The Gift of Being Fired

About 56,839 people are canned each day in the U.S., which means that about 56,839 people each day find themselves somewhere on the freak-out spectrum (most at the “full-fledged” end of the range).

The 56,839 is a measure of people both laid off and discharged, so let’s say for the point I’m trying to make that half of those people were discharged. FIRED. These 25,000 people understandably go home with their pink slips in hand (do pink slips exist anymore?), feeling a lot of undesirable feelings — all of which make sense — like shock, stupor, and/or rage. (Being laid off is no day at the beach either, but today’s chat is about the special kind of punch in the gut that comes from getting fired, versus getting downsized because “the West coast operation is shutting down, and this really isn’t personal.”) Getting fired is never not personal.

When the dust (i.e.: the bender) settles, there might be room for gratitude in between the resentment and the host of other feelings. Sometimes we need a wake-up call to, well, wake up. What’s there to learn when you’ve been sacked? Be thankful if one or more of these lessons apply to you (so you can do something about keeping your next job):

You got fired because you really weren’t all that good.

Some of us know how to work hard for a while then imperceptibly take our foot off the gas* to take a well-deserved break. Maybe your foot has been off the gas for a little too long? Or maybe you never really worked hard or added value in the first place. Were you instrumental in getting important things done? Are people missing the work you contributed? Did you make the company you worked for better? Were you proud of the work you did, every day?

You got fired because you missed important signals.

Many people are surprised when they get fired and shouldn’t be. We get quite crafty at ignoring the signs that mean we’ll have to deal with uncomfortable things, don’t we? We notoriously inflate our own sense of worth and think we’re more valuable than we really are, so it’s easy to stick our under-performing heads in the sand.

Reflect back and think about feedback your boss might have given you along the way. Did you get along? Bosses don’t tend to keep adversaries on their teams. Were your ratings exemplary in your performance reviews? If not, what made you overlook the feedback? Maybe you were once a shining star and then rested on your laurels for the last 18 months; did you update your perception of yourself to reflect your new reality?

You got fired because you didn’t ask for feedback.

Bosses are usually horrible at giving difficult feedback, because bosses are people, and people hate giving difficult feedback. So whose fault is it if you don’t know how you’re doing at work? I think it’s your fault.

If you don’t know where you stand, it’s your job to find out. How would that sound? “Julia, I’m hoping for some specific feedback about my performance since I started. I know we have a meeting scheduled for next Tuesday, so do you mind if we use some of that time to discuss where you think I’m doing things well and where you think I could improve?” And if you’re scared to have that conversation, it’s even more important that you have that conversation.

You got fired because you needed a reality check.

Getting let go from a job you knew you were coasting at is one thing, but getting let go from a job you thought you were acing is something else. If you felt pretty self-important, maybe getting cut back down to size is a lesson you had to go through to not take things for granted in your next job(s). Maybe you needed to experience that things don’t always go your way, and then build that muscle of resilience. Many of the people I have worked with graduated from good schools and got good jobs and good promotions and then got fired for good reasons, too. The healthiest of the bunch quickly take stock of the situation, get up off their couches, brush the Cheetos dust off themselves, and get back out there more motivated and ready than ever.

You got fired because you needed out but didn’t take control.

Many of us toil in jobs for months and years that we’re really unhappy about (been there, done that). Getting fired from a job we hate is like getting dumped by a crappy boyfriend we were so going to dump first. It never feels good to not be the one in control, does it? How long were you complaining about your job to your friends? Were you stuck in the proverbial comfort zone? Were you waiting for something to happen? Guess what? It did! And it happened to you. Now’s the chance to figure out what went wrong and why, and then — and more importantly — what your best way forward is from this point.

Getting fired is never fun, and I don’t want to trivialize it because it can feel devastating. Saying that getting fired is a gift is like getting a check for your 10th birthday from your Grandmother when all you wanted was a G.I. Joe. Not cool today, but definitely worth it in a few years. The gift of alternate perspectives can be one of the best things to come out of being let go. You’ve been handed the ability to steer your career in a different direction, wiser behind the wheel.

* I’d use the term screwing the pooch here if I didn’t hate it so much.

Jodi Wellman

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