Career Management: Painful Lessons


Sometimes we learn from warm, positive reinforcement. Sometimes we get direct, clear feedback about what needs to improve. And then there are the times when you get indifferent silence. What follows is a brief example of learning that painful lesson and taking something away from it.

I just ran into a student who thanked me for one of these painful lessons that I inadvertently taught them.

The student in question is a very nice guy, had seen me give a few talks about management consulting and the Consulting Enterprise I used to run at the Carlson School of Management and knew a few of my students. He had connected with me personally and through those friends and I’d agreed to meet to discuss the Enterprise and careers in consulting.

Well, along came the agreed upon meeting date. I had it on my calendar and he had “accepted” the meeting through our Google calendar at school.  But he never showed up.

I always tell people (honestly) that I usually don’t mind when people miss meetings as I’m overbooked and over-committed. So if you blow me off, I have 30-60 minutes more to plow through e-mail backlogs and get my own work done.

In his case, because I felt I was doing him a favor to meet at all and was very busy, I didn’t respond to follow up e-mails. In retrospect, I probably could have met with him. But I was busy, he missed his opportunity and we both moved on.

Fast forward to this week. I ran into the student as I was headed to Jimmy John’s for a sandwich. He was very professional and filled in details for me.

It turns out his phone had blown up and deleted his calendar. So while he knew we had a meeting, he had forgotten when. Realizing he had missed it he apologized via e-mail and tried to reschedule. I was unresponsive and he eventually stopped trying to connect.

Then he shared his take-away, which I LOVED.

The easy one would have been “Phil’s a jerk, woe is me.” (Which may be true, but isn’t a personally helpful learning point).

His was much more useful. When someone is taking time out of their schedule to offer you help, make sure you show up. To that end, he started more consciously backing up his calendar in case he had similar phone problems in the future. He went on to explain that he now understood what I had done and found it a useful lesson that has helped him as he’s matured. I hope this is true. But whether it was or wasn’t, the situation was well handled. He impressed me with his maturity.

Missing a meeting with me, in the end, isn’t terribly painful compared to not getting a job you want etc. But it was a relatively low consequence way to learn a larger point early in a career.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Show up. For things that are important to you, make sure you show up and allow back-up/contingency plans to ensure you can make it.
  • Focus on what you can do better. In life, you get a lot farther focusing on what you could do differently and improving. Blaming others doesn’t make you any better at anything…other than blamestorming.
  • Keep positive. If said student approaches me again for help, I will absolutely meet with him. He was completely professional, offering both an apology and articulating what he had learned.

So not every lesson is a happy one, but it’s up to you to learn. As long as you keep making new and interesting mistakes rather than repeating the old ones, you should be fine.

Any painful lessons to share?

One thought on “Career Management: Painful Lessons

  1. I have a recurring dream about some difficult clients that I worked with. In the dream, they keep trying to rehire me, even though I really don’t want to work with them anymore. I found that your article and this one from Creative Agency Freelancing ( helped me remember that, as painful as it is, the client is not actually always right, especially when it makes me uncomfortable. Thanks!

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