In 2001, I was working in Los Angeles as a web designer in a job that I didn’t really like. So to blow off steam, I taught myself HTML and Photoshop, and I hand-coded a personal website called Dooce.com. I was a young 20-something who had just left her religion and was trying to be funny about it. I mostly wrote about single life in Los Angeles, but I started to write about people in my workplace, too.
I didn’t mention my company’s name, and I’d always use pseudonyms or initials to describe people, but someone sent the URL to all of the company’s executives—and I was promptly walked to my car with all of my belongings in a cardboard box. I was left wondering, “O.K., where do I go from here?”
As devastating as that experience was, I used it as a jumping-off point—and today, I run a website that earns enough money to support my family. It’s a cliche, but I always see mistakes as when you learn the most. I asked myself, “What can I take away from this experience?” And this is what I have to offer you:
1. Take some time to shift gears
I have a very type-A personality: I was the valedictorian in high school, I graduated from college with honors—and now I had gotten myself fired for doing something really stupid. It felt like a huge setback, and I sunk into a very deep depression. But I worked through it: I saved up a lot of money through freelancing and gave myself room to breathe and think. I even eloped about six months after I got fired and relocated to Utah to start a family (you can leave the Mormon church, but you can’t take the Mormon out of the girl). In that first year after having my daughter, I realized that I also wanted to do something creative—and my website really became that outlet.
2. Recognize your mistakes
I had written a couple of really awful things about my boss. She’d been very generous to me (she’d gotten me the job, actually), but she had some managerial techniques that were really annoying to a lot of the people on my team. Even though I was making fun of her habits, I genuinely loved her as a human being and was very grateful to her. But instead of thanking her, I deeply, deeply wounded her. Afterward, I had a conversation with myself about boundaries. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but I see now that I should have realized you don’t do that to someone who’s given you such an opportunity. I definitely kept this important lesson in mind as I moved forward.
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3. Play to your strengths
I got fired for what was actually my best commodity. I walked away from that job with the ability to code, write and design. What I had built and written was essentially its own resume. A lot of people even came out on my behalf and said things like, “I would hire Heather for the work that she’s done on her blog.” I had always strived to do excellent work and to produce great things—I think continuing to write and seeing the audience respond to those stories is ultimately what kept me going.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
When getting back on your feet, I’d recommend focusing a lot on networking. Who do you know from past jobs? What friend of a friend of a friend works someplace where you could put your skills to work? That really helped me out with freelance projects. Once you work on those projects, people can recommend you for other opportunities.
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5. Find the opportunity in everything
You have to see something like this as a new direction rather than a devastating blow to who you are. I was one of the first people who was fired for what they’d done online (that’s actually been a question on Jeopardy). I used the energy and power of that infamy. I wrote to my audience, not ever realizing that it was going to grow to be big enough that I basically turned it into a career.
I never imagined while growing up that, at 40 years old, I would have two kids and be running my own brand. I came from walking to my car with that cardboard box to going to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year. I can guarantee you that if you’re in your 20s and going through a hard time, the best of life is far, far down the road.
Heather is the founder and editor of Dooce.com, where she writes about life and parenting. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her two daughters and two dogs.