Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Happiness Guru Says

In high school, I knew a lot of kids who knew exactly what they wanted to do when they grew up. They had amazing concrete life plans. I, on the other hand, couldn't make up my mind. I wanted to be a pilot. An astronaut. A rancher. A film maker. A diplomat. Operator of third world orphanage. I was indecisive. Looking back, I realize that if I had just known what I had wanted to do, it would have been incredibly helpful to creating a road map for my life.

Instead, I've blindly stumbled through life. No goal, unsure of the end game, and without the luxury of a lot of viable options. I went to law school on a whim, mostly because I had no other idea what to do with my life and because I realized it was really hard to get an entry level job with just a political science degree. (I DID discover in college that political science, political ideology, and political philosophy were my intellectual passions...but yeah, try translating THAT into a paycheck!)

I stumbled blindly into lawschool. Which led me haphazardly into the only summer associate position I could get (insurance defense). Which led to my first real job (insurance defense). I thought I had hit the jackpot when I discovered litigation. I never saw myself as a trial attorney but, surprisingly, I loved everything about it. Oh wait. No I didn't. After my 3 year long litigation honeymoon phase ended, I discovered a LOT of things I didn't like about practice in a private firm. I didn't like the crazy billable hours. I didn't like the pressure to bill more and more and bring in more and more clients. I didn't like the stupid schmoozing. I didn't like that you had to sell your soul to get and keep business. I didn't like working for insurance companies who were doing their best to pay you as little as possible. I didn't really like my clients either: unsophisticated and, mostly, irresponsible (some criminals, others just bad people).

On top of that, I didn't like my 5 hour daily commute and a lot of other situations with my firm's organization and....certain, um, personalities. Basically, although I still enjoyed litigation. I hated everything else about my work. Once, again I made a rash and blind decision. After applying to several other jobs and going to a hand full of interviews, I only got one job offer. A job offer I didn't even want. But, I was so miserable that I took it. I decided that if I was going to dislike my job, I might as well dislike a job with a 20 minute round trip commute versus a job with a 5 hour round trip commute.

Turns out, this job that I didn't want is absolutely the most perfect job on the planet. If I had known that this job existed from the beginning and all that it entailed, I'm pretty sure I would have known right away that this is what I wanted to do. I sometimes regret that I didn't have this goal to zero-in on from the very beginning. I could have tailored my lawschool experience and my internships towards this goal. I could have focused a lot of energy and dedication to this goal. I probably could have skipped a lot of crap and I probably could have been much farther in a viable career. But, at the same time, I realize that the crap I dealt with and worked through and survived is a large part of the attorney I am today. Somehow, each sub-par experience gave me a little tool. Now, I have a collection of tools that I'm finding helpful and relevant.

I guess, in the end, I'm very lucky. Hindsight has shown me that every bad or less desirable experience has played an important role or learning opportunity that has become essential to where I am today: truly and wonderfully happy and standing in a great place from which to build the career of my dreams. Is this another career honeymoon phase? Maybe. But it feels different this time.

In kill-or-be-killed private practice, surrounded by predominantly overly-aggressive male attorneys, I always felt like a little girl trying to be someone I wish I could be but simply was not. In my new government position, work is still challenging and stressful, but the entire atmosphere is less intense and less testosterone-fueled. I feel like me. And no one expects me to be anyone else.

The experiences I have had in private versus government attorney work is amazingly stark. It's night and day! In private practice, I was afraid of being yelled at or chastised for everything and anything (I will never forget my former boss' email to the firm "WHOEVER JAMMED THE STAPLER AND LEFT IT THAT WAY, COME SEE ME IMMEDIATELY TO EXPLAIN YOURSELF!!!!"). I never felt like I was working hard enough. I never felt really appreciated, just a pawn for the partners to make more money. Everything came down to billable hours. You had to account for every six minutes of your day. This made every task stressful.

Now, I am still expected to keep track of my hours, but it is so much more laid back. I've found that since the billable hour noose has been loosened around my neck, I'm actually doing better and more thorough work. I'm taking my time and doing things right. I get to act like a normal human who does attorney work, rather than a spazzed out, over-worked attorney doing attorney work. Everyone leaves promptly at 4:30. People are not constantly on the verge of mental breakdowns due to stress. People have lives. People love their jobs. People stay at their jobs for 10, 15, 20+ years. People do NOT think they are God's gift to Earth. People are still a little (or a lot) weird. But they are nice. The short of it all: I am very, very happy.

Lately, even though I'm still only a baby attorney and not yet 30 years old, I feel like a happiness guru. I know what it's like to be unhappy, mildly unhappy, and apathetic about your job and life situations. The last four or so years have been short, but they have taught me a great deal about myself and about who I want to be. I know you can only be unhappy for so long before you are willing to make drastic and even rash decisions. But I also know that life is simply too short to waste it on being miserable.

In the beginning I stuck it out in situations that I did not like because I felt that was a necessary sacrifice. I learned that the exact opposite is true. Don't accept unhappiness as a necessary pre-requisite for eventually getting what you want. You may never get what you want, or what you want may constantly shift. If you are unhappy now, fix it. None of the other crap matters. Life and careers are both about your journey, not our destination. The destination of a life or a career is a purely abstract idea that may never come. So do everything you can to enjoy the journey. And if you don't enjoy your journey, CHANGE IT. IMMEDIATELY.


  1. I am so glad you're happy! I've been a government attorney from the get go and I love the work, the people, and the lack of drama that my friends in private firms seem to have. The best way I've found to explain it is that it isn't competitive, it's collaborative - everyone in the office has the same common goals.

  2. +100 to everything! After 11 years in the same small law office (the STAPLER email--and the attitude behind it--is totally on point!), I joined the legal staff of a municipality. Have been here 2 years, am very very happy and wish I had done this sooner. I also get to be a normal person who does attorney work, and I appreciate the collaborative environment very much.

  3. A suggestion for your next post: a step by step on how to get this dream job!