What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or in German: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker” (Nietzsche wrote this in 1888).
Don’t worry, this is not going to be a long and boring philosophical dissertation. On the contrary, I want to tell you a true story. A story about one of the most embarrassing moments in my professional career. It should be an entertaining read. So get yourself a cup of coffee, sit back and laugh at my misfortunes.
To provide a little bit of context, over the course of just a few years time I had developed from an insecure, introvert, green, ‘wet behind the ears’ computer nerd into a mature, knowledgeable, confident, professional, international IT consultant. One with natural authority. Because I knew my game. One step ahead of everyone else. Well most of the time.
The catalyst for my rapid development – both in my profession and personally – was my move to the US. I left the comfort of my own country – the Netherlands – and crossed the Atlantic to be an expat, stationed there by my new Scandinavian employer. This pretty much meant I had to start all over:
- From one day to another, I could only use English as my work language. Dutch had become useless (I had no Dutch colleagues) and my Danish was still very underdeveloped. I thought I was ‘fluent’ in English before boarding the plane. But there is a difference between the English when ordering a pizza in Italy and the English you need when explaining complex, abstract concepts in front of an American audience.
- I had just been hired by my new Scandinavian employer and had no clue (yet) about the systems I was supposed to know everything about (from the customer’s perspective at least). All my experienced colleagues were in Denmark. And although email and Internet were a thing, Skype wasn’t. It demanded a lot of energy and focus to keep my head above the water, especially in the beginning.
- I had just managed to get my driver’s license in the Netherlands, but never drove a single mile before heading to the US. This turned out to be the easiest part though. Driving an automatic in the US is child’s play compared to using a clutch in the winding, narrow streets of an average European city.
- I needed to find a house, get insurances, the proper registrations, cable, phone and everything else you’d normally need when settling. It sounds trivial, but it isn’t if you’ve been dropped in a strange place, know no-one and work sucks all the energy out of you.
Overcoming the above is a really good example of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I had my doubts before going to the US, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.
Anyway, here I was. A confident, professional IT guy. With a character that had been shaped and built by traveling the world and overcoming obstacles. After years in the US and subsequent journeys to the far corners of the world I was truly on top of my game.
So performing on stage and give a sleek presentation in front of customers and potential customers wasn’t something that made me particularly nervous. Not even if there were hundreds of them, like on one particular ‘high profile’ occasion in a venue in Stockholm. I knew what I was talking about and besides we had fine-tuned our presentation – or rather the live demo of our state-of-the-art systems – over the course of many months.
To give you an idea, we had setup and connected multiple computers on stage and had three beamers project on giant projector screens. ‘Bill Gates presenting the next big Windows version to the world press’ – style. All this to get one message across: Our systems are state of the art and you’d be stupid not to buy.
We had prepared and practiced for so long. Nothing could go wrong. Right?
These days you just run stuff on laptops. And laptops have batteries. We had laptops alright, but they were too slow. Not suitable at all for our state of the art software. So we setup real servers. Which didn’t have batteries.
No problem, that’s easy to fix with multiple extension leads, which we plugged into another extension lead, which we plugged into the mains. It looked like spaghetti, but hey every server and projector got its fair share of electricity.
So far so good. And our presentation went smooth. I saw our CEO on the front row. He looked proud and happy and had dollar signs in his eyes.
When we wanted to demo something we sat down behind a table we had placed on stage for the purpose. It was easier to sit down when we had to click our way through our software.
Okay, my turn.
I sat down. Confident. My 15 minutes of fame were about to start. The culmination of years of international consultancy experience.
As the chair was a bit far from the table I pulled it closer.
That’s a very normal thing to do and usually there are no consequences. You just grab the armrests and move. Were it not that the mother of all extension leads, you know the one that had all the other extension leads plugged in, was under my chair. And when I moved I pulled the plug. And because I pulled that one, I pulled them all.
All screens went black.
‘Oops….’. Years of international experience and months of preparation. And all I could say was ‘oops’.
It’s interesting how people always talk about seeing their lives flashing before their eyes just before they’re expecting to die. I had a similar experience. Not because I thought I was going to die, but because something in me must have figured that my life – as I knew it – would be over.
Every second felt like an eternity. It was only now when I noticed the beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It consisted of three illuminated circles, like Saturn’s rings, but without a ‘planet’ in the middle. I remember thinking that I would love to have one of those at home and wondering who had designed it….
Quite a number of people in the audience knew me. Partners, customers. One person, a funny Swedish guy, laughed. ‘Ha ha let’s see how Marc rescues this one!’
That brought me back.
I liked the guy, but that moment I could have killed him. More importantly, I would not allow him the pleasure of me failing here on this stage.
There was only one thing to do. Take control. Reboot. Continue.
Now, that could be easier said than done as computers don’t like hard stops. It could leave things in an unpleasant state. So I had no clue whether we could reboot and continue as if nothing had happened.
‘I like that challenge!’, I pointed to the Swedish guy. ‘Let’s bet. If we don’t have this up and running again within 15 minutes, there will be free beer this evening. For everyone! But if we do manage, we’ll have Karaoke and you – Thomas – will perform ABBA’s Dancing Queen!’
The audience laughed. I had managed to move people’s focus away from the disaster.
But the dollar signs in my CEO’s eyes had gone. If I didn’t fix this my life as international consultant could well be over. Or my salary would be cut in half until I had paid for all the beers.
In fairness, I wasn’t alone. I had some great colleagues on stage who helped rebooting everything.
I took care of the extension cable. Placed it as far away from the chair as possible.
And 10-12 minutes later, after some quick diagnostics, we were ready to roll again. The rest of the presentation and live demo went great.
Last question from the audience: ‘When’s the Karaoke?’
I can’t say the CEO was happy. He was actually quite upset and told us we had looked like a bunch of amateurs when accidentally unplugging the extension lead. I am sure he was also relieved.
That we had won the bet so he didn’t have to pay for the beer.
What doesn’t kill you…
I have often thought of this moment on stage. And whenever I face a challenge I tell myself ‘if you can survive that, you can survive anything’.
So yes, it didn’t kill me. It made me stronger.
What about you?
Have you had any work related fuck-ups you can share? Or am I the only one?