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When being fired is funny
No, seriously, sometimes you have to laugh
I was 27 the first time I got sacked. And, as is so often the case, I really didn’t see it coming. You have to laugh at that now, because the signs were there. The magazine was called B.
It was not hitting the sales heights I’d achieved for my last magazine, Sugar. There was much surprise and disappointment that I wasn’t managing to make lightning strike twice. But the audiences were very different and the B audience was largely devoted to the juggernaut success story of the day, more! Magazine.
It was fortnightly, we were monthly. More! had a swagger and confidence in its own identity that we just weren’t managing at B. No surprise there, really, because my own confidence was taking a pounding and that’s never a recipe for newsstand success. I look back and realise I was probably the wrong person for the job. I was a good editor, yes, but still with some maturing to do, especially when it came to heeding constructive criticism. A tough gig was made tougher thanks to the magazine being jointly owned by two publishing companies, whose managers regularly disagreed on what B should be. I couldn’t even tell you why it was called B, or what it meant. All I know is, no matter what I put on the cover or inside, I was always displeasing someone in-house.
And yet, after around a year of limping through the days like this, I thought nothing of the fact that one of my bosses had scheduled a meeting with me for 5pm on a Friday. Hilariously, I had requested the meeting to talk about yet another staff member who wanted to leave. I was hoping to get permission to offer her a fat payrise to stay.
I started talking to him about this when he said, ‘Can I just stop you there, because actually I want to talk about you.’
‘Oh?’ I said. Here’s the funny part:
For some reason, I still, at 5pm on a Friday, thought this must be the lead-in for something very good for me. Maybe a promotion? Some new area of responsibility or - gasp! - even a pay rise?! I mean, I had been working bloody hard so yes, this was probably what he meant when he wanted to talk about me.
What can I say? By this point in my life, nothing bad had ever really yet happened to me. From school, right through my first crappy Saturday jobs, to my first internship and first magazine job and then eventually the success of Sugar magazine, I was generally seen as a model worker bee. I enjoyed regular pats on the head for being clever, productive, hard-working, dedicated.
So when he followed up with, ‘We’re going to get another editor for the magazine’, it still took a good few beats for me to understand exactly what he’d just said.
We stared at each other for probably five seconds but it felt like time itself had stopped as my brain tried to keep up.
‘You’re… sacking me?’ I eventually asked.
‘Well, we’re letting you go,’ he said as if this was a correction, rather than exactly the same thing. Then he said I was clearly very stressed lately and so this was brilliant because I needed the break.
Call it the head-girl arrogance of my youth - which really did need knocking out of me, I see that now - but the idea that I would be sacked had just never entered my head. (So I felt better when I read today, in an extract from a new book that after Kwasi Kwarteng, one of our shortest-serving Chancellors, announced a raft of tax cuts that plunged Britain into economic meltdown, he was still apparently astounded when he was fired by our shortest-serving Prime Minister, Liz Truss.)
The very next thing I remember is being out on the street, carrying all the crap from my office in a box and brandishing £20 in cash - they gave it to me to get a taxi home. I don’t remember a thing about walking back to my desk, let alone packing it up. I do remember thinking, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to get the tube and pocket this £20.’ Before getting about 10 steps down the street and realising no way could I carry this heavy box the whole way home on public transport.
When I think about that now, I do think it’s really funny. In the face of feeling so stupid and powerless, the sneaky repurposing of that £20 felt like triumphant rebellion. That’ll show em!
And I still think it’s funny that I didn’t know that meeting my boss at 5pm on a Friday was always going to be a very bad thing. Years later, a boss requested a meeting with me for that time, and stressed in all upper case letters that IT DOESN’T MEAN WHAT EVERYONE THINKS. IT’S HONESTLY THE ONLY TIME I CAN DO, OK?
I also think it’s funny that it was only weeks after it had all happened that I suddenly remembered being in a restaurant with one of my bosses, we’ll call him Boss 1, when we saw the other one, Boss 2. He was eating with another woman about my age. ‘I wonder who that is he’s having lunch with,’ said Boss 1. ‘The new editor of B magazine?’ I joked. He laughed. Don’t be silly, ha ha ha ha ha.
It turns out it actually was. And that is quite funny.
I wonder if it’s just media jobs, but I don’t really know anyone now who hasn’t been tanked at least once. It’s something of a rite of passage and some journalist colleagues and I were gleefully swapping war stories about the whole thing the other day.
Obviously it’s not funny being fired. But you must laugh. Eventually.
I told them about being in a meeting at Conde Nast where it became apparent that some building refurbishments meant that my magazine, Glamour, would no longer have the space we used as our fashion cupboard. I look back on that day now and realise, as I asked what would be happening with the fashion cupboard, all of my colleagues around the table were staring studiously at the ground. The penny had dropped for them long before it did with me that Glamour might no longer need a fashion cupboard if we weren’t actually producing 12 print magazines a year. That is, in hindsight, quite funny.
My friend told me about the time he’d been given the heads up that redundancies were coming later that day. He left the building and headed to the pub with a colleague, somehow believing that if they couldn’t find him, he couldn’t be given any bad news. Over five bottles of wine, they put the world to rights and really hit the nail on the head about how incompetent and unjust their employer was. My hammered friend staggered back to his desk, planning to sneak in, grab his stuff and go. Of course he bumped into the boss who said, ‘Oh good! You’re here. This won’t take long, step this way…’
We agree it would have been brilliant if he’d thrown up all over the redundancy package he’d been handed, but he did not.
Obviously if you’ve been fired for some act of gross misconduct - maybe you’ve been stealing, or perhaps you’ve punched someone - then you probably should go and sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.
But if you’ve just had the misfortune for your hard work to just not hit the home runs you intended, or it’s a cold hard monetary decision or you’ve found that you and the company are simply a bad fit, well: Then I think you just have to find the strength within to be philosophical about it. As Elizabeth Day always says, ‘failure is feedback’.
It’s painful, for sure. But I no longer find it embarrassing.
As with almost everything in life, I only started to really find closure when I talked about it. It took me years to overcome the humiliation I felt about the whole thing, to stop lying about why I ‘left’ that job back in early 1998. But when I opened up, others then told me their firing stories. People who I’d have never imagined had an unsuccessful day in their lives. It was the first of many lessons in how being honest and vulnerable can make you stronger, not weaker.
Besides, if I hadn’t been fired from that first job, I wouldn’t have been on the path that led me to Glamour. B magazine was the first magazine launch I worked on. I needed the ups and downs of that experience to go into launching Glamour with my eyes wide open.
So show me your battlescars. Come on, it’s healing.
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