The road to success is paved in failure
For this blog post, I won’t be traveling as far back into my childhood as I normally do. Instead, I’ll take you back to a scene from early adulthood: my first “real” job out of law school. The one where I was finally paying all my own bills and covering half my rent (thanks to a sweet set-up with my sister, who was also the perfect absentee roommate).
At the rip age of twenty-one, I discovered that when responsibility and inexperience collide, mistakes are bound to happen.
Such was the case for me when I began a full-time job in management consulting. It only took one huge misstep for me to understand what distinguishes a so-so employee from someone who puts themselves on a path to success. This marker, as it turns out, is being viewed as someone who can get things done. And when you’re at the bottom of an organizational chart with no real experience, this often means accepting every work assignment. (At least it does in the professional services context.)
But sometimes, you can’t—or maybe don’t want to—do every assignment that comes your way. In these instances, you need to perfect the art of a “faux no.” A “faux no” is done by saying yes to an assignment but accepting the job in in such a way that the supervisor realizes it’s better to give the work to someone else.
Here’s how I came to appreciate the importance of a “faux no.” The hard way, of course.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression
After passing the bar exam, I began working at Arthur Andersen’s Tax and Legal Business Advisory division in September. Leaving aside that Tax Law was my lowest grade in law school, within moments of sitting down at my cubicle, I realized that maybe Arthur Andersen wasn’t the right fit for me.
To say that I was not worldly in the matters of business would be an understatement.
Everyone seemed to have figured which partners and managers to impress. If you impressed the right people, they’d pick you to work on their projects. And with work, comes experience. And with experience comes a solid reputation. As for me, I was friendly to everyone. But I think I tried too hard not to stand out.
Perhaps it was because I was a bit shy or maybe I lacked the law school confidence that my fellow new hires seemed to possess. Either way, my employment got off to a slow start. After a polite suggestion by one of the nicer managers, I spent a several weeks “brushing up” on tax law.
Eventually, I got assigned to a few small projects. I wish I could say I caught on quickly, but I’m pretty sure I was mediocre at best. Tax law, as it turned out, really wasn’t my thing.
rose orchid by any other name…
While I wasn’t great at the substance of my work, I was much better at socializing with my peers. I attended almost every Happy Hour and, thankfully, didn’t go overboard. It’s too bad my Happy Hour attendance didn’t win me any points with those “important” managers or partners. They basically ignored me.
I desperately wanted to people to know that I was worthy of my modest paycheck. The only problem was, I didn’t know how.
One day, while I was hard at work trying to make sense of golden parachutes (they sound so pretty!), one of the managers headed down my row of cubicles.
This manager was attractive, but in a slightly scary, intimidating way. I remember that she wore tall, fashionable boots and always looked polished. She wasn’t sporting a pants suit with lopsided shoulder pads, or wearing sensible, two-inch pumps like me. This woman seemed like she was going places. In my head, I nicknamed her The Orchid for her steely-yet-glamourous demeanor.
Say it ain’t “no”
That day, The Orchid stopped at my desk with a stack of papers (this was before the world became electronic-everything).
“I have an assignment for you,” The Orchid said in her icy, but authoritative tone. I had been so absorbed in my golden parachute research that my head jerked up in surprise. I should’ve been delighted at the opportunity to work with The Orchid. She was close with P, one of the more senior partners. I knew this because P had one of the big offices with windows. P also was the one who paid when our team went out for drinks.
Instead, of saying “of course” to The Orchid, I did the exact opposite.
I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m already working on an assignment for D (another partner). I don’t think I’ll have time to do both.” I smiled at The Orchid to show my sincerity. A darkness swept across The Orchid’s face upon hearing my response.
I had said “no.” If this were a movie, the words “nooooo” would echo, then an eerie song with shrill violins would play.
While I thought I had been polite in my response, I had actually made a horrible mistake. I wish I had realized that the choice of accepting or turning work down was not mine to make.
I had rejected—no, insulted—The Orchid’s authority. An Associate Consultant turning down a Manager? Heck, no!
That is why I wish someone had told me about the “faux no.” It is a skill that should be taught in every college and university. At minimum, detailed instructions should be provided in a handout on your first day of a new job.
Passing the buck
There were so many ways I could’ve given a “faux no.” If I had only had a better business sense.
At the time, I was woefully ignorant about the ins and outs of office politics. I might have said something like “I’m working on [work assignment] for [partner], but let me check with her on the deadline,” or “I’d love to do both, what’s your timing?” or even “Is it OK if I stay up all night to finish my current assignment so that I can work on yours at midnight?”
For her part, The Orchid played things very cool. She simply said, “OK. I’ll find someone else to do it then.” The Orchid gave nothing away in her seemingly breezy tone. I had no idea that I had done anything wrong. But it was already too late. The damage was done.
I later discovered that J, my cubicle mate, was the one who got the assignment. He took the project on, despite already having plenty to do.
After that, J had seemed busier than me. I also didn’t realize that J had started coming in a little earlier and leaving a little bit later either. We were all getting the same salary, I told myself as consolation. Except J wouldn’t be for long.
In the days to come, The Orchid never once asked me to work on any of her projects. Unfortunately for me, The Orchid was one of the few managers in our division who was busy.
Soon enough, The Orchid was promoted. J, my cubicle mate, became her go-to junior staff person.
As for me, I kept working away on the smaller, less important projects. I was often paired with N, a pleasant but incredibly unambitious manager. N was known for having gotten a little too drunk at the holiday party that year.
N was also the first to quit. It’s quite possible that N was fired (or “separated,” as we consultants often say). A few more people in my group started finding new jobs around that time, too. It was then that I realized that I was never going to be a superstar in Tax Law. So, I started looking for another job, too.
Thankfully, C, one of my Happy Hour friends who sat nearby, heard about a job at Deloitte. I’d heard about Deloitte, another accounting firm, when I was in college. With its French-sounding name, it seemed like a fancy place.
I finally took some initiative and landed an interview for the job. When they made me an offer in their Executive Compensation group, I couldn’t say goodbye to Tax Law fast enough. I didn’t care that Executive Compensation also relied heavily on math and spreadsheets. I was certain anything was better than my current job.
Fake it ‘til you make it
A few years into my job at Deloitte, Arthur Andersen went out of business. I’m thankful that my employment record there never survived.
In retrospect, my failures at Arthur Andersen were ultimately what made me a success at Deloitte. I have The Orchid to thank for sharpening my work ethic to a fine point.
For one, I never turned down work again. I very quickly perfected the art of the “faux no.” I worked harder than I’d ever worked before but managed to juggle my growing number of assignments with a tired smile.
I also figured out how to walk the fine line of avoiding being political, and instead being politically astute. I steered clear of office politics by speaking only when I thought my opinion was absolutely warranted. The bulk of the time, I kept my mouth shut and merely observed (this is actually much harder than learning the “faux no,” but perhaps just as valuable a skill).
Eventually, with a few bumps along the way, my professional experience had some semblance of competence. I was promoted several times before I finally decided to “retire” from professional services a few years after giving birth to my sons.
If at first you don’t succeed…
I often imagine what my life would’ve been like if I had done a better job at Arthur Andersen. Would I have eventually gotten the hang of Tax Law? Would The Orchid and I have become friends? Or would I have still ended up exactly where I did, just maybe on a different timeline?
While I won’t ever know those answers, I do know that, sometimes, the road to success really is paved in failure. I wouldn’t be who—and perhaps where—I am today without those “rookie” mistakes. Failing (thankfully, on a small scale) is what caused me to grow, both personally and professionally.
The fear of failure is still a huge motivator for me. Even though I’m no longer in the corporate environment, I want to be exceptional at whatever it is that I’m doing. This includes making sure I don’t overcook my children’s broccoli. (No need to thank me with a huge raise, kids.)
I wonder if someday, my sons will figure out how to turn the tables on me and give me a “faux no” when I ask them to do something. I’m sure I will both rue the day and be incredibly proud when they finally figure it out.
Until then, I’ll enjoy my role as their partner-in-charge.
Do you have any memories about a less-than-perfect event that turned into a great learning experience? I invite you to share your stories with me in the comments section.