Friday, March 11, 2011

Lessons I Should Have Learned from My Jobs But Haven't

As I look back on my jobs, there have been lessons I should have learned but haven't.

My first job, at age 12, was as a billing clerk. I was so eager to impress the boss with my speed that I made mistakes. Now, at age 60, I still rush, whether to impress or for the fun of it--to my detriment. Yet despite constantly reminding myself to slow down, I can't seem to.

I was a researcher, working for a world-class scientist, Neal Miller, on the seminal research on biofeedback at the most respected research center you've never heard of, the Rockefeller University. One time, I was asked to build a computer to do a particular task using just wire, semiconductors, and a circuit board. (This was 1970.) I just couldn't figure out how to do it, felt embarrassed, quit, and escaped to an intellectually less demanding job--running rap groups with inner-city kids. I still only do what comes easily to me. Maybe that's good, I dunno.

When I was a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, I was chatting with the department chair and, without thinking, said, "I really like New Yorkers because they're so direct." I later heard that he, a California native, was offended. I don't know if that contributed, but despite outstanding teaching evaluations and student protests, I was not rehired. Today, while I try harder to be tactful, I still end up too-often offending people. I can't seem to remain vigilant enough.

I was a columnist at Kiplinger. As long as I just submitted my how-to column without comment, all was fine. When I started suggesting that I write on broader topics and how might be improved, they let me go, saying they didn't have time to deal with my suggestions. U.S. News hasn't officially let me go; they just aren't calling me for projects like they used to. My boss said I am perceived as high-maintenance: too many suggestions, too much pushback on their edits of my work. You'd have thought that, by now, I'd have learned to keep my mouth shut. I just can't. No matter who I'm talking with, I cannot resist offering ideas for improvement.

And now there's KGO. Management has never given me any criticism and indeed, when the boss called to say he'll be replacing me after my March 20 show, he insisted there was nothing wrong with my show, that I was a good performer. He simply wanted to replace me with someone else. So here, there's no lesson that I'd fail to learn.

I wonder whether the lesson in all of this is to accept one's basic nature and, per Hamlet,"There's more in this heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy."


Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Reading your Kiplinger paragraph, I was reminded of an old quote from Tom Peters: "...if you're not pushing hard enough to get sacked, you're not pushing hard enough."

Grace said...

We often give eager and well-meaning suggestions, thinking that our employers want what they say they want. But often (always?) there is a hidden agenda, a meta-mandate that the average worker never is privy to.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your candor. I have the exact same tendency to rush through projects and find it hard to slow down, for the same kind of reasons of wanting to please or impress people and liking challenges. (Wanting to work at a faster pace is also most likely due to the 'J' part of the ENTJ personality type, at least for me.)

As for embarrassment regarding past failures, I can definitely relate to that, too. I have about five years of experience as a Web Developer, but for the last of 4 Web Developer jobs I just couldn't keep up with all the changes in the programming requirements (new programming languages to learn, etc.), partly because I just didn't want to any more. As a result, I was fired. I felt humiliated and ran away into training in the less technically demanding field of accounting. That took about four years of my life (year-round evening and weekend courses) and $20,000. It was a second undergrad degree, so no financial aid was available for that.

However (after sendouts of at least 400 resumes both here and overseas, though not always for accounting work), I can't get a job in the field due to a lack of experience. I do get fairly consistent responses for jobs with vaguer-sounding titles like Budget Analyst or Financial Specialist (rather than Staff Accountant, for example), though always with small companies - so I tend not to take those job possibilities seriously enough, compared to employment with a large, stable organization where, unfortunately, people can feel pigeonholed and/or bored.

As for the points regarding pushback and not wanting to offend people: I have a recently earned 3.95 in accounting and a 4.0 in my MBA program - so I think or hope I am reasonably intelligent! - and find it hard to tolerate the generally slow pace of the large organization where I work. I don't want to come across as being too demanding or thinking I'm so "special" but certainly do not feel challenged enough, despite a recent promotion that was due mostly to the completion of my MBA. I was warned by a manager not to mention or make too much of my MBA because my coworkers could get jealous and I needed to be careful about that.

Just saying I appreciate others such as yourself - who's educated, successful, and highly intelligent - acknowledging their errors, too. Some of my past work experience has been so messy (though admittedly in the somewhat volatile IT field), and I felt terrible as a result of that. I have felt much more confidence in myself after doing well in all the recent coursework, at least.

Anonymous said...


I wouldn't agonize over these situations. I think it just means that you are meant to be self-employed. And you are! Lucky you! Not all strong-minded individuals are capable of being self-employed.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marty,

I listen to your show on NPR and KGO when time permits and feel that being on a talk show or career adviser is not an easy job especially when saying things that people like to hear versus reality. I always remember what Gene Burns another KGO talk show host said: "You find comfort with people who agree with you, but you find learning from people who do not agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for honest experience, Marty. I also appreciated reading the comments from others.

I too, identify with several of the behaviors. It seems to be popular to act as if you are perfect and honesty is not rewarded on the job. However, I don't think it's right morally (though I have difficulty expressing why) to play these games. It doesn't advance the world when we just nod along like a bobbing head doll.

Too late (mostly) for me I believe that I would have been better suited for self employment. Or some small companies that allow for or have bright leadership enough to use the real abilities of employees.

In a weird way it's a good thing, yes? If you have a child and the child says...I'm happy to sit on an assembly line! No challenging anything, I love my boss and everything he/she does! Really seems like the attitude of someone not very bright...

Anonymous said...

eh crud, KGO will probably replace you with yet another hysterical left-wing loon. good luck Marty.

Dan said...

Marty, Don't you see the irony in this post? A man whose job it is to inspire others to change the way they think about how to find a job cannot himself change the way he interacts with people.

Of course you can change if you want to. How else do we evolve as people if we don't have the ability to change?

Jeffrie said...

-I was laid off from my first big job because the business closed, which made me very sad. I had gotten attached to both the job & the people, and I was sad to see the experience end. Lesson I should learn: don't get too attached to your current situation. Things can change anytime.

-In my current job, I have been sucked into a dead-end job in a bad economy, where many unemployed people would be grateful to have my dead-end job, and I can't seem to hired for a better job. Lesson I should learn: be grateful for what I have & try to make the best of it while I'm there. There are millions who don't have it as good.

Marty Nemko said...


The longer I've been a career coach, the more I believe I'm usually most helpful when I help people rearrange their lives so they can succeed without making major changes in themselves. Also getting them to gain a measure of self-acceptance is often helpful. Perhaps it's my inadequacy as a career counselor, but I've found it very difficult to get people to make fundamental changes in themselves.

Anonymous said...

Marty, I'm really sorry that your KGO show is coming to an end. It seems like my favorite KGO hosts always get the axe (e.g. Karel).

I love people who say what they think, which is why I've always enjoyed hanging around with New Yorkers and Israelis. I always prefer honesty and an uncomfortable discussion versus brushing things under the rug.

I too have trouble fitting into conservative workplaces. I'm excellent at my work, and extremely conscientious about customer service, but it's the internal company politics that I don't get. The times that I've been successful in a company have been when my bosses really liked me as a person. That's pretty much what corporate success often boils down to.

That's why I, like you, am ideally suited for running my own business! So keep your spirits up, and I'll tell KGO what I think about their latest stupid decision. (While I'm at it, I'll ask them again why they have so few female talk-show hosts:-)