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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.