Skip to main content

I lost my big federal job, too. It sucked

By Martha Johnson
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Sat May 31, 2014
  • Martha Johnson abruptly resigned from the GSA in 2012 and feels for Eric Shinseki
  • She went from managing a huge federal agency to sitting in her house looking at furniture dust
  • Loss, she says, creates an airless vacuum, but natural law requires that vacuum to fill again

Editor's note: Martha Johnson is the former administrator of the General Services Administration who resigned amid an excessive government spending scandal in 2012. She is also the author of "On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It is as if the air suddenly disappears from the room. That is how it feels to lose a big job, one that offers a chance to make a real difference.

Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday as the leader of our nation's Department of Veteran's Affairs amid a scandal about wait times at VA hospitals. I would never presume to know or imagine his personal frame of mind or feelings right now, but I know a bit about such experiences.

In 2012, I abruptly resigned as the administrator of the General Services Administration in the swirl of a scandal around excessive spending at the "Western Regions" training conference, as well as dealings with contractors.

The ensuing uproar was textbook: anxious White House meetings, a scornful media, a pouncing Congress and bad optics fueled by silly YouTube videos. It is not an experience that anyone would want to experience ... or repeat.

Martha Johnson
Martha Johnson

I was personally caught in a web of emotions. My seven-year relationship with the people of GSA was suddenly severed and that saddened me deeply. I was troubled by the crude and, yes, bullying politics. Anxiety swept over me about my finances and prospects. My elderly father was deeply upset and needed attention.

Mostly, however, I grieved for the work that I had not completed. I believe in the efficacy of work, its ability to give meaning and to offer a central vitality to life. To lose my work was utterly painful. Being a part of a presidential administration was not just an honor to me, it was a real chance to change the world. The resources are huge; the reach and possibilities are vast.

My hope had been to impact and improve how the government performed -- how it used technology, saved energy, collaborated, improved the work environment for public servants, rebuilt trust, and more.

Instead, I found myself suddenly sitting in my house looking at the dust on the furniture.

Shinseki Out As VA Secretary
Fixing the VA after Shinseki's resignation
The journey to Shinseki's resignation

However, it was not quiet for long. A lot comes into play in those first weeks after leaving a big job in Washington. My networks went into hyper gear. Supportive messages, flowers and wine started arriving. The Banana Bread Brigade was in action. Other friends were outraged. Their calls were such rants that I found myself relinquishing my anger to them. They were much better at it. Others offered me weary wisdom. "It's Washington. Everyone gets what happened. You'll be fine." While I was not ready to hear that prognosis at the time, it turned out to be more than true.

Ultimately, a huge space opened up. I had been running at 500 mph while in office, and suddenly I could have a life. Importantly, I came to the realization that I had been robbed of neither my creativity nor my ability to work. The clincher was that I had a partial manuscript for a novel in the bottom of the drawer. I pulled it out and set to work. Within a couple months I published my first novel. Within a year a second book took shape.

Loss creates an airless vacuum. But natural law requires that vacuum to fill again. I know that lesson personally.

From everything I know of General Shinseki, he thoroughly understands that law as well. May he prosper and thrive in the days and years ahead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations