Posted by: patenttranslator | November 27, 2011

The best way to start a business is to get fired from a stupid job by a dumb boss

It has always been that way. But there hasn’t always been unemployment insurance. If you quit your job, you are not eligible for it. But if you get fired, they’ll pay you a little bit to get over the hump (although these days it is not nearly as easy to qualify for unemployment payments as when I was an employee in the eighties, see discussion in the comments below). Remember, unemployment is called “entitlement” because you are entitled to it. They are just giving you back a small portion of your taxes that you paid over the years and will be paying for the rest of your life for unemployment insurance.

I was fired from my job at Ramada Renaissance Hotel in San Francisco sometime in April of 1987. I remember that in the evening on Saint Patrick’s day, I was thinking about how miserable I was in my job while listening to drunks yelling something and singing on their way home from an Irish bar around the corner from our apartment on Fifth Avenue. A couple of weeks later, the job was history.

I paid a professional placement coach two thousand five hundred dollars for his advice on what to do next. His name was Charley, he was about 65, he was kind of short and he had a funny white mustache. His company had an office in a redbrick building near a famous San Francisco tourist trap called Fisherman’s Wharf. He gave me a lot of advice on how to prepare myself for interviews and such, which later turned out to be completely useless.

But he also gave me almost 25 years ago two pieces of advice that were really useful.  And I will share them with the readers of this blog for free (because that’s the kind of guy I am). I should have actually figured out what he told me on my own, but I didn’t. Most people don’t for some reason. Here is his advice:

1. You have to do something that you really, really like. Forget about stupid jobs that pay your bills but make you miserable. Can you be happy, or even stay sane, doing the job that you are doing today for the next 20 years? If the answer is no, you have to find another job ASAP.

2. Try to find people who are already doing what you consider your dream job, hang out with them and imitate them until you find yourself.

It so happened that there was a group of Japanese translators who were meeting in a house not far from where I lived in San Francisco every few months. I started hanging out with them and imitating them. Within two years, I was already making twice as much as what I used to make at that hotel doing what I found much more interesting than dealing with Japanese and German tour groups, namely translating in my home office things like computer game manuals and patents from Japanese, and a box full of issues of the Journal of the German Hemophiliac Society from German (this was after blood containing the AIDS virus was sold to Germany in the eighties).

I would probably never have had the courage to start my own business had it not been for the fact that I got fired from my job back then. That’s also what I said to my son who called me last week after he told me that he got fired from his job by his boss.

He said that there was something wrong with his boss. He called him “socially awkward”, and  also “an a..hole.”

I hope my son will start a business at some point. Unlike his father, he does not know how to fake very, very convincingly seven languages. But he is definitely not socially awkward, which I probably am.

He will figure out something. He already did get fired, which is the first step to enlightenment.


  1. I didn’t actually get fired, but my last boss did something so dumb that I resigned on the spot:
    One day after telling the staff (all 3 of us) of the company that profits that year hadn’t been good enough to be able to pay us a Christmas bonus, he went out and ordered himself a £39,000 BMW company car. What did he think the reaction would be?


    • I quit my job in Japan in protest to the unsavory business practices that the “shacho” (company president) was bragging about during staff meetings.I was the only foreign employee in a tiny Japanese company.

      For example, he bought a diamond from a seller in India on unsecured credit without paying for it.

      He just used it to finance his business.

      So I quit my job, went on a short vacation with my wife to Hokkaido and returned to California. I might have stayed in Japan longer or for good had it not been for this particular “shacho”. I was not going to work for him anymore.


  2. Great post,
    thank you! Charley was right: Unless you do what you really-really like, you cannot succeed in your life, nor be a happy person. I’ve been there… Got fired from a job I thought I liked, landed in the freelance world, only to find out self-balance and professional wisdom. It took me a while to admit that I was on the wrong path for at least 10 years(…), but I was also lucky because during that time I gained experience from the market and were introduced to many different aspects of sales and marketing. Bottom line, I think that even the wrong job has things to offer, but being fired from the wrong job is definitely the perfect motive to get out there and find your real passion!

    P.S. I’m an architect that used to work in sales and project management, but who was always passionate about languages. Right now I am a happy person, working as a freelance technical translator. Being fired from a sales job after 9 years was kinda cruel, but it was also one of the best things that ever happened to me because it made me confront myself and admit that I should follow my true passion and pursue a career in translation.


    • I had 8 different jobs on 3 continents during a period of 7 years in the eighties. The longest one lasted 3 years, the shortest one 3 months. That’s why I hired Charley to help me sort out my situation…

      But I learned something from each and every one of those jobs and eventually I realized that I don’t really need to depend on an employer.


      • Thx again patenttranslator, you are an inspiration to me:-)


  3. I’ve been through a number of “labour negotiations” required by Finnish labour law. The first time, it was a bit stressful and the second time I was already jaded. Since then, I’ve told myself and others around me that getting fired might be the best thing that ever happened to you. And I am not even joking or being ironic. However, I’ve seen a lot of translators out there who are not equipped or trained to be an entrepreneur, while that’s what the translation industry is trying to turn everyone into.

    I have contemplated setting up a business of my own. Until now I have decided to go with the safety and salary that permanent employment brings. Luckily, right now I also really do like what I do. Getting fired, however, would most probably be the one thing to push me over the edge (although sometimes I feel like Finnish law equates having your own business more or less to an act of crime).


  4. “(although sometimes I feel like Finnish law equates having your own business more or less to an act of crime).”

    Sounds scary.

    Here in the US, all you need to do is hang out your (digital) shingle, pay the City Hall 50 dollars and then make sure that you pay your taxes every year.

    It is very simple to run a small business here although it looks like new idiotic laws may change that soon.


    • “Sounds scary. ”

      Well, maybe I was exaggerating a bit. 🙂 However, for the longest time Finland was a country where everyone would put social security before “pursuit of happiness”. I see that changing now. People no longer set up a business to have work until they retire (or just die). Instead, they might set up a business, sell it, move on to something else and then start again. I see Finns becoming more like Americans in how they look at small businesses and entrepreneurship. In the past, if your business failed you would fall into depression and shame. Nowadays, it’s more like: “well, that didn’t work out, but I think I learned a lot and know what to do different the next time over”.

      I am not sure how this relates to independent (freelance) translators, but I do see many of them just sticking with it for years on end, slaving for large MLVs. I think this is one thing keeping the translators’ incomes low and devaluating the profession.

      But anyway, setting up a business in Finland is really quite simple. It’s two forms to be filled out and 50-75 euros (cannot remember exactly). The problem is when you have to start figuring out the taxes, social security payments, insurances etc. Cost of hiring people in Finland is high and firing people can be difficult even when there are valid reasons. (Unlike in your case. ;-))


  5. I don’t think that in the US you will get unemployment insurance payments for being fired, but you get them if you are laid off. I was laid off and had two years of unemployment benefits while looking for a full-time job, but now my benefits have run out and I am back to working at self-employment as well as going back to school to modernize my skills.

    I and my husband have also pursued various self-employment revenue streams that fit our abilities and interests. In the past, we have successfully lived on the cumulative earnings of various self-employment opportunities, none of which on their own would support us, but added together they enable us to work at what we enjoy doing, while still allowing us to live and support our family. Sometimes this self-employment has included running newspapers up to people’s doors or other things that at first seem “unprofessional,” but, we do what we have to do when we have to do it. These self-employment revenue streams have, however, never included any health benefits, so it is best when one of us can have a full-time job to access them. That is just the way that it is.

    It is really true, though, that one gets fed up with working for someone else to the point that delivering newspapers sounds preferable. Once you try self-employment, in charge of your own business and your own life, returning to work for a corporate situation and “the man” would be really difficult.


  6. “I don’t think that in the US you will get unemployment insurance payments for being fired, but you get them if you are laid off.”

    Getting fired is the same as being laid off as far as unemployment benefits are concerned. At least it used to be like that three decades ago.

    Charley explained to me that people are often fired simply because “they are not compatible with the corporate culture.” They may not even realize it.

    After a few years of self-employment, most people are no longer compatible with corporate culture. I would definitely not fit into any corporate structure anymore. I can only exist as an independent contractor now.

    False modesty aside, I have been able to pay all the bills for a family of four solely on my own for a quarter century now. The last time my wife had a paying job was when Reagan was president.

    I don’t think that I would have been able to do that as an employee. It is often tough being self-employed, but not nearly as tough as being an employee.


    • I think that the unemployment bureaus are run by the states and so that each state may have different rules. In my state, you will not get unemployment when you lose your job for cause, period. If you loose a job because the employer cuts back your hours, lays you off, or closes down, you can get unemployment compensation, provided your work hours in the previous quarter (or whatever time period they are using) totals above a certain threshold.

      I was on unemployment for two years, as a worker whose department was cut; my adult daughter was recently on it for about three months, because her place of employment went out of business and now she has a job, but when my son was fired from his job for cause (i.e., being late one too many times), he could not get unemployment benefits When you apply, the forms are very clear about whether termination was for cause or not. I don’t know about thirty years ago, but this is the current environment.

      You are right that it would not be fun to have to go back to work as a corporate underling after having been freelance. You would be too critical of the way that “things are always done.” Corporate workers have to just put up or shut up. No one wants your opinion of their work or ideas.


  7. OK, so it looks like it is much more difficult to get unemployment these days. Why am I not surprised?

    I remember that I was afraid that they would not give me anything because I was fired “for a cause” as you put it, although it was a bs cause, but I remember that the lady in the Unemployment Office on Mission Street in San Francisco clearly wanted me to have some income back in 1987.

    She listen to my explanation and then she said, “Well, if your performance was not up to their standards, that is not a problem, you are still entitled to unemployment compensation.”

    But I was receiving unemployment for only about 9 weeks. I don’t know how they got the information that I started freelancing (it is also possible that they were bluffing), but after 9 weeks they sent me a letter informing me that there would be no more checks because they knew that I had other sources of income.

    But nine weeks was really all I needed to drum up some business, so it all worked out just fine for me.


    • They do give people an opportunity to dispute about whether or not the cause was fair or not. They have set up the process to try to be fair, with independent arbitrators that examine the documentation about the dismissal.


  8. I was fired from this job exactly after 90 days, so it was still within the probationary period. They did not have to justify anything.

    I think that they probably hired me knowing that they would get rid of me after three months. My boss had to go a sales seminar in Germany and she needed somebody there while she was away for three weeks. It was the first time that she got to travel to Europe and she was so excited about it! As soon soon as she got back, she fired me (I almost said the b***h fired my a*s).

    I heard that after me they hired some Japanese girl and then fired her too in a few months.

    One good thing about having been fired is that I really appreciate now standup comics and dark comedies about the experience of having been fired.

    It is such a huge blow to one’s ego. You never forget something like that.

    It’s almost as bad as being dumped when you (think you are) truly in love!


  9. […] The best way to start a business is to get fired from a stupid job by a dumb boss ( […]


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