Long life

I’ve been sacked more times than I can exactly remember. It teaches you nothing

I should know; I have been hired and fired more times than I can remember

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

The Oldie magazine — of which, until otherwise advised, I appear to be the editor — runs an occasional article about someone’s experience of being sacked. When I was young, this used to carry something of a stigma: other people found it hard to believe that you could be sacked without having somehow deserved it. But since then so many admirable people have lost their jobs for no good reason that nobody thinks any the worse of them for it. And now we are told by Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue and queen of the fashion world for 27 years, that to be sacked is actually a good thing. ‘I think everyone should be sacked at least once,’ she told Alastair Campbell in an interview for his new book Winners: And How They Succeed. ‘It forces you to look at yourself.’

It was in 1976, when she was still in her twenties, that Wintour underwent her one and only sacking. This was from the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, at which she had been a junior fashion editor. How or why it happened remains rather unclear — Wintour has said it was because she had made models wear dreadlocks at a Paris photo shoot, for which she was told that she ‘would never understand the American market’ — but whatever the reason, she is very pleased it happened. ‘It didn’t feel it at the time, but it was definitely a good thing for what it taught me. It is important to have setbacks, because that is the reality of life. Perfection doesn’t exist.’

Wintour, the ultimate perfectionist, may have needed to learn that perfection doesn’t exist, but most people know that already. And while her dismissal from Harper’s Bazaar may have somehow set her on the path towards a job that she finds almost perfect (‘I always look forward to coming into the office,’ she says), not everybody who gets sacked is so lucky. Many never get a decent job again. Many are left deeply frustrated and unhappy. On the other hand, some people do the same thing contentedly for years on end without apparently suffering any setbacks at all. One thinks of Robert Silvers who, at 85, is still editing the New York Review of Books having started doing it in 1963. That’s 52 years in the same job.

Well, I don’t know where I stand in all this.. Most often I’ve been sacked as a columnist: twice by the Daily Telegraph, once by the Daily Express, once by Saga magazine, and once by the Guardian. I never much enjoyed the experience; but then it was very good of all those employers to hire me in the first place, and I expect they knew what they were doing when they fired me. The most traumatic of my dismissals was from the editorship of The Spectator in 1984 (for, as Fraser Nelson knows, this is one of journalism’s most enviable jobs), but then I had been longer in the position — nine years — than any post-war editor apart from Wilson Harris and had probably become intolerably complacent as a result.

Alexander Chancellor, on the day he was sacked as Spectator editor

But then I can’t possibly say I have been unlucky. Quite the opposite. I have always somehow got new work after every sacking, and now, at the age of 75, I am in the improbable position of editing another magazine. Inbetween I have started two newspaper supplements — the Independent Magazine and the Sunday Telegraph Magazine (though I was also sacked from that) — have been the Independent’s first Washington correspondent, have had two spells as a senior editor on the Sunday Telegraph, and have spent a year in New York editing ‘The Talk of the Town’ section of the New Yorker. So I can hardly complain.

I may not have been 52 years in the same job (or even, like Anna Wintour, 27 years), but I have had some memorable experiences that would never have come my way without the odd sacking. However, I don’t know what Wintour means when she says that being sacked ‘forces you to look at yourself’. It never made me do that; I looked rather harder at my sackers. Nor do I think that she makes any sense when she says that everyone needs at least one sacking in order to discover that life can include setbacks. Has anyone ever not known that? Sackings are just things that happen, with good or bad consequences. They teach you nothing at all.

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  • Suleiman

    Being sacked for no good reason is one thing. Being sacked for a false, fraudulent reason out of a personal grudge of a boss against you, sometimes because you did too good a job, you performed too well for comfort from the boss’ point of view, is another thing, much worse. One reason why bosses, especially in the public sector but not only, can allow themselves to do that, is that they know that when it comes to an Employment Tribunal claim against them, the Employment Judge is going to be biased and to cheat in the judgment for them. Unfortunately it happens too many times, and we have no mechanism to force Employment Judges to supply this rare product, “justice”, to unjustifiably-sacked employees.

  • MacGuffin

    Everyone, everywhere, from Day 1 onwards, should be making verifiably contemporaneous notes of every little infringement of the meagre rights and protections afforded to employees in the UK. Then, when the time for the sack comes, perhaps years or even decades later, you’ll be ready to give your bastard employers the shock of their lives.

    There would be fewer American workers going postal if the practices outlined above were more universally followed.

    Good luck, everyone!

  • Peter Wood

    Alexander Chancellor gives the word ‘imperturbable’ a new and vibrant meaning. Having had brief dealings with him around the time of his sacking in 1984, I see that like one of the more memorable characters in one of Hardy’s poems (perhaps Hardy himself) he has not – in the best sense – changed. Vivat Alex!

  • Cymrugel

    Sackings are not learning experiences. They are misfortunes and mostly quite random.

    Most people lose their jobs through changes which they can do nothing about, caused by issues beyond their control. Only a relative few are fired for failing to perform or incompetence.

    Talking about “learning” from being sacked implies that it is some sort of well deserved reprimand when this is rarely if ever the case.

  • allthatglistens

    Being sacked once taught me that it is possible to be disposed of even
    when you’re doing a great job. Up until then I didn’t realise that
    people were sacked for reasons other than fraud, negligence or other poor
    performance. It taught me to look out for bosses who feel threatened by
    their employees and adjust my behaviour accordingly ie not try to
    over-impress them. So I agree with Ms Wintour. But I also agree with the
    writer that it caused me to look hard at my sacking employer which in
    turn helped me to recognise those like him (and avoid them) in my jobs
    that have since followed. All round not a pleasant experience but I
    can’t say it didn’t teach me anything.

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Sounds awfully complicated. You should just become a highwayman.

      • allthatglistens

        Do you suppose that’s any less complicated?

  • Helen of Troy

    One can always count on the successful to be fatuous about success.* This is the problem with listening to successful people: they’ve obviously done something right, but on the other hand, they often misunderstand what that ‘something right’ is, or — to be even franker — they give their qualities too much credit. So much of success is wandering into the right saloon at the right time, when Slap-Leather McQuick happened not to be around to take anyone down. Successful people think they got where they are because of hard work and acumen and irresistible appeal, so their assumption — from Rush Limbaugh to Barbara Amiel — is that the unsuccessful or less successful must lack these capacities. But we don’t often get to hear how bright people fail — there’s a since-successful author named Paul someone I think who wrote a whole biography focussed on his own failure to break through — for the same reason that it’s mainly the winners that write the history books.

    *Wintour’s comment is singularly unhelpful, bordering on silly. Life isn’t perfect (thanks for the heads-up!), and this imperfection lies in the fact that not-good things happen to us. But we should welcome these not-good things because they are in fact good for us — reminding us, as they do, that life isn’t perfect. We could go round in that circle forever. She may be a fashion expert but she’s no philosopher. How can one learn from such a person? She strikes me as nothing much more than lucky.

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Amiel wormed her way upward by sleeping with enablers. Agree on Wintour… gives me the willies that woman.

      • Helen of Troy

        Your second line is ironic considering the first : )

        • T_H_E_R_I_O_N


    • Mc

      You may be alluding to the fact that, more often than not, people succeed because they are politically astute. I think many of us recognise that our bosses are talented only as politicians.

      • Helen of Troy

        Yes, but it’s more than that: I’m not denying the actual talent or skill of successful people; I’m just saying that it takes more than talent to succeed. (This is why the non-successful can feel doubly bad: not only are they not fulfilled, but others tend to think that they deserve their unfulfillment.) Some people are lucky, but more than random luck is the benefit of being ‘well set up’, as I think of it: favoured by social connections, geographic location, schooling or mentoring, physical traits, or any combination of those goods. The importance of being ‘well set up’ can’t be overstressed, and this is why we’re seeing privately educated, well-heeled young people succeeding in highly competitive and/or glutted endeavours such as acting: they can afford to be in it for the long haul, and they’re not going to miss an audition because the rent’s due and they have to work in the coffee shop instead. Another example of having an advantage you didn’t earn: professional star hockey players tend to have birthdays in January, February, and March. What does that mean? It means that they were older than other boys of the same nominal age, and a few months can make a difference in size and physical power at an age when boys are rapidly growing. This slight edge is enough to get some picked for elite training over others that play well also but are a bit younger. But when did you last hear someone praise the fact that he was born earlier than his competitors and that’s a significant part of why he’s so successful?

  • Feminister

    “The most traumatic of my dismissals was from the editorship of The Spectator in 1984 (for, as Fraser Nelson knows, this is one of journalism’s most enviable jobs), but then I had been longer in the position — nine years — than any post-war editor apart from Wilson”

    I misread your name as Alexandra, then I got to this bit and was stopped in my trqcks. This can’t be a woman writing this I thought. Scrolled up, confirmed.

  • Ed  

    You haven’t been paying attention. There are a number of lessons in a sacking.

    One of them is that bosses and organizations are both, like a number of things in this world, on the bell curve. Some of them are toward the left tail.

  • FF42

    Surprisingly I have never been sacked. Knowing quite a few who have in the various companies I have been involved with, most of the firings have been quite arbitrary. Someone in charge, or someone who wants to be seen to be in charge will declare “We don’t need people doing X”, so Tom, Harry and Jane are let go. With equal logic he could said “we don’t need Y”, in which case Jill and Fred would have lost their jobs. So Jill and Fred stay on until the next cull.

  • Terry Field

    Being sacked teaches one powerful lesson.
    Caligula rules, and the way to live is to own and control the enterprise, and fire the other bastards without regret.
    The jungle is reality, despite the protestations of another reality by milksops

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Sacking reminds me of burlap and testicles… firing sounds better.