I studied law for the intellectual stimulation it provided. I loved breaking down arguments, examining problems, and debating solutions. But I chose which practice area of law for a much more practical reason: money. That decision altered the course of my life.
At the beginning of my career, I decided to practice corporate law in New York City. I had my supposed reasons. It provided a challenge, experience, and international exposure. But what I’ve had to admit to myself is that my true reasons were more unimaginative: prestige and money. I wanted to work at a distinguished New York law firm and I wanted to make a lot of money doing it.
I had made it to the gleaming skyscraper in Midtown New York City. Success was nice suits and expensive dinners, not providing legal aid to underserved populations. Despite all the rhetoric from law schools, this is the same path for most graduates.
I made that decision because I wanted to project an image of success and wealth. And I did. I had a nice apartment, nice clothes, nice shoes. And it was all a sham.
Outwardly, I was successful. Inwardly, I was miserable. I used Adderall to wake up and Xanax to sleep. I gained weight and lost strength. I had a permanent sleep debt. Looking at my superiors, I saw divorced, unhealthy, anxious men. Were these the successful, powerful men I wanted to be?
Being able to let go of that idea of success didn’t happen quickly. I hesitated. Because I was afraid, I invented reasons to stay. It took a long time before I finally quit.
I’d like to think that I’d make the same career choices again. That everything happens for a reason. But deep down, I regret chasing the money. I had spent so much time and money following a dream that I didn’t have anymore. I wish I could go back in time and reverse the decision.
Now I have to learn from that experience. From my disappointment. I had been a successful, high-paid attorney. After leaving, what was I? A strong man wouldn’t question his own decision. He would be powerful, decisive, and not look back.
But I was filled with regret, even if it serves little purpose now. The time I spent in law school and that office is gone. Nothing I can do now can change that, so the past shouldn’t influence the decisions I make now.
I can still learn lessons from my past. One mistake I made is that I hadn’t really defined what I wanted. “A lot of money” isn’t specific enough. Chasing that goal is the first step on a treadmill; you’ll keep going but not get anywhere. Better to set a definite goal, like a specific amount in a retirement account or a target date to get out of debt.
Money is only a tool. I had chosen to value the tool more than its purpose. What will you use the money for? Figure that out, and you can figure out exactly how much money you need. That’s your goal. Now you’re off the treadmill and you have a finish line.
Be careful. Examine why you want what you want. I really wanted that prestigious law firm job (at least I thought I did). But why? Status and money. To me, those were necessary aspects of being a man. I wasn’t interested so much in being a lawyer as being validated as a man. Had I dug deeper, I would have realized that a fancy job wouldn’t provide that validation. Pause and consider your motivations before committing to a goal.
I believe that control—the power to make your own decisions—is critical for life satisfaction. I thought that more money meant more control. That’s true to an extent, but it’s not a law. My job robbed me of any control over my schedule. Any email could ruin an evening. Anytime the phone dinged I was filled with anxiety. Don’t give up control for money.
The best experiences of my life didn’t depend on money. I remember hiking in the Himalayas, waking with the sun, sleeping satisfied from the day’s effort. Dinner, simple Nepali food, never tasted better in my life. I felt strong and alive. Here was the satisfaction that eluded me in the office.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I get scared sometimes. But without accepting that I had made that decision for money, I wouldn’t have been able to make any sort of transition.
That hike, a two-week trek to Everest, challenged me. But it was a different type of challenge than I encountered at work. It invigorated me. It gave me purpose. Never be afraid of challenges. Just make sure you have the right motivations for tackling them. Write your own definition of success.
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