“Today will be your last day.”
These words randomly emerged from the recesses of my memory the other night. I was washing dishes and listening to a TED Talk. I was not feeling particularly nostalgic that evening, or thinking about anyone or anything in particular.
My memory rewound further to that moment of elation when I received your email offering me the internship. It paid $10 an hour and, given my field, I knew that any pay would impress my professors.
I then found myself fast-forwarding to the scene in which I left that Park Avenue building for the last time, crying as I called my mother from the pay phone to tell her I had been let go. These bookend memories brought their friends from the years in between to crash my peaceful, boring-adult party of kitchen upkeep.
“Today will be your last day.”
Every bit of context surrounding those words swarmed together to form that grand finale in which, as a nervous 20-year-old, I sat on one side of the glossy boardroom table, while you and your colleague—I think his name was Martin—sat on the other. I had mostly worked under your auspices, but on occasion Martin and others would assign me menial tasks.
I tearfully gripped my iced tea as the reality set in. I was being fired from my first internship.
And it is with these embarrassing memories that I looked you up recently, out of pure curiosity. I wondered where you were in life. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, after investing such a large portion of your life into corporate America, you not only climbed the ladder; you redesigned the ladder.
It seems you started calling your own shots. And that’s pretty cool. But the truth is, I also Googled your name with something of a humble goal: I want to thank you for firing me for being a horrible employee 14 years ago.
You implicitly taught me a number of life lessons I wasn’t learning in any of my overpriced college courses. The internal conversations I had after being kicked out of my tiny little cubicle that summer included dialogue that should routinely find its way into the college classroom.
It is with the following list that I wish to both apologize for my performance and thank you for firing me. Had you never fired me, I’m not sure that I would have made the changes necessary to perform well at the following summer’s internship in public relations (yes, someone else actually hired me) or, really, any of the professional endeavors which followed. Failing my first internship taught me many things.
Here are just a few:
1. Everyone is your boss. It does not matter who is assigning a task. Everyone is your boss.
2. There is value in creating tasks for myself in the event that I was not given enough to do. This taught me how to take initiative and to investigate the dilemma of not knowing what I do not know.
3. The importance of taking notes and asking questions can’t be overstated.
4. If an overpopulated and slow elevator might make one late to work, arrive a few minutes early. Or, take the stairs.
5. Following the elevator fiasco, you taught me that 9:05 a.m., or worse yet, 9:10 a.m., is indeed considered “late.” Moreover, arriving at 8:55 a.m. is probably closer to being on time than arriving at 9:00 a.m. on the nose. Arriving at 8:40? Even better.
6. I learned that it is not permissible to leave an hour early without asking, even if it is my birthday. (I really have no idea what I was thinking, with this one. There is no excuse for leaving the office early without expressed permission from your employer and no, not even if it’s your birthday, and no, not even if your boyfriend surprises you by showing up at your job. He’ll have to wait that final hour at the very least.)
You didn’t start out intending to teach me these rules of professionalism. I learned only after our meeting in that boardroom that I should have done some things differently. The skills you taught me have been applicable in every job I’ve had since. I now teach my college students what you taught me, and I hope they’re listening.
For firing me and encouraging me to find myself, you became one of my biggest inspirations.
Christina Berchini is a university professor, author and researcher. She created heycollegekid.com, where she gives advice and tough love to college students. Her creative work has been featured on SUCCESS.com and promoted on BlogHer.com. Her interests include an unhealthy obsession with The Huffington Post and TED Talks.