Tucker Max fired me, two days before Christmas.
I was the first full-time employee at his new startup, Book In A Box. I quit my corporate job, and moved to Austin, Texas, at the start of 2015. I lived there for three months and then came back to the UK and worked remotely from home.
The role was everything I’d wanted in a job for years. I escaped the prison of dull, unfulfilling corporate life and leapt into a fast-paced startup, working in a niche that I loved, not having to be at the office at any given time, free to work when and where I wanted. And I was working for someone that I had followed and looked up to for nearly a decade.
In the 12 months I was at Book In A Box, I helped grow the company from 3 people to 9 people, and from $50k per month to $400k per month in revenue. I worked with authors from all over the world, helping them to publish their books and share their wisdom with the world. I met some fantastic people, and had some amazing experiences.
And then I was fired.
And it was all my fault.
I want to preface this by saying that Tucker and his co-founder Zach are great people, and I have no bad feelings towards them at all. We’re still on good terms, and they were 100% right to fire me. In fact, their biggest mistake was not doing it sooner.
So why was I fired?
The easy answer is to say that I was fired for performance — or, rather, lack of it. I wasn’t doing a good enough job, so I was fired.
But that’s not a complete answer. WHY wasn’t I doing a good enough job? What caused me to fail so badly, when I should have wanted to succeed more than anything?
I’ve thought about it a lot, and now I need to write about it. I need to unpack all of my issues, assumptions, biases and irrational behaviour. I’ll warn you now — this post is long, and quite self-indulgent, but I hope it will help me deal with these issues, and stop others from falling into the same traps.
It’s painful to write about it, because it’s painful to document all the different ways in which I screwed up. To write, in detail, about how I failed. But I need to do it anyway.
What it boils down to is this:
I was working remotely, in a job I didn’t like doing. Combined, these two things led to chronic, debilitating procrastination, and I would put off work for hours (or even days), and as a result, didn’t get enough done.
That’s the crux of the matter — but again, we need to go a layer deeper than this. Why didn’t I like the job I was doing, and why did I choose to procrastinate so much?
To start with, let’s look at exactly what my job was.
My role: Publishing Manager
Book In A Box helps people write and publish their own book. Our clients were typically CEOs, entrepreneurs, speakers and consultants, who were publishing their book to establish their authority in their niche, build their personal brand, and act as a lead gen tool for their business.
As Publishing Manager, I managed their whole project from start to finish. I was the client’s main point of contact throughout the whole process, and talk them through every step of the way.
That sounds straightforward — but in that description are the seeds of my downfall, namely:
- I was the main point of contact for all our clients — so I spent a large part of my day answering emails and on the phone, in responsive mode rather than actively creating things.
- I was the main point of contact for all our clients — so if they had problems, they came to me, and I had to deal with them and solve them.
- I was the main point of contact for ALL our clients — I was the only one doing this job, and the only person at Book In A Box that our clients would interact with for long periods of time.
These attributes of the job, by themselves, aren’t bad. In fact, for some people, this job description sounds amazing. But not for me. They combined with some of my own personal issues to create real issues in my job. Issues like:
1. I don’t like working remotely, especially with a big time difference.
This is actually a fairly simple issue. I’ve often struggled to create routines and structure for myself — I’ve failed when I’ve tried to pick up habits like exercising regularly, meditating, dieting, and the like. So for me, the structure that comes with a 9-5 office job is actually a good thing, as it forces me to get up at a reasonable hour, go to an office with other people, sit down at a desk, and work for a good number of hours. It forces me to be accountable.
When I started working remotely, I loved it at first — I could go to the gym at 11am when it was quiet, or go to the driving range mid-afternoon and hit some balls — but I quickly realised I wasn’t actually getting much work done.
To try and impose some discipline on myself, I rented some office space, and would go there every day. But with the rest of my company, and most of my clients, asleep until about 1pm UK time, I would usually sleep in. I might go to the gym first thing, and get to the office around 10am, where I’d basically browse Reddit and listen to podcasts until about 1pm, when everyone would wake up and start posting on Slack, which is when I’d get to work. I would also finish working around 6pm, when my girlfriend got home from work. I was basically working 5 hours a day.
In many jobs, this would be enough to get everything done. But in a fast-growing startup. I was struggling to keep up, because it just wasn’t enough time to get all my work done.
The other issue is that working remotely is lonely, especially when most of your company isn’t awake until halfway through your working day. There’s a lot less banter and talk between colleagues, even with tools like Slack. Some people don’t need that interaction, and like the peace and quiet that comes from working at home. I’m not one of those people. I’m naturally an extrovert, and I need the daily interaction and the energy it gives me. There’s no substitute for having people sat next to you that you can talk to, or having your colleagues sat next to you working hard, and making you feel like you should be doing the same.
And when you’re working remotely, it’s a lot easier to ignore a problem. I didn’t take ownership for the issues that I noticed or that were under my control. In fact, I didn’t take ownership for myself: for my own productivity and work habits. I let myself be a victim to my circumstances, instead of doing the hard work to fix it.
2. I am too eager to please people, and I don’t like confrontation.
I said that a big part of my job was solving issues for our clients. Unfortunately, these problems were sometimes partly out of my control — for example, if we were waiting on some book cover designers from a freelance designer. I was usually too eager to please the client, so I’d give them unrealistically short timeframes for when we’d have the designs back. That date would come and go, and the client would follow up with me, annoyed.
Rather than deal with that issue, I’d just ignore it, and not answer their email. This happened multiple times, and as you can imagine, this is really bad customer service. But seeing as though I was the client’s only point of contact, there was no-one for them to complain to–so I could get away with it. At least for awhile.
I was struggling to keep up, because the company was growing so fast, and I was the only one dealing with all of our clients. We could have hired more people to help me. But I didn’t say anything to Tucker or Zach about it for a long time, for a couple of reasons:
- I felt guilty about not working hard enough, because I knew the problem was partly my fault; and
- I didn’t want to complain and make it sound like I was causing problems. I was too eager to keep them happy, and just decided to suffer in silence, rather than raise the issue and have a difficult conversation (for me) about how to solve the problem.
This actually had a really harmful effect: I kept expecting to be “found out”, so I would put off opening up my emails or Slack in the morning, because I was always convinced that today would be the day someone would realise I suck at my job, and there’d be an angry message waiting for me, telling me how bad I was.
And this anxiety meant that I dreaded opening up my laptop every day. I buried my head in the sand, and refused to face the issue. Which, of course, only made things worse.
3. I am sometimes humble — to a fault.
I’m a smart guy, but I’m well aware that I don’t have the answer to everything. And having followed Tucker’s career and looked up to him for a long time, I knew he was extremely smart, and a good entrepreneur. But I looked up to him too much, and often substituted his judgement for my own.
I remember one occasion where we were talking about when we’d need to hire someone else to do the same thing as me — how many clients we’d need to get before I would reach breaking point. I thought the answer would be about 50. Tucker thought it was more like 100.
What I should have said was:
“Tucker, I think you’re wrong — here are the issues with what your estimate, and here’s why my answer is more likely to be right — and if I do need to be able to handle 100 clients, here are the problems we need to solve to get there.”
What I actually said was…nothing.
Instead, I thought to myself, “OK, Tucker’s smarter than me, so he must be right about this — even though I’m the only one doing this job and have a lot more information about it than he does, and he has a habit of anchoring to high expectations. He’s probably right.”
I doubted myself too much, and looked up to Tucker too much to question his judgement. So I didn’t step up to the plate and deal with the issue.
Again, I also felt guilty about not working enough, and thought, “Well, if I just work harder, I’ll be able to solve this problem.” And I didn’t want to face the issue, and couldn’t deal with the confrontation.
4. I liked the status of what I was doing more than I actually liked doing it
So with all of these issues, why didn’t I just quit? Why not just say “You know what? Good luck in the future, and I hope you all do really well, but this job just isn’t for me.”?
Well, partly because that means admitting the problem and dealing with it, rather than ignoring it. But there were two other reasons that stopped me.
First, I liked the status of the job. It’s fun to be able to have conversations like this:
Me: “I work for a startup founded by a NYT best-selling author. I was employee #1 and flew out to Austin for a few months to help them get the company off the ground. I’m going to our next quarterly meeting in Las Vegas next week — we went to New York in the summer, but there’s a couple of conferences in Vegas that we want to go to this time round. I used to work a corporate job, but it was just too dull, I had to go and do something exciting!”
Friend: “Wow, that’s so cool! I wish I could do that!”
Me: “Well, I had to work hard and hustle to get this job, but I’m so glad I did, I could never go back to being a corporate drone again.”
Those conversations, and the looks of envy that they generate, are addictive. It feels great to say things like that about yourself, and have people think more of you. Even if it’s just a facade, and the reality is that you’re anxious, miserable, and don’t ever wake up actually WANTING to work.
The second reason was that I really like Tucker. I really like Zach. And I really like Book In A Box. They are great guys, running a great company, with fantastic people, and it will be a huge success. And even if it’s not, I had a blast with them and the rest of the Book In A Box team, hanging out at our quarterly meetings in Austin, NYC and Las Vegas, drinking amazing wine and eating incredible food, having great conversations, and all helping each other improve personally and professionally. I LOVED all that.
I just hated the work I had to do for the actual job.
But admitting that might mean jeopardising my place in the team — and it’s a hard problem to face, and I don’t like confrontation, and I just wanted to please them, and it’s always easier to avoid issues when your co-workers are thousands of miles away.
So I ignored it.
You see how these all add up? There’s a lollapalooza effect of multiple issues here, creating a perfect storm that led to chronic procrastination, and a general inability to actually do work beyond that which is immediately necessary to prevent getting fired (in the short-term at least).
But it wasn’t enough.
I actually recognised and started to face a lot of these issues in mid-December, when I started having daily and weekly check-in calls with one of my co-workers, Kevin. I started to tackle them and make progress, but it was too little, too late.
By that point, I’d been underperforming for months, and Tucker and Zach had to take the decision to let me go, to protect the rest of the company. That was 100% the right decision — and like I said, they probably should have done it 2-3 months sooner than that.
I don’t begrudge them at all. I still had a lot of fun times working for Book In A Box, and learned a ton about writing, publishing, marketing, running a small business, customer service, project management, process improvement and about 6 other things. But here are the main lessons I take from this experience.
What I learned from my time at Book In A Box
1. I need to take extreme ownership
The idea is this: everything, absolutely everything, is down to you. Willink uses the example of a platoon commander. Obviously things like his orders to his men, and the tactics he uses on the battlefield, are the responsibility of the platoon commander. But if his CO doesn’t give him the equipment he needs, then what can he do? That’s outside of his control, right?
Wrong. It’s the platoon commander’s responsibility to effectively communicate to his CO what he needs, why he needs it, and what the consequences are if he doesn’t get it. And if he still doesn’t get it, then that’s his fault, because he didn’t sufficiently communicate that need.
It was my job to do my job — but it was also my job to tell everyone else what I needed, how I was doing, what problems I was having, and ask for help to solve them. So if I was struggling to keep up, I needed to own it and make that clear. If I thought a process needed to be changed, even if I couldn’t do it myself, I needed to speak up. That was all my responsibility, and I didn’t do it. And that’s especially true in a startup, where you need to be able to operate under uncertainty, and iterate your way towards solving problems. Ignoring it and hoping that someone else will tell you what to do is a recipe for failure.
2. I need to be around people who will challenge me
I actually spent the first three months of my time at Book In A Box living with Zach in Austin, on the same street as Tucker. We spent a lot of time together, and I drastically improved professionally and personally — I picked up the job quickly, I became a lot more effective, and I also lost 20 lbs and got in great shape.
It’s not a coincidence that all that happened at once (while NOT working remotely). That’s the power of being around people who challenge you. Not just associating with them, or talking to them via email, Skype, or Slack, but PHYSICALLY being around them. Eating dinner with them. Going to meetings. Sat at a desk across from them.
I know I should not work remotely (at least not full-time). I know for a fact that my next job needs to be in an environment where I am around other great people: role models, mentors, friends, and people who will challenge me and push me to be better. Not that they’ll do the hard work for me, but they’ll a) support me and motivate me and b) call me on my bullshit and make me realise when I’m not facing up to issues.
3. I am actually pretty smart, but that’s nothing without action
I actually recognised a lot of these issues in myself as they were happening. I knew what I needed to do to fix them. But I knew that it would be hard. And I didn’t think I needed to do it immediately.
So I put it off, and didn’t do it. Which is why I got fired.
This also happened with business issues. I would spot a problem, and think through a solution. I would think up the 5-6 steps I’d need to take to implement that solution, and solve the problem. Then I would congratulate myself on being smart enough to recognise a problem and think up a solution.
The missing piece, of course, was actually taking any action.
Tucker or Zach would often come to me later and say, “Hey — I’ve noticed this problem. Here’s a good solution though. Can you get that done?” It was often the same problem and solution I’d spotted myself, but hadn’t done anything about. Which meant that I started to get a reputation at someone who couldn’t really see things through, and get things done.
At the time I thought that was a bit unfair, but it’s 100% correct. Thinking through a problem is great, but the perfect solution you don’t implement is exactly the same as no solution at all.
4. All of these issues stem from a deep, deep fear of success
These other problems — failure to take ownership, the need to be around other people who will push me, and my failure to take action and solve problems — reflect one underlying condition: my deep, deep fear of success.
On the surface, fear of success sounds ridiculous. Think of the words that you associate with success: wealth, prestige, power, fame, accomplishments, satisfaction. All those words sound pretty great, right? Who on earth is afraid of success?
I am. I’m terrified of it.
I’m scared that I’ll get to the top of the mountain and all of a sudden, people won’t like me.
My parents won’t like me because I’ll have more money than they do. My girlfriend won’t like me because success will somehow change me. My friends won’t like me because they won’t be able to relate to me any more. Strangers won’t like me because they’ll resent my accomplishments.
I’m also scared that everyone I know and love won’t understand me any more.
When you’re talking to family or friends about your work, how many people say things like this:
- “Can’t complain!”
- “Same old, same old — boring, but I’m getting paid well.”
- “It’s pretty easy, I honestly don’t know how I haven’t been fired yet!”
I’d guess it’s greater than 90% (at least for me). This is especially true in middle-class England, where we’re all humble, quiet, understated, and generally don’t like to make too much of a fuss.
Which means that if I succeed — if I even START to do the work I need to do to get to where I want to be — I know that I’ll be an outlier. Some people will judge me for that. Some people will criticise me. And some people won’t ever understand me.
That’s terrifying. And it’s exhausting, too. At first, it’s fun to be unconventional and get those envious looks, but when you’re faced with the difficult reality of the work it takes to be different, and the energy you need to keep going with it, it’s so much easier just to give up.
I remember when I first quit my old job to go work for Book In A Box, and someone very close to me said, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to being an accountant.”
That was one of the first things they said to me. Of course they were supportive as well, but that support was diluted by the constant reminder that it would be easier to fail, and go back to my rightful place.
Of course, it’s much better to fail now, early on, than it is to get to the top, and then fail.
Because that’s the other big fear. That I’ll achieve success, but won’t be able to cope with it, so I’ll fall back down to Earth. I don’t have faith in my ability to stay at the top once I get there. I’m afraid that I’d get everything I ever wanted — and then I’d lose it all again, and there’d be no-one to blame but me.
Then I’d have suffered the hard work, odd looks, and the long periods of not being understood, and it would all be for nothing.
I wouldn’t even have my comforting self-image of being destined for great things. If I try and fail, then I have to discard that. Then I’ll have nothing left but the voices in my head that say “I told you you would fail”, and dreams of what might have been.
Honestly, as much as it sucks to be fired, I’m still more afraid of what it takes to succeed.
When I got fired, at first I was relieved. No more stress. No more anxiety.
Then I was angry, at myself. I had an incredible opportunity, and I wasted it.
Finally, over time, I accepted what had happened.
On reflection, I’m glad for the whole experience. I realised some deep issues about myself that I need to solve if I’m going to achieve what I want to achieve. It’s been 3 months since I got fired, and I haven’t solved all of these issues yet. But now I’m aware of them, I’ve accepted them, and I’m dealing with them — and I’m a better man for that.
Thanks to Kevin Espiritu, Zach Obront and Tucker Max for their feedback on early drafts of this post.