The first time I had to fire someone, nearly 30 years ago, I lay awake the night before. There was no question that she had to be fired. Her irresponsible behavior was jeopardizing the whole research project that I was running.
But she was just 19 years old and a nice kid. Moreover, when I was 19 years old and out of work, it was the worst year of my life. I was on my own, living alone, falling behind in the room rent and going hungry.
Still, I had to fire her. It was obviously so painful to me that she ended up trying to cheer me up. Her situation was wholly different from what mine had been when I was 19. That was probably why she could afford to be irresponsible.
Like most things, however, firing people gets easier with experience. And not all the people who needed firing were nice. Some were people whom I had gone out on a limb to help, who then turned around and knifed me in the back.
At one point, I simply sent a brief memo to the personnel department, saying: "The following individuals are to be terminated as soon as possible -- " followed by a list of names and my signature. No point wasting words on some people.
Firing and being fired are among the many unpleasant -- but necessary -- things in life. Those who look no further than the surface think that it is good to reduce or eliminate all the sources of stress and challenge in life. All sorts of soft options -- ranging from easy grades to "alternatives to incarceration" -- appeal to people with this mindset.
Adversity is often a necessary ingredient in achievement. Someone once asked Babe Ruth what his greatest thrill in baseball was. He recalled his early days as a young pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, when he faced the Detroit Tigers with the bases loaded, nobody out, and Ty Cobb at bat. Ruth struck out the side. But it was the adversity that made it an achievement that he treasured more than his later home run feats.
An old saying from one of the poorer countries in Europe was: "Hunger is the teacher." It is amazing how serious you can get after you have had to go hungry. I did a lot of growing up after that experience when I was 19.
Today, when there are so many ways to shelter people from the consequences of their own actions, there are large numbers of people of all ages who have never had to grow up. In San Francisco, each of "the homeless" gets paid hundreds of dollars a month for doing nothing more than gracing us with their presence.