The First Time I Was Fired
This piece is excerpted from my book, Make Space to Lead.
The first time that I was fired, my “amazing leader who could hold it all together” façade was shattered. From 2006–2013, I worked for consulting firms that supported other companies. My last consulting job was for a Seattle-based development firm that coded products for clients. They wanted to move more into the strategic spaces of product and design. I’d worked with them on projects before, and I truly enjoyed spending time with the founders — we had similar values and visions. I joined them in a dual role that felt like a perfect fit for my ambitions. It fed my achievement monster a high-calorie diet. I was Head of Design and General Manager of the company’s brand-new San Francisco studio. I threw myself into the role, working hard on both business development and client projects, as well as bringing design culture and thinking into what had previously been an engineering company. I also got to flex my operational muscles by searching for the location of the new San Francisco office space. On top of that, I was the first and only woman to hold a leadership position in the company. I got energy from the work. I enjoyed winning new clients and working on unusual blends of hardware and software projects. I was riding high on these client wins and the visibility of my perfect dual job. It felt like I was leaning into two different strengths as well as my personal desires and managing to make it all work. Anyone who looked at me would have admired how wonderfully I seemed to balance it all and my seemingly glamorous life of travel and cutting-edge projects.
Underneath the armor though, I was barely holding on. I had two daughters under five. While they were accustomed to their mom working long hours, this was different. I had an apartment in Seattle and was staying there two-three nights a week in addition to the required travel to client sites. One of my daughters, only knowing that this mysterious “Seattle” was the competitor that was hogging all her Mama’s time, would often declare: “I hate Seattle. Seattle is bad.”
I was working around the clock trying to drum up business for our new San Francisco office in addition to servicing the existing clients. I was also in a fierce conflict with another member of the leadership team who seemed to feel challenged by a strong-willed woman. These conflicts and microaggressions made my days miserable. In addition, with all the travel, I wasn’t sleeping well, eating well, or exercising.
A year later, it seemed that pace might be finally letting up. The other member of the leadership team was no longer with the company. My then-husband, daughters and I headed off to a wonderful week-long vacation in Sayulita, Mexico with my best friend’s family. Between us we had four little girls, who all squealed in excitement about staying together in a villa with a pool right on the beach. My husband and I briefly reconnected through surfing warm water. It was rare for us to spend this much time together — our growing distance was a downside of the achievement monster — and I got to spend many wonderful hours simply talking to my adult friends. We wandered around barefoot, enjoying the warmth, and the company. Enveloped by the sea-salt smell and slow ambling pace of the people around us, I was able to relax. I spent my days eating ceviche from beach vendors and buying fresh-cut flowers from the mercados. I felt relieved that playing with the kids was fun again, and not a nightly parental chore.
The day after we got home, both my daughters developed a stomach bug. They were in agony, endlessly throwing up in-between desperate dashes to use the potty. After my week away, the Seattle company’s CEO and COO urgently needed to talk to me. I gamely hopped on a video call while keeping one eye on my miserable little girls. In a haze of shock, I listened as they told me that they had taken another look at the company financials and had decided to shut down the San Francisco office. I was being let go. They needed me to tell everyone in the San Francisco office that they were out of a job. I had never been fired before. I knew that it was supposed to feel like a colossal failure. That achievement monster was going to eat me alive. Yet surprisingly, something different emerged from this space. Even amid losing my job and the maternal ache of caring for my daughters, I felt a giant rush of relief.
I was aware that I had been holding up a house of cards, trying to make it all work. I was trying to be the perfect Head of Design, the perfect San Francisco General Manager, and the perfect mom. Of course, deep down, I knew I wasn’t doing any of these well. It wasn’t sustainable. I had set myself up for failure by doing two jobs for the company. I was stretched out way too thin. I was putting my family at risk and missing valuable time with my young girls. The week earlier in Sayulita, with surf and friends, had reminded me of the calm that had been missing from the previous year.
Of course, that feeling of relief and spaciousness didn’t last.
In my typical pragmatic and high-achieving mode, I shut off all my emotions and set to work. I needed to find a way out of our building lease. I needed to figure out a plan for the remaining designers up in Seattle and make sure that my successor would be supported through the coming months. I needed to negotiate the best exit packages for the San Francisco team. And most agonizingly, I needed to communicate the news to each team member and help them find their next jobs. That last part wasn’t my job, but I felt personally responsible. I had recruited and hired them. I fell back into feeding the achievement monster because I felt driven to complete this exit from the company with grace. I never questioned that it was my role to do so. I had no space to reflect or question my assumptions.
I’d tried meditation on and off over the past year at a suggestion from my coach to build in more reflection to my busy days, but the practice had never stuck. Yet this time, some inner knowing — perhaps the source of my relief? — desperately craved solitude. I spent the first day of unemployment at Spirit Rock, a meditation retreat center a couple of hours north of San Francisco. I was in silence for a lot of the day, either indoors with the teacher or outside walking the beautiful northern California hills in a slow, ambling meditation. I could see the dry pale grass undulating in the wind. Hawks lazily flew overhead, while lizards darted between the rocks at my feet. My long-suppressed emotions erupted. I wept. I re-hashed past conversations and yelled at the COO. I blamed the CEO for not hiring a salesperson. Mostly, I blamed myself for failing. I had trouble staying with my breath. Each thought brought my mind back to what I could have done better. But I kept going. As I slowly walked the hills, I felt my shoulders dropping, my jaw unclenching, and my anxiety fading away to stillness. Inside, I settled into the hours of meditation. I still had trouble staying with my breath. I reset back to my breath each time my monkey-mind whirled away. Surrounded by fellow silence-seekers, as the hours passed, nothing outside this space seemed to matter. For perhaps a minute at a time, I felt at peace and able to focus on my breath. I didn’t need to speak, move quickly, or prove myself to anyone else. I was simply another person savoring the space of silence.
I reminded myself of that initial sensation of relief and how blessed I was in the space of having no responsibilities to an office, employees, or corporate expectations. For that single day at the retreat center, I didn’t have to strive or achieve. I didn’t have to be a mom. I was no longer responsible for the design practice or the San Francisco office. I was free to simply be in this temporary reprieve. I had the space to be free from the achievement monster for one day.
Months later, I was able to look back with deep gratitude for having been fired and released from the expectations of doing two jobs — a futile task to begin with, especially with my impossibly high standards. I wouldn’t have been able to do it for myself, so I was grateful for the external push.
You don’t have to have been fired to see yourself in this story. Those moments when we’re caught up feeding the achievement monster can feel all-consuming. It’s difficult to see the way out. I had believed I was doing the right thing. I kept going because I was afraid of saying no, afraid of slowing down, afraid of backing off from this prestigious job. Being fired had been my deepest fear, yet with the space of Spirit Rock I felt freed by it. I started to ask myself: What matters most in my next job? What do I want to achieve for me, and not for someone else? How might I find the people and company who value me as I am? What if I could slow down?”
Perhaps unwilling space has also been forced upon you, or perhaps my story can give you permission to slow down. I’ve learned how to support clients to transition out of unwinnable work situations, or to discover what’s next for them after being fired. Relief has been a consistent emotion that reminds all of us that the path of the achievement monster always has been, and always will be, unsustainable.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching which you can follow or learn more about my leadership book, Make Space to Lead.