I used to hate getting my alumni magazine in the mail. The slick glossy is always packed full of news of the important things my law school classmates have accomplished. This one works for the Justice Department, that one just earned an eight-figure fee on a big class action case, this one is a partner with such-and-such firm, that one just ran for governor.
I am one of the oddities of my law school graduating class, one of the invisible. I had an open avenue to all those things when I graduated, and I ate a lunch or two with billionaires and sitting senators, but staying on that path would have required being someone other than who I am. I suspected before I started my job at a large law firm that I wasn’t cut out for that life, but I gave it a go anyway, and I don’t regret it. Life as a litigation associate taught me a great deal about the practice, honed my writing skills, and allowed me to work with interesting people who cared about who I was – no small thing in a large firm litigation practice.
But I just didn’t want the practice of law taking up so much space in my life, so instead I put it to work enabling my affinities for the creative and the wild. The practice of law is like a dominant dog: you have to keep it firmly in its place, or before you know it, it’s the biggest force in your house, running the show and making every other occupant shrink into the background. So I’ve been self-employed for more than a decade, which means there are months of great anxiety as I keep my eye on the financial ebb and flow of that way of life.
But you don’t get through law school in the first place unless achievement is a driving force in your life. We are taught very early what our culture considers worthwhile, and in places like my law school, that means something very prestigious and visible, or very lucrative. No one from my alumni magazine will be calling to hear about how I’ve passed up the legal big time to live a satisfying but low-profile life writing on blogs, photographing wildlife, and raising a son. That bothers me much less than it used to. Achievement anxiety, I’ve learned, is just another dominant dog that must be kept constantly in check. If you don’t, you’ll soon find you’re living someone else’s life. We do our thing because it’s our thing, not because others find it worthy.
My father has always told me that you have to make choices in life. This is true, and I’ve made mine. Had I followed that other path, or left the law completely, there would be hundreds of images I wouldn’t have made, scores of trails missed, and many rivers unpaddled.
I don’t mean to suggest that my chosen path is somehow courageous or even admirable. I still make a good living, and in any event, there’s an argument that I could have done more good for things I care about if I’d spent my life making big-law money. I almost certainly would have an off-the-grid house by now with a yard-full of monarch-friendly, native milkweed, a fleet of Toyota Priuses, and I probably would have donated a lot of scratch to environmental causes.
But I have this persistent belief that when it all shakes out, no net good can come from living in an ill-fitting skin. So I’ll have to do the best I can for the world with who I am.