A few months ago, my friend David called me.
“Vishal, I’m stuck,” he said.
David had resigned from his role as a salesperson from a company that was the poster boy of the startup world, in order to pursue a more lucrative offer.
A colleague from the same company had also quit to set up his own startup. And since he knew how good David was, he offered him a dream job: build our entire sales division from scratch and turn it into an unstoppable force that helps us raise billions in funding.
David was all set to join the new startup when he got a call from his Team Lead, who offered to “try” and bump up his pay by 20 percent in an attempt to retain him.
Hence, David was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“You’ll no longer be a part of the inner circle at the company,” I tried to add my thoughts. “Even if they retain you, you won’t get promoted. That’s how organizations work. Plus, if they took so long to try and retain a top sales performer, it could indicate the company is in trouble.”
To my mind, the answer seemed clear. The new startup offered myriad opportunities. But as we spoke, more pieces of the puzzle revealed themselves.
First, his colleague, or his future boss, actually quit because he was on the verge of getting fired for poor performance. In the past, David had pulled him out of deep waters on many occasions. From their interactions, David could make out that he lacked the fire in the belly that a startup founder needs.
Second, the colleague dropped some big names that would back their startup because of his father’s connections. But none of those names had committed to the startup yet.
Third, though he wanted David to get onboard urgently (and for lower pay), he reneged on his promise to give him the designation he asked for.
To top it all, he hadn’t sent David his appointment letter despite being reminded thrice.
The more we spoke, the more alarm bells rang in our minds. It seemed David's future boss wanted to put up a startup for all the wrong reasons. Maybe he saw it as an escape from getting fired. Maybe he thought it was a way to make easy money because of the constant barrage of news about startups getting funded. Or he wanted to do it because it was cool and all his friends were doing it.
Anything done for the wrong reasons is doomed for failure even before it begins. We both agreed that the chances of the startup failing in less than six months were high.
“What will this failure do for him and you?” I asked.
“He probably won’t lose any sleep because he can fall back on his rich father,” David said. “But the failure could alter my life.”
David was really thinking by now, like a runner in stride. He spilled one thought after another, each of which offered me — and more importantly, him — better clarity on his predicament.
He wanted to marry the girl he’s in love with. She comes from a well-to-do home and her parents want her future husband to at least sustain her standard of living, if not raise it.
This would be a Herculean task for David because he would make less money at the new startup. And if it failed, he would be unemployed while looking for a new job. His experience of six months would account for nothing because startups fail all the time. In fact, it would sow the seeds of doubt in future employers’ minds.
You see, a new job would be David's third job in 13 months, and that doesn’t look good on a CV. As a result, most employers would shy away from hiring him. At best, another struggling startup would hire him for the same pay and job role.
If he was lucky, he would land a job as a manager of a sales team at a reputed firm. But the chances of that were lower than the roll of a dice. The chances of him staying in the same position instead of moving ahead in his career were higher.
In turn, these circumstances would sow the seeds of doubt in his orthodox future in-laws’ minds, who would probably reject the marriage. His girlfriend was against him leaving the stable ship before marriage for the same reason.
So here he was. The outcomes of failure were quite high, but he had already resigned from his safe haven and the company didn’t appear keen to raise his pay and retain him.
Stuck between a rock and hard place sounds like an understatement now, doesn’t it? I was concerned for David, but at some secret selfish level, I was also glad to not be in his shoes.
“What will you do?” I asked.
“I think I’ll revoke my resignation.”
“And what if they’re just bluffing about the pay hike?”
“It’s the price I’ll pay for my mistake. I should’ve thought this through, so I’ll live with the consequences. And even if I don’t make progress in this company, I’ll keep a good job, which could convince my girlfriend’s parents to give their consent. And with her by my side, I can move mountains. Maybe a year later, I’ll apply for a better position in a new company.”
Both David and I initially thought working for the new startup was the best way forward. But after a 90-minute conversation, the fog lifted to show us that we were headed in the wrong direction.
What I found most inspiring about David were his guts to admit and correct his error. It was easy for me to accept my mistake; I didn’t have to live with the consequences. But for David, it would’ve felt like a backward step.
Yet, he took it. He felt a tinge when his firm didn’t give him a hike. But he took it in good spirit. He said he had learned a valuable lesson in a situation that could’ve turned out far worse.
Many times, we realize that we’ve made a mistake but stick to it because we fear a loss of face. We worry that people will think of us as idiots or they won’t respect us. Or we assume there’s really nothing we can do to fix the error, so we simply lie on the deck of a sinking ship instead of wearing a life jacket, jumping into the ocean, and swimming to the shore.
Not owning up to our mistakes could fuel our egos and make us feel good in the short term, but causes us a lot of pain in the long term.
On the other hand, owning up our screw-ups might hurt in the short term — like a loss of face among our colleagues or friends, a lack of progress at the workplace, and so on. But those are momentary setbacks. In the long term, we learn crucial lessons, make fewer errors, and take better decisions when new opportunities present themselves.
The real sign of wisdom is not in being brilliant; it’s in not being stupid.
David showed he was not stupid. He still works at the same company. In fact, he remains among the top salespeople, thus compensating for his loss of increase in salary with bonuses to an extent. And his girlfriend has turned into his fiancé. They’re getting married this April.
Each time I find myself too stubborn to accept my mistake, I remember this important lesson he taught me.