Why Making This Mistake Was The Best Thing I Ever Did

Mistake Falling - John Fornander

Photo: John Fornander

“Oh wow, The 2013 Tax Handbook is here!” My colleague tore through the protective film and rifled through the tome. “I wonder what’s new this year.”

“Wait,” I said. “People actually read this? I thought it was only for reference.”

“Of course! You work in auditing and you don’t?”

“Uh, don’t we look up the terms as needed?”

“Shh,” my colleague said, holding up her palm.

“Oookay… I think I’ll go do some spreadsheets now.”

That’s passion right there. Strewn on my colleague’s table were the 2012 and 2011 versions of the same book. Quietly backing off from her desk, I found myself wondering if her bedroom wallpapers were made of receivables printouts.

All around me were bleary-eyed colleagues buried under piles of receipts and binders. Those who weren’t looking through the ledgers were busy—or pretending to be—arranging numbers into spreadsheets.

Which one of them actually loved their jobs? Was there anyone else like me? Did Matt from HR hate the morning alarm as much as I did? How bout Jenny from admin? She looked like she hated the rush hour commute.

I wondered which of them really loved their jobs, or if I was the only one there who felt like he didn’t belong. It felt like I was in Orwell’s 1984, ruled by a regime I didn’t believe in, trying to suss out my allies without being discovered.

The biggest mistake

I’d spent more than two years pursuing an accounting diploma. Two years of meagre living. Two years of being the oldest dude (by a decade) in every classroom. Two years of working retail while I studied just to get by.

I went through all that thinking that the diploma would be my way out, and it took just three days of working here to realise that I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

But you gotta learn to love what you do, right? That’s what the older generation would’ve said. So I tried to stick to it. Apparently, it takes thirty days to build a habit and three months to get accustomed to a new working environment.

I gave it six months, and seeing my colleague’s interest in the 2013 handbook told me that maybe I really didn’t belong there.

So I sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes that day. You know your job sucks when sitting in the bathroom feels much better than being at your desk. I didn’t even do anything; I just sat there, pondering.

I’d flush the toilet every few minutes just to make things look legit. Never mind the rocky relationship I was going through. Forget about being broke. I didn’t even care about the years I’d wasted going down the wrong path. At that moment, all I wanted to do was to not be there, so I quit.

I guess it was a good thing I was pushed to desperation, because I’d never have applied for my first writing gig otherwise.

Mistake Toilet - Tim Mossholder

Don’t tell me you don’t know the feel of hiding in the bathroom. Photo: Tim Mossholder

Is it worth it?

Now, I’m all for embracing the suck, for persevering through tough times instead of running away from your problems, but where you do you draw the line between fighting for something you love and merely suffering just for suffering’s sake?

I’d love to say that I’d acted like an adult and worked my way up the accounting ladder. Maybe I’d have ended up in one of the Big Four, earn ten times what I do now, drive around in an Audi. After all, I find it hard to believe I’d be worse off than I am today after spending a decade in accounting.

But would I have ended up seeing the world, sharing dinner with the hill tribes of Vietnam or dancing with the Ainu people in Hokkaido to send off their spirit bears?

Would I have paddle-boarded in the rain off the coast of the Philippines, or grappled with the mud pit wrestlers of India?

Would I even have returned to writing?

Sure, my career change was in pursuit of money, and that plan had failed spectacularly. Maybe I’ll never know what being rich feels like, but I did learn the difference between struggling for your passion and simply staying put in a sucky situation.

I’ve also learned that I’d made the best decision of my life during the tail end of a bad one.

Coming full circle

“Whoa, it’s Strunk! What’s this doing on the desk?” I said.

“It’s our makeshift library,” Sam said. “You can take it. No one cares.”

“Really? But these titles are so relevant to us!”

Sam shrugged.

I flipped the book to a random page. “Use the active voice,” I mouthed. “Wow, this is really useful.”

Sam’s eyes glazed over, but I didn’t care. I was still excited that I’d managed to score a copy of The Elements of Style. “Man, I’m gonna read the hell out of this book.”

“Riiight…”

“I’ve never really noticed if I use the active voice at all. I can’t believe I’ve been writing for so—”

“Actually,” Sam interrupted, “I have a call to make. Excuse me.”

And there Sam went, back to his desk without ever touching the phone. He probably wondered if I had pages of Infinite Jest wallpapered all over my bedroom. Well I don’t, but you know what’s better? I don’t feel the dread every time my alarm rings in the morning anymore.

42 thoughts on “Why Making This Mistake Was The Best Thing I Ever Did

  1. Love your attitude toward mistakes in life, Stuart! They’re absolutely an essential part of learning and growing and I appreciate you reminding us of it again. : )

    • Aww thanks for the kind words. The way I see it is that the mistakes will already have been made, like it or not, so I might as well benefit from them, right? Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. True: You can’t ever really learn to love a career. Been there, done that too. Only in my case, I started out and enjoyed my work. It took many years before I decided I no longer loved it and wanted to write. And here I am: Right there with you.

    • Wow, that’s a great leap of faith you took there. Deciding you want to write for a living isn’t an easy choice to make, especially if you come from a cushy job. Well, here’s to discovering what the industry has in store for us!

  3. This, this, this, this, and f***ing this! I went to graduate school to earn my degree in political philosophy because in college I really wanted to be a professor. But in grad school, like you felt in your job with the other accountants, I realized I was not eating, breathing, and sleeping the subject the way my peers were. I did not stay for the PhD and just took the MA. Because I didn’t anticipate not wanting that life, I hadn’t made a plan B. And I had so little passion and direction that I wound up in retail in which I toil until this very day. I often cry before I go to work. I have no idea what the next step will be. I hope that once I sort out some health issues, I’ll be able to pursue something else.

    I’m glad that your negative experience made you take that leap of faith, so that I’m sure you appreciate your happy and fulfilling experiences even more.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing that story. Learned something new about you today.

      I can relate to the before-work hell, the one that transcends the regular ‘I wish I didn’t have to work’, where you just KNOW it’s not what you’re meant to do.

      One step at a time, is all I can say. You’ll never know when your next step—or even misstep—might end up proving to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, so keep the faith!

  4. Great story! Love it: “I’m all for embracing the suck.” I had a somewhat similiar experience; getting fired helped free me from my first career detour.

  5. Hey Stuart, lovely how this post came up at exact time that I’ve been thinking about how much my job sucks as a banker. It’s terrible and I’ve been “sticking it out” for last 11 years. That’s too much! But recently I’ve been feeling this urge to get out of there and take risks, even if that move upsets people around me. Finally, I feel as if I should not be feeling guilty doing what’s right for me.

    • I totally get how you feel. I’ve been stumbling through life and feel like all I’ve been doing was ‘sticking it out’, as you said. Rest assured that when you find your calling, it’ll still suck, but at least it’s a suck that you CHOOSE. That’s very different from suffering in a place you don’t like. I wish you all the best with your journey!

    • Hahaha but of course. I devoured that within a couple of days, though I’ve since learned that the pointers in that book could be a little bit outdated, so I don’t think you’re missing out on much.

  6. Not many people could do that job and if you are an innate writer, this kind of work would really grate upon your brain. I have been in similar situations myself working in a scientific area, realising I am not a scientific person at all. It was a struggle and if you are anything like me, staying in that job could possibly have made you physically ill, as that was my experience. It is good to have a Plan B, but following one’s dream and what one intuitively feels is right, is a great choice. Follow your gut feeling!

    • That’s such a good observation, as I was just sharing in the other comment that I think hard work can be defined by it being voluntary or involuntary.

      And our job is to find the hard work that we’d voluntarily do. That’s where I feel that people tend to wrongly classify themselves as being not resilient enough, when the truth of the matter is that their life just isn’t resonating with themselves.

      Thanks for this great comment!

      • Indeed. Find the work we would voluntarily do. Funny you write that as I did find that job after I left the Scientific job. For almost ten years, I loved my job, even though it was not highly paid. Then the structure and managment changed but that is another story. Still, that is another facet to workplace enjoyment. The people and culture.

  7. Sounds like you made the right choice! There are times when endurance is important, but when things really don’t fit it turns into a slow erosion of motivation for life. Better to choose something that lifts you up enough to make it worth enduring the harder times.

    • I’m beginning to learn that there are generally two camps when it comes to hard work: involuntary and voluntary.

      The first is when you need to get a job just to survive, so you do anything and you hate every day of it.

      The second isn’t any easier—in fact it can be harder—but because it’s something you chose, so the grind becomes so much more acceptable.

      And maybe my non-optimal journey through the careers is what got me here.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Great piece. Stuart. Loved the style …It’s so true that some of us go through all this chaos in our heads till we finally settle for our choice of career or calling. And by then it’s time to dole out our advice to our kids. But that’s how it is for many of us I guess. Go with the flow and it will happen.

    • Much more fulfilled but constantly on the lookout to grow even further. I think it’s a blessing to remain dissatisfied. That just means there’s room for growth. I really appreciate you reading so many posts today :)

      • I read at least 10! (Probably closer to 15). Hope you will also check out some of my posts!! Best of luck!! I’ll definitely be back. (I even read the dating prompt one, so creepy!!!)

  9. That was a great article. Stuart. Subscribing–keep it up!

    BTW, in your colleague’s defense, I read California’s Uniform Building Code cover to cover with relish when I was in construction. Just sayin’. Now, I like Strunk better, too!

  10. You know when they say about athletes or musicians, that they just have it. As well as a solid work ethic they have that special something that sets them apart.

    You, my friend, have that gift when it comes to writing. Not that the opinion of an unpublished author like myself has much credence to it, but that’s a different story. You capture the emotion of your journey and sprinkle in just enough tension to keep the story moving between big moments.

    Thank you for sharing. 😊

    • Wow, these are some kind words, and they’re a welcome sight indeed, as I only managed to write 200 words today, and have been slugging along feeling like every sentence was pure crap.

      Your comment did give me a little boost to counter that, so thank you once again :)

  11. Oh man, I am all too familiar with that feeling ahaha. Sticking things out in college because it felt like it was too late to switch majors. Sticking it out in a job that I didn’t like because it felt like I had nowhere else to go and that I should be grateful I even had one. And even trying to stick things out with people I felt lukewarm about because it felt impossible to avoid running into them. It’s funny how much of a box our own mentality can place us in but once we break free of it and start doing the things that actually bring us joy, how much more growth we get back from it in a short period of time. This piece really resonated with me, thanks for sharing :)

    • Thanks so much for your wonderful thoughts, Alice. Yeah, even though I’ve learned from my mistakes, I still make the same ones till this day. I guess life is about the continual fight against your own doubts, and it’s never really won as long as you’re still alive, but that’s what makes life interesting, doesn’t it? Thanks again for stopping by!

  12. Hi Stuart. I’m fairly new at this but it’s so cool running into stories like this. I’m a Strunk fan. Also Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I read them for real. I love your journey and the way you’ve told it. Cheers to doing what is right!

    • It’s not until I started reading these ‘boring’ books that I’ve realised we all have something we’re willing to learn the boring parts of.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and it’s so cool to have someone all the way from Jersey stopping by!

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