I was fired a week after my 30th birthday.
I had no idea what I was doing as a brand manager at a "maker space" for Brooklyn's hip entrepreneurial set, where my bosses were hipster bros with swirly mustaches and J.Crew casual chambrays. It was apparent to me, at least, that I'd gotten the axe because everyone could see right through me. I was an impostor.
I've always shed jobs with a quickness—no more than two years at any one place, in true millennial fashion. My gig on a marketing team was a move away from my career in nonprofit arts education. Embracing a $20,000 salary increase, I left my job as a glorified field trip chaperone for a mentorship program geared toward business women and teen girls. Gone were the days spent in a messy nook in a Manhattan nonprofit office with barely functional Dell PCs. Now I'd be a social media maven, working in an industrial chic warehouse, tapping away at one of the sparkly Macs circling a communal table. I could take free classes like Shibori dyeing or HTML 5. Hello, Maker Culture.
My second week into the new gig, I tripped on the ill-kempt streets of Bushwick and sprained my ankle. An angel of a woman picked me up out of oncoming traffic. In a daze, I got on the bus to take me the rest of the way to the office. The guilt of being late was quickly compounded by the CFO, a bro who oozed misogyny from minute one. Ever since my first real job as a community organizer, I'd surrounded myself with women and young people, a pretty nurturing crowd. These guys, my new bosses, exuded creativity, but possessed the same level of entitlement as their corporate counterparts.
"We have to get this email out ASAP and you're late," he growled.
"I just sprained my ankle," I told him. "Don't worry, I'll get it out. After lunch is a good time to send it out. People check their emails."
My ankle was ballooning quickly, so I elevated it and started chipping away at the marketing email.
"Do you have data to support that?" He narrowed his eyes as if I were a complete idiot.
"Please back up and stop hovering over me," I said, slowly. "And I will get it done."
"Relax," he muttered. He straightened his shoulders and retreated to his office.
"Relax" is the last thing you want to hear when provoked. In seconds, I'd morphed from the Keeper of The Brand into The Bitch, the classic summation of a woman who does not humor a sexist, fragile ego.
Yet I was the one feeling fragile. Besides the excruciating pain in my ankle, his attitude shook me. I was too soft for these environs. I wasn't used to people breathing down my neck about things as insipid as emails. And I knew that thinking emails were stupid was a fundamental flaw in me as a brand manager. I wasn't cut out for the falsity of marketing. I wasn't detached and cool enough. I wasn't witty enough to write copy that would translate into sales.
Six months later, after being skipped over for the office tradition of getting staff birthday gifts, I told myself, I'm 30—don't sweat the small stuff. I was about to enter a new decade. I had a job, a book that would come out someday, and a romantic relationship for the first time in years. Life was good.
"I'm sorry. But we're going to have to let you go."
A few days after my birthday, these were the words of the mustachioed, ambitious CEO whose visions of grandeur led to eventual layoffs. Fortunately, I was told, I could collect unemployment. The words buzzed in my ear. Shame, fear, embarrassment coursed through me. What would I do now? I was a failure at my foray into the for-profit world.
"I wish you all the best," I said.
"Thank you for being gracious about this," said the CEO.
What was I supposed to do, bro? Bawl and throw a fit?
Escapism > turmoil = my classic response. Not in the form of drugs or alcohol (or not this time, at least) but by way of a solo trip to Hawai'i. I'd gladly be a cliché to experience paradise. I would go to the farthest reaches of earth, to a place I'd never been, alone.
In Hawai'i, the lessons revealed themselves to me. Traveling alone has always been a powerful teacher, showing me I am capable, strong. It reminds me that there's a great big world out there. Meditations, hiking, flowers, falling stars — I sought all of this with an addict's hunger.
While there, I reconnected with a college classmate and fellow women's studies major, Ashley. On morning drives through Honolulu, we became friends in a way that we'd never been back in school. I confessed my depression and anxiety after being fired. The more we spoke, the more I realized this was a opportunity to embrace risk and possibility. Ashley had started a super successful retail store for baby wares, gotten a PhD, and was deeply involved with the food justice movement in Hawai'i. She was a mother, entrepreneur, and political activist with a doctorate — all at once. We spoke about the complexities of life in Hawai'i — the tenuous interplay between indigenous Hawaiians and white settlers. How life on an isolated string of volcanic islands attracts lost souls looking to reinvent themselves.
Here, we were all impostors.
On a solo trip to the epic Waimea Canyon in Kauai, surrounded by natural beauty, I was struck by the canyon's signature rainbow layers—vestiges of old lava flows from different epochs, each leaving its imprint behind. It dawned on me: Here I was, anonymous, alone, doing just fine.
The only thing that broke me from that reverie was a call from my former supervisor. She, too, had been laid off; the whole place was shutting down. She was going to pursue her real-life dream of being a goth YA author.
When I returned home, I got closer to the final incarnation of my novel, though it took another much more strenuous trip to Bangladesh, where part of the book takes place, to finally get it done. I felt a sense of loss after I completed my book — I'd been working on it for eight years. As my depression faded, an idea arose: to take the library of essential oils, resins, and absolutes I'd collected as research for my novel and turn it into a brand. I started to create natural perfumes and candles, homages to my trip to Hawai'i and other travels. My brand became a repository of all those things I'd longed to explore but felt I could never do: branding, creative direction, marketing.
Since being laid off, I've run into the ex-CEO many times. We're always friendly, but I often wonder how the failure of his company haunts him, if it even does. When we last exchanged pleasantries, I was with my boyfriend, a software engineer. Two minutes into the conversation, he asked my boyfriend if he was interested in working with him on his new company. Damn, I thought. The whole necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention thing — this guy's got that hustle down to a science.
Outsider, impostor, unworthy, not enough — this is what we tell ourselves when we struggle in the workplace. Despite the years I've put into my writing, whenever I experience rejection, I question my authenticity. That part never goes away. Each day is a new lesson in something I've probably never done before. This does wonders for your creativity, confidence, and sense of self. I called my brand Hi Wildflower. The name came from the ether, as most titles do. I've always loved how wildflowers find a way — in sidewalk cracks, on coastal cliffs. But I like to think that the "Hi" is a subconscious nod to the place where I escaped, which led me back.
This article originally appeared on Elle.com and is reprinted with permission.