Jeff Havens on How to Get Fired! in any Economy

Monday, Feb. 8th 2010 12:58 PM

The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is an art form. In fact, learning what not to do may just well be the single most critical step for success in life.

So it goes without saying that one of most valuable presentations for young workers would be one that focuses on the things one should never do. And if such recommendations could be presented with some very edgy humor, you could wind up with an award-winning bit that earns you countless speaking engagements.

Such is the unique emphasis of corporate keynote speaker and stand-up comedian Jeff Havens. Jeff is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vanderbilt University – and former English teacher who honed his presenting and comedy skills the tough way, trying to get today’s digitally-oriented 9th and 10th graders reading Shakespeare and Homer.

While education may not have been his calling, his desire to teach has never waned. Hence he now engages corporate audiences, folks like General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford Motor Company, USBank, and Frito-Lay with his mantra, Uncrapify Your Life!, a bit where he encourages workers to “criticize others and outsource blame.” By first “highlighting and poking fun of the practices we’re all guilty of,” Uncrapify Your Life! provides a major “twist on the traditional motivational model.”

In addition, Jeff also offers another established keynote that is relevant to those new to or just about to enter the workforce. In his second bit, he offers some very powerful lessons on How to Get Fired!, deep meaningful lessons that will ensure your ability to get canned in even an up economy.

We caught up with Jeff over the weekend. The first time he was on his way from Madison to Omaha, the next time on his way back to Madison and just before heading off to St. Cloud. For the popular speaker that is just the tip of the iceberg for a month of February that will see him addressing audiences in Boston; Schenectady, New York; Savannah, Georgia; Kansas City, Missouri; and multiple cities in Illinois and Indiana.

It appears that public speaking and a humorous approach to serious topics runs in the family. My understanding is that your Dad Rex is also a comedian/motivational speaker?

Yep. He started out as a corporate lawyer – not a fact he advertises, since most people don’t think lawyers are the most hilarious group of people – but he got into comedy late, at 37, and seven years later quit law and went full-time at the comedy world. And he’s done it, he’s made a living – a pretty decent one, to be honest – as a completely invisible comedian. Corporate shows, cruise ships, etc.

There are a ton of us, invisible entertainers – comedians, magicians, jugglers, hypnotists, probably a few mimes in there – paying our bills when nobody knows who we are. Check him out – Rex Havens – if you’ve ever been married, thought about being married, or heard about somebody getting married, then you’ll love what he does with relationships.

Like when it comes to weddings, a woman’s clothes are folded, sealed, wrapped in plastic, saved and preserved as an altar and shrine for life. The man’s clothes are rented…and need to be back at the shop by Monday…because another guy needs ’em next weekend.

Anyway, when I decided to try my own hand at comedy – which has morphed into the content-oriented comedic presentations that I now do regularly for corporations and college students alike – anyway, when I decided to try it, I didn’t get into it because of him. But once I decided that I might want to pursue comedy as a career, he was a phenomenal role model. He taught me that this is a business, that you don’t just go to a club and shout into a microphone for your own entertainment. It’s a job, you have to be professional, you have to prepare and work and work and work. And I think that’s really helped me move up much faster than I would have otherwise.

Yet you chose at first to teach? High school English no less?

Ah, yes. High school English. Kids today just LOVE reading, by the way, which is why I’m no longer teaching. I taught 9th and 10th grade English – Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, all those ancient stories that so resonate with today’s cyber youth.

But to be honest, teaching is incredible. The good days are unbeatable – you really know that you’re making an honest difference, changing the world in some positive way – but the bad days are horrible. High highs, low lows.

interior-uncrapI liked teaching, but I didn’t like where I was. There was no parental support – for example, at my first parent-teacher conference of my 2nd year of teaching, 6 of my 120 students’ parents showed up. And ultimately, I was young, and not a terribly good teacher probably, and I couldn’t get my students to meet me halfway. A lot of them thought I was really fun – I brought my drums in one day for example to teach about the difference between rhyming and free verse poetry, and I dyed my hair pink as a reward for one of the girls in my class who had collected a certain amount of extra credit. But they just wouldn’t read. And I didn’t want to be pushing grammar worksheets for the rest of my life.

I will say this, though – there is absolutely no better preparation for public speaking of any kind than being a teacher. Every day, you are presenting to five or six audiences, some of whom are actively disinterested in or contemptuous of what you’re trying to say. After that, no comedy audience can touch you. I’ve had my share of less-than-stellar performances in my six years as a comedian, corporate speaker, and lecturer, but I’ve only had one that I’d consider truly awful.

Teaching gave me an enormous amount of confidence in my ability to handle stress in a public setting, and I think it’s paid itself off very nicely.

OK, let’s get to some brass tacks here – were you a little tongue-in-cheek in your book, that you have been fired from more jobs than our readers will likely ever have? And the longest job you ever held lasted exactly 43 days?

Honestly? Yes. I’ve never been fired. Although I have failed to get hired before, which you could consider to be a sort of premature firing. I’m guessing they knew that I’d eventually get fired, so they saved themselves the trouble of hiring me, being disappointed, and having to let me go.

Oh, wait. Yes, I have been fired once. For about 18 months I made a portion of my living on the streets of Nashville playing drums dressed up like a giant chicken. I bought a chicken suit on eBay for $100 – my first eBay purchase, by the way, and the best. You make a lot more money playing drums on the street dressed up like a giant chicken than you do dressed like a normal person. Anyway, one of the bars on 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville started paying me to stand in front of their bar and attract business, which I did all through winter and spring until it got too hot in the summer – three or four hours of drumming on a street in a latex-lined chicken suit is hot enough in December, much less July. Anyway, when I came back the next fall, they didn’t feel like paying me anymore. Was I fired? Maybe not technically, but it felt like it. And the chicken drumming was just never the same.

And are you still really living in the family basement “feasting on box macaroni” at any moment you so please?

I love box macaroni. But no, I have my own house, with my own yard, and a lawn tractor because I’m 95 years old, and occasionally my wife and I stand in Home Depot and shop for houseplants. But every so often I will go into my own basement and eat box macaroni. Does that count?

The year 2010 will bring with it your first appearance on Comedy Central? Can you give readers a glimpse into the stand up routine you will be delivering?

interior-firedSure. I still have a regular stand-up routine – I don’t do it as often anymore, mostly because I’ve been keeping so busy with Uncrapify Your Life! and How to Get Fired! – but my comedy routine is generally conceptual.

I deal mostly in ideas. Health care, education, how math can help you get into Heaven, language. I like playing with words, looking at the various absurdities of some of our everyday phrases and idioms.

Oh, and I’ve definitely got the best way to entertain yourself at the post office that I’ve ever heard of.

When listening to and reading about your award-winning, Uncrapify Your Life! keynote address, I couldn’t help but think of our good friends in Washington. Particularly when it comes to the notion of criticizing others and outsourcing blame!

I think the reason Uncrapify has been as successful as it has been is because people appreciate the fact that I’m calling all of us out. We’re all guilty of masking our criticism of others in seemingly innocuous phrases like “No offense” and “Don’t take this the wrong way,” and everyone is guilty of finding a scapegoat from time to time.

When it comes to my corporate audiences, I like to point out the things we’re all guilty of, have some fun with it, allow people to laugh at themselves, and then bring it back to something meaningful they can do to hopefully improve some tensions that have built up in their working environments.

But if we’re talking straight politics here, I’m extremely disappointed in our leaders’ collective inability to get anything significant done. I’m aware that Republicans and Democrats often work together on small issues, local affairs and things like that. But if it’s going to take 60 Senate votes for any major legislation to get passed, then absolutely nothing is going to happen. Everyone will blame everyone else, and things will only get worse. And I think it’s safe to say that most Americans would agree that that is not leadership.

While I can see the reverse psychology working for the members of the corporate world and with some work experience, I had wondered how it might come across to college students, that we might still be a little too narcissistic to really get it. But apparently I am wrong?

It’s been really interesting seeing how How to Get Fired! has evolved. Because to be perfectly honest, from a comedic standpoint college students are not the ideal audience for this presentation. As you point out, they have very limited experience in the working world, so there’s an extent to which they can’t fully appreciate the reality of some of the things I’m ‘encouraging’ them to do. I’ve had plenty of older audience members watch How to Get Fired!, and they absolutely love it – they’ve seen the behaviors I’m describing, they know people who have been fired for doing the things I’m talking about, and it’s a very rich experience for them.

pic-aboutWith college students, it’s all a little abstract. But that said, they’re still laughing. Good comedy will win out. But what’s really interesting is that when I get to the end, when I drop the satire and start talking more seriously about the things they need to prepare for as they move from college into the working world, they really perk up. Right at the point where I would expect them to start tuning me out and playing with their phones, they sit forward, they listen, they’re engaged in a way that has really pleasantly surprised me. They want to be ready for the rest of their lives, and I think they can sense that I’m there to help, that I want them to be as successful as possible.

They might not understand all these ways to get fired on the deepest possible level, but I have to be comfortable with the fact that they will soon. It’s just like teaching, really – you don’t have students thank you for changing their lives until they’ve left you behind for a few years and had a chance to process what you did for them.

I think How to Get Fired! will function a little like that with some of my audience members. Again, everyone enjoys it in the moment – it’s been really successful. But I think there will a come a point for a lot of my college audiences a few months after they graduate when they say, “Oh, NOW I get it.”

In How to Get Fired!, you offer the Four Pillars of Poverty? Can you briefly introduce our readers to these Four Pillars? And is anyone of these a surer road to dismissal over all others?

Sure. The Four Pillars of Poverty, arranged more or less in order, are: Fake Your Resume, Establish Your Incompetence, Destroy Your Work Ethic, and Alienate Your Coworkers. Collectively, those four will guarantee that you never hold a stable job anywhere.

But if you want to shortcut your way to the unemployment line, I recommend focusing on destroying your work ethic. Which should be the easiest thing in the world, by the way, since college pretty much takes care of that for you.

In college you wake up when you want, go to class when you want if you want, choose the classes you take and drop the boring ones (or the ones that you’re in danger of failing), study when you want if you want, get drunk on Tuesday night whenever the mood strikes. Treat your job like college, and you’ll have no trouble getting fired.

And while destroying your work ethic is the best single fix, one of the more entertaining is the last one, alienating your coworkers. Why? Because it’s the only one of the Four Pillars of Poverty that can lead to you being burned in effigy, an honor usually reserved for traitors and deposed leaders. And there’s nothing quite as special as seeing a stuffed scarecrow with a picture of your face being attacked by an angry mob as you’re being escorted from your office by security.

While your focus is on humor and what not to do, my understanding it that when you are presenting you do bring the message full circle, offering some serious advice. Can you share with our soon-to-be graduates a couple of key pointers regarding the transition to the work world, particularly in these challenging economic times?

Absolutely – and yes, How to Get Fired! ends with a more serious discussion on various ways that students can succeed not only in getting a job but also in keeping one. I guess the two points I’d emphasize are these: you can’t treat your job the way that college allows you to treat your classes. The biggest single complaint that employers have about recent college graduates is that many do not seem to be willing to put in the time necessary to move themselves into those upper-level positions that just about every college graduate thinks they’re automatically entitled to. In college, you can put down a book if it’s boring, you can skip a test if you feel like sleeping. You can’t do that at your job.

havens bookAnd the second thing to know: get ready to work. We’ve become a very pampered and self-absorbed country, and most of us expect things to always be fun or we don’t want to do them. But you have to understand that unless you’re related to the person who hires you, you’re not going to start at the top. Because no matter how much merit you think you have – or actually have – you can’t prove that without some experience behind you. It’s a climb, it’s going to take time, especially if you go into business for yourself. It’s no different than learning an instrument or a sport.

There’s a lot more in the lecture, and there’s even more in the book, How to Get Fired!: The New Employee’s Guide to Perpetual Unemployment. Advance copies of the book are available now on my website. Also, any school that hires me for the How to Get Fired! lecture gets 50 copies of the book along with it.

The book will also be in bookstores everywhere on April 1. Just in time for graduation. Not to be too self-promoting, but I think it’s a really funny book, and I swear you’ll get something out of it that you can use to help prepare for this weird working thing they make all of us do.

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