Bullish Q&A: Help! I’m About to Get Fired But I Want to Stay

Dear Jen,

I work for a giant tech company that makes – for anonymity’s sake, let’s say – spinning Jennies. I fucking love spinning Jennies. My friends are sick of me talking about them. I want to get all up in spinning Jennies, and my company is currently the only place to work on them.

A recruiter dropped me in this job because my bosses were looking for someone creative. Naturally, the job turned out to be 60% administration, 30% anticipating what people want, and 5% tidiness. Due to some neuroatypicality, I’m 80% unable to do any of those things.

So I’m on probation. Which is justified, but also shittily and antagonistically managed. I never had a chance. They’re officially firing me next Friday–which is my birthday. I assume they’ll keep me on a little longer to find a replacement, but I don’t really know.

I’m not completely useless. My direct boss still doesn’t believe I’m being fired, because he doesn’t have a problem with me. I can’t make spinning Jennies yet, but I can make spinning wheels, which may be enough for an entry level job. I have tangible evidence of having used technology to make people money. I’m a good writer and intermittently charismatic.

I’ve been networking and applying and pitching like crazy, with chillingly little response.

 

Okay, you did get ONE response, and sometimes one is all you need! But this was a long-ass question, so I broke it up. Let us begin.

So, you were hired to do high-level creative work. And you’re failing, because you were slotted into a job that’s 50% administration.

You know who you sound like? ELON FUCKING MUSK. Sit ELON FUCKING MUSK at the goddamn reception desk and he’ll do a shit job. Assign him to do 18 hours a week of HR paperwork and he’ll do a shit fucking job. That hardly makes Elon Musk a failure. It means that even highly talented people are often good at a narrow band of things – or that they just don’t give a shit about things outside that narrow band.

Society is not set up to recognize a female Elon Musk. But I’ll leave that aside.

Here are some ideas.

Cordially assume that others are on your side and want to help you

You say your boss “doesn’t have a problem” with you. That’s pretty neutral. Can we upgrade this relationship a bit?

I find that people who assume others want to help them tend to cause others to want to help them. Sure, those others might think to themselves, “Why am I doing this again?” But it works.

I have often used this as a negotiating technique when the person I’m talking to isn’t the ultimate decisionmaker. Say I’m coming in as an outside consultant. Instead of assuming the person I’m talking to represents the company and therefore wants to get the company the best possible deal, I might say, “I am phenomenally intellectually interested in this problem and really want to get involved, but can you try to get me $x? Just give it a shot and tell me if you think you can push it through.” There are really three parties here: the company, my contact, and me. My contact is in the middle. Can I pull her a little more to my side?

A brief aside: I’ve also noticed profound class-based differences in the use of this technique. Having come from a more blue-collar background, it has never been natural to me to think or say something like, “I am failing this math class. Therefore, I am entitled to resources and extra help that will enable me to do as well as anyone else.” (I came from a background that was more like, “If you’re failing at something, you must be bad at it. Oh well, you tried your best and that’s all that anyone can ask.”) It has astounded and occasionally galled me, the ease with which upper class people simply assume they are entitled to whatever help they need. But this attitude works! So cordial, so ingenuous, so natural they are when they marshal all the assistance they require to maintain their vaunted positions!

In any case, assume that your boss is ready to be enlisted to find a solution. Assume this is a mutual problem. What do you have to lose?

And then think – who else could this be applied to? Other supervisors, mentors, former bosses, coworkers, old classmates, family friends, contacts, recruiters, people you’ve interviewed with? Assume they’re on your side. Everyone is on Team You. Manage this team to find an optimal solution.

Reframe this as a mismatch, rather than a failure – people want to hire winners

Because America!

Seriously, though. It would be normal to feel scared and depressed right now. That’s totally okay. But it’s hard to get a new job if you come off as scared and depressed.

Furthermore: when your mindset is “OMG I need a job,” you make it all about you. I care about you, but busy executives don’t necessarily. When you go asking about solving big problems, people will be more interested. I know it takes a fucking lot of privilege to even be able to pretend you don’t need a job to eat, but acting not-needy will benefit you if you can pull it off.

Reframe the situation: Your current job is not a match for your talents. You have a lot to contribute, and in fact this position was only suppressing your contributions. You are proactively conducting a search for a better match.

This sounds VERY POSITIVE. Winners proactively conduct job searches so they can contribute more. Also, losers make people uncomfortable. (Again, because America. Or because neoliberalism.) You are calm, collected, highly talented, and looking for the best match so you can make your contribution.

Also, you mentioned some neuroatypicality. Find a way to turn this to your advantage. You are amusingly bad at administration, because you are instead so incredibly good at [whatever the opposite of administration is]. Playing up how you’re not great at something you don’t want to do anyway as a side effect of being a fucking genius at what you do want to do – well, that’s a risky move that just might work.

Go hard on this – what do you have to lose?

Imagine you are ELON FUCKING MUSK. You have just failed at a job that is 60% administration, which is just not what ELON FUCKING MUSK does.

Does ELON FUCKING MUSK try to make a lateral move in the company to some more appropriate position? I don’t think so. His failure is instead obvious evidence that he belongs six levels above where he is now. Visionaries cannot be bogged down with administration.

Look, you’re (probably) being fired. If you’re like, “Please please let me keep my job that I don’t like, I’ll do better,” that’s sort of sad and that makes people uncomfortable. If you’re like, “THIS IS PROOF I’LL BE CEO BY 2030,” well – now I’m intrigued. And possibly offended or intimidated, sure. But it’s a risk that might pay off.

I’m not sure what that means in your situation. But say you go to your current boss, assuming they’re an ally. “Hey boss, it looks like I’m being pushed out of this role. Maybe something of a relief since I have a vision for THE ULTIMATE SPINNING JENNY, which needs to be developed in Building 7. I should be putting forth 100% of my efforts on THE ULTIMATE SPINNING JENNY. Can you arrange for me to meet the head of Building 7?”

All irons in the fire

You could certainly call that recruiter who put you in the wrong role and have a pleasant conversation about reopening the process to put you in the right one.

And you may want to craft a dozen (or a hundred, depending on your network) personal emails to contacts while you’re still employed, suggesting that, while you love being a part of the Spinning Jenny Company, you’re looking to move into a fully creative role, etc. Set up some more calls and coffee dates before you get fired.

You say your company is the only place to work on spinning jennys, and you fucking love spinning jennys. I feel you. But you can play a long game. If you get pushed out of the company and can’t get back in, you’ll need to get a different job – while maintaining your relationships, including the one with your current boss – at some other company, and do such a bang-up job that in two years or five or ten, you come back to the Spinning Jenny Company in your dream role. Can you give a TED talk about spinning jennys? Seriously. A TEDx talk is fine. There are a lot of TEDx conferences. You can hire coaches for this sort of thing. You can make yourself into a thought leader.

You’ve got this one great lead, though!

“Until! I heard back from the head of an awesome department! I’d cold emailed him that if he neglects one of my obscure areas of expertise, he’s leaving money on the table. He was delighted and amused and offered to meet with me in three weeks.”

THIS. This is great. Can you do more like this? You’ve found something that works. You also, it seems, tried a lot of more traditional networking that didn’t work. Do more of the thing that works.

But you already have this one lead! I’ll call him Bob. Getting that next job is a little like getting married — you don’t have to be wildly attractive to everyone. You only need that one good match. We’ll get back to Bob.

You also noted that you have “tangible evidence of having used technology to make people money,” which is pretty great all around. Where else can you take that? You also mentioned that you’re a good writer, but so are a lot of low-paid people. Making other people money is a really good way to get hired and get some of that money.

-How do I cope for the rest of this gig? Every time I make a mistake, I’m crushed by shame, which is not a good use of my energy.

ELON FUCKING MUSK. No, seriously, I don’t think he can feel shame. But also, evidence shows that in hiring and promotion, women are judged based on past performance, and men are judged based on potential. I hereby judge you based on potential, and give you permission to judge yourself based on potential (feel free to make a needlepoint of that). Now you just have to keep pitching yourself that way to the (mostly male) leadership at the company.

Do you have any networking/pitching advice? This company is so huge and secretive that I don’t really know what jobs exist. The spinning Jennies are in different office, so I don’t have any water cooler buddies I can ask. So far, my strategy has been quality over quantity and to

1) Tell powerful strangers that I’m an admirer of their work, interested in their field, and looking to transfer. Then I invite them to check out my portfolio. (Which I emailed you, for your reference. If you don’t have time to read it, I totally understand.)
2) Tell my network I’m trying to transfer, that I have xy and z skills, and that I’d be appreciative if they could let me know of any openings or connect me with relevant managers.
3) Tell powerful strangers, “You know that business problem you’re trying to solve? Here’s a solution!,” and when they respond, ask if they have any openings

 

These are all great strategies! And so ballsy! There’s not much I can add to this. The problem is that you are functioning in emergency-time (oh my god how can I get a new job by next Friday?) and everyone you are talking to is functioning in everything-is-normal/this-is-a-fairly-interesting-topic-for-a-chat-time. You want action in three days, whereas they probably feel like maybe they’ll run this idea over in their head in the background for six months because that’s what you do with interesting thoughts that are not urgent (to you).

So, what will you do in that case? Will you be able to get by alright for awhile in between jobs? Will recruiters want you? Can you do that TEDx talk? Should you take some classes or develop an app while conducting your job search? Can you make a plan you’re actually excited about?

So far, you have one great response. And you got it by taking a risk. Do more of that.

How do I turn my meeting with the department head into a job? If I tell him just a few pieces of information, he’ll be able to implement my expertise 70% as well as I can. How do I not give away all the milk for free? How do I deal with the fact that I may have been fired by then?

 

Wow, is that really true, and does he know that that’s true? In regards to giving away all the milk for free – well, he needs to be convinced that 1) there’s more milk where that came from (that you are extremely high-potential), and that 2) hiring you to execute will be easier, cheaper, more foolproof, or better in some way.

This happens more often than you’d think. Big tech companies certainly do steal ideas from small tech companies – but often it’s easier to just watch small tech companies do stuff, and then buy those companies. Big companies could execute those ideas, but choose to let the little guy do it.

Why should you be the one to execute your ideas? Develop an answer to this before you go in. How are you better at execution? You can take a little license here. No one can predict the future flawlessly. Is there a good chance you would do this on a smaller budget or faster or more error-free than anyone else? Maybe you can’t exactly prove that you’re right about this, but on the same note, no one can really prove you’re wrong about it, either.

If you’ve already been fired by then, set the tone about it – laugh it off a little. You were too visionary for that role. You’re taking your time finding a better fit for your next role. If your rent is due in a week and you’re broke, do not let it show.

Last thing – seek out a meeting with HR

So, I ran your question by a friend – let’s call him Ajay – who hires for IT roles. (Yeah, I miiiight have buried the lede here.) He immediately suggested that you set up a meeting with HR. Regarding your probation, he said, “You’ll be able to tell if you’re really done by the way they treat you.” Probation is, after all, a formal way of moving someone out of the company – sometimes it’s a done deal and sometimes it really is probation.

Ajay suggested asking if HR can move you to another role in the company during your probation — you’d still be on probation, so it’s no risk to them. Why not finish out your probation in a role where you can benefit the company more?

HR isn’t there for you (no matter what anyone says) – they’re there to fill the roles in the company and save money doing it. (Quoth Ajay: “Never go to HR with complaints. Go to HR saying ‘Here’s what I can do for this company.'”) Recruiting is expensive: It costs on average 20% of a worker’s annual salary to replace them, and it takes a lot of time to vet and interview candidates. Companies would rather avoid the cost if they have someone in-house who can do the job.

Ajay suggested telling HR about Bob – that “somebody’s interested in me inside the company” and that “I think there’s another job inside the company I can be useful in.” And, assuming HR is still willing to work with you, this will jumpstart a discussion between your current department head and your potential new department head. Rather than waiting three weeks, Ajay suggested you “short-circuit” the process you’re in the middle of.

This approach does come with the certain uncomfortable feeling that you’re going behind Bob’s back, jumping the gun, etc. But that way you don’t go into a meeting with Bob in a desperate position. This way you’re going to Bob with others invested in your success.

In sum…

Of course you’ll have to do some thinking about how all of this applies to your situation, and what you’re going to do on your next morning at work. But I want you to get your attitude straight right now.

We all know the expression, “Don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you wish you had.” Sure, put on your best outfit or whatever, but more importantly – think of the role you really belong in. Spinning Jenny visionary. Genius in charge of her own lab. Future CEO.

Getting fired from the mismatched job you have now is a necessary step to getting there — the job wasn’t right for you anyway, and it was keeping you from that ultimate role that you belong in. Mentally step out of the situation you’re in right now. Reframe it in terms of the rest of your career. Reframe it in terms of where you should be in 2037. How do you get from here to where you belong? If you believe that’s where you belong, you can make at least some other people (and sometimes you only need one!) in important roles believe it too.

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