How I Failed Gracefully Early In My Career


A post on Medium, along with my recent thinking about the early part of my career got me reflecting on the less than auspicious beginning to my career. From the author of the Medium post:

Here’s something that I think everyone needs to learn and learn young. How to mess something up with grace and maturity and not let it destroy your life and your work. I’m not talking about learning to fail – although that’s useful – I’m talking about learning to accept and respond in a positive way when you make a bad decision. When you make a decision that is really indefensible and possibly even totally stupid.

While in the senior year of college, I managed to get a job with a company within walking distance to where I lived at the time in Santa Cruz. The job was as a sysadmin, which I had been doing while I was in an Engineering lab at Santa Clara University, so I had some experience. The company knew I was still in school when they hired me and accepted that, at least for the few months I had left before I graduated, that I would be part-time.

That job only lasted a grand total of three weeks. Let me tell you, being fired at the age of 21 when you think you’re all that and a bag of chips was a humbling experience. The walk home I took with my exit paperwork and final check, while relatively short, was a walk of shame.

Meanwhile, as I still had a couple months left before I graduated, and I still needed to pay some bills. That meant asking for my job back at the Engineering lab. That was yet another humbling experience: asking for a job back that I had left in a manner consistent with someone who was full of himself and lacked grace. Thankfully, I got it back, but I probably didn’t deserve it.

The lessons I learned from this experience that have served me well:

  • Most mistakes aren’t fatal. In fact, shortly after making whatever mistakes I made with that first job, I felt like it was the best thing that ever happened to me (to that date). I can’t explain why I came to that conclusion at the time, but it ended up being a good thing for me in the end. Accept responsibility for what you did, acknowledge that which you can not control, and move forward.
  • When you quit working someplace for whatever reason, make as graceful an exit as possible (i.e. don’t burn any bridges). You never know if or when you’ll come back. This specific lesson served me well two years later when I made the decision to return to a previous employer after only five months. Ironically, I was discussing a return with said employer the very day I got laid off. Talk about fortuitous timing.

Needless to say, these were valuable lessons to learn when I did.


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