Let me tell you a secret: I’ve already been fired. While I would love to share the details of this story, a non-disparagement clause forbids me to do so. But I can share my most important lesson from that experience.
Early in my career, the idea of being fired was extremely frightening. Like most people, I was taught from an early age that my self-worth was tightly linked to my professional success, and that I was as good as my last job. All rubbish. I would catch myself wondering, “What would people think about me if I got fired?” At that time, I thought that being fired would doom my career, and that I wouldn’t be able to find any other decent job. For most of my professional life, I’ve dreaded that possibility - even when I had just received incredible performance reviews. I took feedback and criticism personally - and I’ve experienced countless sleepless nights thinking about how to improve my skills so that people would compliment me in the following review cycle.
Yes, I’ve been that immature and insecure.
Looking back, I can see how much of a walking contradiction I was: on one hand, I’ve always looked for challenging positions and have never played it safe; on the other hand, I was so eager for people’s approval that the fear of failing paralyzed me at times. It was like I had two opposing forces competing inside me and that, no matter which one would prevail, the losing party would always be me. I’m surprised I didn’t implode. Learning how to overcome this fear has been one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.
And then it happened. Of course, it wasn’t all that sudden; you can tell when things are not going well from miles away. I was struggling to find my space in a culture where the status quo was king and where fear dominated every single decision made by the leadership. I know that a few people in the board and executive team saw the need to change, and they even had the desire to change, but they didn’t allow themselves the opportunity to do so. Despite all my best efforts to show them the way, they would look at me every day like I was an alien in their world.
When people get fired, they usually feel ashamed. I didn't (or maybe just a little bit). Mostly, I felt frustrated, relieved, and proud. Frustrated for not being able to convince the key leaders of the company to open themselves up to change. Relieved to come out of a gloomy, borderline dystopian experience. And proud for standing up for my principles - even if doing so had cost me my job.
As I went on with my life, even before getting another job, I could see that myself-worth had nothing to do with my professional successes or failures.
I feel blessed for my successes. They’ve given me personal rewards I had only dreamed about. They’ve made me feel good about my own contributions, about leaving a positive impact on the world. But they don’t define me. I also feel extremely grateful for my failures, especially the ones that hurt the most. They gave me the humility to understand that luck has played a big role in my life, that sometimes even my best efforts are not enough to overcome certain challenges, and to practice acceptance for the things I can’t change. They have also shown me the path I needed to take to continue growing. But they don’t define me either.
What defines me is the type of person that I choose to be everyday when I wake up. It is what I do with the blessings I have in my life. It is how much I help others find their own paths. And it is how much I can grow as a person while doing all that.
I am convinced that, had I folded, had I compromised my core principles, the fall would have been much worse. Not only would I have been without a job, but I would have been broken inside. I fell, but with my head up high. I hope that, when it is my turn to fall yet again, I can continue true to my principles and do so with the same courage I had that time.