I got fired from my first job after college. It’s now over ten years ago, so I don’t have to tell the story at job interviews any more, but I was well and truly fired from my first real job, and it hurt like hell. My boss called me in to her office, and told me it would be my last day at that job. When I asked why, she gave me a bunch of reasons, some of which seemed accurate, some of which seemed unfair, and some of which seemed to have been chosen at random and bore no connection to me at all.
It turned out for the best – I actually hated that job, and I moved to Egypt six months later. But I still remember crying all the way home, and the way I could barely catch my breath for sobbing. I felt like the biggest screw-up in the world.
So, what did I do wrong?
* I signed a lease in a new city before I found a job. That meant I was desperate during my job search and I took the first job I was offered. The job itself was a terrible fit for me. I was registrar at a for-profit language school, and I had to enroll each student using very complicated database software that had been written for the school by a none-too-competent programmer. It was boring, detail-oriented work that meant nothing to me.
* I settled too soon, and was too loyal to my new job. I had no idea how long a job search actually takes. I was offered four other (better-sounding) jobs in the two weeks after I started work.
* I didn’t trust my feelings. I hated my job so much I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning; I thought I was just having trouble leaving academia for employment. I had no chemistry with my boss or the owner of the school. I didn’t like them, and I am sure they didn’t like me. I thought that’s just what the working world was like.
* I didn’t know anything about how to behave in an office. I was 21, and not some mature, confident 21. They had to teach me to put a cover sheet on faxes, and that it wasn’t okay to chat with my mom on the phone while I stuffed envelopes.
* I was too honest. I was awarded a prestigious internship at the American University in Cairo that started in September. I told my employers in February that I would be leaving in seven months. I cannot believe I was that naïve; I really thought they would keep me on and hire someone I could train to replace me.
What I learned:
* You can’t be good at a job you hate. You don’t have to love your job, but despising it will inevitably make you screw up your work.
* Trust your gut. I knew going to work didn’t make me happy, but I thought I just needed to grow up. I should have trusted my own instincts, and figured out that office was a bad place for me. I also spent the last month of my job convinced I was going to be fired, and telling myself I was just paranoid. Right up until the moment I was fired.
* Getting fired can open doors. After my firing, I found a temp job in under a week, and spent the next six months temping. I learned a huge amount about different office environments and by the time I got to the American University in Cairo I was an expert on adjusting to new situations and learning new skills fast. If I hadn’t been fired, I would have stuck around the language school, doing work I hated and getting progressively more depressed. I was exceptionally lucky to find work so fast, I know that. But I also know now that getting fired is just a form of rapid change, and change is something you can turn to your advantage.