Identity Theft

On October 18, 2016, I walked into a board room as the CEO of a multi-million dollar business with responsibility of over 200 employees.  The business was my first-born, grown from an idea hatched in 2008.  I walked out of that board room a business owner and CEO no longer.  It was on this date when I was fired by my former partners and stripped of the business I had worked so hard to create.

As I stormed out of that board room, the first thought that went through my head was of my team.  I would no longer be there by their side, working to achieve our goals.  Today, a year later, I don’t miss the power of running a company or the money or the excitement, I miss my friends.

Immediately after getting fired, I went through one of the most disorienting periods of my life.  A period that has taken the better part of a year to come out of.  For so long, my present and future involved this business.  I had 5 and 10 year plans as to where I hoped we would progress.  Nearly my entire life was crafted with the company in mind.  My wife and I ran the business together and we even delayed trying for kids until after we got out of the startup phase.  The office was just blocks from our house.  We lived the brand as they say.  Now, with one 5 minute meeting, I was locked out of the office I established and my future was a blank sheet.

One of the most difficult aspects to come to terms with was not being able to work.  I couldn’t accept that I was no longer the leader of this company.  We had goals left unfinished and my team was on their own to pick up the pieces.  I felt like I had abandoned them.  The frequent 4am panic attacks were a reminder of my helpless predicament.

As the shock began to wear off and I came to terms that this business was no longer mine to run, I soon found myself looking for and needing something.  For so long, my identity was wrapped into the company.  For so long, my purpose was to lead the company.  Now, I had neither and I was desperate for both.  After a therapeutic trip to New Zealand, to just get away and let time heal, I found myself back home in Maryland after the holidays in January.   One day, I was literally running around my house trying to find something to do.  I had so much energy and nothing to do with it.  My wife had to tell me to calm down.  I was lost in my own home.

Later that month, it really sunk in that I was no longer the person who I thought I was.  Attending a function for an entrepreneur’s group that I was a part of, the attendees were asked to introduce themselves and talk a little about the company they led.  Strangeness ensued when I was asked to go first.  “Uhhh, my name’s Dan and uhhh, I was just fired from my business.”  I was met with sympathetic faces and a couple business owners came up to me later and shared similar stories.  But, what I remember from that night is going a bit numb and truly realizing that the CEO who looked back in the mirror at me every day wasn’t quite there anymore.

In the United States, so much of our personal worth is tied up in the question, “what do you do?”  Being fired and taking a year off has provided me with the space to get truly comfortable with not having my identity tied to an occupation.  Now, I’m proud to reply, “I don’t work right now and my family and I are taking some time to travel.”  Here’s the rub though, I’ve taken on a new identity – one of being a former CEO, chilling with his family before doing something new.  My identity is now more Fired & Free and less CEO.

With that said, the experience of having my identity stripped has allowed me to see that my “CEO identity” was never “real” to begin with.  It was in my head and a creation of my imagination.  While my ego has created a new identity to provide stability and balance, I know that it’s just temporary as well.

This experience has also highlighted another fallacy of my psyche – judgement.  Prior to my firing, I am ashamed to admit that I judged people a lot. Whether this was brought on by business, society, or solely my own doing, I don’t know.  What I do know, is that my judgements were rarely correct.  I still judge, but seeing the impermanence of my own identity has provided clarity of this character flaw that I didn’t have before.  While in New Zealand, shortly after getting fired, I found myself watching a couple of twenty-somethings in an RV park.  Their clothes were a bit dirty and their dinner consisted of potato chips.  They were “car camping” and one of the first thoughts that went through my mind was, “they probably don’t have a job and are living out of their car.”  Then it dawned on me, “I don’t have a job and I AM living out of a car (albeit a big one of the RV variety)!”  I wasn’t any different from the people I was judging.

Identity is such a curious thing.  We have our names, clothes, sports teams, jobs, ethnicity, etc.  Some chosen, others not.  Take all of these identifiers away and who are we?  This is a question I’ve been working to answer for the better part of a year.  I don’t have many answers yet and the journey hasn’t been the easiest, but it’s one that I am so thankful to be undertaking.

A year later, I am grateful to have been fired.  This blog is titled Fired & Free for a reason – I thought I was freed from a partnership that apparently wasn’t a positive one.  However, once I started to move past the pain and abandonment of being fired, I realized a whole new type of freedom.  Freedom not from a job, but from myself.

35 thoughts on “Identity Theft

  1. J. Money (@BudgetsAreSexy)

    SO FASCINATING!!!! Love it so much that you’re putting it all out there on this blog like that – good for you! And for being so real and *raw* too – I bet a ton of people will come here and be inspired immensely from reading your thoughts on this, as well as all other areas that life takes you.

    Not sure how the heck I just landed on this site, but I’m really glad I did. I hope you never get a “real job” again 🙂

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Thanks so much for the extremely nice words J and I’m so glad the interwebs brought you by.

      I’m a big fan of your blogs. You’ve done wonders to get quality and honest finance material out into the public. If I could have a quarter the impact you’ve had, then maybe all this messy and raw stuff will have been worth it 🙂

      Thanks again

      Like

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  3. Jim Wang

    I landed here because J landed here last year and then put it on Rockstar 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I had similar feelings after I sold my first business. I didn’t feel like a fraud but I did feel an emptiness, something I bet parents often feel whenever their kids move out of the house and are no longer under their care 24/7 (or some large fraction of that). I don’t know how we’ll react in a dozen or so years when it starts happening, but it might be similar.

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Thanks for the comment Jim and I’m grateful for J and Rockstar shining a light over here.

      If having my kids head off to college is anything like losing a business, then the only college I want my kids to apply to is the community college around the corner! That’s an emptiness I’m not looking forward to. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Like

  4. Sean @ Frugal Money Man

    This is a POWERFUL, and thank you for being honest about all of this!

    I can’t relate to owning a business, but I can relate to the constant personal judgment that is brought on from questions like “what do you do?” Something that I struggle with the most is there is still a part of me that feels pressured by what the outside image is of me. It isn’t a major struggle, but I definitely can sense my own insecurities at times.

    You really hit a great point in that true freedom can come from freeing yourself from your own insecurities.

    Great post!

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Thanks so much Sean.

      I’m still working out the theme of this blog, but I’m committed to being 100% honest with everything I write (as awkward and difficult as that can be at times). I ain’t got a job, so there’s nothing to lose!

      Just a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have thought much about freedom from myself as I was too concerned with financial and career freedom. In my experience, escaping the chains that have been self imposed have been the most difficult.

      Thanks again for the kind words.

      Like

  5. Brandon

    Amazing story! I always feel for those business owners who build something from the ground up and then get forced out. You did an amazing job bringing us into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that news. Great story and thank you so much for sharing!!

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Glad you stopped by and I appreciate the comments Brandon. While the experience was incredibly difficult to go through, it’s been rewarding telling the story, opening up and helping others with their own journey. I’m glad you go something out of it and judging from your own blog, your “defense” will be better for it 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Joe

    That’s very interesting. It’s great that you’re getting over the past and moving on with your life. I’ll read more to see what you plan to do next.
    I can imagine the hole it left in your life. Good luck!

    Like

  7. Frogdancer

    One of my kids did the old ‘travel New Zealand in a van” thing with some friends a couple of years ago. He loved it.
    I can imagine that your experience in that boardroom is akin to a death. You were/are going through the grieving process after losing something very dear to you.
    Glad to see that you’re on your way up again!

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Thanks Frogdancer! If I didn’t have kids myself, I’d probably still be in NZ living in a van, down by the river. What a beautiful country.

      Not to overdramatize things, but you’re right, the experience did feel like a death. I remain grateful for the family and friends who helped keep my head above water (the water created by my pathetic tears).

      Like

  8. thegrayingsaver

    “In the United States, so much of our personal worth is tied up in the question, “what do you do?” – This is very true and very annoying. I always recoil at being asked this question because of that sense that you’re being judged by your answer as if what you do equals who you are. But I know I’m guilty of doing the same.

    Your story makes a great case for not having your identity totally wrapped up in your occupation because that occupation can be taken away at a moment’s notice – even if you’re the CEO. But I think a lot of people are afraid to retire because so much of their identity is built on their occupation. Who will they be if they’re no longer an X,Y, or Z?

    Being fired after you put off trying to start a family for the sake of the company – that is a gut punch.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Like

    1. Eschwets

      This is soooo true. I’m in the medical field and doctors of my dad’s generation have had such hard time retiring for that reason. Who am I if I’m not a doctor anymore (or a CEO, or a you fill in the blank here).

      This was a great story of when that decision is forced upon you. Has to be waaay worse. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

      Like

      1. Fired and Free

        You bring up an interesting point Eschwets – the identity was ripped away from me, without preparation, but I’m glad I didn’t have to make the choice. It was devastating to go through, but at least now I can move on with my life. Without the “forced transition”, i’d still be there, unknowingly working hard to satisfy majority shareholding partners who don’t want me! Life is funny sometimes (all times!?)

        Best of luck with your own journey.

        Like

    2. Fired and Free

      Thanks so much for the comments Graying Saver. Who are we when that title is no longer!? It’s a tough question and one I’m still dealing with.

      Recently, I watched a film on Netflix about Jim Carrey’s struggles with identity. In a weird way, I found some parallels to what he went through filming the Andy Kaufman movie and my “role” as leader of a company (IMHO – business is a lot like a performance). It seems as though we are all acting out a role (an identity) in our own movies and it can be a shock to the system when that role is no longer.

      Like

  9. ThomH

    Great honest story FaF. I can somewhat relate after early retiring last May from a high level position at MegaCorp for over 20 years. While I chose to leave, I probably wouldn’t have survived the brutal politics more than another year or so.

    So while I’d been preparing for early retirement my whole life, and had finally achieved my objective, the finality was never-the-less shocking to actually do it. The corporate identity loss was significantly more impactful than I ever imagined. I believe it’s a very common phenomenon. It took me months to figure out how to respond when people asked what I do for a living. I finally became comfortable with simply responding with, “I’m now enjoying the freedom that many years of hardwork provided. ” It normally throws people for a loop, when you explain that you don’t work anymore, at a relatively young age. It took me a while to adjust, but I love every minute of every day now. I’m still very active and still love being challenged, but I’m also ok with reading a book while sitting by the lake on a sunny afternoon. Other days, working on little projects nonstop well into the night. You’ll get there, and you may not ever want to go back once you do. I could never go back into the corporate world again, and that’s a very good thing.

    Embrace the freedom…you’ll grow to love it, and you’ll find an even better identity in the process.

    Like

  10. GlenF

    It sounds like you’re rounding out as a person and will be better for it, a bit of a gut punch though :-). As you say, it’s about the people and how you interact. Next week or month there’ll be a new challenge, and now you have the memory of the land of the long white cloud as a bonus to take to forward. Thanks for putting it out on the web.

    Like

  11. Mike @MikedUp

    Wow. To grow a business from the jump like this, then be kicked out – that would be crushing. Kudos to you for handling this process and progressing through it. I’m glad your post made it to Rockstar so that now I can follow along to see what’s up next. Good luck and enjoy your ‘free’ time!

    Like

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  15. Emma

    Wow. This post was awesome! I am currently not working/not able to work for a different reason altogether…health issues. Your words have truly resonated with me. I left my job after a 16 year tenure and I felt completely disoriented when I had to focus on something else…me! Surprise! Identity crisis! Thank you for writing this honest piece about your experience. Stories are powerful. They bring us together, offer new outlooks and showcase viewpoints we may have never pondered.

    Like

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  17. FI Me Outta Here

    Awesome of you to share such a personal story. Is your new identity now, professional blogger?

    Not many people can say that they have something in common with Steve Jobs. I meant that as a compliment, just in case it didn’t come out right in writing.

    Like

    1. Fired and Free

      Thanks FI Me Outta Here! Not professional blogger (even though I am enjoying the writing process), but Dad who is looking for a way to make a positive impact on the world. We’ll see how that turns out!?

      Thanks for the compliment 😉

      Like

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