Why Being Fired Can Be the Best Thing Ever

Context is everything. But it can be an opportunity.

I have been fired five times, most recently on Saturday and least recently when I was 16. When I was 16, I worked at the Body Shop, and my manager told me I had to choose between attending the funeral for my vice-principal and continuing to sell shower gel. Most recently, I was fired alongside a couple dozen other people in a conference call I joined five minutes late, which meant I ended up having to IM my friend R. the following message:

Are we all getting fired?
Um I was late
Oh dear

Of course, I wasn’t feeling very “Ha!” about it at the time. I was feeling very “FUCK FUCK FUCK.” She explained that we were, indeed, all getting fired. I waited until the end of the call, went outside to the street, called one of my best friends, and wept.

Being “fired alongside a couple dozen other people” is a euphemism for being laid off. In my count of five firings, three fall under the “laid off” category, there was that one at the Body Shop, and then for the fifth, I actually quit, but only because I didn’t get a department transfer I’d requested. The most traumatic of these was the third, when a well-financed blog I’d been writing for folded. I was a full-time art school student, working toward a degree in conceptual art, and I was busy enough that my only other steady source of income was sweeping up hair at a hair salon. I got the call in the school cafeteria—honest to God, it has one of the best views in San Francisco, and if you’re going to get bad news, it might as well be there—and I just put my head down on the table and cried. Of course, this was art school, so the sight of a student crying at a table was not unusual.

The good thing about being fired nearly a half-dozen times is that you figure out it doesn’t matter. Revision: Of course it matters, if you have a career rather than a job, and it matters hugely if you’re responsible for the care and feeding of other human beings, in which case I can think of few things worse; there are people I love dealing with long-term unemployment, and it is a harrowing, horrible thing. I am talking, instead, about being fired within a narrow context: as it relates to other freelancers, who thank their lucky stars to have a day job (as I did), who exploit it as much as possible while it lasts (as I tried to do), and who inevitably face that job’s end.

I remember another quit/firing: when I’d found out the guy I was dating (my office’s office manager) had slept with my boss. (Yoiks!) I quit more or less on the spot, as soon as I’d pieced together what had happened, and woke up the next morning like: fuck. I was living in an apartment on Ninth Street in Park Slope, and the apartment was up high enough that I could see all I needed to of a terribly bleak January sky. If you’re going to get fired/quit, one good thing is to try to do it during the summer.

But it worked out. I’d been nursing two other jobs all along: one, writing movie reviews, and another, working for an author, in a part-time post that would soon become full-time. I look back now and say I was lucky, and I was, but it wasn’t just luck. If I hadn’t had the benefit of those two jobs in my back pocket, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to quit. I would have had to continue to work alongside two people I, at that point, hoped someone would push into a volcano, and I would have died a thousand slow deaths every morning. But two things saved me from that fate. Two things are saving me now, from penury, and I suggest them to anyone else in a similar predicament: hoping to go freelance, dying to leave a job that sucks, or anyone whose livelihood depends on the whims of another person. They are:

1: I believe in Hobbes: that life is nasty, brutish, and short. I do not believe that employers very often have their employees’ best interests at heart, and I believe the best we can hope for is a mutually parasitic relationship of some duration. (This isn’t to say I haven’t had many, many awesome bosses—I have—but I absolutely believe we must remain conscious of where our employer’s interests and our own interests diverge, because they nearly always do.) We must always remain conscious of the difference between working toward our dreams and working for other people. Other people will fire you, if the math works out that way.

2: The best advice I ever got about freelancing was this. A long time ago now, my best friend was a producer on Fox + Friends, and she had me come on the show to appear as part of a Dating Game-like sketch. The makeup artist told me that she was freelance, and preferred it that way: “I have 30 clients,” she said. “That way, if one goes out of business, I have 29 clients.”

I don’t have 29 clients left following my most recent firing, but I have enough to pay the bills. I may have enough to replace the sunglasses I just lost. Come Friday—my last day on the job—I’m going to lose a significant portion of my income; I had planned to go back to school this semester, and finish off what was interrupted in my cafeteria, five years ago. That will have to wait. That’s OK.

I’ll tell you this. Like any other shock to your everyday life, getting fired wakes you the fuck up. In the context I outlined above—in a no-dependents context of mitigated upheaval—it’s actually a much, much less terrifying experience than a health scare. As bad news goes—well, I can say this from personal experience: Thanks to that makeup artist, it’s been considerably less terrifying—I hate to use that word twice in two sentences, but there’s no substitute—than being told, last year, that I needed to have brain surgery.

This seems beyond obvious, but I had to remind myself of it: If you get fired, chances are something wasn’t working. We can ignore “something not working” if the rewards are good enough—and for someone like me, a freelance writer who made a grand total of $20,000 in 2008, at the start of the recession—the surety of a weekly paycheck was a ecstasy-making novelty that I never got over. There is no astronomical event—no sun exploding, no comet colliding with a planet—that could match the wonder I experienced when I realized that direct deposit actually worked.

The best thing about being fired as many times as I have is that you stop thinking of it as an ending and see it for what it is: an opportunity. I rewatched Fight Club this weekend, right after getting the news, and I’d forgotten the part of the movie I like best: When Tyler tells the guy who always wanted to be a veterinarian that if he wasn’t on his way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, that he’d track him down and kill him. Getting fired is an excellent opportunity for becoming a veterinarian. Comfort can be a drug. Getting off it can be a nauseating, hideous experience. But when your vision clears, there can be a moment of “What now?” and that moment is the prize for what you’ve just endured. To own that answer—to answer that question as bravely and courageously and ambitiously as possible, and then, to pursue that answer, with all the dedication and will and force you can muster—can be worth every second of the pain and confusion that preceded it.

Addendum: I write about travel on my blog, Travel Crush.

Also, I tweet here and post deceptively pretty pictures of Paris here.