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Last week I ended the episode with me FINALLY landing what was my dream job at that time: a buying position within the company I was working for. My first day on the job was preparing for a business trip to our industry’s annual conference taking place the following week. My new assistant got me up to speed, and out the door I went. The new team I was working with was enjoyable. My assistant was very knowledgeable and really delightful to work with. The other junior buyer in our department was amazing. I’d known him for a number of years and he was a rock star. In fact, he was the guy that got the buying position I mentioned last week. He was a couple of years younger than me, but had a reputation throughout the company for being smart, analytical, humble, and a hard worker. The senior buyer was…different. I was used to working for bosses that took the work seriously, aimed to perform at the highest level, but still had a way of being very personable. This new boss did not have any of that last attribute. He was aloof and quiet. There were days where the only thing he’d say to me was hello and goodbye.

Our secretary was the total opposite. She had a huge personality and was the reigning office prank war champion. I had a reputation for being a prankster too, and she let me know the first day that she’d been preparing for me. I must admit, I never stood a chance. Her best prank involved a motion sensitive farting frog. You heard that right. She hid a frog in the fake plant between my office and my assistant’s office. When I would go see my assistant, it would trigger the frog. As I left her office, the frog would fart. I was convinced my assistant had eaten some bad food. Not wanting to embarrass her, I said nothing. Likewise, when my assistant would come see me, the frog would fart on her way out. She was convinced I’d eaten something bad and didn’t want to embarrass me. This went ALL DAY LONG! Finally, late in the day, Theresa, our secretary couldn’t hold in her laughter any more. Once she confessed and showed us the frog, we all had a good laugh, and I don’t think I ever lived that one down.

A few months later, my assistant went on maternity leave. Although she initially intended on coming back, once the baby arrived she just couldn’t leave him. While she was away, I struggled trying to do the job of two people, and made some pretty big mistakes. Some of those mistakes were due to me being new, and others were made because I was responsible for more items than any other buyer in the company. But really, all of them were due to my lack of organization. In early December I realized that I’d failed to place an order so that our stores would have a supply of books for the advent season. By the time I realized my mistake, Advent was half over. There was no time to order them and get them shipped to our stores before the season was over.

I knew it was a huge mistake. I asked the other junior buyer what to do. There was nothing I could do. By that time the stores were already ordering a few books directly from our largest distributor, and fulfilling orders on-demand. After tracing my steps to see what had happened, I realized that I’d done everything to order the books, except the easiest part. I’d never handed it off to our secretary so she could key the order into the ordering system. That was a big blow for sure. But I was learning and getting better. I had also been working on hiring a new assistant, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

January soon rolled around and it was time for my annual evaluation. I felt nervous about it for sure. I wasn’t sure if my boss knew about the advent book mess up. As I said, he never really spoke, so as far as I knew, he didn’t even know about it. Besides, he’d given me 5 or 6 goals at my last evaluation the year before, and I’d achieved them all but one…and that one was almost achieved. So I was fairly certain the review would go well.

Well, the evaluation didn’t go well. He did know about the advent screw up. A week later he let me know that I had been replaced. I wasn’t being fired from the company, but I would no longer be a buyer. Eighteen months after landing my dream job, I was fired from it.

Remember that big 35,000 square foot store I’d helped open a few years back? The CEO of the company let me know I would be heading back there. But the deal was, I wasn’t going to be the general manager or the manager in training. No, I’d already been trained as a manager. So they gave me a new title: Manager in Waiting.

Waiting? Who wants a job title with the word waiting in it? Not only that, but the employees at this store knew me. They knew what I’d achieved. They liked me better than their current store manager and several of them thought I’d been placed there to take over the store. But that’s not why I was there and the more I got questions about it, the more awkward it became. So I went to my boss, the district manager. He was the same guy who’d originally encouraged me to join the MIT program, and he’d been my boss when I was a store manager in Wichita Falls.

We had a very candid conversation and he asked me if I wanted to be a store manager. I was honest and told him no. I still didn’t see myself as a 60 year old man running a store. Furthermore, there was no way to predict which store or which location would eventually open up. I had to be willing to relocate to any location. My wife and I were expecting our second child and moving away from family was not something I was interested in doing. He was really cool about the whole situation. He encouraged me to go do some soul searching and figure out what career path I wanted. He told me to think about what job I’d want within the company and go for it. He said that if that meant going back to school, then go do it…on my own dime and my own time, of course.

This was an amazing moment of clarity for me. It taught me the importance of being honest and seeking wise counsel. Yes, he was my boss, but he had a tremendous amount of experience and was probably the wisest person I knew. Probably most importantly, he believed in me. He believed that whatever I set my heart to do, I could do it. He believed that the only person that could hold me back, was myself.

What an amazing boss! He saw more in me and believed more in me that I did at that point. So I took his advice, thought about what I’d like to do within the company, and I thought about what I really enjoy doing. So after some thought, I decided I wanted to pursue a job in our IT department. I loved working with computers, I was good with technology, and I’d always been interested in computer programming, even back in high school.

I called up our Director of Technology and spoke with him about my thoughts. I told him my plan of going back to school to get my bachelors degree. Of course, he couldn’t promise me a job, but he did say that his department was growing, and he would indeed need a new programmer in the next year or so. He encouraged me to go get the degree and keep in touch with him. So, at 27 years of age, I went back to college.

Because I was still working full-time and I needed to take a full-load of classes, I decided that an online-based university would be my best option. I took several CLEP tests, got a few credits for my work experience, and started learning how to talk to computers. Eighteen months later I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in computer programming. And I was immediately hired by the IT department, right? Nope. The IT director didn’t seem that interested in me anymore, and he hadn’t really seemed interested for a few months. A few years later I learned that he had spoken with my old boss from when I was a buyer, and based on his comments about me, the IT director had decided to not even give me a chance.

So there I was adrift. Unknowingly blacklisted by the IT department, a pariah to anyone who spoke with my old boss, an uncomfortable amount of student debt, and technically still carrying around the title of manager in waiting. And that’s just what I did.

During this season, our company was rapidly growing. We were putting new stores in Texas, Arkansas, and Colorado. As manager in waiting, part of my responsibility was to travel to the new store locations to help set up the merchandise and train new employees. During one of these trips, the company president set up a meeting with me to discuss a potential new position. Once we got home, we had lunch and talked about it. As it turned out, the company was looking to finally dive into the ecommerce world. They were looking for someone with a particular set of skills. They needed someone who understood the store side of operations: check. They also needed someone who understood how the buying systems and relationships with vendors worked: check. And they needed someone who understood technology: check! In fact, I’d built an ecommerce store as one of my school projects.

After what seemed like an eternity wandering in the desert “waiting,” I was being given another shot. And this shot was even better than the one I’d been hoping for!

Lesson:
Not only was I being given a shot to prove myself at the corporate office again, I was being given the opportunity to create and lead an entirely new division within our company. I put together a proposal of what I thought the ecommerce platform should look like and all the features it should have. It turned out to be a very close match with the vision the president had.

If the IT director had offered me the job I thought I wanted, I wouldn’t have been available for this better opportunity. But the true lesson here is EVERYTHING that happens contains within it the potential for our growth. Was I a good buyer? No. My boss had made the right decision when he fired me. He went about it in the totally wrong way, but his assessment of my performance was accurate. But being a bad buyer didn’t mean that I didn’t understand the systems, and that experience made me uniquely qualified for this new job that was before me. Simply put, without that failure, I would not have been equipped for the future.

This is one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned. Now, NO MATTER what comes my way, I look it square in the eyes and insist on learning from it. Good, bad, or otherwise, every single thing has within it the capacity to teach us. When obstacles enter our path and force us to take an unexpected or undesired path, keep your head up, your mind open, and learn. Each step we take in this life offers us experience and those experiences might just be what is needed to uniquely qualify us for the future.

As a sophomore in high school, Mr. Harrison read us a poem that has never left my heart. It’s by Robert Frost and it’s called, “The Road Not Taken.” Here’s Mr. Harrison:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This wonderful poem has served to inspire countless readers for over a hundred years now. Many, myself included, have misinterpreted it. Honestly, I could spend an entire episode on this poem. Many people focus on the final three lines and interpret the poem accordingly.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But if you look at the poem as a whole, the meaning is less clear. The poem was written by Frost to his friend Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost would often take walks in the countryside, and Thomas had a habit of feeling a sense of regret when they’d choose one path over another. That is, once they’d gotten down the path a ways, he’d wonder if they’d been better off taking the other path instead. As you read over the poem, it’s clear that really both paths were the same.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

So did he then ACTUALLY take the road less traveled? Who’s to say? After all, at the ending of the poem, the author looking forward in time and supposing what he might say when he tells this story later in life.

The point is this: regardless of which road we take, it will lead us to opportunity and it will give us experience. One day we will look back on our lives and the various decisions that led us down the paths that have taken us to our present location. And if we’ve kept the right perspective along that journey, if we’ve allowed ourselves to be teachable, if we’ve kept our eyes open to the lessons each curve in the road has to teach us, we’ll realize THAT has indeed made all the difference.

I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday episode 567, “Forged by Failure.” Next week I share details of the most difficult time in my life, in a way I’ve never shared before. It was very challenging for me to relive it as I wrote it out, but I believe it’s story I need to share. Stuff I Learned Yesterday is part of the Golden Spiral Media podcast network. Join me on Twitter at GSMPodcasts, or Facebook.

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