Early in my legal career, while enduring the hazing that comes with being a young lawyer, I got to know a distinguished English professor who served with me on a charitable board. In those days I was spending a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. I was miserable at work and certain that I would have been happy had I become a history professor instead of a lawyer. So I admired this elderly English professor and envied his professional life.
One evening he and I were talking (he was a Dickens scholar and chairman of his department) and I told him that I thought he must have one of the best jobs on the planet. He paused and said, “Well, if I had it to do over again, I’d go into hotel management. That’s what I’ve really always wanted to do.” I was shocked speechless.
I shouldn’t have been. Probably the vast majority of us end up in jobs that leave us unsatisfied.
Maybe that’s because it’s human nature to be unsatisfied. But often it’s because we follow societal pressures into professions that just don’t suit us. The legal profession, for example, is full of frustrated would-be novelists, poets, teachers, farmers and the like. In one of John Grisham’s novels he wrote that if all jobs paid the same, 90% of American law schools would have to shut down. Nevertheless, millions of non-lawyers look enviously at attorneys, thinking they must have it made.
We had a friend in Tampa who loved working with his hands and was very good at it. But because of the social status of his parents, a career as a mechanic was out of the question. So he was sent off to college and later suffered through a series of failed business ventures and professional flops. Happens all the time.
Merle Haggard sang:
Wish I enjoyed what makes my living
Did what I do with a willing hand
Even the Hag gets the blues about his job?
I read recently that our collective angst over our jobs and “wasting our lives” is largely a function of an affluent society and upward mobility. For billions of folks in the world (throughout history) every day is a struggle to survive. There is no time to mope and whine about a personally unsatisfying job. Such folks would probably regard that concept as ridiculous.
But nevertheless, here most of us are. Feeling alienated and sometimes lost. As Thoreau put it, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Maybe if I had a Ph.D and was teaching history somewhere, I’d spend too much time wondering if my life would’ve been better had I gone to law school. Maybe.
But I think sometimes the right thing to do is swim against the stream. Do something a little illogical. Take a risk.
Maybe it’s time to climb out of the boat.