June of 1971. We lived in the old Amazon married student housing that has long since been plowed over. It was a collection of old army barracks, left over from the second world war, with some two-story apartment buildings and a row of single story wooden houses, with curved roofs dating back to military use, which is where we lived. It covered several acres just east of South Eugene High School, west of East Patterson, north of 24th. Ave, across the street from the old YMCA.
Often on weekdays around noon I’d start popping out of the front door to look north along the row of identical houses, anxious for the mailman. When I did, I’d often see others doing the same. Our little house was one of the closest to the south end of the row of about 12 or maybe 14 little houses. The mailman would come from the opposite end of the row, walking, and leave the mail door by door. As I opened the door and looked out, I’d often see other people doing the same. Like prairie dogs in a Disney documentary.
Jobs were scarce in 1971. And jobs are always scarce for grad students looking for their first jobs. Of course there are other reasons to look for the mail, and not all of us were done like I was then, and looking for jobs. But it felt like that to me.
We were broke. And we were ready to leave Eugene and the University of Oregon and get into real life. I hadn’t finished my master’s in Journalism, but I’d finished the class work so all I needed was to do a thesis, which I could do from anywhere. We’d used up the $5,000 student loan and Vange’s meager earnings at the university weren’t enough. We needed to either get a real job or get another student loan.
I really wanted a real job in real journalism. I’d fallen thoroughly in love with the idea of it. My grad classes in Journalism were steeped in the lore, the traditions, the ethic, the meaning of it all. The great newspapers, the reporters, the scoops, the think pieces and investigative pieces, I wanted all of it. I’d sent resumes and applications all over Oregon, California, and Mexico City. Each of them was to me like a lottery ticket, a reason to hope, a reason to wait anxiously for the mail to arrive.
I’d not only fallen in love with Journalism; I’d also fallen into it. Literally. We’d moved to Eugene in September of 1970, just nine months married, for me to do a PhD track in Comparative Literature. I loved English Lit, but had lots of German Lit too aftr a year in Innsbruck, and then I’d fallen in love with Vange and learned Spanish. The University of Oregon had one of the better comparative literature programs on the west coast, second to Stanford (which hadn’t accepted me). They didn’t give me money, but they admitted me. Two weeks into that, I found myself having to do a 10-page paper on Robert Herrick’s poem ‘The Altar’, notable for how its written form looked like an altar (long lines, short lines, long lines). In other words, boring, meaningless drilling down into the detail. Meanwhile we’d just bought me a pair of shoes from a store clerk who brightened up, while helping me try on shoes, because he too had studied literature, and had the PhD. So I wanted out. But we’d moved to Eugene, moved into housing, paid tuition, taken a loan. I spent an evening browsing the university catalog. The next morning I walked into the school of Journalism and waited until I could talk to the dean. As it turned out, he too had gone from PhD studies in Literature to Journalism. I switched that day. And Dean John Crawford found me scholarship money and helped me every way he could. And damn, what a difference! Journalism also cared about writing, but it was also living, changing the world, doing something that meant something. I found my home there and dove in, doing two years of class work in nine months, with straight As (I ended up getting the degree with honors, but that was four years later, after I’d finally done a thesis).
Mexico City was a variation on the dream. Vange’s mom Eva connected us to a University of Oregon alum in Mexico City with a head-hunter business, and with his encouragement we allowed ourselves to dream the life of a foreign correspondent, with a lavish salary, company car, private school tuition for kids (not that we had any at that point). It turned out to be horribly unrealistic, by the way — but it fueled the dream.
By the time the envelope from the ‘Mexico City News’ came, I’d interviewed at AP in Portland (they’d said “not enough professional experience,” which was hard to argue, since I had none). And again at a weekly in Newport, Oregon (same story: only hiring experienced journalists).
The envelope was thicker than most. I opened it eagerly. And, to my amazement, it contained plane tickets! Back then plane tickets came as a booklet of several pages, with copies for boarding and so on, and a cardboard back, all of it sized to fit nicely in a standard letter envelope. The flights were ‘open’ so I could call and reserve. Mexico City and back, paid for by the News.
We were amazed, excited, deliriously happy. At that moment, we were living proof of the idea that real happiness is anticipation of happiness. There was the still-alive dream of the foreign correspondent living in luxury in a foreign capital. And for Vange, she was 23 years old, missed her mom and her siblings and life in Mexico City, and this meant going back there was married to her American husband. For me, also 23, this was not just the ticket to real actual Journalism, but also a ticket to move again (after the year in Innsbruck) away from the United States to another country, to live and work there. And to Mexico City, my wife’s home town, which I’d really liked in our visits.
So I went to Mexico City. Vange waited at home because it was an expensive round trip. Her mom Eva met me at the airport and treated me royally along with Laura her sister and Horacio her brother. We had a nice dinner that night, and a lot of encouragement. My Spanish had improved with each visit, and I’d gone from my first-year Spanish at Notre Dame to a Eva loaned me her car for the three day visit. And Vange waited with very little news, because back then, calls from Mexico City to Oregon were prohibitively expensive, like $20 per minute.
The next day, reality hit the dream. enjoyed driving Eva’s little Datsun bluebird through city traffic. I found a parking space, which was still possible in 1971. But then I arrived at the Novedades building.
The ‘Novedades’ was one of at least six daily newspapers in Mexico City. It was not the best (Excelsior), but it was a major player. ‘The Mexico City News,’ the only English-language newspaper in the city, was a Novedades property.
The Novedades building was on Avenida Morelos, near the corner of Balderas, in the heart of the newspaper district. Newspapers clustered together, within one or two blocks of each other, in downtown Mexico between Reforma and the old downtown district around the Cathedral and National Palace. The ornate but aged dark stone building was probably built in the 1920s, I guessed. It was six floors high, run down, but still working hard every day, the brain of a national network of newspapers and magazines.
‘The News’ newsroom included maybe eight desks, a water cooler, and a 10 by 20 editor’s office with a door and windows out to the desks. It was on the fourth floor. The editor, Jaime Plenn, was a small older bald man with a slight New York accent and no gift for small talk. He made no effort to hide his discomfort with what I discovered was me having been pushed on him by a then-vague power called “upstairs.” Somebody (he rolled his eyes as he said it) seemed to think that a Mexican wife and a grad degree made a journalist. That same somebody (eyes rolling again) thought they could build a new generation of news people for the news, people who weren’t nondescript oddballs and misfits.
And oddballs and misfits they were. Stereotypes as if from a bad situation comedy. The sportswriter had a foul mouth and the beer belly. The business editor was a fifty-something portly woman with short hair and a cloud of cigar smoke. The social editor was a well dressed late-thirties woman who seemed like she’d ridden a couple of decades on being good looking (and she still was). The main reporter came with a New York accent, a big sweeping mustache, long hair, a flower shirt and sandals.
I “interviewed” with all of them. All were generally welcoming to this 23-year-old American kid who looked like he was 17. They were mostly showing off, trying to play their character roles. Jaime Plenn made it clear, from the beginning, that the job was mine to take.
The dream crashed and burned when I got to the salary. The job was mine to take. The salary was $MN3,200 pesos per month. That translated to $267 per month. I took that with a straight face because I’d never actually lived in Mexico City; but it seemed like very little. And thus ended day one of the job visit. I was supposed to come back the following day to sign papers, and then to get my ass down to Mexico City as soon as I could.
Eva was shocked. “That’s impossible. You can’t live with that,” she said. She was so disappointed. She too had bought into the dream of the foreign correspondent, fed by her friend Craig Dudley, the University of Oregon alum. Craig, as it turned out, dealt with expat executives from major corporations. He had no idea how journalists lived. Eva had bought into the dream too.
That evening, as I sat at dinner with Eva, Laura, and Horacio at dinner, they were all shocked. Eva, who ached to have Vange back again in Mexico City, led the charge. She didn’t want me to make a mistake. She was never able to give bad advice on purpose.
“Tim, you have to tell them no. Go back tomorrow and tell them you can’t live on that.” She knew that I didn’t know costs and money in Mexico City. I hated to do what she said, because I had no job at all, I too wanted to move to Mexico City, and it was actual journalism. But I trusted Eva. I longed to talk to Vange about it, but I couldn’t, because we were that broke. And Eva clearly spoke for Vange too.
And so I did. I went back and told Jaime Plenn I wasn’t taking the job. Too little money. Which was a hard moment at first, and then an awkward moment, and then, as I sat and listened to a couple of calls, it became an appointment “upstairs.”
“Upstairs,” as it turned out, was the office of Guillermo Gutierrez, a wealthy Bolivian expat political exile, with a big desk in a big office of dark oak and deep green, and a secretary in an outer office. On the fifth floor. I didn’t know his history or even his position in the Novedades organization. To me he was a Mexican businessman dressed in an expensive business shirt, tie, and suspenders, with his suit coat on a rack. He was also very clearly the author of the idea of getting this young American with Journalism education and Mexican wife down to the Mexico City News. Upping the quality was his idea.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Guillermo Gutierrez said, leaning forward towards me, elbows on the desk, speaking softly. “You take the job for the 3,200 pesos. Take the paycheck along with everybody else on the fourth floor. But once a month, you come upstairs to my office, and I’ll hand you 5,000 more pesos in cash. And that will remain between you and me.”
So, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. I said yes. The dream, downgraded from good money and luxury lifestyle to barely enough, survived. I called Vange to tell her, in three minutes, I’d taken the job and we were moving to Mexico City. I finished the details and flew home to a very happy young wife and eager anticipation. We packed up the 1968 Volkswagen I’d bought in Munich. We drove once again down to Mexico City, our second time, but this time to stay. Our nine years in Mexico City began.
However, the story doesn’t end there. The plot actually thickened. For several months I worked at The News, starting on the copy desk, doing cuts and edits and writing headlines, and then getting to go out and do reporting on stories. It was journalism, quirky or not. I liked my oddball coworkers and even Jaime warmed up a lot.
But then one day in November when I went upstairs for my monthly under-the-table payoff from Guillermo Gutierrez,he was gone. Gone for good, his secretary told me. Ya se fue para siempre. That’s when I learned he had been a political refugee from Bolivia, which meant nothing to me until then. Hugo Banzer had taken over Bolivia via military coup, and Gutierrez, a right-winger, had gone back to Bolivia to join the Banzer government. And that was that. Nobody knew (or admitted to knowing) about my arrangement, which had always been secret. He’d made me promise never to tell Jaime Plenn or coworkers, and I kept that promise. So I was stuck, badly.
Two months later I joined UPI, United Press International, as night editor for Mexico City. Full time. Paid in dollars via deposit into Citibank in New York, for $115 a week.
That’s me in 1972 in the UPI office at Avenida Morelos 110, in Mexico City.
It was August of 1981, early morning, in the office of John Lutz, managing partner of McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City. I was three months out of Stanford with an MBA degree, working for McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City.
The McKinsey offices sat in a very stylish high-profile office building overlooking a critical freeway junction over Chapultepec Park, linking the fancy Las Lomas residential area with Polanco and the Paseo de Reforma main business district. The streets were wet from rain overnight, and the freeway was, as almost always, jammed. The sky was dense, a mixture of rain clouds and smog.
Mortified, but I had to quit
I was mortified to tell Lutz that I needed to quit. I’d only been there a few weeks. I didn’t like to see myself as the archetypical fancy MBA blowing off the first job. I was 33 years old, married, and my wife was expecting our fourth child. I was way too mature for this stuff.
I certainly didn’t belong there. I’d been entrepreneurial for 10 straight years, making my own way with freelance journalism and, later, my own consulting, and I wasn’t up to faking awe for the partners. And as a family, we didn’t belong in Mexico City. I had loved that place for nine years in the 70s, it had been good to me, but I was done. And Vange was just as done, even though it was her city. It had become too big, too hard to deal with. We had left in 1979 and shouldn’t have gone back in 1981.
The above was our young family in 1979 on the driving trip from Mexico City to Stanford campus.
Furthermore, as I’d come out of the business school, I chose McKinsey for the wrong reasons. It was the job that made me look best in the eyes of my peers. It wasn’t just the money and prestige, it was also the competition. With McKinsey, I’d won.
Wrong job, wrong choice
But the job I’d chose was meant for a 26-year-old single person blinded by ambition and unencumbered by relationships. Like most professional firms, success involved putting up with a corporate culture that spent 12 to 14 hours a day in the office, whether or not there was work to be done. The firm actively discouraged families by encouraging long-term business travel but without families, and by running 5-day strategy meetings at beach resorts and forbidding families coming along, even at the family’s own expense. I was not supposed to disagree with partners. Lutz’s previous one-on-one with me was to complain about my second-guessing a partner, in a cocktail setting, in front of a client. But the issue on that one was about an imminent peso devaluation, and I was right and the partner wrong. Staying quiet about peso devaluations never occured to me. After all, I’d been the Business Week correspondent in Mexico for years, and I’d learned to read the signs. I’d bet right on devaluation and earned enough from it to pay for a year in school. Also, aside from that one, an associate I was supposed to put up with one of the partners who parked his six extra cars in the reserved spaces of associates, one of which was mine — in Mexico City, where parking spaces were so scarce you could take hours looking. Oh, and at the end of the day, as an associate, I was warned not to leave before all of the six partners had left. It would have meant hanging around, with nothing to do, from six to nine, while Vange and our three kids waited at home. I ignored that advice, of course. I mention it here because it illustrates the awkwardness of that job, for me.
So, back in the office with John Lutz, did I tell him why I was leaving? That I didn’t like the job, had made a bad decision, didn’t like Mexico City either? No. I didn’t. I told him I needed a lot more money.
The lesson: tell the damned truth
This is one of the best arguments ever for telling the damn truth, even when it’s embarrassing. I’m still embarrassed, but I’m older now, and, well, I think this is a good lesson to share.
The next day they doubled my peso salary. But I still left, and I left looking and feeling really stupid. Why didn’t I just tell the truth in the first place? If the first conversation was hard, the second, when I told him I was still leaving, was ten times harder.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. You can’t build a business from scratch without making mistakes. It’s an entire category on my blog, more than 150 posts. This dumb MBA mistake wasn’t my worst, but it’s one of the easiest to explain afterwards, and I hope one that might help others avoid making it too. There is a moral to this story.
As it turned out, the mistakes were choosing the job in the first place, and then not telling the truth about why I was leaving. But leaving, the main decision, was not a mistake. I had arranged a job waiting for me with Creative Strategies International in San Jose. For me and my family, returning back to the San Francisco peninsula, Silicon Valley, seemed like returning from exile back to paradise.
There are two morals to the story. First, never make decisions to impress others. Second, never slant away from the truth to make a hard moment easier. Give it a spin instead, and you risk looking twice as bad later.