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.