Erik van Mechelen

March 1, 2022

Accountability & Responsibility

Only a year out of college in 2011 I had recently taken over the kitchen tools and gadgets inventory management role at Target. It was a tricky job with over 600 SKUs/items but I thought I was up to it. For a few months it seemed like I was. But I was also learning to say things so people thought I was doing a good job without doing the hard work necessary to produce results. Then, about a month out from our annual transition, I learned that many of the products wouldn't be there in time. And it was my fault because I hadn't ordered them far enough in advance to account for the longer import lead times. Even with expedited shipping, the set dates were missed for a large portion of the 1,800 stores nationwide—lots of empty shelves. Customers would have to buy their spatulas and salad spinners from our competitors and a question was asked all the way up the chain of command: How did this happen? 

When asked, I said I ordered the product late because I wasn't organized. Which was true, but only a symptom of the fact that I didn't take pride in my work. The ground Truth was that I didn't want to admit to myself or to them that I was in a job that wasn't right for me. Unable to find a way to take responsibility, I licked my wounds, tried a little harder, staying late and coming in on weekends, but continued to deliver mediocre results at best. I didn't understand that when people criticized me they were trying to help me do better. My stubbornness and low-rate performance led my manager to put me on an action plan to be removed from the company. My fight or flight instincts kicked in. But instead of accepting the Truth, I fought it. Yes, I did better work and told my boss's boss I wanted and deserved to stay, but only because I wanted to save face. The right thing to do would have been to admit my mistakes—chief among them that I was lying to myself—and take it as a sign and opportunity to start over somewhere else. 

Two and a half years later I was still with the company in a slightly better role for me but much was still missing. I decided to start writing on the side. Fiction and non-fiction, short form, long form. I would get home from work and write. One day my brother was talking about how he was going to leave his company soon to make music (he still hasn't) but I realized I needed to leave to at least try something new and different or end up talking about it my entire life. My brother and I spoke on a Saturday, I went paddleboarding on Sunday, and staring up at the clouds I realized I was going to give my two week's notice on Monday. When my boss announced my decision, one person said, "Oh no, you're my favorite person here!" in front of the rest of the team, which made me at least feel like I hadn't wasted all my time there the last four years. That decision was a 27th birthday gift to myself in September 2014. 

I picked up a novel I'd started at 16 and finished a draft in only a couple months. But when I tried to sell it to agents, there was barely a nibble. With my savings and a gift of money from my dad drying up quickly, I had to figure out how to pay rent and otherwise finally accept a bit of responsibility. I wrote one-off keyword articles for a very low rate, wrote for strangers on topics I had to research to write sensibly about, and even worked for one of the cofounders of a company called Book in a Box for $12 an hour. He soon raised the rate to $20 and gave me more work.

I was starting over and doing it the right way. Very slowly, I was learning how to write, how to listen, how to work with clients.

In short, I was learning how to be accountable and shoulder responsibility.