2:  If you rock the boat, you don’t always get to stay on board, either because the ride is too rough or because the others on the boat don’t want you there anymore.

Lesson 3:  Not everyone likes a crisis.  If you are someone who thrives on crises, be careful not to be perceived as the creator of the crisis.  Whether you were the initiator of said crises or not, if people start seeing you in the middle of every crisis, it becomes less about the issue and more about you.

Lesson 4:  Seek regular feedback from your boss to check on others’ perceptions of you so that you can head it off, or at the very least address it and take action.  I also think related here is that if your company has a strong HR department, you should be able to seek advice and insight into your “fit” in the organization in perhaps a less intimidating way than asking your boss.

Lesson 5 (the most important one):  Define yourself by who you are, not what you do.  At least in my experience, when I’m at a social event, the two most frequently asked questions are “What do you do?” (if they don’t know you) and “How’s work?” (if they do know you.)  It’s one step more familiar than “Some crazy weather we’ve been having…” but similarly frequent.

“Hi, nice to meet you, Sarah.  And what do you do?”

“I love yoga and I eat at this unbelievable restaurant once a week.  I have two girls, I edit books and I love Starbucks tea.”  I pray that one day, someone says exactly that.  When I was unemployed, the most terrifying part of any social interaction was “What do you do?” and that social nicety was part of what hurt so much in the weeks that followed.  I defined myself first by where I worked and then by the role I had and my confidence as a person, sad as that is, was based on that answer being “a good one”.  I wasn’t working for myself, I was working for someone else.  And as long as you’re not the boss, it can be taken from you.

Perhaps to close this last point, I will reiterate some common advice:  it is so important to have hobbies outside of work.  And not just hobbies to kill the time but things you are deeply passionate about.  Everyone says it- but “Work-Life” balance to me isn’t being able to leave work when you want and wear jeans.  It’s that you have a life and joy away from the office.  I argue the more joy you have away from the office, the easier it is to deal with the stresses that can occasionally come from the office and keep a much healthier perspective.

I used to think about it a lot, and I used to be angry about it.  But when I let go of the anger and realized the gift of getting to remake myself with no strings, no restrictions and a healthier perspective on my life, I truly believe the failure was the reason for my success.  I just wish somebody had taught me this in business school.

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