Chris Wu

Being Fired

This post is inspired by Zach Holman's brave post. I've long enjoyed Holman's blog, talks and other contributions even though I've been torn on Github as a company ever since their meritocracy chatter.

While our experiences were very different, his post was very familiar. I recall all of his observations: the constant "let's go for drinks", the embarrassment and the stigma. The feeling that somehow being rejected by this one company taints you from all companies was illogical and yet somehow the default state for our society.

I don't really have any sort of earth-shattering insights from that time. This is nothing more than a set of desultory observations from that time that perhaps someone in a similar position would find comforting.

You're not in control anymore

I've always done pretty well. I was never the smartest guy in the classroom but as the stereotyping son of Asian immigrants, I always did pretty well. Good grades, a good university, grad school, good job, good performance reviews and so on. Until suddenly not. I am reminded of a computational biology grad student that took an algorithms class I taught - he got a B. This is our conversation summarized

Him: But I'm an A student

Me: Not anymore.

And that was my first lesson: You're something until you're suddenly not. Up until that time, I had always been in control of my fate: choice of schools, jobs, technologies. Without ever really appreciating it, it hit me like a ton of bricks when it was gone.

In tradition of stoicism, it was good to learn that having the choice taken away from me wasn't a unique occurrence. On a daily basis, dozens of my actions are a result of constraints far outside of my control. This just happened to be a big noticeable one.

It's not fair

No, it's not. It's pointless for me to rehash the various complaints I had about the logic of losing my job. The only salient point that holds up to scrutiny is that it's not fair and that's just too bad.

I do believe that success and skills are correlated, but only just so. The smallest correlation with the faintest whiff of significance in the statistical sense. We believe those that are successful or more senior are skillful. I'm no Nassim Taleb but it's clear to me now that's not true. So if you're expecting not to be fired just because you perceived yourself as more skilled, that's not how it works.

Perhaps it's a cynical lesson to be learned but I realized that regardless of how well things seem to be going, you can't ever really be certain that things are going to work out. I'm not suggesting that one should be paranoid but rather to always be aware that unfair things happen to everyone. Like the proverbial boy scout, be prepared.

People will surprise you

For a while, people will want to buy you a lot of drinks. Once they become acclimated with your new state of unemployment, they'll stop caring.

They'll grow wearing of your complaining and wonder "how long is he going to wallow?". Friends that couldn't imagine working without you, they'll find a way. Friends who claim they will quit, just won't. Those that say they will speak up for you after you're gone, won't. The sympathy just dries up.

People are genuine regarding their affection for you, but it's part of the human condition. We can't imagine life differently than it is now. So just as you'd never imagined being unemployed, they also never really thought about how easy it'd be to get along without you.

Conversely, people will also surprise you with their generosity. I was shocked at the number of near strangers that sent me introductions to everyone under the sun they knew who might be "looking for someone with my talents". You can always tell someone that has experienced being let go because they know.

It won't seem like it when you in the depths of the rejection period but most people are actually quite understanding. In the end, I became friends with a considerable number of acquaintances who came to my aid.

Yes, people will judge you

Here's where the stigma is very real. When people find out that you were fired, they always pause. I seem to recall after the post was tweeted someone said something I'd paraphrase as

Imagine if everyone who ever been dumped was subject to such scrutiny: You were dumped? There must be something wrong with you.

This was something I experienced first hand as my employment options started picking up. My references time and again would say "they really seem hung up on the firing thing". I can see their point of view: if you have a great employee, you do whatever you can do keep them. Ergo this person must be trouble.

I can't dispute that I can be a difficult person at times. However, this logic has very real impact on companies doing hiring. This reasoning isn't valid if your company is different. What works for one place, won't work for another. This is also true for employees. One man's troublemaker is another's culture fit. So an phantom mismatch could be robbing organizations of perfect good candidates.

Do something with that time

Making sure you have side projects and productive activities are key for two reasons. First, it's great for mental health. You go from being busy for a full day to looking for a job. Looking for a job isn't a full-time task. After scrubbing LinkedIn, you've basically got all the recruiters covered (since that's all they do). Then you're randomly Googling local companies of interest. Perhaps attend a meetup or two after that? That's not 8 hours a day.

This leaves you with hours to do something worthwhile. Catch up on reading, learn a new skill, cook, paint, whatever. Because here's the second reason: you'll actually look back at that time as a great missed opportunity.

The truth is that (almost) everyone eventually lands on their feet - especially in tech. Which means that this time will have been great for working on all the things you've always wanted to do. The key is to view this time as a blessing in disguise which, admittedly, is easier said than done.

While it was a challenging time, I count myself very lucky to have been part of an industry with high employment, a supportive spouse and not being taxed financially. I have great sympathy for the countless others who aren't so lucky.

I guess advice can come in two flavors depending on how much of a positive thinker you are (I stand behind both). If you're a happy person, then know that "this too shall pass". If you're more of a pessimist, then know that "dumber people than you find better jobs. You'll be fine."