Most of us can recall our first big blunder at work, but mine was a doozie. It happened while I was working for a construction company in Idaho. I'd only been on the job a few weeks, and my basic responsibilities involved tearing out old concrete and shoveling new concrete in its place.
My boss owned a huge, 10-speed dump truck used to haul away rubble from various sites. One day, the driver didn't show up. Sensing an opportunity, I volunteered to take his place.
I knew how to drive a 10-speed. Granted, all my experience had been with hay trucks, but a truck is a truck, right? Wrong. The first thing I did after hauling a load of concrete to a private dump in the middle of nowhere was sink into a pile of rotten potatoes and tip the damn thing over on its side.
It took at least a day for me to track down my boss and for us to get the truck upright again. I then drove us back into town. On the way, we stopped for gas, where I promptly sideswiped a car with an ear-shattering screech.
I got fired on the spot. My boss refused to even give me a ride home. Here are five takeaways--for both bosses and employees--from that wonderful experience:
1. Keep your temper.
My boss may have fired me and left me stranded at a gas station, but he wasn't verbally abusive about it. He didn't scream at me or insult me. I could see by his expression that he never wanted to lay eyes on me again, but he didn't add insult to injury.
Throughout your career, you'll find yourself in plenty of situations where losing your temper is understandable--even appropriate. But losing your temper doesn't have to mean losing your dignity or robbing someone else of theirs. Stay in control. Follow the Golden Rule, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2. Don't get in over your head.
Driving a truck all day sounded a lot more fun than shoveling wet concrete. This tempted me to volunteer for a position that I manifestly was not qualified to fill. I followed that temptation, much to my shame and sorrow.
Be ambitious, but don't be cocky. Know your limitations. This isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of intelligence, and one of the greatest weapons in your intellectual arsenal when it comes to real advancement. Knowing your limitations means knowing what to focus on to improve.
3. Avoid putting blind trust in people at all costs.
On the opposite side of the coin, the same thing goes for employers. Know the limitations of your employees. When I told my boss I could drive a 10-speed truck, he should have asked one or two follow-up questions.
Not wanting to lose a full day of work, he handed me the keys instead. The irony of that rash move is obvious--he lost a full day of work and had his truck damaged as a result. Encourage your employees to grow their skill sets, but be intimately acquainted with exactly what those skill sets consist of.
4. When the stakes are high, be highly cautious.
I tipped the truck over because of a stupid miscalculation that I'm sure I could have avoided had I just taken some extra time to think. I knew how gravity operated, that the truck was canted at an angle not ideal for raising the bed, but I was nervous and flustered and in a hurry to get the job done.
When in crisis, a minute of cool, centered reflection can save you hours (or days, or weeks) of struggle and pain. The urge to rush through an important but unfamiliar task is based on our natural distaste for discomfort and uncertainty. Take a moment to calm yourself. Think. Breathe.
5. Claim what's yours.
The pay cycle for my construction job was a day's pay for a day's work. I might have tipped my boss's dump truck on its side and scraped the hell out of a car at a gas station, but I'd still tried to do my best. I still needed the money, and the money was legitimately mine.
I remember pulling up to my boss's house to pick up my last paycheck. I saw him stare at me through his living room window and then suddenly disappear. His wife answered my knock and handed me an envelope with a look on her face that said, "Just take this and leave here forever." I did, and I don't regret it.