Three Lessons I Learned from Getting Fired

It’s easy to look at successful people and envy their situation. What you often don’t see is the pain they went through to get there. That certainly applies to me.

I didn’t eventually become a CEO because I made fewer mistakes than you. In fact, it’s probably just the opposite. I made more. In fact, I’ve been fired from three jobs in my career.

An Employee Being Shown the Door - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/nullplus, Image #10081269

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/nullplus

Each of these was a very painful experience. But these experiences also taught me important lessons that I probably could not have learned any other way.

  1. Lesson #1: Don’t take your job for granted. I got my first real job at the age of fifteen. I was hired as a dishwasher at Giovanni’s Pizza in Waco, Texas. After a few months, I was given the opportunity to cook pizzas.

    It was a part-time job. I usually worked a few evenings after school and then Friday or Saturday night. It wasn’t too demanding, but it gave me some much-needed spending money.

    After working at this job for a little over a year, I was fired. I was unceremoniously given the boot. I didn’t do anything egregious or outrageous. I just got sloppy. I was often late to work. I regularly asked my boss to change my work schedule at the last minute.

    The problem was that I thought the job was about me. My employer (rightly) thought it was about him and the restaurant. In the end, I became more trouble than I was worth, so he canned me. This was the best thing that could have happened to me. It got my attention, and it was the beginning of my education.

    After this experience, I never took any job for granted.

  2. Lesson #2: Take time to clarify expectations. When I was in business for myself, I agreed to manage an artist’s singing career. I was reluctant, but she was persistent.

    At the time, she was a B-level artist who was convinced that she could be an A-level talent with the right exposure. My job, as I understood it, was to get her better concert bookings, a book deal, and exploit whatever other opportunities we could create. My job, as she understood it, was to make her famous.

    I knew I was in trouble after the first month. In the first thirty days, I doubled her bookings, secured a decent book deal (even coming up with the book concept myself), and got her an appearance on a major, national TV show.

    I was feeling pretty good about my progress. But, she could only find fault. Over dinner, she complained that she still wasn’t “famous.” I pointed out what I had accomplished. She dismissed it as “the low hanging fruit.” She then pointed out all the things I hadn’t accomplished. I left the meeting totally demoralized.

    I realized I had made a major error in not getting her expectations on the table from the get-go. Unfortunately, the relationship never really recovered. She eventually fired me—by fax. It was painful, but, honestly, I felt relieved. I knew I was never going to meet her expectations no matter how hard I tried.

    After this experience, I decided to discuss expectations at the beginning of any new relationship—and document them.

  3. Lesson #3: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, I’ve made this mistake more than once. The last time was about fifteen years ago.

    At the time, I co-owned a literary agency. I agreed to take on a giant project for a major client. I worked my tail off for about a year, focusing exclusively on this one client. My relationship had morphed into an artist management relationship, and I was, essentially, managing this client’s career.

    Meanwhile my partner and associates took care of everyone else. We all thought it was a good bet. But in the end, the client fired me (also via fax!) and signed with an agency who promised to get him “a major book deal with a New York publishing house and an appearance on Oprah. (His book with the New York house tanked, and he never did get on Oprah.) I was left high and dry with nothing to show for my year-long investment.

    The worst part was that I did not see it coming. I was blind-sided. I thought I had done a great job. Besides, we had enjoyed a long-term personal relationship. My client wasn’t so impressed with my work. He had his eye on bigger things, and decided I couldn’t take him there. So, without even so much as a discussion, he dumped me.

    In the end it was a humbling—even humiliating—experience. I learned that clients (and customers) are fickle. You can’t afford to put all your eggs in one basket. You have to spread the risk. You also can’t assume that today’s victories will be remembered. You have to keep raising the bar.

These, of course, aren’t the only mistakes I’ve made in my career. I’m not even sure they were the biggest ones. But they were mistakes that got me fired, and in the end that got my attention. They were painful, but the education was invaluable.

Question: What have you learned from your mistakes? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://twitter.com/seanpalmer Sean Palmer

    Thanks for this!

  • http://strengths.jimseybert.com Jim Seybert

    “Jim, you’re a great guy. Smart, dedicated, hard-working — and I’m doing you a favor by letting you go because managing people is not something you’re very good at.”

    OUCH – that was 30+ years ago, and the guy was 100% correct. He had hired me to be a store manager in a rapidly growing fast food chain — a talent that was clearly not in my bag of tricks. 

    Problem – I didn’t actually LEARN anything from the experience until many years later when I finally realized that you can take classes in management and develop some skills but to really succeed, you need to have an appetite for managing. I didn’t and still don’t.

    From personal experience I can say that it takes a while after you’ve been fired for the lessons to sink in. And that’s OK. The pain of being sacked is – unfortunately – part of the learning process. I tried my hand at managing many more times before coming to grips with the reality that I stink as a manager.

    I’ve been self-employed for ten years now and I tell people that my boss is a jerk. 

    • Anonymous

      Love the last line.  

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      You’re last line is hilarious. What role do you think they language we use about our performance and the story we tell ourselves about our performance plays in impacting our performance?

      • http://strengths.jimseybert.com Jim Seybert

        Mike – self talk is HUGE. And although the things we tell ourselves quite often drag us down (I’m dumb, I’m no good at math, I make stupid choices) there are times when our self talk is delusional in the other direction.

        It’s just as harmful to tell yourself you can fly (when you can’t) than it is to tell yourself you can’t walk (if you can). We’ve  all worked with or for someone who believes their own press releases.

        I know, without question, that managing people drains me. I can stand in front and get them on my side, but setting their agendas, evaluating their performance, finding replacements when they call in sick – all of that – I loathe.

        On point – I’m thinking that the majority of times I’ve been fired – or quit in the nick of time – were jobs where I was trying to paste wings on a cow. 

        • http://allanwhite.net/ allanwhite

          There’s a difference between managing and leading. A great leader may be a lousy manager (& vv).

          That last line is another winner. You finish well!

    • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

      Jim,

      The last line made me laugh (I’m sure everyone who’s read it laughed as well). The sting of failure hurts, so you’re right about the lesson tends to sink in much later after the initial ouch. It takes time and reflection to actually learn the tough lessons. Some miss the opportunity because they stick with the pain and don’t take the time to reflect.–Tom

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great information.  #2 hits especially close to home.  I’ve been there as well.  Thanks!

  • Roger

    I’ve been fired several times, but not from my own doing.

    1) I asked for the weekend off to go to California and the boss said “It’s either California or the job.”  The job meant a lot to me and so I said, “The job.” To which he replied, “You’re fired.” He misunderstood my answer and as I attempted to clarify it, he said it again, “You’re fired. Get out of here!”

    2) In this case, the boss wanted to hire one of his buddies and fired me, and then had the gall to ask me to train this guy! Seriously.

    3) Another company fired me because the new boss was building his own team and, yes, wanted to bring in one of his former colleagues. Out I went. Two years later, I ran into the #2 guy in the department and he admitted that the company was wrong in letting me go. Oh yeah, my replacement was eventually fired!

    4) I was one of six let go in a downsizing. During my talk with another new boss, I mentioned my background at this particular company and he turned to my immediate supervisor and commented, “Are we doing something wrong here?” My supervisor said, “Yes!” I was still sent packing because the corporate machine was already in gear.

    5) Worked 5 1/2 years at a company with great staff interaction, great customer feedback, no drama, no negatives (financial or otherwise), and then a phone call came–this was my last day here. The firm wanted to go “in another direction.” What, no memo? No feedback? No help to fine-tune along the way?

    Getting fired makes you weary, wiser and wary. In many cases, it also spurs one to step up their game ten-fold, in effect, to ‘prove ‘em wrong.’ However, at my present place of employment, even that hasn’t done the trick.  And in this economy and unknown future, options are few and jumping ship can be perilous.

    • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

      I can relate to your first example. With a coaching change over the summer, I got dropped from the staff and replaced with someone the new coach already had in mind. Despite the AD’s recommendation to do otherwise, the coach replaced me. From that experience, I learned my enthusiasm needed to be tempered with caution. Why? Because, not expecting to be fired, I let enthusiasm dictate my answers where prudence might have altered how I approached the interview. I assumed too much. Another lesson that needed to be learned (i.e. don’t assume).

  • Jdladiesonly

    I was being downsized, again.  The company I worked for not to long after 9-11 was dealing with a challenging market and was asking me to step down in position yet again for the 3rd time.  I quit.  But really had to take into consideration something that my manager told me about myself and skills.  I would never be any better than a phone sales person.  He meant it harshly, but after much pondering at it I realized a great truth.  I am good on the phone and less distracted than in person.  So now with purpose and passion I do a better job.

  • http://twitter.com/CoachTheresaIF Theresa Ip Froehlich

    Michael, One thing I particularly appreciate about you is your honesty, transparency, and vulnerability. You are willing to reveal the human side of you. If you had made it here without ever facing struggles, I think you would have had less credibility. It would also not have inspired the rest of us nearly as much.
     
    I have come to accept the wisdom of this quote: “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” Don Williams Jr.

    P.S. Someone else may have mentioned it already. There is a typo at the beginning of the second paragraph. (“I’m didn’t…)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Theresa. I appreciate that. Great quote, too.

      Someone else mentioned the typo via Twitter, and it is ow fixed. Thanks again.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Theresa. I appreciate that. Great quote, too.

      Someone else mentioned the typo via Twitter, and it is ow fixed. Thanks again.

  • Brenda Welc

    I have learned many things about the mistakes I have made in the last couple of years since separating from my husband of 18 years due to his drug addiction.  I learned to stop putting everyone’s needs before mine.  I have value and I did not see this because I became so wrapped up in just keeping things moving.  Not that it is all about me, that’s not what I mean, but to acknowledge that I have a needs too.  Secondly, I learned that in certain situations, if I make a mistake, it can really have a HUGE ripple affect on those close to the situation.  This applies not only to family situations, but to work as well when you are the manager.  Thus, my lesson learned in all of this is to take time to analyze things before making choices for yourself.  Quit trying to keep up with the world’s exceptions for you and start following after the things which really matter.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve learned that mistakes don’t mean the end– but an opportunity for something better.

    Even in the unfortunate ‘getting fired’ experience, I believe God taught me my worth. It was a time when I felt the lowest. I was let go from my job in Atlanta about a week after getting news that I didn’t make it into the Central Intelligence Agency. Eight months of extensive interviewing, polygraphs, thorough background investigations, headquarters in Virginia…I passed every test and yet, received that dreaded phone call. Talk about a double-whammy! I was sinking quickly.. but God not only showed me my potential. He also encouraged me with just the simple fact that he has a plan. I couldn’t see it then. A great big lesson I learned from that rejection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=22404226 Mike Salisbury

    That reminds me of one of my favorite Mad Men quotes: “The moment you sign a client is the moment you begin to lose them.”

    Good stuff, Michael. 

  • Pingback: Prompt 24: Lessons From Getting Fired

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com Nikole Hahn

    My big mistake: My first paycheck was spent and so was the next within five minutes of getting it. For the first time, I had money and I could buy whatever I wanted; instead, I ended up not learning how to be wise with it. I’ve never been fired, but I’ve walked close to it due to my lateness.  Every job no matter the pay should be treated as a CEO job.

  • http://www.shellyduffer.com Sduffer1

    GREAT Blog post.  I will say it reminded me of my one and only time I was fired—from Baskin & Robbins—for unplugging the “Ice Cream Cake Freezer” instead of the cash register one Friday night.  :)   What did I learn?  It’s important to not only know WHEN to pull the plug, but WHICH plug to  pull!!

  • http://twitter.com/KarenJordan Karen Jordan

    I keep thinking that I’ve learned to never make decisions or commitments when I’m emotional. Then, I get angry or excited, and I forget everything I’ve learned! That can really get you into trouble Aaugh!!!

  • http://www.inspiringpathstosuccessblog.com Jane Crosbie

    Hi Michael I love your blog.  Look forward to reading it every time it comes in.  Mistakes – yes I can imagine what Thomas Edison would say about those – that 99 percent of his invention came through discovery, through making mistakes – big whopping mistakes.  Louis Pasteur and Penicillin – if he had not have made the mistake of leaving the lid off his petri dish the penicillin bacteria in the air could not have grown on his cultureand he would not have discovered that wonder drug penicillin –  the list goes on.!  I guess the billions of mistakes I have made in my life – I’m an artist – mistakes are important to me – serendipity plays a huge role in creating brilliant works of art as opposed to producing mediocrity – is to learn how valuable they can be.  Yes we get imprisoned in our own mindset at times – sometimes we need to be released – a really good whopping mistake can free us – get us looking at a better way – mistakes are good teachers – and failure – brutal as it is – can be an even better teacher.  Michael I have blogs too – people often ask me how do you cope with rejection as an artist – how about a post on rejection.  Would love to hear your words of wisdom on that one, and the comments from your readers too.

  • http://twitter.com/jmhardy98 Jim Hardy

    Leah,

    you  bring up a good point. I have seen many careers get destroyed because they could not separate business and home. Many marriages also.

    Jim

  • Ruby Brown

    Great advice, even in church work.  Thank you for all your posts.  I’m learning a lot from all of them. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Fictisha Jo-Anne Russell

    What I’ve learned the most over the years, is that 1. There is ALWAYS more to learn when you think you have a handle on something. 2. No matter what your profession, don’t be afraid or feel embarrassed to ask for help – it is the most efficient means to get from a – b, and 3. Always do your own research – even if it is just to confirm what someone has tried to teach you in good faith. We are all human, we make mistakes and we can all grow and learn from them if we only try.

  • Joe Lalonde

    Sounds like you’ve learned some great lessons Michael from your mistakes!

    One of the lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes is to not let it keep you down. You have to move on and move forward.

  • Muhammad Kamran

    enjoyed reading it …learned a lot..though i am no professional i am just a student but every one makes mistakes to learn from them ehh? … My mistake was not sure if i should do it (something) or not..but eventually by not doing it i learned i should have done it.. and i learned that you must be sure about what you truly want to do and then just do it

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for your transparency, I truly appreciate you sharing this part of your journey. I wasn’t a good team fit, I got overwhelmed, dug a hole and  was let go and it was a very demoralizing and humiliating experience that I have healed from. On top of what you’ve mentioned, the lesson I learned from that experience was to never allow a job or a person define me, make me feel like I am less than or that can’t perform. I have really learned the value of not relying on my own meager abilities but allowing the Lord to use me as a vessel and do everything in excellence and for His glory.  I also learned to never give up on me and always believe in what God has placed in me!

  • Anonymous

    In my professional experience I have learned to never let a job or person define my abilities. I also learned not to rely on my abilities alone but to always believe God and His ability to use me in any workplace assignment. I truly strive to glorify God in my work and I want to be sure that I make Him look good.

  • http://twitter.com/stephsday stephsday

    Thanks for sharing your failures/mistakes/tough times…in addition to your successes. 

  • http://www.cmoe.com/leadership-development.htm Susan

    It’s quite refreshing to read about someone admitting what he did wrong in previous jobs :D Not many people are willing to admit that they must have made a misstep in previous dealings with clients and bosses. I have to say that I’ve had my fair share of mistakes as well, one of those being an inability to communicate with my boss. Of course, I was pretty young then and it was my first job, but I kept any negative feedback to myself and ended up resenting the job and my boss when things got really tough. Silly, really.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Lesson #1: Don’t take your job for granted. — Many times we fail in this front. We fail to exercise our gratitude muscle. We tend to be negligent in our life. I think, we as human beings are more vulnerable to this mistake. It takes discernement from our end to overcome this danger in our life.

  • Tamara Vann

    This is outstanding advice! Interestingly, it applies well to businesses and their customers, too. As this video shows, alignment of efforts matter. Your points about clarifying and not taking things for granted really fit here. http://www.upyourservice.com/video-theater/get-better-results-through-alignment-of-effort-not-through-greater-effort

  • http://stephenalynch.tumblr.com Stephen Lynch

    Next week marks the one month mark since leaving my previous job. These guidelines are great tools during the job search; I certainly don’t take my current job for granted, I set clear expectations of my schedule availability for my current employer, and I’m also still pursuing other, better long-term solutions while maintaining great communication with my current employer.

    My learning tip is that saying yes creates more opportunity, while saying no creates less. Sounds simple enough, but as a freelancer, knowing where you stand can greatly shape the outlook of your career.

  • Hamza_19us

    Thanks to post your story about  the Job. I am from London and my Boss fired me because of my punctuality. Today I was late and then he didn’t say much about any thing and no more question. He just fired me straight away.”You may go home”.  :(
    And that was really horrible time for me. When I got fired. Well ! Thank you very much about your  story. Now I can see that I am not only one who got fired. I have learn lots of things from this story. Now I want to know that if you could help me about to write a letter of apologize to give me again this Job. I totally hope that he will accept me . I just need a bit help from you that how can I write a letter to my boss.  Kindly get back to me on my Email .. Hamza_19us@yahoo.com

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  • Ruth

    I can really relate to not being able to please someone no matter what.  That’s the situation I find myself in.  I should rephrase that.  That’s the situation I am choosing to stay in until my resignation becomes effective. 

    I think, as an employee, I’ve put all my eggs in one basket.  Bosses have so much power to crush careers.  I want to be self employed and spread the risk over multiple clients while having at least the potential to receive bigger rewards. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexmwega Alex Mwega

    Hi Michael,

    I enjoy your articles…very insightful indeed. I especially love this reflection at the end of the article

    You also can’t assume that today’s victories will be remembered. You have to keep raising the bar. 

    Alex

  • Mackie Timus

    I have just been fired by my manager who I think is not taking the company anywhere. Moreover he does not believe in transparency beyond his level and any attempt to bypass him in order to let seniors know the truth ends up with getting the sack. He is the top man of the company and I was a senior manager. The humiliation sent me into depression and the only feelings I have are of vindictiveness and revenge. However my better half tells me that I should take this as a positive move as I myself didn’t want to stay so what’s the big deal. Even then though today I have 4-5 offers from large companies but I cannot do away with the feeling of humiliation.

    I think the two main reasons that precipitated the sacking were:
    - A colleague and I voted pretty negatively for him on the 360 degree evaluation that the company runs globally which all employees are supposed to carry out frankly.He got the HR head to extract the info for him and this resulted into two sackings the same day. Lesson: Do not be so frank in a company, do not be more loyal than the kind and do not think the company is owned by my dad.
    - I was seemingly failing on bottomline results though the failures were the doing of the past management. He needed a scapegoat and an yes-man, both of which I didn’t want to be.
    Lesson: Be more vigilant and clever when in the office and point out problems in the beginning. Keep my senses open to see which way things are going and prepare to move on before getting the sack, if the doing is not mine.

  • Sudhir Suvarna

    Hi Mike…This is so inspiring. I wonder why we ponder so much about being fired. I take employment as a business relationship. It should work both ways. If I am not treated well and my talent is not exploited, there is no point in working for managers who are insecure of you. They will try their level best to stop your growth. Best is to start on your own and we know it is not easy. One must note, that being fired is rarely related to performance. Most times, it is your bully boss or unrealistic targets, toxic workplace or just the blame culture. I have been following your articles for quite some time.

    I quit my 17-year career in I.T. and the last employer was a toxic workplace…Glad I choose to be start out on my own …Will launch my own stock photography website in a month’s time

    Thanks for your inspirational post and wish you great success !

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sudhir-Suvarna/100001074486104 Sudhir Suvarna

      Also, I view failure from a different perspective. Getting fired from a job is not a failure just like keeping your job by passing blame on other’s for what you are supposed to do is not success. Hence, my view is all those people who have a job out there are not success. They are just having a job.

    • nicknirm

      I have the exact same attitude towards jobs. Exact. I have been fired, laid off or forced to leave almost 10 times. I sometimes ponder about it only because I am reminded about it at times when I find myself doing well/great at a similar job somewhere else.