Snoopy was right: Every story worth telling should begin on a dark and stormy night.
My dark and stormy night was when I left home to move to Grand Canyon, Ariz., to pursue a new career in public safety. I was leaving all my family behind and trading my entire support network for a full-time job paying $15.75 an hour and a hope of making something of myself. It was also the first time I’d be living on my own. In fact, the flight down was the first time I’d traveled.
I was cheap and lazy and waited until the last second to purchase my one-way plane ticket. Mind you, this was in October 2002—just over a year post-9/11. As I should have expected, I was pulled aside at every checkpoint for additional screening due to the fact that I was traveling alone, with only one backpack to my name, and had purchased my one-way ticket to Phoenix’s international airport at the last second. The additional screening wasn’t that bad, but it was a lesson learned: Procrastination can haunt you.
On the flight south I was in the middle seat because those never get sold first. I had guys on either side of me, both larger than myself and each of whom took the armrest on either side of me. As a result I had to give myself a hug for the four-hour flight from Anchorage. That’s not that bad, because I am a good hugger, but then came the worst 20 minutes of my life to that point: snack time.
I had my $1,200 bag of four pretzels in front of me and a small cup of orange juice with a lonely Titanic-killer of an ice cube that filled half the cup resting in its notched seat on the fold-down table. I set the bag down, picked up the cup for a sip, and then went to return it. In awkwardly trying to set the cup down without touching my row partners, I lost my grip on the cup, which bounced once on the table and then flipped completely upside down as I tried fruitlessly to curb its loss. The orange juice spilled onto the table and began flowing to either side.
My immediate thought was to the innocent bystanders dutifully enjoying their own snacks. I grabbed my tiny napkin in one hand and my pretzel bag in the other to dam off the flow, and while successfully saving myself the stress of spilling the juice onto the gentlemen beside me, I diverted it instead in a perfectly straight line onto the crotch of my pants. This surprised me, and I pushed backward in my seat. My knee reflexively jumped up and hit the table, which threw the upside-down cup at my face, and the ice cube launched at and struck my lower jaw, which caused me to bite my tongue.
The spill was done, my lap soaked, my bottom lip swelling, and tears were in my eyes. My neighbor looked at me and asked politely if I needed to use the restroom.
He stood up to let me out. It was at this point that I looked toward the bathroom and realized I was about to walk past at least 100 people with pants that looked like I had wet myself. I stumbled down the aisle toward the back, drooling from a fat lip and with soaked pants, mumbling out loud about ice cubes and orange juice. I don’t know what the people on the flight thought of me, dragging my pride behind me, but it probably wasn’t anything about my professionalism and more likely about how ill-prepared I had been for this journey on their airplane.
Own Your Mistakes
Isn’t that how we all enter our careers? Nobody knows us, and that first impression is what will set the course for the rest of our path. Respect is earned, but reputations are often created by random events over which we have no control.
And that’s where the two most important things in our professional development occur: the acceptance that not everything can be controlled, and the realization that we can prepare for what we cannot control.
When you join an agency, strive to exude the most professional demeanor possible to build a solid reputation. When you make a mistake, own it and learn from it and move forward. I could have sat in the pool of my own decision for the rest of the flight, but that wouldn’t have fixed anything. I got up, got cleaned, and faced down the embarrassment. The same applies for any mistake at work. Forgot the PCR or gurney back at the hospital? Didn’t wash your dishes or do something else you promised? Own it. Learn from it. Your reputation builds as much by what you’re willing to improve as by what you already did.
Moving forward doesn’t mean never looking back. Since that flight, I have always kept the cup in my hands until I’m done with it. Like every other lesson in life, we remember what happened before and if we are wise, avoid repeating the mistake. I haven’t played with electric fences since I was 6, run on wet ice since I was 8, or played catch with lawn darts since my younger brother caught one through the palm of his hand. That doesn’t mean I’m dwelling on my past; it means I’m ensuring a more successful future.
Christian Hartley is fire chief for the city of Houston, Alaska. He is a second-generation responder who has worked in EMS, corrections, and the fire service since 1999.