what-getting-let-go-from-a-design-job-taught-me

Bouncing back after being laid off

“This is going to suck”. Wait what? I didn’t expect to hear that from my manager during our one on one.

Photo by Saad Chaudhry

Earlier that morning I sat down with my boss to talk about recent work. He asked me about the research I was conducting. Since I was still in the middle of it I gave him a quick summary. He filled out a spreadsheet pressing me for more info. Two hours passed, he seemed satisfied.

“Alright let’s do our one on one” he blurts out walking out of the room. Hurriedly I grab my jacket expecting us to go outside as usual. But something feels off. As we’re going towards the exit he takes a sharp turn left and motions to the room in the corner, “this is going to suck” he mutters under his breath. Did I hear that right? The HR manager is already there.

The next moment passes like a blur. HR explains how the company has to cut staff due to lack of funding and that it’s nothing personal plus good news is that, “you now have the rest of the afternoon off!”. Good news indeed.

“It seems like you’re taking this fine, do you have any questions?” says my now former boss. I ask about reapplying, about waiting it out until the new funding comes in. It doesn’t matter. I’m desperately clinging to something that’s been decided long before this meeting.

When we’re let go — it’s easy to self blame. What did I do wrong? How did things come to this? The truth is, it’s not always about you. A company’s rapid decline or rapid growth can all play a role in one’s departure.

Running out of money happens in startups more often than not. The media portrays startups as glamorous places to work hard and make it big. But most of them fail. We all know the stats but it’s personal when your paycheck is on the line.

When I left one startup for another, the prior company closed doors a month later. The new startup didn’t fare well either. They went through multiple rounds of layoffs cutting over 90% of staff and shutting down multiple locations. One guy got laid off, was brought back, only to get laid off again within a week. What a rollercoaster.

On the flip side of rapid decline is rapid growth. For employees this means rapid change in skills. Previously strong generalists might find themselves scrambling to provide value when a new wave of specialists come in who can do their job faster and better. It’s not a failure to quit, you may find yourself bored with specialization and prefer to be a generalist elsewhere.

I head back to my desk, trying to figure out how I’m going to pack my remaining cans of red bull and soylent that I ordered to the office. During the last few months I’ve been coming in early and leaving late only to get home in time to hop on a call with our overseas office. I cram everything in my backpack and ask my boss for a final one on one.

We’ve all heard of the metaphor of “boiling the frog”. Put the frog in a pot of water. Adjust the water gradually, the frog won’t notice and gets cooked alive. Awful! But also false. Nature is smarter, the real frogs jump out when the water gets too hot for their liking. They have good instincts but we don’t.

Sometimes we’re the metaphorical frog trapped in a toxic workplace. We try to adjust. We rationalize. We convince ourselves that “it’s not so bad” and that we just have to “stick it out”. Little by little we give up our freedom. We work harder. We get by with less. We put our emotional guards up, spending significant amount of our mental processes fighting a culture that leaves us with little energy to do the work itself.

Sometimes it gets worse as the stress takes its toll. Anxiety spikes up, everything feels on fire as you’re always on the edge. The stress spills over outside of work and your personal life and health suffer.

When we’re let go, we cling to the past. We can’t imagine not working. But it’s not because we like the work. It’s because we’ve slowly contorted ourselves into someone beyond recognition to meet the demands of our workplace. Our gradual decline has become a habit we’re no longer aware of.

My manager and I head out of the office for our actual one on one this time. As we circle around, people from the office are everywhere. They’re in the office lobby, in the local cafes, and some are heading out to a local bar—at 11am nonetheless.

Finally the boss opens up. It seems as though some things were bothering him for a while but he was “too nice” or as Kim Scott calls it “ruinously empathetic” to say it then. He criticizes me for being “too junior”, that I can’t get work done without oversight, that I don’t deserve my title, that I’m not empathetic, and that I can’t meet standards. Yet three months ago my performance, according to him, was great. But that’s ruinous empathy.

We wrap up, I grab my stuff and head home.

As I’m standing on the train my watch buzzes. What’s that? Looks like my heart rate has been “unusually high” during my long period of inactivity. Yeah, no kidding. At home I toss myself into a chair staring out the window. The day is cloudy but beautifully bright outside.

Surreal.

That’s the word that comes to mind as I’m trying to process everything. But there’s too much to process. Did this really happen?

As a manager, letting go is never easy. Even if an employee was underperforming you wanna give them a second chance. You feel the mistake of bringing them on and not able to help them succeed. And yet your core skill is navigating relationships and setting up the right environment for people to do great work. The earlier you can flag issues and let an employee know of their mistakes, the faster their performance will improve. The more specific you are with your feedback, the easier it is for them to get better.

The last thing a manager can do is preserve an employee’s sense of self worth. You’re letting them go because they’re not performing to the company’s standard and that it’s not reflective of who they are as a person.

It’s Wednesday. Still the same day. Even though I feel like crap, it’s only 1 PM. Can’t be moping around forever so I hit up a local design event.

I’m licking my wounds over the next few days but by Friday a wave of relief wash over. No more 6am overseas calls. No more skipped breakfasts and Soylent binges. No more sacrificing evenings for the 9pm–11pm overseas calls. No more chronic stress. The more I think about it, the better life seems to be. Can I get let go again?

Being let go is in some ways a time of forced self-reflection. It’s a way to step back and think about what truly matters—not just in career but in life too.

My number one? It’s not work—it’s health. Without good nutrition, sleep, friends, mental, and physical health we’re on a path to burnout. Healthy boundaries make strong relationships.

How does one do this soul searching? Helen Tran, a design luminary, wrote a post about how to find meaningful work by uncovering our values:

  1. When have I felt happy, fulfilled, and proud of myself?
  2. When have I felt the most regretful?
  3. When have I felt the most frustrated, unfilled, or annoyed?
  4. What activities put me in ‘flow’ state?
  5. Who are my role models?
  6. What are my gifts and qualities?

Even when unemployed, we have more power than we think. You don’t have to choose any job that comes your way. You should define how the next opportunity should look like and hire a job that meets your needs.

Some time has passed and I’m grabbing lunch with a friend. “Why do you still talk about this, does it even matter? Most people would have moved on by now” she exclaims. But at this point my feelings of shame have transformed into something closer to gratitude.

I’m glad I got let go—without that proverbial kick in the pants I would’ve missed out on amazing opportunities.

There’s no sugar coating it. Getting fired, getting laid off, being in-between jobs — it sucks. The steady security of a paycheck is gone. We feel afraid, ashamed, and guilty. Only after some time has passed can we look back on our experience objectively.

Today, we have many opportunities to choose from. Before jumping into your next job search, before adjusting your resume — stop. Take a step back.

Outline your priorities. If you’re not going to do it, who else well? If you don’t have a plan you’ll be part of somebody else’s and that plan might not fit in with your values. Do the due diligence on yourself first.

Getting clear now will help you navigate later. Instead of getting any job—think of hiring a job for your needs. You’ll approach your job search deliberately, identify and land your dream job, negotiate your worth, and will be much happier at a place that’s the right fit.

You got this and this design interview guide is here to help.

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