The most dangerous “Wrong Story” of my life took place about twenty five years ago, in the early 1990’s. Joyce and I’d been recently married and were busy acting like typical Americans - accumulating debt.
I had sizable business school loans. We’d just bought two cars because our move to the Chicago suburbs meant no more walking to work. And we’d bought our first home, which came with something called a jumbo mortgage.
And then, just to ratchet up the financial strain a bit, Joyce had quit her job in anticipation of our new baby. While I had pursued the brilliant idea of working for a software start up. I'd decided it was the perfect time to take a pay cut of tens of thousands of dollars. To walk away from an excellent benefits package. And to hitch our financial future to a shooting star.
But the star wasn’t shooting. For the first 15 months, right up to the month our daughter was born, we just couldn’t get traction. I’d spend my days cold-calling, begging people to buy into our story. But progress was slow.
THIS IS NO LONGER A GAME
I’ll never forget sitting in the hospital room with Joyce as she rested post delivery. The room had been busy with doctors and nurses as our daughter was three weeks early. They had prepared for the worst, but all six pounds and 4 ounces of her were just fine.
Once the room finally emptied it was just Joyce, fast asleep. Our new baby girl, fast asleep. And me, WIDE AWAKE.
I was relieved and happy and thankful and all that good stuff. But I was also horrified. What the hell had just happened?
Up to this point I think I saw my career as kind of a game. Make a move, maximize opportunity, update my scorecard.
Now, in the blink of an eye, the game stuff was over.
This child was real and she was helpless. What kind of irresponsible idiot walks away from great benefits and lots more money when they’re starting a family? What an ignorant selfish prick!
I still vividly remember the fear and the guilt that washed over me. I’ve never had a panic attack, but something was happening. My heart was beating like crazy and I was sweating. So I did the only thing I could think of. I whipped out my laptop and started pouring over my sales forecast. This moronic move of mine had to pay off and it had to do it fast.
And then the stars aligned.
That very same month our daughter was born our sales momentum began to build. I was all of a sudden doing less begging. Potential customers were now calling us.
It was an amazing time. I’d taken the job because I loved the people and the culture - and now the business was taking off. The best of all worlds. Especially because a big chunk of my pay was commission-based. That had been a bad thing when our early sales were slow. But it became an awesome thing as sales started to boom.
So awesome that just six months after our daughters birth, I was due to cash the largest monthly check of my career. For thirty days of feverish work my take would be just shy of $90,000.
I still remember the first thought that shot through my mind. “We can pay for her entire college education with this single check”. (Subtract taxes but add back 18 years of growth).
I have no idea why the college thing was first in my mind. She was still crapping her pants and refusing to sleep through the night. But for some reason that thought gave me great relief.
I guess it was a concrete way of telling myself that my gamble, that at times felt so selfish, was now OK. It was going to pay off and I was a smiling son of a bitch - a mixture of relief and excitement. Joyce was pure excitement.
And we quickly agreed on the first thing we would buy with the check - nothing.
We were both raised frugal, and the idea of some financial security was the only thing we craved. We hated the “getting-started” debt we’d taken on so we were determined to wipe it out. We were on our way to financial freedom and F U money and every other stupid wonderful saying you can think of.
Except for one small thing - the company decided NOT TO PAY ME. At least not in full.
On payday my check arrived for $50,000. Huh? Must have been a mistake. I called HR and they confirmed that this was the number they were given. Not good. I’ll call my boss - who also happened to be a good friend.
"My paycheck's messed up, it’s $40,000 short."
"I’d been meaning to tell you about that."
"Meaning to tell me about what?"
"That’s all you’re getting, they’re not paying the rest."
"They, who the freak is they?"
"The management team, they said it’s too much."
"The bastards didn’t say that when they were cheering us on to close the deals. They can’t just say they’re not going to pay it."
"Our comp plans state that they’re “subject to change”."
"Yeah, but not after the freaking deals are closed and the company has the money."
SLAM (Sound of phone slamming)
Just writing those words - even 25 years later - jacks me up. It was the the single most infuriating day of my life.
I’d thought I knew these people well and that they were good people. How could I have been so wrong? These two-faced motherfreakers were stealing from me. And they didn’t even have the balls to tell me to my face. Or to even bother to tell me in advance. What the freak?
Fifteen minutes earlier I’d been so incredibly high and now I was at absolute rock bottom. Their incompetence and insensitivity had left me standing in front of my wife and daughter feeling like a fool.
REAL LIFE PSYCHOLOGY LESSON
I believe, if you recall from my last post, this would qualify as cognitive dissonance - the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds contradictory beliefs at the same time. These people who were so good are now motherfreaking thieves.
And there was plenty of fundamental attribution error (FAE) - the tendency to exaggerate fundamental/internal factors when evaluating other peoples motives. This wasn’t situational. They weren’t sweethearts who’d just missed a meal and made a rash decision. These low life scumbag motherfreakers sat around a conference room table and chose to shove a knife in my back. In Joyce’s back. In our daughter’s back.
The only possible explanation is that they were bad, bad people at their core. Flawed, evil people.
And once I'd completely removed all positive from my mind, I attacked. I smeared them in public and slapped them with a lawsuit. These bastards were not going to make a fool of Keith Daniel. I would bring them down if it was the last thing I ever did. I even keyed one of their cars and bitch-slapped one of their wives.
Just kidding, I made up that entire last paragraph. I did envision all kind of bad stuff about these folks. Just as the authors of Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me would have guessed. Remember this stuff from last post…
I will ignore evidence that contradicts my "Wrong Story".
I will remove memories that contradict my “Wrong Story”.
I will “misremember” stuff that contradicts my “Wrong Story”.
I will create false memories to reinforce my “Wrong Story”.
I will cast myself as the victim in this “Wrong Story”.
I did every single thing on this list. My anger spiraled, especially as I learned more information from my boss…
"Is everyone on the sales team having their commissions cut?"
"No, just you."
"Let me get this straight. Everyone else on the sales team is being paid in full?"
"And everyone on every other sales team is being paid in full?"
"And everyone up the management chain is being paid in full?"
I slammed the phone on him so many times that week I’m amazed he kept talking with me. Especially when I told him what I was actually thinking -that my best option might be to hire a lawyer.
With the passing of a few days, I started to regain my sanity. I didn’t know this quote then, but it was the correct prescription for what ailed me...
“Your life is hemmed in by the things you know to be true that aren’t.”
The thing I'd suddenly decided I knew to be true was that these people were scumbags. And until I found a way to PURGE that "Wrong Story" there was no way to move forward. How could I reach a fair and trusting compromise with people that possessed such deep character flaws? I had to let go of this new wrong thought in order to try on their point of view. To accept that maybe these concerns that they’d shared via my boss had some merit…
The company was headed for an IPO and these kinds of commissions could look bad. Out of control.
When the comp plans were designed they never expected a team to blow it out by so much.
My income had become way out of whack with the rest of the organization.
OK, their concerns weren’t completely stupid. Maybe they're not total scum that’s just out to get me. Maybe they're good people trying to look out for the company. But they’d still made an unfair decision.
As I became more rational, options began to emerge. After a week of back and forth they offered to pay me the disputed $40,000 in quarterly “bonuses” over the following year. $10,000 per quarter assuming I hit certain objectives. So I had to re-earn the money the following year, which didn't sound that good to me. I'd already earned it once.
But there was a twist that made the deal palatable.
My boss and I got to make up the objectives. Between us we winked and agreed that the objectives would be complete bullshit. He, off the record, guaranteed me I would get the money. Not a promise he could 100% make, but I trusted that he’d go to bat for me if there were problems. It was the best I was going to get. We shook on it.
So in the end it all worked out. I was paid in full. And - given that this story is so old - I’m proud to report that our little girl has indeed graduated from college.
And my main take away from this, and many other experiences, is that this quote by ex-Columbia professor and author Srikumar Rao is worth its weight in gold.
“Your life is hemmed in by the things you know to be true that aren’t.”
One last thing before I go. A key reason this “Wrong Story” didn't turn into a disaster was because of the calm head of my boss. He knew I was seething angry and that I had a smart mouth, so he did 100% of my talking. Not once during this episode did he allow me to speak directly to anyone else on the management team. Which, I believe, saved me from potentially permanent relationship damage. And this was a big deal because I went on to enjoy several more years of wonderful experiences with many of these folks. Including a couple exciting IPO’s.
So even though I thanked him in private back then, I’d like to acknowledge him publicly now.
Ed, even though you’re no longer with us, thank you for saving me from myself. Thank you for listening while I ranted and raved. Thank you for keeping those rants and raves just between us.
And most of all, thank you for being a friend. You are sorely missed…
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