January 26, 2011 | File under: Advice and Lessons • On 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?
Well, it wasn’t that I misjudged the activities I would be engaged in on a daily basis. Rather, I had misjudged what those activities actually would be like when they are performed repeatedly, every day, and requiring complete attentiveness. Considering these things in isolation doesn’t reveal the full picture. Take a challenging research assignment, for example. You may have an interest in the legal issue and it may not seem so bad at first. But think about what it’s like to engage in non-stop research for days only to come to an inconclusive result, and not the one your supervisor has told you you need to provide to support a client’s position. Don’t forget you must do this work nonstop every day you are at work until it is finished, even if you completely hit a wall mid-way through the assignment. And then when you’re finally done, another tough research assignment awaits. The realities of the work completely overwhelm the interesting aspects that would have appealed to my 20-year-old self.
Those devilish details creep up all over the place, across many professions. You may like to write, but how do you feel about it when you’re in a situation where you must constantly churn out material despite bouts of writer’s block or a lack of inspiration? I felt this way when I was tasked with one hundred-page briefs that felt as though they dragged on for an eternity. What a way to kill an interest in writing. Or consider someone with an affinity for baking who trains to become a pastry chef. Their interest in the craft may be impacted by the long hours, repetition and intensity of the job. And what about teachers? So many people feel a passion for sharing their love of learning, but how do you deal with children who have behavioral problems, the administrative burdens of the job, and a curriculum which concentrates mainly on preparation for standardized tests? And for any job, let’s not forget that jerky colleagues (clients, opposing counsel, etc.) can always throw a wrench in what is otherwise an okay situation.
Abstracting career duties while failing to appreciate the everyday aspects of the job is an easy trap to fall into. As you prepare for a career, unless you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in an actual workplace doing the type of work you’ll be expected to do after you’ve completed your education, the only thing you really can rely on are your limited observations and expectations. The structure of traditional schooling can partly be blamed for leading people into careers without fully preparing them for professional life. Just because you enjoy your studies and earn good grades does not mean you will either like or be good at the career you are preparing for. Extended internships, apprenticeships and greater mentoring can help paint a fuller picture. But that’s only part of it.
The harder part is resisting the temptation to oversimplify a career and blinding yourself to the potential unpleasantries you will face. Unfortunately, this is how many people end up careared. They are disappointed to find that the rewards of the job are outweighed by the unanticipated, negative details they encounter. Something that once sounded like a good idea no longer holds the same appeal when experienced in context. Don’t let yourself be fooled as I was.