Justin Ricklefs


On Being Fired, Unraveling, and the Gift of Pain

“How do you feel like this is going?”

It was a Monday morning, we’d just finished the sales meeting, and he’d asked me to take a quick walk outside with him.

“I mean, not great, if I’m honest…”

I’d never been on this side of the conversation before, the one where you can feel the floor of your job falling out from under your feet.

At that point in my life, I’d been on the other side only once, and it was awful. In fact, I butchered it so badly, and was so clunky in my delivery, that the employee was probably confused if they were being fired or if I was quitting.

But it’s a horrible setting, regardless.

“Yeah, it’s not going great, you’re right…”

I was 33-years-old, with a wife and five kids, in a city far from home. The white hot terror, and shame instantly flooded the system.

“It’s time we figure out a way to unwind this…” he continued.

My instincts were to talk him into a different path. Convince him it can get better. Defend all the ways he’s not seeing it right.

And then it quickly shifted to blame. He’s wrong, I’m right. He’s bad, I’m a victim.

I still hadn’t said a word at this point…but I’m sure he could see my spinning and unraveling.

“Go home, talk to Brooke, and then let’s meet tomorrow to work out all the details…”

“Uh, okay…” I muttered.

I grabbed my stuff, got in the car, and before I could even pull out my phone, my brain was firing a million worst case scenarios at me.

“Fuck. You’re such a dumbass. You should have seen this coming. You’re a failure. Did you really just get fired? You quit a job in the NFL to do this? Wow, you’re so stupid. Brooke is gonna be so pissed. You’ll never find another job. You’re a shitty dad. What are you going to tell your kids? You’ll be bankrupt in no time. You don’t have enough money to last 3 months. How have you not been saving more all this time? You’re so stupid….”

It’s amazing what your mind can tell you in seconds, stripping your identity down to a shameful root.

“Yeah, I really am a dumbass.”

The tears started flowing as I hit Brooke’s number in the favorites on my phone.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

She knew I wouldn’t call at 9:00 on a Monday morning, when the week was just getting rolling. Her intuition on point, before I even spoke a word.

“I’m so sorry, but…”

The words weren’t even all the way out when I lost it, and she stepped in. Like she does.

“It’s going to be ok, I love you, what happened?”

“I got fired.”

Memory is funny, I may not have nailed that word for word, so I can’t be 100% confident I’m nailing the next part either, but I’m almost certain Brooke said, “Good.”

It’s easy to find the silver lining all these years later, but she knew it wasn’t a good fit for anyone involved, our family included.

Her thunderous confidence was followed by a version of “it’s going to be ok, we’ll figure it out, I can’t wait until you get home.”

If you’ve ever been let go, laid off, fired, or demoted, it’s unreal how rattling a situation it is.

Bruised ego. Battered confidence. Withered hope.

In the past seven years, I’ve been on the other side of it again a time or two, and it’s still the worst.

When it happened to me, despite Brooke’s loving, supportive, and strong support, I still went through the darkest of emotions.

I blamed my (former) boss. I called him names. I wished the company unwell. I mentally whipped myself. My confidence crumbled. I unraveled.

In those moments, I couldn’t think of anything more humiliating. I couldn’t imagine anything more hopeless.

But pain has this amazing side effect. A beautiful byproduct.

Through resilience and resolve, character is formed. Roots are strengthened. And opportunity emerges from the chaos.

I’ve spent lots of my life running from pain. And then when it catches me, I squeal like a stuck pig, thinking it is finally all over. That this particular version of mine will be my undoing.

But the feeling of pain, is just that. A feeling. It comes, and it goes. It shows up, and it leaves. It hangs around for awhile, and then the wind blows it away. Sometimes it’s incredibly painful, sometimes not so much.

But survey the times you felt closest in your relationships, it was probably on the heels of hardship.

Pay attention to the seasons you advanced the most professionally, it was likely following a big setback.

Look at the areas you’ve grown the most personally, they probably didn’t emerge until pain jarred them loose.

I’d sign up for smooth sailing every day if I could.

But I’m ever-so-slightly starting to recognize pain for what it is: a gift.

📸: this tiny thing is now in 3rd grade, turning 10 this summer.



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