Quitting BigLaw – Part IV: Change in Priorities

What better way to wrap up my Quitting BigLaw series and kickstart my Q2 review than to examine how my priorities have changed since quitting by rating the importance of various attributes of a hypothetical future career? For those who know me, my favorite pastime involves running through hypotheticals and rating things on a scale of 1 to 10.

The genesis of this exercise was a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a fellow recovering lawyer. Instead of shooting the breeze as we do normally, our conversation turned to what we want in a future career. The conversation has lingered in my mind ever since.

As I sit here thinking more systematically of what I want, the attributes my friend and I talked about sprang to mind. There are eleven attributes, from obvious ones like money and prestige to more subtle ones like societal contribution and whether they evoke a desire to learn. The list is by no means comprehensive. If you think of others, I’d love to know.

I am rating the importance to me of each attribute right now, six months after I left BigLaw. To see how my priorities have changed, I am also rating the importance of each attribute to me “back then,” when I was still working but already thinking seriously about quitting. Memory can be deceiving, but I am trying to recall as accurately as I can how I saw things at the time.

Without further ado, here is a graphic representation of the result (courtesy of my wonderful Hubbitor).

The THEN column lists each attribute in order of importance as of last May or June, when I was still agonizing over the decision to quit. (I ended up handing in my notice in mid July.) The NOW column shows the current order of the same attributes. Each attribute is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most important. The arrows show how an attribute has changes from then to now. Green lines indicate an increase; red lines indicate a decrease. The bigger the change, the bolder the color of the line.

A New King On the Throne – Passion

As you might have gleamed from my blog in which I have talked a lot about money and prestige, these two attributes – tied for first place at 9.5 – were of paramount importance to me. The throne is now occupied by a new king: passion. This headline shouldn’t come as a surprise given my explicit goal at the outset of this journey was to find a sustainable passion.

Money is now downgraded to 8.0 – still important but with less luster in part because I have realized that I can still be happy, if not happier, with less money. If fulfillment is what I am after, passion gets me there faster than money.

Prestige fell by a whopping 3.5 points, the biggest drop. Before quitting, prestige was an important proxy of my identity because I wasn’t confident that I could be anything other than a BigLaw lawyer. Because BigLaw occupied much of my waking hours and psyche, I needed it and its associated prestige to impress others to make myself feel better. As I now put myself more out there after leaving BigLaw – exploring and flailing and flourishing (all of which I will describe in my upcoming Q2 review) – I realize that prestige, at least how I used to view it, can be illusory. I also learned that it is not all that bad being a “nobody.” As a BigLaw associate, I was already a nobody except that I didn’t know it.

Passion can be a loaded word and can encompass many things. I have been using two crude criteria to assess whether something is my passion: (1) how much do I look forward to do the thing in the morning? and (2) am I in “flow” when I do the thing itself? Flow is the state of effortless concentration and enjoyment, first defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

It is not easy to achieve flow. It gets easier if you are good at doing the thing. In that sense, I agree with Amy Chua, Yale Law School professor and controversial author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“, that nothing is fun until you’re good at it, and to get good at anything you have to work hard. But where we differ is the source of motivation. I believe that if you are doing something you are excited about, you are more willing to work hard at it. Externally enforced motivation is often futile.

Alongside the rise of passion, the attribute of “desire to learn” – how much a job or career inspires me to work hard to improve my skills – also jumped from a lukewarm 5.0 to a solid 7.0. As a lawyer, I knew I needed to improve my drafting skills but wasn’t motivated to do so. Now, while I still have much to improve when it comes to writing (and writing can still be agonizing), I now have more desire to practice and to improve because I of the satisfaction I get from writing this blog. I also find that the practice itself is less painful when I know I am inching closer to a worthy goal. This attribute does not apply only to writing, but also to other skills. As I think about future careers, I tell myself that I won’t let my inadequate current knowledge or skills prevent me from pursuing something I love.

The Surprising Drop of Attributes Relating to Work Environment

There is no doubt the BigLaw lifestyle sucks. My hatred of being tethered to the BlackBerry at all times certainly accelerated my departure. Two attributes relating to work environment – predictable schedule (defined as the predictability or the ability to control one’s work schedule) and number of hours – used to be important priorities for me. Both rated 8.0, they were second only to money and prestige.

Life is certainly more pleasant now that I have more free time and more control of my time overall, but to my surprise both attributes have become less important. I think I may have overreacted while within BigLaw. Deprived of control and rest, I craved what I lacked. With a more balanced outlook, I no longer dread working longer hours, especially if I get to work on something I enjoy. The importance of the number of hours has dropped 3.0 points. Having a predictable schedule, however, is still relatively important and only dropped 1.0 point.

I see camaraderie, which has dropped by 1.5 points in importance, as loosely fitting in the category of work environment because much of the time working as a lawyer is spent with other people – colleagues, clients and opposing counsel. Generally speaking, I enjoyed the camaraderie at work. I am no social butterfly, but I prefer working in teams and learning from others. One of the risk factors of quitting was the loss of camaraderie. But since spending a fair amount of time alone in the past six months, I realize that I have enjoyed this alone time to think and write. Being able to have a healthy dialogue with myself is actually quite a luxury.

The Stability of Attributes Relating to Wellness

The importance of good health shifted up slightly, staying near the top of the list. I probably would have rated it the same at 8.0 if money had shifted lower than it did. Since health is more important than money to me, I had to add half a point.

Low stress is always welcoming. Since I am generally quite good at handling stress, I am willing to take on slightly more stress in my next career, especially after six months of decompression, as long as it is not at the expense of health. This explains the decrease of 1.0 point in the importance of low stress.

The Rise of All Things Social

The attribute that made the second biggest jump of 2.5 points is social capital. I define social capital as the breadth and depth of useful social connections. Unlike prestige, one’s internal valuation based on outward perceptions, social capital has an intrinsic value in the form of useful relationships. It sounds utilitarian, but I believe that the true usefulness lies in the appreciation of a genuine human interaction. As part of my exploration, I have been actively seeking to meet people from different backgrounds. Whether or not the relationships I’ve cultivated bear any tangible fruit, I have already learned much from these people’s experiences. I learned to respect the logic of others’ decisions, sympathize with others’ suffering, and be happy for others’ successes.

Contribution to society also made a significant jump in the ratings. I have always been obsessed with doing a good job of whatever that was assigned to me, but was never too concerned whether my work contributed to society in any particular way. In fact, before I quit, this attribute rated dead last at a meager 3.0. Perhaps I was too tired or too overwhelmed to care about social progress. Perhaps I was just too self-absorbed. While it is still my last priority today, the absolute value has increased to a more robust 5.0. I hope this attribute will continue to grow. I do want whatever work I do in the future to help make the world a better place – at least a better one for all the animals.

For those of you who have jumped off the StairMaster, I’d love to hear how your priorities have changed.

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