It’s taken about a year but I have finally reconciled myself to the position that my need to leave law after working so hard for eight years is not indicative of a catastrophic failure and my previous investments in my legal training and education – including that painfully expensive Masters in the US and those months at my desk that time has forgotten – were not a complete waste.
As I scratch my head and think about what I’m going to do next it seems like a good time to consider what went wrong the first time around. I want to avoid doing the same thing all over again and maybe help you avoid the same.
I suppose it all started when I was 17 and my parents tried to persuade/force me to study medicine at university. I have since learned that they have rewritten history in their minds when they spoke recently of their unfailing support for my decision to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Any support they showed was in the form of visible relief that I wasn’t following through with my threat to study Classics or Chemistry. What do people who study those degrees end up doing?, they asked at the time. [Ironically, it seems that many go on to become lawyers.]
One plus point for Economics was that they knew some fairly respectable people whose children were economists working as bankers for JPM and Morgan Stanley and the like. Those children had BMWs. This was promising.
You see my parents only wanted the best for me, all the opportunities that they didn’t have growing up in a Third World country. And they sacrificed everything to make sure I got those opportunities. They also firmly and unshakably believed that I could, and would, be successful at whatever I turned my hand to.
I’m all for supporting aspirations but, in hindsight, these encouragements probably served to fuel a directionless self-importance. I thought, had been led to believe in fact, that I was destined for something a bit special. It turned out later that when they said “you can do anything”, what they meant was doctor, accountant or engineer.
This may have been when it started to go wrong.
Then at university, surrounded by overachievers, I wasn’t the only one to enter and leave higher education without the faintest clue of what I wanted to make of myself. I had bracketed myself on all sides because how could I take just any job when there was so much potential? This resulted in a kind of career paralysis. I went into auto-mode.
I attended an interview at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country not because I heard some kind of calling but because someone else told me that they were gutted not to have been called, from which piece of information I gathered that this might be something worth going down to London for. I chose between three law firm jobs I was offered after university based not on reputation (although they were all good) but on the social life and in the end followed the choice of my new housemates. It didn’t occur to me that the opportunity to put off further interviews for four years was a poor reason to choose a career.
I never intended to stay as a lawyer. I thought I’d get a professional degree because then I could do that elusive “anything I want” (it turns out you can also “do anything you want” either by doing that thing directly or via doing almost anything else that you want, particularly if you like and are good at it, but this was another thing that didn’t occur to me at the time).
Plus “lawyer, well that wasn’t so far from “doctor”. Maybe my Dad would stop introducing me at family gatherings as his eldest daughter who “isn’t a doctor but at least she went to Oxford”.
Maybe this was also when things went a bit wrong.
It turns out my parent’s weren’t much impressed with my job as a solicitor in the City. Much better to have been a barrister, they said. I worked too hard for what I got paid in their view, and mine too. And what work? “Did I really go to law school for this?”, was the constant refrain of fellow trainees trying to figure out how to use the fax machine at ten o’clock at night.
This is when I realised for the first time that things had actually gone wrong. I persuaded my boyfriend to quit his job and come traveling with me. This was possibly the most sensible thing I had done since leaving school, although alas it was not the beginning of a trend.
Old habits die hard and I didn’t seriously allow myself to imagine a new life off the conveyor belt. I lined up my Masters program at the end of our gap year and we moved to Washington, DC. I continued to search, like a missile, like a detective, for alternative career paths within law – at the World Bank then with the government. In my lifelong game of hot-or-cold, I felt like I was getting warmer.
I was then offered a job back in the UK as a referendaire at the Competition Appeal Tribunal – very prestigious, very well-regarded, and lots of career options afterwards — but in the end I fell for a different siren of vanity: money. What a fool!
I took a job with an American law firm paying one and a half times the salary at a British firm, and so began the worst, most depressing, most demoralizing and most desperate three months of my professional career. I was looking to get out almost as soon as I stepped through the door, and I was lucky enough to be able to do so even before my probation period had ended.
I managed to get yet another job at yet another top tier law firm, one of the best competition law practices in the world in fact. My boyfriend became my husband and everything seemed to settle down. Without even consciously deciding it, I had found myself back in private practice (which is why you should never say never, and also never burn bridges). In fact I was pretty much back where I had started, just a bit further down the road.
The days, weeks and months slipped by and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone very wrong (for real this time). Great work, great colleagues, great clients. It was difficult during those days to see quite what was missing.
Of course in the cab ride from the office at 3am it was easy to focus on the immediate, the obvious – the lack of sleep, the lack of personal time. But what about professionally? I had tried everything – public sector, private sector, international, domestic. I was a good competition lawyer and I really enjoyed the work (most days). If this wasn’t working out, what was left?
That’s when I realised what had gone wrong. It wasn’t a wake up in the middle of the night, “Aha!” moment. It was more like that initial flickering as your turn on a light bulb and the filament begins to warm up.
I had been blindly moving forward making incremental improvements on my situation but never pausing to take a look at the big picture. I would choose between Job A and Job B, systematically weighing up the pros and cons, considering my options, but only ever focusing on the things right in front of me. Finally, at Dan’s prompting, I took a much-needed and long-overdue step back and this is what I saw.
I liked competition law – hence the Masters – and within competition law, I liked private practice. But the big picture revealed that this was a choice of necessity, the answer to the question “what kind of lawyer do you want to be?”. Not since I was 20 had I lingered on the question “do I want to be a lawyer?”. And when I finally got around to doing just this at the age of 29 the answer that came back from deep within was – no. Bugger.
There are plenty of good questions that came after that realisation. What next? [Still figuring that out.] Was it all a horrible mistake, a colossal waste of time? [I don’t think so.] But the question that really matters now is: how can I stop myself from doing this again?
You see what I want to do next is to start a business and this is definitely another thing I could get carried away with. I don’t want to find myself in 10 years’ time with a decade having been swept away in another tidal wave of A vs B choices at the micro-level (should I start this business or that business?), having missed the big picture entirely (what do I want to do with my time? what kind of life do I want to lead?).
I think the most useful advice I have come across to help with avoiding this pitfall comes from Lean In written by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She suggests that we should all keep in mind two goals: an 18-month plan and a long term dream.
She says 18 months because it’s longer than a year so it’s a real amount of time in which you can actually get something done, but it’s not as daunting as two years which, if you’re anything like me, is a horizon beyond which time cannot properly be measured or imagined. But then you should also have a long term goal, the purpose of which is to keep you honest, to keep you on message.
This is the piece that I was missing before. If you asked me when I was younger what I wanted to be I might have said that my long term goal was to be “successful” (after all, that’s exactly what I had been told I would be). This is actually meaningless without a reference point – successful at what? – and pretty unhelpful even with a reference point. It doesn’t inform my current decisions because it can’t act as a guidepost or litmus test for my current activities. How do I know if what I am doing is working towards being “successful”? How can I measure whether this or that opportunity is in the same direction as “successful”?
The economists in the crowd channeling John Maynard Keynes may heckle “in the long run we are all dead”. In other words, what’s the point of a long term goal – it lies in a point of time at which you never arrive. But in fact what Keynes meant by this statement was that you better sort out the now because otherwise the future you long for will not come. He saw on a macro scale exactly what I see on the micro. There is no point dreaming of some future if you are not looking after the present in a way that is consistent with that vision.
I have learned that if you live without the guiding compass of a long-term goal then you are at risk of losing all bearings. Goldfish can’t conceive of the future but we can, so we should use this astounding ability to inform our current decisions.
So here it goes, my first real stab at avoiding Small Picture Syndrome with my 18 month and long-term goals (no laughing please).
18 months: publish my novel, start a business, move house, buy a flat.
Long-term: work remotely on a variety of cool projects from a house with panoramic views of the sea, probably in Scotland, where Dan and I raise our family and dog(s) and grow our own food while he makes furniture.
Now maybe neither of these visions will come to pass but, man does it feel good to put them down on paper, to memorialize this state of mind and this, perhaps temporary, configuration of my preferences. I can only hope that having them at the forefront of my mind helps me make better decisions day-to-day.
Now please excuse me – I have a novel to finish and I also need to learn how to grow vegetables.
What would your 18-month and long term goals be? Or do you think having a plan is too restrictive? Join the conversation on Twitter @MichMeagher.
Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is a fantastic book pulling together some very compelling research and insights from Sheryl Sandberg on how women can make the most out of their careers and how men are part of that story. I will be writing more about this book. A lot more.
See this post by Simon Taylor, a professor at Cambridge Judge Business School on The true meaning of “In the long run we are all dead”.