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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.

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