What I Learned From The First Time I Was Fired

I was fired from my first two jobs. Here’s the story of one of them, which first appeared as part of LinkedIn’s My First Job content package.

“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15 years old after all), and slammed the door on my way out.

My final three words, preceding hers, were “you’re a bitch.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.

I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me, and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.

Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.

In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.

Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill, and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in ten minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.

Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1pm, clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.

We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.

I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.

My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.

“You suck at washing potatoes.”

“You’re a bitch.”

“You’re fired!”

My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.

But most importantly this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed. At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people that worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.

  • Matt Candler

    Great post Brad. Been there a couple of times myself. #communityis more than a hashtag for me now, it’s how I manage. https://twitter.com/search?q=%23communityis&src=typd

  • I thought the line ‘People don’t leave companies, they leave managers’ holds very very true..

    • Yup – and the insight from this is that every person that gets hired, especially the managers, has a cumulative impact on the culture of the company. One bad one can ruin a lot.

  • My first time getting fired was from a job cleaning hallways and laundry room in an apartment complex owned by a fellow Indian whose name was mispronounced en masse. In my utter wisdom I told the office manager how to pronounce it correctly which made the owner furious enough to fired me and tell me to get the F out NOW.

    I promptly followed the instruction and was walked out by the office manager who told me to keep the floppy disk I still had in my pocket…. the same disk that contained all rent files and accounting as I’d been helping her rebuild her DOS box with MSDOS 5.0. She quit that evening.

  • Thank for sharing Brad, what a great experience and impressed with how your parents handled the situation.

    My first job out of college in late 80’s did not work out (aka layoff) because I kept building Excel macros to do pump and fluid calculations and the chief engineer did not trust the computer and wanted me to do it with the HP 41C manually. I like engineering design but this was a pulp mill with thousands of pumps…

    Shortly after this I moved into SW for good and have never looked back, and actually am thankful for that experience as it made me realized what I really like.

    • Losing a job – either being fired – or being laid off – can be such a positive experience. It’s incredibly painful in the moment, but there are so many stories of it being transformative.

  • everwhereist

    I can’t imagine you dropping the b-word on anyone, so it’s kinda hilarious to imagine.

    My first boss was OCD. She’d make me reprint files if the paper was imperfect or if she didn’t like how she signed something, etc. I still have notepads that I made from the wasted paper from that job.

    • I stopped shortly after that. Every time it creeps back into my vocabulary, usually when I’m joking with guys and calling them something sophomoric like “my bitch”, the magnificent Amy Batchelor smacks me on the side of the head – hard – and I stop.

      • everwhereist

        I’d expect nothing less from Amy. 🙂

  • Sheila Lamont

    When I read the comment from your boss that sent you over the edge (“You suck at washing potatoes”), all I could think of was that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt – “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” Looks like your former boss failed on both counts!

    • Great quote. Yeah – she was a great example of a truly awful leader.

  • Important for kids to work in their teens, no matter what they do. Learn a lot of lessons.

  • I was fired too after 3 days on my first job in Montreal, serving food at a small downtown dinner. I didn’t know what Rigatoni was when a customer wanted it. But I remember that first pay check was a cool $81 at slightly more than minimum wage, and I loved it.

  • touchyourdream

    Hi Brad!
    Thanks for sharing your valuable experience. As the obstacles we face during our lifetime provide us with the corresponding opportunities like gifts given by God, I think you got one of them at the age of 15.

  • josh

    Sounds like she did you a favor. she probably had the same problem as you (hating her job, a boss who gave her no motivation), except she felt worse about it cause she was older and probably had to support herself. I got fired at 16 because my manager (who was 28) convinced me not to leave working there for somewhere else by telling me he could get me a promotion…. however for months he missed his own deadlines to deliver on his promise, up until the point when i started to wonder whether he could deliver. this is when he decided to fire me instead. I started my own business and made the same money working half as much. A couple years later he ran into me when i was working somewhere else and apologized.