There I was, sitting in my cubicle, photoshopping reflections off of a cellophane package. A meaningful task, worthy of the graphic design degree I was seeking at the time. I got asked to go into my boss's boss's office and was promptly fired due to company restructuring.
This was the first moment it occurred to me that working for someone else might not be for me.
Let's rewind the tape a bit. It was 2002. I had just turned 20 years old. I was going to college to get a degree in graphic design.
The job was a part-time design internship at an Internet coffee company. You did read that correctly, somehow I'd found a part-time internship AND probably one of the very first Internet coffee companies. I was, at least, paid for the hours I spent airbrushing gray smudges off of clear plastic photos of coffee gift bags. Oh, and I also worked some real design magic when I whipped up the weekly email newsletter with the "Coffee of the week!" I can still remember the halloween edition and how proud I was of the clip art bats I carefully placed around the Pumpkin Spiced Dark Roast.
After six-ish months of photoshopping coffee beans, mugs, clear plastic bags, and clip art bats, my fruitful design career was coming to an end. I sat in a chair and listened to a man twice my age tell me, "it's not you or your skill set, it's that we're going through growing pains" and "don't worry, you'll land on your feet" and "thanks for your time, grab a coffee bag of your choice on the way out."
I was only 20 years old, I was barely making $200 per week, and this was the first and last time I ever got fired from a job.
I remember driving home that day thinking one distinct thought: I don't ever want to feel this way again.
But alas, I was just a kid. I was still in college. I didn't have big hopes and dreams at the time. I didn't have a ton of ideas. I didn't have any entrepreneurial friends. All I had was the path that sat in front of me, a path that felt like it was the only thing available.
We've all felt this way. Like there's only one path. Like there's only one "right" way to do something. But what I've learned over the years is that there are more paths than we think and it's up to us to invent our own path when the one laid out in front of us doesn't feel right.
I couldn't have imagined the life I have today back when I was 20 years old and getting fired from my part-time design internship photoshopping clip art bats. But I'm certain I wouldn't have the life I have today without the experience of being fired from that less-than-amazing job.
It's not always about knowing how you want to feel; sometimes it's about knowing how you DON'T want to feel.
A few years after that experience, I found myself sitting in another cubicle, yet again faced with the path that sat in front of me. I was at another design job, working for another company, running the very same rat race. I remember feeling completely unfulfilled, like I was simply in the wrong place. There were so many moments sitting in my second cubicle design job when I was reminded of that first coffee gig. I was constantly confronted with the same environment I had sworn to avoid at all cost. I remember thinking to myself: "There has to be more than this."
But I didn't get fired from my second design job. Instead, I created a plan to fire myself from that job. I created a 6-month plan after multiple meetings with a friend who was also fed up with the 9-5 world. We continued to commute and work for the companies that paid us a consistent salary, but we spent hours every evening building our first company. A company where people wouldn't be able to tell us what to do. A company where we called all the shots. And a company where we could actually reap the rewards of hard work and effort.
After 6-months of double duty, I was able to leave the 9-5 world forever. I had no clue what my life would look like from that point forward, but at least I had learned that the 9-5 world was not the life for me.
Redefining my values
Looking back now, it's clear to me that in 2002, I had no well-definied values. How could I? I was 20 years old and just doing everything I thought I was supposed to be doing in life. In 2007 when I left my second (and final) cubicle job, I still didn't have a clear set of values, but it was at that time that I started to really take a look at what I wanted out of life. That was the point I realized that just because other people did things a certain way (or had certain values), that didn't mean I had to do them the same way.
That new path I started to create for myself in 2007 has taken many different diversions over the years. Just when you think you're on one path, yet another one another appears. Then when you start going down that path, oops, here pops up another one. But, throughout those twists and turns, I've discovered what my values are, which continues to help guide me down the paths that appear before me.
As it relates to my life and business, control is my highest value. It would be easy to say I'm a control freak and leave it at that. But it's much deeper than that. Control means that I am solely responsible for my daily decisions. No one can dictate the time I spend working, not working, traveling, watching hours of Netflix on end (Daredevil was soooo good), or anything else in my life.
But it hasn't always been easy to take control of my life and my business. Just a few years ago I ran a business (IWearYourShirt) that I thought gave me full control, but really took almost all my control away. I certainly didn't have a "boss" who could fire me at any moment, but without realizing it, I had built an unhealthy business that I couldn't find my way out of.
We understand what it means to live healthy lives, but we don't have systems and processes to understand if we're running healthy businesses.
The second value that's important to me is flexibility. At a moment's notice, I love being able to change my plans. If I start working on a new business idea and I don't like it, I can stop. If an opportunity lands in my inbox that I never saw coming, I want the ability to be able to drop everything I'm doing and chase down that opportunity.
My schedule at my previous cubicle jobs was incredibly inflexible. I never realized how much of an impact that had on me until I created a lifestyle that allowed me to do whatever I wanted with my schedule. If I want to book a flight to Iceland tomorrow and spend the next week there, I have the flexibility to do that. I don't have to ask anyone permission. I don't have to use vacation time. I can make arrangements for someone to watch my dog Plaxico and I'd be on my way.
Knowing what it feels like to have true flexibility is not something I've been given, it's something I've earned through hard work, determination, and understanding how important it is to me.
Everything I do now goes through my value filters of control and flexibility.
When a new business idea pops in my head, I make sure that it gives me full control at nearly every angle and continues to provide me the level of flexibility I've come to enjoy.
When a life decision appears in front of me, I ask myself: "Does this give someone else control over my life? Does this hinder my ability to life a completely flexible life?" If the answer is even a smidgen "no" to those questions, I don't do it. Because, no matter how great the opportunity may look, if it doesn't align with my values, it won't be good for me in the long run.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking back to that moment in 2002 when I got fired from airbrushing clip art bats. I wonder how I ever allowed myself to be stuck on that path. How I ever lived or moved forward without having core values to filter my life and business decisions through. But I understand now that it's necessary to go down the wrong paths.
You can't recognize the right paths in life if you don't know what the wrong paths look like.
I would encourage you to take a look at the path sitting in front of you. Is it the direction you want to be going? Do you have values that you can check your path against? You might not find the right path for years (it took me 13 years), but that's okay. If you can take one step in the right direction today, the path you may not have ever seen coming will appear before you know it. But you have to be willing to take the step. You have to be willing to take a chance. Your path and your values won't just land in your lap. You have to go out and find them.