ca • reared

  1. reared to pursue a career as a primary objective in life.
  2. duped or screwed by a career, or by the pursuit of a career.

What Do You Do?

June 21, 2011 | File under: Society and Pressures

“What do you do?” It’s the ultimate small-talk conversation starter in social situations. What is no doubt an innocent attempt to elicit chit-chat has always seemed rather silly to me. What do I do? Well, I do all kinds of things: I run, I spend time with my husband, I bake delicious muffins, I clean my house, and I read, to name a few things.

Why must people always define what they do in terms of their means to make a living? Few people are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to pursue their life passions. For the rest of us, it is what we do outside our time at work that defines who we are.

When I was a lawyer, that aspect of my identity was a very small facet of who I was. In fact, I tried to disassociate myself with my profession as much as possible because I felt it was such a poor match for my personality. My time outside of work is what best illustrated my personality.

When you tell someone your job title, it creates instant associations. For example, the moment people hear “lawyer,” they may assume I am aggressive and/or serious. They may draw inferences about my life such as how much money I have or even my political beliefs. None of these conclusions are necessarily correct, nor are they the business of cocktail party strangers.

It also strikes me that asking someone “what they do” is rigged to favor traditional careers with the greatest degree of social caché. Careers valued by society as prestigious such as doctors and lawyers are recognized as having high “worth,” and thus are the ideal responses to the question. These responses evoke certain stereotypes that are easily processed in casual conversation. On the other hand, responses indicating a non-traditional career, a period of unemployment, or no professional career at all do not lend themselves to definite stereotypes and often provoke awkward explanations, delve too deeply into personal matters, or elicit unwarranted social judgments based on people’s conception of a social hierarchy.

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Memo to HR: We are Not Family

May 13, 2011 | File under: On the Job

Sometimes, one’s work colleagues can feel like family. In small offices, or among close-knit groups in larger companies, people tend to form tight bonds that are either facilitated by the actual work performed, or simply by proximity to others and non-work socializing. These connections, when forged by the employees themselves, and having nothing to do with top-down management engineering, are authentic and really can mimic family bonds.

On the other hand, it is exceedingly irritating to me when companies (especially large, impersonal firms) latch on to this “work as family” concept in an insincere attempt to boost employee morale when morale is shown to be severely lacking. They publish glossy newsletters filled with smiling pictures of office birthday celebrations and numerous other suggestions that “we are all one, big happy family,” but behind all the overcompensating propaganda lies the truth that many people are truly unhappy in their jobs. It is all an illusion —- a gesture that masks the symptoms of disease without looking to its causes.

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The Career Tipping Point

April 27, 2011 | File under: Advice and LessonsWell-being

I knew it was time to leave my job when it became apparent to me that I had reached a dead end. In my professional life as a lawyer, I was no longer growing and had no desire or ambition to climb that next step to becoming a partner in my law firm. My tactic of hanging on to the status quo of being an associate and just going through the motions of my job was not going to work for much longer before I would be prompted to take on more responsibility than I desired. And in my personal life, I was beginning to feel the effects of many years in a job that wasn’t right for me. I was pushing ahead, but I wasn’t going anywhere either professionally or personally. In fact, I felt like I was falling behind personally, which was what really mattered to me.

There is much to be said for tolerating a job you don’t like because you’re able to appreciate its necessity or beneficial effects. Few people are fortunate enough to love their job or feel a passion for their work. Most people go to work every day because they need to pay their bills or feed themselves or their families. They may not like their job per se, but they may not mind it either. In the grand scheme of things, the job’s benefits outweigh its costs.

But somewhere along the cost-benefit continuum, there’s a tipping point. Your job provides some benefit, but not enough to justify the cost to your well-being, your future, your relationships and your state of mind. It’s the point when you realize pursuing other options, no matter how difficult they may be, is more attractive than remaining stuck where you are. You may face financial hardships for choosing to leave, but they are neither ruinous nor worth continuing on a path leading nowhere. It’s hard to predict where that tipping point lies, but from my experience, it’s like a moment when you find yourself teetering on the edge of a cliff. You’ll just know.

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What Have You Been Up To?

April 13, 2011 | File under: Advice and Lessons

Since leaving my job, the most frequent question I am asked by people I don’t interact with on a regular basis is: “So, what have you been up to?” I am never quite sure how to answer this question, and quite frankly, it annoys me a bit.

Asking how I’ve been spending my time is, however, a completely understandable curiosity. It’s been nine months since I bid farewell to my legal career, and I think many people assumed I would move quickly into some other type of conventional “job,” but that was never my intention. My family, knowing my eagerness to distance myself completely from the law, sometimes remarks that I’ve “retired,” and thankfully doesn’t press me for much information on my plans, but retirement is probably not an accurate term for my current state. After all, I was too busy paying off loans while I was working to build up that huge nest egg to live off of for the next half century!

I am a fiercely private person (hence the anonymity of this site), and my annoyance simply stems from my long-standing “it’s none of your business” attitude. Sharing too much information about yourself with the world just makes you vulnerable to questions you can’t answer or sets you up for disappointment when things don’t work out like you planned. The only person I completely open up to is my husband, and I’m perfectly content with the bit of distance this creates in other relationships.

Aside from the privacy issues, there is the honest fact that I just don’t know what to say when people ask me what I’ve been up to. Do they want to know how I spend my days, or are they just inquiring into my work situation? The reality is that my life since leaving the law has been full many different things, interests, and phases that I can’t neatly summarize my non-working life even to myself. I wear several different hats throughout the day —- wife, chef, writer, runner, housekeeper —- that begin to capture what I “do,” but the way I wear those hats has constantly changed during several phases I’ve passed through since last summer.

These “phases,” which I’m not really sure is what you’d call them, make up the process of my journey from lawyer to a destination that is still unknown. First, I was decompressing. It took a while to stop thinking of the day in terms of billable hours and to let the negativity of the law drain out of my system. This took a while, and I was minimally productive. Next was my renewal phase. Feeling refreshed, I started this website, diligently build up a base of content, and kept to a fairly good daily schedule that carved out some solid “working” time. Then the holidays arrived and I totally lost focus. I waffled a bit, floundered in my writing, and found plenty of other activities to fill my days. I remained productive in other ways, as a homemaker and runner, but I was disappointed in myself for not pushing forward on other pursuits with income-making potential. Becoming an elite runner sponsored by Nike was not in the cards.

The phase I find myself in now is sort of like a crescendo. Enough time has passed since I left the law that I’m getting serious about taking the next steps towards creating a new “working reality.” Of course, I’m not going to reveal what that is because I’m fiercely private, remember? But I’m thinking hard about my goals and the qualities of the life I want to lead in the future. I’m trying to honor the time I have each day to do something that moves me step-by-step in the general direction of those goals, even if the trajectory isn’t always a straight line. I’m definitely not, nor have I ever in my out-of-work life, watching daytime TV and treating myself to weekly manicures. I try to live life with purpose, and though I’m more successful at this some days than others, that is, in a nutshell, “what I’ve been up to.”

So, naturally, I really don’t want to get into all this when I run into a former colleague at the store or talk to an old friend on the phone. It’s not a neat explanation. It’s not one a lot of people can relate to. I haven’t forged an “identity” you can easily characterize or label. The thing that matters most to me though is that I’m much happier with my varied existence now than I ever was as a lawyer, so I guess ultimately what I’ve been “up to” is being happy.

On Seeing For Yourself

April 1, 2011 | File under: Advice and Lessons

I am not a quitter. In fact, I am known to be so stubborn that any obstacle placed in my path will only strengthen my resolve to accomplish a goal I have set for myself. It’s a family trait. It’s also one of the main reasons why I was undeterred in my decision to become a lawyer many years ago even when people close to me expressed concerns that the profession might not be the best fit for my personality. But I was stubborn. I had to see for myself.

Having now left the law, I can look back on those nine years I devoted to training and work and confidently say that I gave it a fair shot and tried the best that I could to make it work for me. I gave it more than a fair shot, in fact, since I would have left earlier had I not been responsible for paying back my overpriced law school education. I knew almost immediately upon entering the working world that the doubts I had so desperately attempted to ignore were actually legitimate concerns that I had been too stubborn to face.

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Ending the Pity Party

February 25, 2011 | File under: Advice and LessonsOn the Job

People love to complain. It’s a coping mechanism, I suppose, but sometimes it can get out of hand. Not only is complaining contagious; it is nearly always unproductive and can even be counter-productive, leading to a crippling lack of motivation in nearly everything. And after a while, listening to the same complaints over and over again becomes very irritating to other people. Especially when the complainer appears unwilling to do anything to change the situation giving rise to the complaints. At that point, complaining simply becomes a waste of time.

I used to be one of those people that complained constantly that I hated my job. I complained at work to my empathetic friends, I complained at home to my husband and I complained to my family when I spoke to them over the phone. I spent so much of my time thinking about work and complaining that my free time away from the office never felt like free time—-I carried my misery with me wherever I went and allowed it to overshadow the experiences I should have been enjoying. It was not a healthy way to live.

Very quickly, my negativity grew tiresome to others, and to myself. I was tired of ruminating over things that would never change, people who would always be difficult to deal with, and situations that were unavoidable evils in the profession I had chosen. My family was tired of counseling me out of my funks, a process that sometimes monopolized large chunks of the weekend days I was supposed to be enjoying. It was a state of mind I could not sustain.

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Appreciating Simplicity

February 10, 2011 | File under: Advice and Lessons

I used to have a very stressful job. I was a lawyer. Each day was a battle. Against adversaries. Against difficult supervisors. Against myself, battling the dread I felt towards my work. I was in a constant defensive state, preparing myself for the next awful assignment, the next unpleasant phone call, the next mean email.

To cope with the stress of my job, I sought refuge in simple things. Coming home to enjoy a slow dinner with my husband. Going for runs and listening to the repetitive sounds of my feet and breath while appreciating the beautiful sights around me. Wrapping myself in a blanket and knitting stitch after stitch, watching it become a scarf. And, oddly enough, standing in front of a sink full of dishes, swishing away food remnants with almond-scented bubbles. With these actions, I claimed small victories in my daily battles.

Thankfully, that stressful time in my life has ended, and I’ve begun a new, and considerably less defined, chapter in my life. Instead of the dread I used to feel, I face each new day with excitement and appreciation. I find even more fulfillment in those simple things I used to cling on to for dear life, knowing now that activities such as washing the dishes and cooking a healthy meal for my husband and me contributes to our overall quality of life, which has definitely improved since I left my job as a lawyer.

So while some people dread tackling a pile of greasy pans and streaked dishes (without a dishwasher, I might add), I am ever grateful for that time each day, knowing the dishes will not order me into the office on a weekend or compose an email in all caps. As I stand there, I mostly space out as my hands handle the repetitive work, my mind jumping from one thing to another. Is it weird that I have never obtained the same calmness of mind through yoga as I do in my purple dish gloves?

There is a lovely little book that is full of wonderful reflections on simplicity called Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life, and this one quote resonates with me deeply:

“The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”
—Thomas More

When Choosing a Career, the Devil is in the Details

January 26, 2011 | File under: Advice and LessonsOn the Job

Sometimes when I get an idea in my head I tend to overlook the realities of the situation I am imagining. I do not recommend this approach. Case in point: for years, I had a “vision” of what it would be like to be a lawyer that turned out to be completely wrong. This vision was heavily influenced by the fictions I observed on TV, leading to a completely skewed conception of reality. But even aside from pop culture’s manipulation of my impressionable mind, my perceptions of the day-to-day realities I would face in my career were dominated by big-picture abstractions that ignored the mundane, everyday details of the job. And we all know the devil is in the details.

Let’s glimpse into my 20-year-old mind for a moment. I am in college, without any real working experience in my life aside from a few summers of part-time retail work and short-term internships. I have no idea what it’s like to work a nine-to-five (or more) desk job, or any kind of job for that matter, for an extended period of time. I know how to be a student. I get this idea in my head that I should be a lawyer. I’m a good writer, I can articulate my points well, and I have an interest in political and historic issues. Essential skills for a lawyer, right? Put my talents to use “making a difference” and “defending justice.” Or something like that. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea. I commit to this path with only a vague notion of what lawyers actually do on a daily basis.

What exactly did I think I would be doing as a lawyer? Reading, researching and writing, mostly. That’s actually what I did end up doing most days as a lawyer. So where had I erred in my predictions?

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Feeling the Career Brain Drain

January 19, 2011 | File under: Advice and LessonsOn the Job

Sometimes, a career can actually diminish one’s mental capacity. It happened to me. Before I became a lawyer, I was a fairly creative person. I immersed myself in activities that required a good deal of concentration, patience and free thought. I read deep philosophical books, I knitted an intricate stuffed elephant toy for my niece, I baked bread by hand, and I even experimented with watercolors despite my lack of natural artistic talent. And then, I started my job and my after-work and weekend activities took on a decidedly more mindless quality. I just didn’t have it in me to think very hard after thinking so hard all week long, and my creativity levels and desire for self-improvement plummeted.

Part of becoming careared is feeling worn down and defeated by a job. This is exactly how I felt. Not only did my job affect my attitude and thoughts during the time I was at work, but it also dampened my spirits and left me mentally spent when I was away from the office. While I was once ambitious with my free time, I found myself spending more and more time watching movies and engaging in mindless activities that wouldn’t be too taxing on my fried brain. I began to perceive many of my former interests as chores, requiring too much creativity and concentration.

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The Interview Wining and Dining Facade: A Sociological Experience

January 11, 2011 | File under: Advice and LessonsOn the JobSchooling

For people who enter law school to secure a job at a law firm, those three years are really just an extended interviewing process. At least the first two years are, as many people enter their third year with a job offer in hand. And law schools waste no time: the search for a job begins practically the moment one enters their first year. From then on, it’s a nonstop parade of career fairs, campus visits, cocktail parties and fancy meals.

Of these events, the wining and dining ones are particularly illuminating. You can learn a lot about the Big Law Firm life by observing people sipping glasses of fine wine and munching on expensive crudités.

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