By Kevin McHargue
In some ways, succeeding at the wrong thing is worse than failure. Failure is self-correcting in the sense that it will usually motivate you to stop, reassess your situation, and make necessary course corrections. The appearance of success can deaden all those instincts, until something brings your latent doubts to the surface. I started my career as a lawyer on what looked like the right track, but some part of me knew that it was not right. And it took a seemingly random line from a pop song to get me to understand my mistake.
In 1996, shortly after graduating law school, I was exactly where I was supposed to be: working as an associate in the Austin office of a prestigious corporate law firm. I was working on high-profile cases for prominent clients, including an up-and-coming little company called Enron. Looking back, I was a million miles from what I had envisioned when I started law school. I had always planned to pursue a career in public interest law, whether with a government agency or a private firm. I put myself through law school working for a member of the Texas Senate and for the state health commission, and I fully intended to seek that sort of work after graduation.
Then pressures both subtle and overt began to reshape the plan. Apart from the question of money—which was certainly a significant one—I began to feel that it would be something of a disappointment not to land a job with a big firm. That was the path all of my friends were following, and my original plan began to look like selling myself short.
I never made an explicit decision to change my objectives. Instead, in a largely unconscious way, I began to convince myself that working for a big corporate firm was public interest law, of a sort. And it was not an entirely ridiculous claim. The firm was doing interest work in energy deregulation (I did not know at the time what fiascos lay ahead in this arena), and if you squinted a bit that looked like a worthwhile public policy goal.
But I was profoundly unhappy, although I would never have used such melodramatic words at the time. I had a cloud of dissatisfaction around me, but my doubts had not crystallized into any concrete desire to change direction.
On my drives to work, I would listen over and over again to the Counting Crows album August and Everything After. It’s a first-rate album, but the song that really got to me was a melancholy ballad called “Raining in Baltimore.” It’s a sort of hymn to regret and unmet needs. And one line in particular seemed aimed directly at me:
You get what you pay for, but I just had no
intention of living this way.
I could probably have learned the same lesson from Thoreau, who wrote that he moved to Walden “to live deliberately”—but Thoreau never put out an album. It was not that my choices weren’t perfectly sensible; it’s that they weren’t my choices. I had allowed myself to revert to a sort of default setting, seeking out a safe, pre-approved path to success. But I had never had any intention of living that way.
I had talked myself into a life of working extremely hard to achieve goals that meant nothing to me. I deserved better. For that matter, the clients—including Enron—deserved better. Corporations should be represented by people who want to do the job well, not by disaffected liberal arts majors.
Having had this quiet epiphany with the Counting Crows, I went in for my first performance review. The supervising partner thought my legal skills were fine but noticed I did not seem to be connecting with the clients on a personal level. He suggested I take up golf and get to know the executives socially.
Objectively speaking, this was good professional advice. But the idea of learning to play a game I found tedious, in order to get closer to people I found more tedious still, reinforced my sense that I had stumbled into someone else’s life. It was time to move on, however scary and uncomfortable that might be. I started talking to former colleagues about my need for a change.
By a stroke of luck, one of the people who heard about my situation was my former boss, who had recently been elected to Congress. He asked me to join his staff in Washington D.C.—at about half the salary, in a city that was twice as expensive. Such is the price of making your own choices.
But my luck continued: that choice ultimately led to a career path that was both fulfilling and financially rewarding. But even if my new direction had turned out to be less lucrative, I think I would have still been happier. Following my own intentions rather than other people’s expectations is just more fun.