I have been fired twice in my life.
The first time was as a freshman at Lafayette College in 2002.
I grew up in Pakistan where high school kids didn’t work. Without a degree, you couldn’t get a ‘respectable’ white-collar job.
And ‘odd jobs’ — working at the movie theater, bussing tables at a restaurant?These were considered beneath even the middle-class people that were tottering on the creaky lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
In college, I needed a part-time job to pay the bills. My scholarship covered tuition, housing, and first-year meals. But there were incidentals — bus fare, a fan for the airtight summer months, books that I coaxed and pleaded at rock bottom rates from upperclassmen.
My dad had slid $1,500 into my purse before boarding me on the one-way flight from Karachi to New York. But that didn’t last very long once I discovered mega-malls and tube tops.
So I applied for — and got a job — at the library. The crème de la crème of campus jobs.
I was responsible for standing behind the counter and checking out books. The job was revered because there wasn’t much foot traffic. Most people came to the library to settle for hours behind a desktop computer or to bury their heads into their tome of the day. So, for the counter staff, there was plenty of uninterrupted time to catch up on homework.
But at the age of 18, I didn’t want to stand behind the counter and read. I was absorbing the orgasmic culture shock of a free society. I wanted fun and excitement.
And then came Edward — a fellow freshman international student, another wide-eyed wonder-filled teenager absorbing the novel delicacies of life in the land of opportunity.
I was stoked that I had a counter buddy. Once we came together, the silent library was not so silent anymore. We had to keep ourselves entertained during the long stretches of time between students soundlessly scampering up to the counter. Both prone to wild imaginations, we started targeting the students around us as lead actors in gossipy melodramas.
That girl looks like she hasn’t washed her hair this morning. It looks like she slept in her shoes. Must be in the Engineering program — or maybe she’s getting ready for rush week at the sorority by sleeping her way through the fraternities!
Oh look at that couple — he just dropped her hand. That busty brunette around the corner seems to have caught his eye. Showdown time! I think his girlfriend is a senior graduating in six months. He needs to get a backup in place!
That kid right there is straight-up snoring! Bet on when his head hits the desk? He should just give up now and become a carpenter. He’s a big guy — look at those hands!
We were two spiteful biddies in a knotty neighborhood standing on the balcony, passing commentary on everyone that walked by. Edward and I weren’t interested in quiet contemplation. We wanted action.
When we got bored with chronicling imagined lives of oblivious, blameless students, we started inviting our friends over to the library during our shifts.
Our subdued corner became a raucous clubhouse table, swirling with tittering giggles, high fives, and loud prattle.
Disapproving looks from students struggling to maintain concentration. The librarian who started with gentle rebukes and then permanently glared at us from across her perch. None of these signs made any difference to us. We were young and full of vigor.
We had no idea we were playing with fire.
The termination happened swiftly and with no formal warning. Edward and I were both fired on the same day and immediately replaced with the next students waiting patiently in line for the best job on campus.
After my initial shock wore off, shakes set in.
I had gotten fired! What will I tell my parents? And I needed the money. Will I find another job?
I eventually realized that I deserved it. I was actively creating a ruckus at my place of employment. Of course, I got fired.
After this experience, I quickly grew up. Over the next three and a half years of college, I held down, on average 3–4 part-time jobs at any given time. It was my penance.
I was determined never to get fired again.
And then I went back to school — to do my Masters at the University of British Columbia.
I got a part-time job at the Alumni Giving office. A fancy name for the student fundraising call center, which boasted a rainbow of degree programs and nationalities.
All of us were there for one reason only — to make money. Some needed the job to pay for Cup A Soup for the coming week. And some needed cash to sling Mai Tais at the local student union pub.
We were given headsets and a script. Start with asking for an annual commitment of $25 dollars a month. If they demur, propose $15 dollars a month. And if that doesn’t work, give in to a one-time donation of $25.
“Always ask three times. Be persistent without annoying the other person.”
We were paid $15 an hour, whether or not we scored donations.
I soon found out that many callers were only clocking hours and collecting cash — while exploiting the system. When someone picked up the phone, they would immediately hang up and move on to the next call. The automated system was set up in a way that no one would know of their transgression.
And when manna fell from heaven and the call went to voicemail? Leave a message. Speak loudly so people hear you talking.
The goal was to avoid uncomfortable conversations begging overstretched alumni for money.
I, too, started flying through the phone calls as quickly as I could. I made one ask and didn’t bother with the second. And then school got busier and the nights started getting longer. I got better part-time jobs doing projects for professors and invigilating exams for $28 an hour.
The call center job became a leash around my neck.
And yet, I hesitated to quit. I got greedy and thought I could manage it all. Four part-time jobs, an MBA program, and aggressively networking my way around town so I could get a real job after graduation. I started calling in sick more and more often.
And finally, the day came. I was pulled aside by the supervisor — an undergraduate student, 8 years younger than I was.
It wasn’t working out. I was absent too often. It was time for me to part ways with the call center.
I walked out, relieved. I was free of the job I hated but couldn’t bear to quit.
Looking back, I know that neither of those jobs was right for me. They were boring and rote and did not allow me to fire up the most potent parts of my brain.
I wasn’t engaged. And so I was a terrible employee. I would’ve fired me too.
Today, I am in a position to hire people. When interviewing, I always assess why someone is applying for the job.
If it is for money only, I know they won’t last. They will find any loophole they can to avoid giving their all. They will constantly be on the hunt for something better.
It has been 10 years since I last got fired. I remember these incidents fondly as valuable lessons about the importance of investing time into inspiring projects that I really believe in.
Why let a good failure go to waste when you can learn something from it?