Why 3 Career Failures Were Good for Me
Lessons learned, plus rules for making a career pivot
(This article is an excerpt from Repurpose Your Career: A Practical Guide for the 2nd Half of Life by Marc Miller with Susan Lahey, which is due to be published in early 2017.)
There’s a gripping moment in Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz is telling his Houston team that they have to figure out a way to bring the crew back, and he barks “Failure is not an option!”
But for most people, failure is sometimes not only an option, it’s inevitable. I happen to think it’s actually essential. You don’t learn unless you fail. And unless you’re willing to fail, you are unlikely to venture anything very impressive.
I can pinpoint the moments of my biggest career failures; each was a career pivot. But each one propelled me forward.
Here’s why my three failures were good for me:
Career Failure No. 1: Being Seduced by a Former Manager
In the late 1990s, when I was working for IBM, my job was to give the inside scoop on various products to IBM’s leading customers. The presentations were deeply technical, but I crafted the information into six or seven that I could have given in my sleep. After seven years of doing this job, however, I was ready for a new challenge.
My manager (who was great) had left the previous year to work for IBM Global Services, the IBM consulting arm. She knew I was bored and worked on me to join her group. After about six months, I made the leap.
The reason this was a mistake: I had allowed myself to be seduced. I should have done my homework rather than just accepting her description of the job.
The actual job required me to sit for long hours developing technical proposals, a task for which I did not have the attention span. I also really suck at writing technical proposals.
I also couldn’t pick my projects. I was put on a team developing a point-of-sale solution for a national short-term loan company (pawn shop). The more I learned about the business, the more I wanted out. Loaning money to the poor at 20 percent a month (!) made me ill.
Finally, my new team was comprised mostly of unhappy people. I missed my old team.
One day, about six months in, my young project manager attempted to publicly humiliate me in front of the team for my poor writing skills. So I quit.
It took me two months to find another position within the marketing division of IBM, but I did. Even as I took the job, however, I knew this was a holding place. Less than a year later, I left IBM to work for a successful semi-conductor startup.
Career Failure No. 2: Taking My Dream Job
You know dream jobs: working in the embassy in Paris, owning a B&B, being a recruiter for the NFL.... They look perfect, like career Valhalla! Except most of us choose a dream job without investigating what it actually entails.
My dream job was of the To Sir, With Love variety. I went to teach math in an inner-city high school. I had been developing curriculum and teaching engineers on-and-off for 20+ years in about 35 countries. Heck, I figured, if I could train engineers in the People’s Republic of China, I could teach Algebra to teenagers.
But you need to know more about a job before taking it.
No one told me that the average math teacher in Texas leaves the profession in fewer than five years. Or that school administrators there prefer to deal with compliant, new grads, not 40somethings. When I went through the certification process, my gut was telling me that I was not going to be prepared. I should have gone with my gut.
Most of all, I was not prepared for the trauma of working with a bunch of kids whose problems in life went far beyond what I could get my head around or do anything about.
I was actually good at teaching and touched many lives. If that had been enough, I’d still be there. But the whole experience tore me up emotionally and physically. What made it worse was that the team of mentors who got me through the first year were gone the next fall. I should have quit at the end of my first year, too.
Career Failure No. 3: Thinking That I Can Make This Work
The last of these failures was taking a job that wasn’t optimal. I had gone into teaching to do something meaningful, and when I left I still wanted to do something meaningful. So I looked for a job working for a nonprofit.
I pursued jobs at organizations whose missions aligned with my values. But I got nowhere. So I broadened my search to include nonprofits that were “close enough.”
Soon, I was hired by the local Jewish community center to build a corporate giving program. It is a worthy organization, but I’d chosen it because it was a nonprofit with a job, not because it was doing something I was excited about.
I lasted a year, but made the decision pretty early on that this was not for me. Despite what I told myself, I could not make it work.
Actually, I am happy I took all three jobs. I learned a tremendous amount about consulting, public education and nonprofits. More importantly, I learned three things about myself:
1) My team is really important
2) I do not have unlimited energy to muscle through difficult situations
3) The mission is really important to me
I also figured out three rules, based on my failures, which can help anyone getting ready to make a career pivot.
3 Rules of Reinvention
1. Have a Plan B. Be prepared to pull the plug on your reinvention project if necessary. Have a clear timeline and metrics to determine whether you will be successful. Give yourself short windows to achieve your goals. If you’re not hitting them, it’s time to rethink your plan. And have your Plan B in place from Day One.
With the bad consulting job, I knew I could find a position in the division I left within IBM if need be. That was a solid Plan B.
2. Learn from your mistakes. The way you turn a career failure into something good is by taking something valuable from the experience.
From my first failure, I learned how important a team was to me, what kinds of work I don’t like and that you have to do your homework before you take a job. I actually relearned all those lessons in teaching.
From the teaching-job failure, I learned that I would eventually want to work for myself to fix real-world problems. And I learned that I didn’t have the emotional stamina to work with teenagers.
At the nonprofit, I learned that I really need to understand how organizational rules apply to my job before I take it.
3. Understand that failure is an option. In the tech world, there’s a rallying cry of “fail fast, fail often.” This mentality is very hard for someone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and was taught to be risk averse.
But the world has changed. If you were unemployed in the 1960s and did not find a job quickly, there was something wrong with you. Today, a massive percentage of the population has been touched by unemployment. Being unemployed is no longer a red flag on your record.
And before the early 2000s, the upfront investment to start a business was huge; most people would need to get a significant loan. If you were to fail, the financial and personal consequences would be very big. That is why most of us became employees. Today, if you have a laptop and an Internet connection and some hustle, you can start a business with no money down.
I’m living proof.
In the last five years, with a very small financial investment and a lot of sweat equity, I have published two books without a publisher and successfully sold a couple of thousand copies; created a website and blog which garners over 10,000 visitors a month and created a highly recognizable brand: Career Pivot.
And these days, if you fail, it’s not a catastrophe. But you should fail fast. In two of my three career failures, I flopped within six months. This greatly eased my recovery. When I forced myself to stick it out longer, the recovery was much more painful. A slow failure also means you get farther away from your skills and network.
As the adage goes: “Don’t cling to a mistake just because it took you so long to make it.”