Ask a Designer #16: How Can I Rebuild My Self Esteem After Being Fired?


November 10, 2021

Designer, speaker, and writer Charli Marie is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in design. This week, Charli champions someone who has been fired and uncovers the lessons to be found in rejection.

Dear Charli, 

I recently got fired. I do not have much experience nor a solid shiny portfolio. Of course, when you're fired, you have plenty of negative thoughts – wondering if you'll ever be good enough, portfolio sucks, or not enough credibility. How do I shine and prove to everyone, especially the people who fired me, that I am capable of what I'm doing?

Yours, Bruised

I’m so sorry to hear this, Bruised. That really sucks. Negative thoughts after something like this happens are completely normal and expected, but I hope you’re being kind to yourself while you’re in this transition period. 

It’s interesting that you’ve asked how you can prove yourself and your abilities to the people who fired you. What’s more important than proving these things to other people is that you believe in yourself

Your confidence has taken a knock and while I can understand where the feelings of wanting to stick it to the people who fired you are coming from, I want to caution you against using this as your motivation. It will make it harder for you to escape the negative thoughts as you work on finding your next opportunity if the effort is fuelled by this negative situation.

So instead of focusing on the past, try to pull motivation from the future and be inspired to work towards a role that suits you at a company where you feel comfortable and confident.

I know, I know: that’s much easier said than done. But here are some things you can do to build your confidence back up and move forward.

Taking some time to reflect

It’ll be hard to move on without some proper reflection on what happened at your previous company. This is not something I want you to wallow in but taking a little time to journal your thoughts on the situation could not only help you move past it, but also spot anything you can learn from it too.

At a well-run company where they care about their employees you’ll know about any performance issues in advance. They’ll give you feedback and do their best to help you improve before resorting to letting you go. If you had no warning of this; that’s on them. They didn’t give you the support you needed to do well in your role. 

It’s hard to know what you could have done differently if your manager wasn’t forthcoming with feedback, but try to reflect on your time there and ask yourself what could have gone wrong. What happened in the weeks leading up to your dismissal? Can you spot any warning signs in hindsight? Was there a missing skillset? Did you make some mistakes in projects? Or were you and this company simply not a good fit for each other? 

Be honest with yourself here because if you’re able to uncover some things you could have done better you’ll be able to address them and improve on them in your next role.

Building your confidence back up

You mentioned that you don’t have much design experience yet, nor many projects you’re proud of for your portfolio. That might be making you feel a little helpless (especially if the job you were let go from was your first), so right now it’s really important for you to spend time designing things and continuing to work on your skills.

Start by creating some things just for fun. Don’t give any thought to them being portfolio pieces or worrying if they’re good enough to land you your next job; just focus on the practice of designing.

You’ve had something really frustrating happen and I’m hopeful that allowing yourself to enjoy the design process will help you to overcome the negativity you might be feeling towards your skills. 

I also really want to encourage you to share these ‘just for fun’ projects on Dribbble or Instagram. The feedback and support from the design community might help you feel more confident in your abilities, and it’ll also help you reach a stopping point with each project (it’s easy to let personal design projects go on forever otherwise!).

The more time you can spend on increasing your design knowledge the better too. Whether it’s taking a course online, watching tutorials, reading books or attending virtual meet-ups, the time you put into learning right now will help you progress in your career and recover from this setback. 

Getting back out there

Just like it’s hard to start dating again after a relationship ends, it’s hard to start job-hunting after being fired. But hopefully after spending a little time building your design confidence back up you’ll be ready to try and find a role at a company that’s a better fit for you.

As you apply for new jobs, remember that you don’t have to lead with the fact that you were fired from your last company. You don’t even have to mention it. You’re thinking about the future, right? Not dwelling on the past. Saying that the role wasn’t the right fit is a perfectly acceptable answer if they ask why you left, and through reflecting you might uncover a couple of core reasons that you can mention. 

One of the other reasons I suggest putting time into reflecting before getting back into the job market is to take the heat out of the emotions surrounding the situation. You’re understandably frustrated about being fired, but it’s going to be a bad look to vent that frustration in a job interview by bad-mouthing your previous company. Vent to your friends and family, not an interviewer! The best thing to focus on in your interview is the skills you did learn on that job and the ways you can apply them to a new role.

It’s going to be really important for you to find a company that takes the growth and development of its team members seriously, especially if you had no prior performance conversations in your last role as warning before being fired. I really want you to end up in a supportive environment with a team that will help you grow as a designer and make you feel secure in your position. After all, it’s hard to do work you’re proud of when you’re worrying about job security. 

In a job interview not only is the company asking questions to figure out if your skills and potential align with what they need from the role, but you’re interviewing them too in order to see if they fit what you need from an employer. Here are some questions you could ask your manager-to-be to uncover how they approach performance and development:

  • What will be the success metrics for this role? 

This will tell you what kind of standard you’d be held to in the position and what the company deems good performance.

  • Growing in my design skills is really important to me. Can you share an example of a skill you helped someone on your team to develop or improve in?

This will give you an idea of how much the manager invests time or attention into the development of their team, and it will also position you as a candidate who is motivated to learn! 

  • How often is performance assessed at your company? What does that process look like?

First of all, this will tell you if they have a solid process for assessing performance, and it will also give you an idea of what to expect from it.

Moving forward

Getting let go wasn’t your decision. But you get to decide what you do next. And I hope that this advice has helped you to see a path forward. 

The most important thing I want you to take away from this is that whatever you do next, do it for you. Not for proving to the people who fired you that they were wrong. Not even for showing them what you’re capable of. 

Do it to show yourself what you’re capable of. You have a long career ahead of you, and years down the line you’ll hopefully look back on this as just some bumps in the road to getting started. 

You’ve got this.

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About the author

New Zealand born Charli is a designer, speaker, and writer based in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about side projects and helps creatives improve their craft and process. By day Charli works as the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and on the side she creates weekly content on her YouTube channel, sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.

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