In 2018 I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. The Chief Technology Officer who hired me was forced out, and the woman they brought in to replace him created a toxic work culture. After about nine months, she fired me without warning or explanation. It was unjust, and intensely painful.
I still deeply resent what she did and I haven’t forgiven her. I’ve tried. But if I saw her bleeding out by the side of the road, every bit of me would want to walk right past. I don’t like it that my head and heart are still in this place, and I want to let it go. It’s not that she deserves my forgiveness, but that I deserve to be at peace.
I am at peace, mostly. Trouble is, I’m occasionally reminded of what happened. Then it all comes flooding back.
A couple years ago, that company was purchased by a larger company that made a complimentary product. A buyout, or an initial public stock offering, were always the end goal for this company, which was funded by venture capitalists. I had stock options in my company which would have paid handsomely upon that purchase, but I had to forfeit them when I was terminated. It wouldn’t have been so much money that I could retire on the spot, but it would likely have been enough to buy a very nice house. I alternated between anger and sadness for a couple weeks after that.
The founder and CEO of that company presumably did make enough money from that sale that he need never work again. He’s a young guy; I have children older than him. But he’s bright and driven. He made some youthful mistakes as he built his company, but overall he did a decent job. His leadership led to the company’s successful “exit,” as it is called, and by that measure he did a great job.
He dropped off the radar for almost a year after the sale. Recently he’s started posting on LinkedIn about his time away. He took a sabbatical, he wrote, to reflect on building his company and take stock of the leadership lessons he learned. In his first post, he shared this photograph.
This was the last team photo we made before I was fired. I’m in the back row, surrounded by most of the software engineers on my team. The woman who fired me is in there, too. I was in my final weeks there, and I didn’t know it.
I was filled with sadness to see all of these faces again. I really enjoyed working with these people, and had built really good relationships. I was proud of the work I did and of the engineering team I built.
The CEO has been writing LinkedIn posts about his time off, which included a long trip to South America. He’s also sharing his personal growth lessons, which frankly are lessons I learned as well at about his age. But I learned them while working and raising a family. I feel some bitterness and cynicism: Nice for you to jet to exotic lands to gaze at your navel over life lessons you’re supposed to learn at that age anyway. What incredible privilege.
I hate feeling this way. Also, I’m aware of my own privilege. I work in a wildly growing industry flush with enormous amounts of money. I have made a generous salary for several years. And even though I had a few rough years after being fired, two years ago I landed a Director of Engineering role at a company with a lot more potential than the one that fired me. If things go even mediocre for us, I stand to make out a lot better than I would have at that other company.
My termination from that company was unjust and a real loss — but I am doing very well, and I will likely continue to do very well. Reminding myself of this helps. But even if I were not doing well, carrying around this resentment, bitterness, and cynicism is not helpful, productive, or good for me. It eats at me, and it darkens my heart.
Dark hearts are dangerous. I’m convinced that all of the evil in this world is driven by dark hearts. Carrying around unresolved hurts is what drives us to think about things like letting a former boss die rather than help her — or to actually do it — or to do something worse.
That CEO reflected on lessons learned from his successful exit. I’m still reflecting on lessons learned from my unsuccessful exit. Many years ago I learned that it’s important to forgive so we can be at peace. Now I’m learning that it’s also important to forgive so that darkness stays away from our hearts.