October 18, 2018
I was reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit, and there was a part in the beginning where he talks about a young man on the verge of getting a great job, and deciding that he wasn’t sure at all if he wanted it and to go look for something better in the form of a round the world cycling trip. I thought the lessons from that sounded quite familiar to my own experiences.
We all want things. But sometimes we feel bad for wanting things. When I was working as an accountant and then as a lawyer, I didn’t enjoy it. And I felt bad for not enjoying it. The work wasn’t that difficult, at least not like being a coal miner is difficult. It paid fairly well. I just had an incredibly intense desire to not have to do it.
It’s an American rite of passage to strive for a better life than your parents had. But what if you achieve it and it’s not as great as you thought it would be? What if it is just as great but the price is too high? What if it requires too much debt? Or too much time?
We’re taught from a young age to strive for greatness. But once we get to a certain age, it’s seen as almost… immature, or irresponsible to keep striving.
It’s incredibly common to run into kids who want to be rockstars and professional athletes. It’s less common to run into teenagers that believe those things. By the time I was a teenager I had learned to tell people that I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor, because those were the professions that got the reaction out of people that made me feel the best about myself. I didn’t actually know what a lawyer or a doctor spent most of their time doing.
By the time I was through my freshman year of college, I had crossed doctor off the list because, hard sciences – yuck. Actually, part of it came down to the fact that I had transferred twice during my freshman year and so had missed many of the hard science pre-requisites and I really didn’t want to take 5 years to graduate. I looked up what the required majors were for law school. Lo and behold, you could major in anything and still go to law school!
I chose political science. Something I will never regret. It was incredibly interesting and to this day I still find international relations fascinating. I wish that I had stayed current on my math and science, because now I’m trying to get back into it and it’s hard. But that is neither here nor there!
I made it into a prestigious law school and waffled between learning what I needed to to start a solo practice and learning what I needed to to go work at a big fancy firm downtown. I ended up getting waffle-y grades that probably weren’t good enough to get the job downtown, but that’s fine because I was too insecure at that point to apply anyway. I still didn’t know if being a lawyer was what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to make that huge of a commitment to find out.
I went into solo practice and continued doing taxes for a few years after graduation. And I just hated it. I stuck with it because I knew it was a great job and it could grow into something very profitable.
I was also embarrassed to call it quits because for so long, I had been telling people that I wanted to be a lawyer. I also hadn’t experienced failure in an intellectual pursuit like… ever, in my whole life. And quitting the law felt a lot like admitting defeat.
Plus I was well over one hundred thousand dollars in debt for law school. Could I really move on, just like that?
All of these factors coalesced into a tremendous guilt that kept me clinging to the law for longer than I should have. I had it pretty good, who was I to want something better for myself? I was lucky to have the job I had, I shouldn’t take it for granted.
There’s something called Tall-Poppy Syndrome, where people in a community will sort of band together and ostracize someone that they believe has gotten too big for their britches. Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with a person actually becoming arrogant, and everything to do with the people around them believing that they have grown too self-important.
There’s another metaphor that involves crabs in a bucket. When one crab manages to get a hold of the rim of the bucket and is about to pull himself to freedom, the other crabs will grab on to pull him back down into the bucket.
I think our guilt about wanting a better life for ourselves has to do with how we think the people around us will respond. After all, every time a celebrity commits suicide, there’s always the assholes who come out of the woodwork to loudly wonder what someone with all that money and fame could possibly be so sad about. How fulfilled we fill is largely independent of how well our material needs are met, past a certain point.
To someone flipping burgers, a job as a lawyer might seem like a dream, but to the lawyer (did you know lawyers as a profession have just about the highest rates of substance abuse of any profession?) it’s the job they have to do to every day to keep their house. The idea that they should be happy with it regardless of how much they dislike it is what keeps them there (and perhaps leads them to turn to alcohol instead of an alternate life without lawyering).
I’m not sure I have any philosophical hacks to overcome this guilt. I just kind of… stopped giving a shit about what other people thought. When people ask why I stopped being a lawyer, I tell them that I really didn’t like it. Most people kind of chuckle, and I think deep down, most people understand the idea of really not wanting to do a certain job.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s been easier to not give a shit. I’ve devoted a lot of my time to learning and to trying to figure out what other people know, and I’ve realized that a lot of people don’t have great reasons for doing the things they do. They go to work at a certain place because it’s what everyone expects of them. They get married because their parents expect them to. Or they intentionally don’t get married because they think their friends would judge them. And I don’t want to pile on to people who do these things uncritically. That’s sort of what being a social animal is all about. But it’s important to remember when you’re going against the grain, that if you have a really good reason for going against the grain, you’re way ahead of a lot of people, and it is perfectly fine to violate social norms when it’s only your pride (or guilt) on the line.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.