I paid my way through college working at a wallpaper printing plant. I liked manufacturing and production work, so when I graduated I took an entry-level job at the Harrisonburg division of R.R. Donnelley, a facility that produces about 200 million hardcover and softcover books each year.

I started as a material handler doing entry-level manual labor. I rose through the shop-floor ranks and became an apprentice machine operator, eventually earning my journeyman's card in spite of having no mechanical aptitude. (I'm still really proud of that.) I later held a few different leadership positions.

And then I got fired.

Should I have been? No. But the way I handled the situation in dispute definitely contributed. Looking back, had I responded differently, I probably could have kept my job.

So, ultimately, that one is on me.

I was immediately walked to the door (because that was the policy when we fired an employee, a policy I hated to enforce) and have never been back inside the plant. If you don't work there -- even if you're an ex-employee who left on good terms -- they will not let you in.

Over the years I've wanted to go back, though. I wanted to see some of the people I used to work with, to see what had changed... I spent a lot of years there. That plant is a big chunk of my life.

Hold that thought.

My friend Randy got me a job at another book manufacturing plant. I worked there for three years and then decided, like thousands of entrepreneurs do each year, to take a chance on myself.

In my case, that meant becoming a ghostwriter. And that led to, well, here.

And to this.

My new book, The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win, comes out on January 9th. It's published by Penguin Random House. I knew Penguin still runs books at the Donnelley (now called LSC Communications) plant. I knew the parent company was likely to be their biggest customer. And I knew they occasionally let authors visit the plant to see their books produced.

Yep: I knew if Penguin asked, the plant wouldn't (couldn't) say no -- even if they were inclined to say no, which by this point I doubt was the case.

And so a few weeks ago I found myself back inside.

And it was really fun.

Visitors aren't allowed to roam around unattended. Mike didn't just take me to the line where my book was being bound. I know what that looks like; frankly that was the least interesting event of the day.) He was gracious enough to take me around the entire plant.

Some things had changed. Many had not. 

Best of all, I ran into a number of people who, even though I hadn't seen them for 17 years, I still consider friends. Robbie, Dave, Tim, Lester, Steve, Robyn, Terry, Andy, Jeff O.... 

When I think of working there, I don't think about equipment or processes or equipment. I think about people. When you leave a job, you don't miss the place -- you miss the people.

So when it was time to take a photo, it felt wrong to be in the frame by myself.

And that's why I dragged in Jeff Heatwole. He was the best backer/liner operator in the building, and 30 years ago helped train me to be a relief operator.

For 17 years I worked at that plant. Then, suddenly, I didn't.

That's always felt odd. I wasn't "ready" to leave. I didn't get the chance to look around and store away a few memories.

I didn't get to say good-bye -- not to the place, and definitely not to the people I worked with, many of whom were also friends.

But now I have.

Sometimes it's really cool how life works out.

Published on: Dec 21, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.