I got laid off from my first professional job 25 years ago (give or take a few days). It seemed crushing back then, but ultimately it was a needed wake-up and “grow-up” experience.
The recent trend of posting #sevenfirstjobs (or #7firstjobs?) has been a great reminder of the number of grunt and entry-level jobs many of us worked before finding our paths. But it also reminded me of how what seemed like a dream job got away at the time.
In spring 1991, I was hired to be the office manager of the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The fest was not just a business or attraction, but where I grew up — I spent summers there since I was 9 years old because my mother was a craftsperson there. (Maybe one day she’ll let us build a website for her woodworking business, The Wooden Unicorn.) I did a little bit of everything there over my summers, from fetching thrown objects and knocked-down bowling pins at games to running the Ladder of Truth for four years (helped pay for college!).
So when the owners, who I’d known since I was but a wee nipperkin, interviewed me and offered the job, I was ecstatic. I could use my communication skills in a variety of promotional and administrative ways to help a business I grew up loving.
But it’s not always simple when you’re new out of college and at a place that was long your playground. I was immature, I didn’t have the best attitude and my work wasn’t as good as it should have been. My boss, one of the owners, expressed disapproval but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and did not level up accordingly.
One morning toward the end of the season, my boss asked me to sit down for coffee and let me know I would not be renewed for the off-season and next season. At the time, I was rather heartbroken. I worked out the rest of the season and my last day was my birthday. (Happy? Not so much.)
It’s not you, it’s me
At first, I did what many an angry young man would and blamed them for what had to be a mistake. But as weeks of unemployment stretched into months, the truth set in: I should have done a better job. I should have had a better attitude. I should have taken it all more seriously.
Rest assured, that when another special-events job that I really wanted came along — publicity coordinator for Oswego’s Harborfest — I was ready. I went all-out in applying. I didn’t have a news release sample (since my background was more journalism that PR), so I took a risk: Instead of a cover letter, I wrote a news release (“Tim Nekritz applies for Harborfest job”) with the credentials I’d put in a cover letter. I figured it would either get me an interview or tossed aside as too weird.
I got an interview. It went pretty well.
They offered the job to somebody else. She quit after one day.
Then they offered the job to me. I said “yes!” (I had to stop myself from screaming “yes!”)
Work is serious, but fun
I read up on public relations as much as I could and learned a lot about PR on the job, as fortunately the organization had board members and volunteers who were willing mentors because they saw I (now) had a work ethic and a desire to learn. I did not want to let this job slip away, and promised myself I’d be more professional, responsible and responsive to criticism. The learning curve and workload were challenges, but I made it through the first season (as a part-timer) and they offered me a full-time job.
A key lesson is that work is, well, work and requires a serious attitude. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun — it was a very fun job! — but that you have to produce, be part of a team and (if you’re lucky) do what you can to make the people around you better.
I learned and grew as much as I could and seven years later, now with expanded responsibilities as Harborfest’s public relations and marketing director, chose to return to my beloved field of journalism to become arts and entertainment editor of the Palladium-Times. I felt like a different person leaving the job than taking it, having matured and learned and realized every day was an opportunity to grow.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I mustered the maturity to get retained at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the path to where I am today. I certainly wouldn’t have learned many of the things I have. Two roads diverged about 25 years ago, and what seemed awful at the time actually paved the way toward many awesome opportunities.