Have you ever had an experience where you're at a point where everything just falls into pieces?
I realized in my life there have been a series of pivotal moments where I was totally, utterly, and completely broken. While those periods weren't fun - in fact, they were largely just painful - looking back, I eventually came out of those experiences having learned a lot. I like to refer to these as my early-life crises.
As many of you likely know, these are times when you're so broken, you're at a point where you're open to incredible change and possibility, too. (Or alternatively, you hunker down into your current beliefs and harden further into them. You get to choose.) So, I want to write a series of posts on these crises, on being broken, to reflect on my experiences and share my learnings with others.
For my first post in this series, it felt appropriate to bring up the first time in my life I felt I was a huge, walking failure.
I haven’t been able to fully share and own this story publicly for over 8 years. I was able to open up 1:1 to trusted people about it. But I’m finally at a point where I feel I’ve processed enough and learned enough that I can write this, and share this more broadly in hopes that it will resonate with others who are also processing similar experiences.
So, here goes: I was fired from Bain & Company, from my first job after graduating from Stanford.
While I could write endlessly about many factors that contributed to this, including systemic issues that plague many American corporations and the huge cultural gap at the time between white, male-dominated corporate America and my third-culture kid Asian-American background, here, I instead want to focus on what I believe is most valuable for my readers: my feelings at the time, what I learned, and where I am now with the experience. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that many times in my life when I thought about the experience, I felt deeply like a victim. However, I now also see and feel many things that were true at the time that I think are valuable to share and have allowed me to more fully integrate and own that experience.
So, let’s dive in.
I was a Stanford graduate (with honors, by the way), had been fortunate enough to never meet with "huge" failure in my life prior, and saw myself as highly intelligent and capable. So, when I was fired, you can imagine the immense shame that came with that. My head spun with thoughts like:
"This is my fault. I just didn’t work hard enough. I need to be harder on myself to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again."
"I must be so dumb and worthless. Tons of smart people work at Bain and they didn’t get fired. I suck."
"I can’t believe I’m a Stanford grad and this happened to me. How could I let myself get into this situation?"
"I can’t ever let anyone else find out about this. What would they think of me?"
"I let my family down. I let myself down. I’m a huge failure."
The truth is, now that I look at what was happening at the time, me leaving Bain was an inevitable outcome. Whether I got fired or left of my own accord, I would never have stayed in consulting long-term. It was not the place for me, even though at the time, I desperately wanted it to be.
Here’s what was going on at the time: about a year into consulting, the honeymoon period had worn off, and I was in the grind. I am realizing now - my soul was screaming at me at the time, letting me know I didn’t like the work I was doing. However, I was in complete denial around these feelings. I believed only in logic and precision, so whenever I caught glimpses of the feelings I tried so hard to keep bottled up, I had thoughts like,
"I can definitely force myself to like this. I’m sure after I get used to this job and it becomes even easier for me to do, I will feel better."
"Feelings are useless and they just distract from work, so I’ll just ignore this."
"No pain, no gain, right? I just need to work harder."
I was undeniably out of alignment with myself. What’s crazy to me is I even had thoughts when I woke up each morning like, "I hope the subway tunnel falls in while I'm on the train so I don’t have to go to work," or, "I hope I catch the flu so I don’t have to go to work." And yet, I was in such denial, and so attached to my logical thinking, that I still thought, "If I work hard enough, I can overcome this. Everyone at Bain is smart, and I’m smart, so I’m sure things will change for me soon once I spend more time here."
Obviously, I was totally wrong. I see now that everyone else around me could see that I was struggling, and they all knew it wasn’t healthy - but I was so blind and rigid around my thinking I couldn’t see this until a lot of deep reflection after I got fired.
Here’s something else that also came out of my self-reflection: while I felt a lot of shame around being fired, underneath all that, there was a huge layer of relief. I was relieved that the decision to have to leave had been made for me, and I was glad to be out of there.
That was one of my first signals that perhaps I needed to really explore what truly brought me alive, and brought me joy, rather than just pursue something for the sake of practicality, security, and prestige. To encourage myself to move from a survivalist mindset, to a thriving, self-actualizing one. And, more broadly, this was one of the first times in my life that the Universe signaled to me that I needed to get in touch with myself, move beyond just operating on logic like an automaton, and actually trust my humanity, feelings, and intuition.
So when I look at this experience now, I am truly grateful. I would not have been able to say that with full honesty and full emotional alignment even a few years ago. (For many years, I actually got PTSD going into the San Francisco Financial District, where my office had been located, and I was easily triggered when I was contacted by anyone who was from the consulting world.)
But now, from where I’m standing, I’m grateful for getting fired, because:
I learned, even just a little bit, that listening to myself is really important. And that feelings do, in fact, matter.
I realized how important it is to be open to change - not only changes in plans, but also deep transformation within myself.
I was able to start walking the path toward my true calling - rather than staying on a path dictated by societal norms and expectations.
I gained tons of empathy for anyone who has gone through an experience like this.
I started learning and realizing that you can’t simply judge someone for one event in their lives, and that humans are multifaceted, rich, and complex.
I realized that events that seem “bad” on the surface (like getting fired), may actually turn out to be a blessing that you needed.
Getting fired really broke me. It took many months to recover from the initial shock and negative feelings. And years, and years, until I got to this point today where I am OK sharing and owning this story publicly. But, getting fired also gave me an enormous opportunity to rebuild myself into a more authentic version of me. And for that, I am grateful.
Having gone through an experience like this (and many others that I will share in future blog posts), I know exactly what it's like to break, as well as slowly rebuild yourself into a more authentic, more resonant version of you. I know how to hold constructive, safe space and move with confidence and skill through situations like these - and I can support you, too. Contact me to discuss how we can work together.