“Beyond all explanations which a good brain can give, why do we choose the worse and not the better, why hate rather than love, why greed and not generosity, why self-centred activity and not open total action? Why be mean when there are soaring mountains and flashing streams? Why jealousy and not love? Why?”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti, Krishnamurtis Notebook
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know. Did you, when you were my age?”
I can’t possibly know if this is the sort of exchange that plays out between parents, teachers or mentors, but it was writ large in my household.
Why do we insist on asking children to explain the rest of their lives before they’ve even had a chance to live?
Don’t get me started on that one.
Money is not the sine qua non of life; yes it’s important, but I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve been sequestered in purposeless jobs, woven around the myth of provision, and being robbed of life. And their only justification for this life of self-annihilation is the soul-sucking money.
And the reason?
Straight up fear.
Fear of what?
They say losing what they’ve got but rarely, if ever, do they get that close. No, they live in the repressed feeling that corrales their spirit. And yes, I appreciate that’s way too poetic to describe the gut-wrenching sense of letting everyone down but it’s the best I can ascribe to the ‘do nothing’ approach that pervades most peoples’ lives.
To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if there was a proper analysis of this putative fear but there never is. No checks; no balances. In the end, it’s like some intransigent tick.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s revert to the rubric to this post.
So, you want to be a lawyer or anything else you think is going to bring meaning to your life.
What’s the driver?
What’s the story?
Why law as opposed to anything else?
Because you’ve always wanted to be a lawyer or [insert].
To put it more succinctly, how deep have you gone in questioning your apparent need to commit to one thing over and another?
Not to constantly regale you with my ineptitude but, in sharing my story, it hopefully illustrates a not too dissimilar position for most young people trying to make it in the world. What you might glean from my paucity of questioning, insight or inability to marry soul with role, god only knows but hopefully enough to know than a hunch, short-term heightened passion or a vision quest is rarely enough to keep the fires burning.
As I explained last Monday, my parents wanted me, from about the age of 13, to tell them what I’d do on leaving school, aged 15 (I left school in June 1983, two months before my 16th birthday). The conversation always ended the same way: me tearful, not being able to articulate an answer that fit their driving narrative — i.e. grow up, get a job and be a good boy. I’m sure my perceived insouciance drove them mad but then again, their personal story drove their desire for me to find a job as they’d had to do, leaving school at 15. It may seem a bit angsty, but they didn’t get me, and me them, and it didn’t help that towards the end of my time at school, the non-response to their constant questioning inflected their language to the point where they were now questioning my very existence:
“What are you going to do with your life?”
“I don’t know.”
It was and remains a very sad time of my life.
Compare this to the conversations I’ve had with my three children (and I don’t say this to sound superior to my parents — not a bit of it), Evie, Hetty and Floz. For a start, I’ve steered clear of pinning them down to a job. Indeed, even as regards their choice of GCSEs, A-levels and degree courses, I’ve been very hands off and particularly with Hetty pursuing a law degree, I’ve been careful not to influence her one way or the other based on my experience. If I’m honest, the best I can ascribe to my modus operandi is to question their questions and never put them on the spot, expecting a do or die answer. All I’ve wanted is to ensure they make the most of their gifts — which are replete with honesty, passion and a vision of how a more humble, less ego-driven world should look.
Perhaps I’m lucky that all my children have an interest towards a few things that make it relatively easy for me to pass comment: Evie is at heart an artist but has chosen to pursue a career as an architect; Hetty is a very capable and gifted person and whilst currently she’s intent on pursuing a law degree, I know that if she didn’t go any further than completing the degree that, whatever she turned her mind to, she’d be successful; and Floz, who has just finished her GCSEs, wants to study a broad range of A-levels with a bias towards criminal law and ethics. Both her Mum and I think she’d do really well in the police but then again, she’s got this amazing voice and if she decided to go into music then fantastic. Again, like Evie and Hetty, she’s incredibly capable and the most rounded of my children and will, I know, find her place in the world.
I’d like to think that all children get the freedom, as mine have done, to select what they like and want to do but I know that that’s not the case. Too many children are told what to do by well-meaning parents, teachers and family members. I don’t want to suggest, no matter how it reads, that my approach is right and theirs wrong, but ask yourself if the current school system and work is set up to develop people as humans or simply to provide cogs to operate within the confines of a very autocratic and mind-numbing environment that too often kills the soul? To use an analogy, it’s almost like breaking a horse to ensure they do what they’re told. Trouble is, humans are free spirits and despite the fact that we’re capable of enduring much more than we think we’re capable of, there always comes a point where we say, “No more”.
Even if you do get these early years right as a parent etc. or personally, it’s rarely enough when we’re living in a world of diminishing resources, automation and bullshit jobs. And this brings me full circle to living in the question(s) that are or should be writ large when we sit down to choose our job/life. Even if we manage to find something that ticks most of the ‘career’ boxes, in my experience there always comes a point where we start to question the choices we’ve made, especially where, which is very common, we end up in jobs we hate. We then go round the houses exhorting change but chafing against the money thing, meaning lots of people are trapped in jobs that are robbing them of the best years of their life.
What I’d like to suggest, is that instead of running blind from the need to do something — even if that means to stay put — we sit down with a pen and paper and write down, for as long as is necessary, what’s arising in the moment.
This might be an example of what’s arising:
I don’t like my job.
Because my boss is tricky, my colleagues are more interested in playing politics but most of all the work isn’t fulfilling.
Move on? Stay put? Have an honest conversation? With whom?
What’s stopping me doing any of these things?
Fear. Fear of what?
What does fear look like? What words would I use to describe it?
How do I live in that fear? How do I walk through and nor around the fear?
Hopefully, you get the gist of what might come out of this exercise.
If you’re not interested in the field of law, you can skip this bit.
As you’ll know, if you’ve been reading this blog, my decision to retrain as a lawyer was not particularly insightful. That’s an understatement. It was based on a five-minute call with my best friend who asked me if I “fancied” — I’m sure that was the word he used — going to Plymouth University the following September (1992) to study law. I said “yes”, without even thinking about the course, let alone the logistics of moving myself and my soon-to-be wife back from Guildford.
At least at the degree stage, things worked out pretty well save that I never questioned why I’d chosen law as opposed to anything else. Did I make a mistake? I don’t know. I’ve got nothing to compare it to. What else would I have done? What I didn’t do was consider, either during the degree course or at the end, if I wanted to spend the rest of my life up to my neck in legal precedent, law firm financial demands and dealing with difficult clients. Should I? Probably. I did a work placement at the firm that I got a training contract with but I saw nothing of what I’d later experience: I was shut in a room reading commercial property files. Perhaps I’m to blame for not going deeper but I naively assumed that I’d get to apply the law to meaningful problems and not be asked ad nauseum to bill the shit out of clients. I’m not being flippant. There were occasions where my legal advice was sought but as long as I didn’t get sued, the firm never enquired about the strength or accuracy of the advice. The only thing they were interested in was billing. And no, I’m not joking. From the day I joined the legal profession in October 1996, until the day I left it in August 2010 (I did go back into private practice in 2016 but you can write off that period), the only thing my paymasters were interested in was how much I billed in order to maintain their drawings.
If you’re considering a career in law, you might wonder what any of this has to do with you? It’s a good question. Just because I struggled to make sense of the absence of humanity in the legal business doesn’t mean you have to question your decision to join it. For a start, my peccadillos are not yours; the firm you work for may have a very different ethos; and you may not take things as seriously as I appear to have done both as regards my work and what I expected from the law firm partners. But I wouldn’t be too hasty. I’d at least consider why you’ve chosen to pursue a career in private practice as opposed to in-house or local government or, better still, why you’ve not considered what else you might do with your law degree. To be clear, this isn’t some superficial exercise. This is life and death. I’m serious. I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve finished their law degree, gone into practice only to be profoundly disappointed. Worse still, they can’t find a way to escape the drudgery of client work that takes much more than it gives. (Don’t forget that the legal profession has an attrocious record on dealing with mental health issues.)
I accept that what I’m telling you is very superficial. All I’m doing is asking you to question your decision or soon-to-be-made decision to become a solicitor in private practice. I’m sure that I’m not the first one to do that and, indeed, you have had your own doubts long before my blog post showed up. But if there’s a key point that I’d invite you to consider it’s this: it’s nearly impossible to escape private practice once you’ve got a few years under your belt. It’s not like (for instance) the accountancy profession that seems much more amenable to allowing you to escape to something more life affirming, not death dealing.
And where then does that leave you?
To some extent, we’re all lost in our work. Never enthralled, sadly. Does that mean we should give up trying to find something purposeful? No. Never. But it does mean we need to continue to question everything we’ve taken as read, particularly bearing in mind that holding down a job will, in my humble opinion, get harder and harder as the effect of climate change continues to bite.