All of my life I have been a reasonably high achiever.
I say reasonably because my average grade in university bounced between credits, distinctions and the rare high distinction, so I wasn’t academically exceptional by any stretch, but I had a satisfactory record.
After spending the better part of my teens and early twenties working as a sales assistant at retailer Target and as a bank teller at Australia’s Westpac, I completed my Bachelor of Business degree.
It was time for me to get my first ‘real’ job.
At the time, I still had long hair, a hangover from my time playing in a heavy metal band.
I’d tie it up nice and neat for job interviews (if there is such a thing). But time after time, no matter how well I performed in the interview, I got nowhere. So eventually, and against my contrarian spirit, I cut it. The very first interview I attended with short hair led to a job offer.
Interestingly, the person who hired me later made it clear that if I had turned up with long hair I more than likely would not have got the job. So much for diversity!
This was a gig with Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) as an information administrator, whatever that meant, in their upstart consumer credit bureau (it was as fun as it sounds).
The bureau was a relatively new part of the organisation, consisting of a small team of fewer than 10 people and not much by way of processes or procedures, which can be the kind of environment I thrive in now, but back then, as a fresh- faced 21-year-old, I needed a little more direction.
This was before ubiquitous, fast and affordable internet access.
In fact, it was before smartphones. What do you get when you combine a 21-year-old, a lack of process or direction, and free high-speed internet access at a time when it wasn’t cheap? A complete misallocation of attention and resources — my attention and resources, that is.
While I wasn’t a complete degenerate in the role, and I did enough to get by, I didn’t do enough to move forward, and after two years, and several warnings for abuse of internet access — no, not that kind of abuse — the general manager pulled me aside and told me I would be ‘let go’.
As someone who hadn’t read any significant motivational books and knew nothing of self-awareness or Stoicism, this hit me like a sledgehammer, and I had to fight back the tears as I sat there in his dimly lit office, watching his lips move but no longer hearing the words.
As far as I was concerned, I had failed. I was a failure. I couldn’t hold down a job that, at the time, was paying me a pittance — little more than US$22 000.
After the dust had settled, I wondered what I would do next.
I had really enjoyed studying English and writing in high school and remembered my English teacher urging me to study journalism. While working at D&B, I had completed a certificate in writing from the Australian College of Journalism, so this was one path I pondered.
I also strongly considered becoming a high-school teacher myself. I could surely teach English, I thought, and I’d enjoy 10 weeks of leave each year.
Until then I had looked to carve out a career in the corporate world. It was probably largely social expectations and notions of status that pushed me towards a life in a suit, but whatever the backstory, it seemed like a copout to now turn my back on that and become a teacher. As is often the case in life (and product development!), not jumping to conclusions and giving yourself time for the cobwebs to clear will often pave the way to our best decisions.
I scored a part-time gig at a call centre to keep me going while I figured out exactly what it was I was going to do with my life. As it happened, the call centre was located in the middle of Melbourne’s legal and financial precinct. I’ll never forget how one day on my way to work, still down over my recent firing, I first started noticing what could have only been lawyers and management consultants making their way to their respective offices, dressed to the nines, carrying briefcases and what looked to my untrained eye like ‘important’ paperwork. Something about this spoke to my ego. If they can do it, I remember thinking, so can I.
Shortly thereafter, I enrolled into a master of accounting course - a course I would complete remotely in 12 short months while working 25 hours a week at the call centre. Opting to study accounting, which has little to do with how I spend my time today, was in retrospect one of the best decisions of my life. And while I had no luck scoring a graduate gig with a big four accounting firm straight out of the blocks, it opened the door to a grad role with the Victorian Auditor- General’s Office, which, would open the door to eventual gigs with Ernst & Young, KPMG and Australia’s largest investment bank, Macquarie Bank.
After almost a decade in that corporate world, I found myself comfortably miserable, and pursued entrepreneurship back in 2012. I haven’t looked back.
Nowadays, I head up Collective Campus, a seven-figure innovation consultancy, and Lemonade Stand — a children’s entrepreneurship platform, I write for Harvard Business Review, I’m a published Wiley author and I host the Future Squared podcast.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing — far from it.
Collective Campus had its darkest moment when we had just $1 000 in our bank account and a $12 500 rental payment due the next day. Obviously, we survived to tell the tale, and I now speak fondly of that time with my co-founder as it served to make us stronger and more appreciative of what we have today.
In life, it is always darkest before the dawn, and it is those dark moments — when we’re staring into the abyss and facing an imminent firing or bankruptcy — that we either capitulate, or find our character, set off on a crash course with adversity, reflection, and growth, and ultimately come out of it far better versions of ourselves.
Just because you don’t thrive in one environment it doesn’t mean you won’t thrive in another. The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias referring to our tendency to judge people and ignore their environment when assessing performance, but those situational factors hugely impact performance. If you find yourself in an environment that isn’t conducive to bringing out the best in you, change your environment.
Here are some of the other lessons I learned from this experience in my early twenties:
- You always have options when choosing how to interpret and respond to anything that happens to you.
- Adopt empowered thinking (‘If they can do it, so can I’) rather than thinking of yourself as a victim (‘Why them and not me?’).
- Don’t jump to conclusions when making big decisions.
- Leverage stepping stones.
- Don’t shy away from junior titles if the role moves you closer to your goal (one step back, two steps forward is more than just a catchy saying).
- And, perhaps most profoundly, it’s always darkest before the dawn. It’s usually in the darkest or most challenging moments of our lives that we evolve into a better version of ourselves.
Looking back after all these years, I am immensely grateful that I was fired from my first real job, because it changed my trajectory for the better.
If you’re reading this, you know who you are — thank you for firing me.
This post was an excerpt from my book, Employee to Entrepreneur: How to Earn Your Freedom and Do Work That Matters, out globally through Wiley and available on Amazon, here.