Just when you think things at work can’t get any worse, they do. People tell you that you’ll later look back on the situation and laugh, but it’s no laughing matter when you’re caught between a rock and a steam roller. However, when you’re feeling the squeeze, sometimes it does help to know that other business folks have had their share of bad days, too, and they still managed to climb back up the ladder. It’s even inspiring – maybe a guilty pleasure – to hear about lessons learned at the expense of other professionals, because, hey, (other people’s) failure can be motivating, right?
Kevin Hickman, Director of Business Development for J.P. Cullen & Sons, Inc., an industrial contracting firm, shared the worst job experience he had while paying his way through college by working for the university building and grounds crew over the summertime. “I had only been on the job for a few weeks when they sent me out to mow a steep hill with a big John Deere Rider,” he recalled. “The dew was still fresh. It all went well until the wheels started to slip on the wet grass and I found myself and the tractor sliding down the hill. The tractor hit a culver at the base of the hill, flipped over with me on it, and I quickly was under the tractor in a puddle of mud with the blades still spinning.”
He managed to wriggle his way safely out from under the machine, though after that misadventure, “my boss decided a better use of my time for the rest of that week was to grind the yellow lines off the parking lot by hand,” Another lingering bummer memory.
It was signing off on new construction to the tune of $21 million that brought the most work-related angst to Daniel Carey, owner of New Glarus Brewing Company, producers of Spotted Cow, Black Top, and other beers.
“I came from a lower middle class background and we worked our way up and into the brewer,” he said, so when it came to signing on the dotted line, “that was a lot of zeros”. He remembers one day when everyone, including his wife and partner Deb, were exhausted. “We had our team working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and I think many of us were on the verge of stress divorces. Whatever could go wrong went wrong. We had to bring a whole group of computers up – everything in a brewery depends on computers today. It was a terrible experience. “
“I brought my rosary beads to work in my pocket and kept fingering them, saying the rosary to calm myself and keep myself focused. I realized then that we must be on the verge of something great, because when you are perched there, the universe pushes back. We had to keep pushing forward until the universe relented. But that day was the low point. The only reason I could prevail, I thought that day, was because of my stubbornness and anger, which fueled a refusal to give up.”
Brett Lindell is the Wisconsin Market Manager at Savant Capital Management, and understandably, his worst day “was when the market went negative and dropped 777 points in a day in October, 2008. I had to talk people off the high wire; everybody tipped over. I was more than an advisor and financial planner – I became a financial psychologist for the next six months. I remember I left a half hour early that day. I was going to buy flowers for my wife’s birthday and didn’t know if I should be spending the money. That’s how shell shocked I was.”
Kathleen Paris had a similar feeling of shock during her first day. Though now serving as the interim director for a large technical college, she once was the public information officer for an organization that trained EMT’s. That job provided the backdrop for her worst day. “We had just gotten our first Jaws of Life equipment and everyone was excited to learn how to use it,” she remembered. “We also had an older car to practice on – a green Buick. Unfortunately, during the class, with a lot of onlookers standing by, we cut up the wrong green Buick.
“Imagine the surprise, when a student came out of another class to find his car cut in half! Two hours later, I was on the phone with Paul Harvey, from radio fame, trying to convince him that the story was not funny enough to be mentioned on his ‘The rest of the Story’ segment. Luckily, I managed to keep the story out of national media. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t so funny when it happened.”
Speaking of national press attention, Joan Collins has helped put a media spotlight on a lot of interesting people during her more than 40 years as president of Joan Collins Publicity, Inc., but some of her most memorable successes almost didn’t happen because, she admits, of her own skepticism.
Here’s an example that Joan recalls with a chuckle many, many years later: “Back when cross-country skiing was just beginning to catch on in Wisconsin, a client company decided to create a ski race that would bring people from around the world to the Wisconsin Northwoods to compete. When the owner bounced the idea off me, I said it wouldn’t work.
“People were just starting to walk around on skis in their backyard and look at the birds. ‘A race? How far?’
“‘Fifty-five kilometers (34 miles)’, he replied. I repeated, ‘Nope. It won’t work.’ He said it would become one of the largest races in the world over time, and would revitalize the Wisconsin Northwoods in winter – and skiers would sign up a year in advance — especially skiers from Norway and Sweden. ‘It won’t work,” I repeated. He replied, ‘Your job is to promote it.’
“‘I will try,’ I said. We then managed to get 35 skiers to race the 55-kilometer event. It was February 24, 1973. If you haven’t guessed by now the event that I said would never work is the largest North American ski race in the country, in Hayward, Wisconsin – the American Birkebeiner, created and masterminded by the late Tony Wise. Registration cuts off at 9,000 skiers.
“Ever since that experience, my manta, a Chinese proverb, has been, “The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it.”
I can top all of those stories, because I was a former police crisis interventionist who did death notifications for a suburban Milwaukee police department for six years, and I often was part of a first response team in the aftermath of a tragedy. But even I draw some solace and encouragement from other people’s bad day stories, and certainly I empathize with them, too — just as I enjoy also bringing you reports of people’s finest moments and best practices.
Remember, you’ll laugh about your worst workdays someday, too … maybe. And if you’re now at that stage of your career, send your story to me with permission to share it with our audience! We all could use a little reminder now and then that professional setbacks don’t have to be game enders.