Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Balancing Act (continued)

When I was 22 years old and fresh out of college, I landed my dream job -- a full time position to teach Social Studies at a public high school (which happened to be my alma mater). World History and Economics would be my subjects; sophomores and seniors would be my students; and Canton High School's "A building" would be the place I would spend my days.

As a first-year teacher, I was assigned a mentor and lucky for me, I got Mr. Healy. Mr. Healy had been my U.S. History teacher and one of my basketball coaches when I was in high school. I had (and have) the utmost respect and admiration for Mr. Healy which is probably why I have never been able to call him by his first name despite that several times, he told me that I should.

I'll never forget the first time I went to Mr. Healy with a true I-can-only-ask-this-to-my-assigned-mentor type of question. It was the day I got my first paycheck, back in the fall of 2002. At an annual salary of just over $28,000, I figured the amount on the check wasn't going to be huge, but when I opened it, I felt happy-shock. It was somewhere around $650. $650 a week! I was going to be happy and rich!

Then it dawned on me. Was the check for one week of work or for two? I couldn't glean the answer from the check or the stub, nor did I fancy myself capable of doing out the math, especially considering the complicating factors of taxes, benefits, union dues, and mandatory contributions to state retirement plans. So I went to the person I was formally allowed to be dumb to -- Mr. Healy.

It's for two weeks, he explained matter-of-factly.

Then we enjoyed a good laugh together.

I taught at Canton High School for five years after that. I loved that job as much on my last day as I did on my first. Actually, I may have loved it even more.

*  *  *

Mark recently shared an article with me by Paul Graham entitled, "How to Do What You Love." It's a must-read and must-discuss article; just the type that makes me start to draft 15 different blog posts in my head. 

Paul Graham writes:

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

I will never forget thinking to myself sometime during my second year of teaching that even if I won the lottery, I'd keep teaching. I so sincerely believed that. 

At some point, however, something changed. It must have, because when I was offered a job paying exponentially more than my teaching salary, I took it.

Despite the countless times at Ropes & Gray when I wished I could go back to teaching, I will never regret the decision to leave. That decision lead me to where I am today -- to a life I love. It also laid out the billions of different factors that made me find my cancer before it had spread. Still, I find myself pondering my own life decisions, especially the ones that I didn't ponder much at the time. It's kind of like reading a novel and wondering about a character's motivations; I'm only just now learning more about mine.

The How to Do What You Love article helped me realize that my instinctual decision to leave a teaching job that I loved for a corporate lawyer job that I knew nothing about was about something more than just money. I hate to admit it, but I see now that it was also about my ego, my confidence (or lack thereof), my need to prove something to someone. It was about prestige. 

Paul Graham explained, Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like. 

As a third year law student and a fourth year teacher, I was, not fortunately or unfortunately, pulled by the forces of that magnet. I listened far too closely to the tone of people who were impressed by, and maybe even jealous of, the fact that I had a call-back interview at Boston's top corporate law firm. I looked far too superficially at the vision of the life the firm painted for me -- the biggest clients, the most interesting projects, the highest salary, the smartest colleagues. The most prestigious reputation. The happiest life. The forces of that magnet were strong and I was too weak and too ambitious to fight them.

Let me be clear -- by fighting those forces, I don't mean that I necessarily would have turned down the job. Even if I had resisted the forces of prestige, I very likely would have taken the job at Ropes & Gray. I've never had to pretend to love learning new things and facing new challenges; that love is very natural for me.    

From the very beginning, I tried so hard to like being an associate at Ropes & Gray. I wanted to like it so badly; wanted to make that happiest life come true. But for me, the vision was about as real a reality as was my vision of buying summer books at Barnes & Noble. Often, I felt like I was trying to change a diaper without a diaper bag. 

I learned early on that I just couldn't like what I didn't like. And I didn't like that most partners were so busy that they rarely had time to talk or teach or eat lunch away from their desk. I didn't like a culture where humor, quirkiness, and self deprecation were rarely (if ever) interjected into a work email or a conference call (there were lots of hilarious emails exchanged amongst friends but I think most of us feared that someone was sitting in a cubicle somewhere being paid minimum wage to read what we wrote, and that took a bit of the fun out of it). I preferred a culture of balance and family values to an institutionalized program to which I could apply so that I could go home at night to have dinner with my family. In the end, I just didn't like that I couldn't be me.

Paul Graham continued, Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. Saddled with debt, and worse, with a pathetic desire to prove that I could do something more (whatever that meant), I took the bait and paid the price. I learned very quickly that there was nothing more about being a lawyer than being a teacher. OK, there was more money, but from my view in big law, there was a whole lot less of so many other things that were far more important -- things like creativity, humor, balance, comradery, and fulfillment.

*  *  *

When I decided that I'd start to plan my exit from big law, I also decided that I'd give the lawyer thing one more shot. Truthfully, I wasn't going to leave Mary or Wendy before I was done with what I needed to do for them, and law school was too expensive and time-consuming to let my first job be the reason to throw it all away. Plus, we really couldn't afford for me to take a huge pay cut, and I understood that.

I had never heard of Verrill Dana until I learned that a partner from Ropes was going there after he reached the firm's mandatory retirement age (that doesn't mean much since "Ropes & Gray" didn't ring any bells for me prior to on-campus interviews, either). When this partner first talked to me about the Maine-based firm, I never dreamed I'd join. I was waiting for something more; again being pulled by the dangerous forces of prestige. The first time that happened, I was immature and inexperienced. The second time, I was just a complete idiot.

On a fall day in 2011, something changed for me. Actually, it's wasn't so much a change as it was a culmination of three years of observation and experience. That day, I saw with the utmost clarity a culture that viewed work and life as separate, with work coming first in most instances when the two collided. I finally understood, clearly and consciously, that life and work would never be separate, and that it was time for me to find a culture where people found a way to fit work comfortably into life. There was a balancing act there, and I've never claimed it was or would be easy. But I was done pretending.

So I had lunch with the former Ropes partner who now chaired the health care group at Verrill Dana. I listened to what he had to say and I did my research. I looked at his bio online and I found it remarkable that he spoke about his family. I learned about his work. Much of it was similar to work I had done at Ropes, but everything about it felt different -- manageable, efficient, dynamic; for hospital clients with missions that I believed in. Then I met Mark. I was sold five minutes into our conversation, not by the fascinating projects that he told me about, but by the sincerity and humor with which he described them. Once I met other partners who were so impressively smart and kind and content, I knew I had found a culture that was just what I had been searching for. Maybe Verrill Dana hadn't become uber prestigious in Boston (just yet), but I didn't care. The forces of the magnet had died and I had come alive.

Now, I like going to work, not because I want to like it, but because I just do. I'm so grateful that I can stop to talk to awesome colleagues like Andy, one of my closest friends, without worrying that someone will consider that time "wasted" (except maybe Andy who has every right to want me to stop bugging him all the time). I'm so grateful that I can work through difficult legal problems collaboratively; that I can help to build something with people I trust and respect and want to be like. Most of all, I'm so grateful that I can be myself.

In the end, I realize that the world is full of forces that try to pull us and push us in all sorts of different directions. Sometimes those forces do us good, sometimes they do us harm, and often, we're not even sure which one it is at the time. I don't claim to be immune to the bad forces and alert to the good ones. I just know that finally, I can see the difference between liking what I do and wanting to like it. I can see that there's a really, really big difference there. And I know that I'm not going to waste any more time thinking that someone else's opinion of me is more important than my own. Especially when I can't even put my finger on who that someone else even is.

*  *  *

Next Day Follow-Up

Mark is on vacation, but I just cc-ed him on an email.  His Out of Office message popped back to me as follows:  

I will be away from the office until July 29.  All efforts to reach me are foredoomed.  For the illusion of contact, please get in touch with my assistant ...

I mean seriously, how awesome is that?!?

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