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  • Writer's pictureCécile Hemery

A tale of bouncing back from setbacks


A view of San Francisco with the Golden Gate bridge in the foreground. A line of text reads "A tale of not going to San Francisco"

I’d like to share the story of how I never went to live in San Francisco.


Back in Spring 2007, I went on holiday in the United States with some friends. We went on a road trip from San Francisco going through national parks up to the Grand Canyon and back. The sister of one of my friends lived in San Francisco and we visited her. We talked about what we did for work and she later put me in contact with a friend of hers who was looking for a product marketing manager, which was what I did then. Fast forward a few months later, I got the job.


It was only a 6-month contract, but I was young, and I had only ever worked for one company. It had gone really well for me and I got promoted a few times. Leaving my safe and well-paid job for a 6-month contract in the US seems, with the benefit of hindsight, like a gamble. But I was confident that they would want to hire me permanently after the 6-month contract, and since the job offer included accommodation in a great location, it sounded like a dream-like opportunity. This was a chance at doing something exciting and I didn't want to miss it.


So I got the job, I got the visa, I resigned from my job, I looked for a tenant for my flat, I started to move out stuff and I had my farewell party with my friends and co-workers. It was all on track. Two more weeks, and I would be on the plane, heading towards my sunny new life. I was so excited. I was listening to "San Francisco" by Scott McKenzie on a loop. It was scary but mostly exciting. I bragged to my colleagues about where my new office would be, in the same building as Lucasfilm, with the Yoda fountain in the courtyard to prove it. I was going to live my own American dream. I could barely believe it myself.


But on that Tuesday, three days after my combined birthday/farewell party (it still ranks as one of the best parties of my life), I had a call with my boss-to-be to prepare for my arrival less than two weeks later. I sensed something was off in the conversation, so I asked, "Is there something I need to know?".


It turned out that the company was being bought by a larger company, he had just learned the news, and there was a lot of uncertainty, it was all happening now. Many jobs, including his, were at risk. I asked if my contract was still valid. He said, well it is valid, but you’ll likely get fired on your first day. Which also meant I would have no place to live since my accommodation was linked to the job.


My world fell apart. With that one conversation, all the dreams, all the preparations, were out of the window. I had given up my life in France for a life in the US that I would never get to live. My visa only allowed me 30 days in the country to find another job, it was unlikely I would be able to find another one in time. This job opportunity had come from the heavens, I had no idea how to find another one that quickly in a foreign country. I had a mortgage to pay and I panicked.


Many emotions ran through me that night. Anger, self-blame, powerlessness, guilt and shame. What had I gotten myself into? I knew it was a risky move, had I been so naive to believe it would all be fine?


This is what I learned, from that night, from the whole experience and from what came next:


First, there was panic


My first reaction was panic. I had a mortgage to pay, all my savings had gone into buying that flat, and I found myself with the perspective of having no income. In France, you get unemployment benefits; but because I had resigned voluntarily and my new job contract had been abroad, I would not have been eligible for them for a few months. In those moments, money matters. A lot. It keeps you safe. I wasn’t quite able to think rationally about it for a few weeks, I needed to find an answer. Right now. It couldn’t wait.


The reality is that it could wait, maybe not a few months, but I had a few days, maybe a few weeks. It’s very hard to deal with that urge of adrenaline going through your body, reacting to the danger and screaming at the top of your inner voice: "Do something now to keep you safe! I need to see action, movement, now!".


We don’t make good decisions when we’re panicking, but I was lucky enough not to make a bad one. I basically threw myself at the mercy of the CEO of the company and he was kind and graceful, offering me a temporary work assignment so could stay on for a few months and have time to find my footing again.


Then there was shame


My 2nd reaction was shame. The whole situation left me feeling humiliated and ashamed.

I thought of all the things I could have done to prevent being in this situation.

  • I shouldn’t have accepted the role,

  • I shouldn’t have left my stable and full of prospects role for a 6-month contract on the other side of the world,

  • I shouldn’t have bragged so much about it. I should have told no one about it until it was done,

  • I should have known it was too good to be true, I should have asked more questions,

  • I shouldn’t have had my farewell party 2 weeks in advance (I still have a nice assortment of California guidebooks on my bookshelf).

I remember a friend called me the next day to wish me well on my journey, and I told her I wasn’t going. She thought I had second thoughts and told me I had to go, that it was an amazing opportunity. I explained that I did want to go, but I didn’t have a job to go to anymore.


It was painful and humiliating to explain to every single person I knew what had happened. Why I was still here, and looking for a job.


I felt like a failure.


I felt like it wouldn’t have happened to somebody else. Somebody else would have known or sensed that something was off and not gotten themselves in this situation. It happened to me because I wasn’t smart enough, cautious enough or maybe even worthy enough. Even if I didn't share these private thoughts with anyone else.


The hidden pain


The thing is that events never happen in isolation.


A couple of months earlier, a dear colleague and friend of mine had died of breast cancer. It took her within less than a year. She was young, only 32. I admired her a lot. I had shared with her every stage of this job opportunity in San Francisco, and she had been so encouraging, and beyond the encouragement, there was pride, and some envy, too. She wished she could do something like this. But she couldn’t, somehow she knew she wouldn’t make it. So she was happy that I could do it. She was a rare person.


When she died, I wrote in the condolence book that even though she hadn’t been able to go to San Francisco herself, I was taking her with me, in spirit. It became some sort of symbol to me to honour her.


But I didn’t go. And of all the things that hurt in the aftermath of "not-going" to San Francisco, not being able to keep my promise to my late friend was the hardest. I felt like I had failed her. I didn’t know how to carry that and it was hard to share with others my logic. Because it wasn’t logical. She wouldn’t have been mad at me, she would have empathised. But I couldn’t let go of that feeling of failing her.


Six years later, I had the opportunity to go to San Francisco on a work trip. I added a day off to my trip and spent the day in the city and I dedicated the day to her. I walked the streets, I went to the office that would have been, to the flat that would have been, to the places that would have been where I was living my life. And it felt like I finally delivered on my promise, I took her to San Francisco and I was now free.


I didn’t move to the US, but after that, I’ve lived in Argentina, in Singapore, in Spain and now in the UK. So I like to think that I made up for that broken promise. I know she would have called me silly, but it was important to me to honour my promise to her.


What happened next


The company I worked with kindly offered me to stay on for a few months. I couldn’t get my job back, as someone in my team had been promoted to replace me, but they gave me a temporary mission on projects that were blocked.


At the end of these few months, a previous manager who had moved on to another company offered me a role in her team, and I took it. It was a wonderful experience and that company offered me a lot of opportunities over the years.


Is my life better or worse? For not going to San Francisco?


I can’t answer that. I think it’s unlikely I would have ever moved abroad if it hadn’t for that opportunity, and even though SF didn’t happen, this is the spark that made me want it and believe I could do it a few years later. Despite the drawbacks. Maybe the echo of that experience is why I never lived in the US though.


Did I make the best choices? - Probably not, but who does?


I could have insisted more on the company helping me to find another position in the US given the circumstances (the woman who had helped me in the visa process said they should have offered some support there). That company ended up firing the entire marketing team, including my boss-to-be and I was just a 6-month contract who hadn’t even started yet.


I could have taken the opportunity to take some time off rather than rush toward a job in fear. Even though I don’t regret what came next and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I was given at this time, I realise with hindsight that I never asked myself what I wanted to do. Pausing for a moment might have changed nothing at all. But it might have changed a lot too. It could have been an opportunity to take the driving seat in my life. I suppose I wasn’t ready.


Years later, I found myself taking a break after a burnout, and that break was the most pivotal moment of my life. I learned more about myself during that year than all the years before combined. Growth happens when you’re ready for it.


I could have handled my finances better, or have a better and more realistic understanding of my situation. Instead, I just reacted in fear.


Learning from setbacks with the benefit of hindsight


My not-going to San Francisco taught me a lot and here are some of the highlights that I’d like to share with you

  • People are kind

No one judged me, everybody was kind and supportive. It was bad luck.

The humiliation I felt was my own doing. I made my own experience a lot worse than it needed to be. The judgements about my situation were all my own.

  • I did not fail. I just had bad luck

Nothing in this experience had anything to do with me. It didn’t matter who I was and how good I was at my job. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had started working for them and rocked their world. I was just collateral damage to business interests far removed from me. It was hard to experience the harsh and brutal economic realities of the world, but it happened. There was nothing to be done but acknowledge it and move on.

  • We are resilient

I learned that bouncing back happens. Bumps in the road happen. You keep going. No road is a straight line. We all go at different speeds. There is no point in comparing yourself to anybody, because, life happens to all of us, in different ways, at different times.

I accepted that it happened to me and immediately moved into solution mode.

It would have been helpful to reflect a bit more before going into solution mode, but I have learned the ability to deal with setbacks and find my feet again.

  • Work is never the whole story

In the storm of emotions that were going on within me, some of them had very little to do with the event of losing my job. My grief, guilt and shame about failure, are how I reacted to the events of that year. Things I needed to work through for my own sake. They would have found their way to express themselves, whatever happened in my life. They were brought up to the surface and I faced them.

  • Seize opportunities, be bold and be cautious too

When I moved to Singapore a few years later, I took a very different approach, much more careful. I read my contract several times and asked for changes. The move was within the same company. Not everybody knew I was leaving until it was very clear it was happening. And it did happen. I had backup plans.

  • We’re in charge of our own narrative

A lot of the emotions I went through were of my own making. I put weight on some stuff that hurt me that was unnecessary and for too long. I did the best I could with who I was at the time, and I do know now that I can do things differently. Maybe that’s part of why I know it now.

 

It’s been 16 years, and my "not-going" to San Francisco is well behind me now. It is a memory, an anecdote that I tell to make people laugh, emphasising on the ups and downs and picking and choosing which bits to share. In the grand scheme of things, it had both very little and great impact on my life. Little because I carried on and my life in France continued uninterrupted. And great because it put me on a different path.


When I look back on my life, this experience is one of those life crossroads. A milestone that was significant. Sometimes, we don’t get what we want, life is unfair, things are hard. But it is not the end, and we carry on. Who knows what paths will come alive because of it?


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