Pursuing Love and Excitement in the Quest for a Career
When it comes to jobs, inspiration is great but getting real essential.
Posted Feb 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Cassie became a lawyer because, in the ‘80s; everyone became a lawyer. It was important to save the world. She’d been a Ph.D. student in English at a very classy institution but, whenever she walked past the law school, she got this frisson – that’s where the real glamour was. Those people would be on the ramparts. They’d redraw the lines of force that governed mundane reality. They were a new kind of physicist, spinning things out in new directions. It was all heady stuff. Moreover, as if she needed more inspiration, she met a guy who was graduating from the law school, and she read his books. “I can do that,” she thought. “It’s just figuring out a text, and I do that already.” By the following autumn, she had enrolled.
It was a funny three years, Cassie told me. She read all her textbooks, passed her exams, and had crushes on a few professors. “They seemed so in charge,” she said. She even liked some of the courses, like antitrust – mainly because the textbooks were full of ringing theoretical pronouncements from Louis D. Brandeis and Theodore Roosevelt.
“The courses made you think. I had never done that before, though I thought I had.” But while it was sometimes interesting and always mind-expanding, the glamour she’d expected was missing. Law school was a toney vocational school. You figured out the law and you applied it so that your clients won. “I wondered, was that really it? I found myself asking questions about the people in the books that had nothing to do with their cases.” As Cassie described it, she managed to turn the whole experience into a renovated Ph.D. program in English, a dreamy period full of litigants with backstories and potential existential crises. “I never imagined that when you graduated, you were a lawyer. But then, suddenly, I was.”
Yearning For A New Career
Cassie stayed a lawyer for seventeen years, rising through the ranks of government to become a Senior Attorney. For a single woman, it was good money. She travelled and met people. But something was missing. She kept imagining herself as a professor of English, a high priestess of the culture. She couldn’t shake it. She invented a rationale for why she’d ever left the academic life: “I told myself that I was really an old-fashioned Puritan. Literature seemed so self-indulgent – if I loved it, that was reason enough to leave.”
That flat-out contradicted the original allure of the law as glamorous but, at the time, she squared the circle by telling herself that the law was glamorous because it fixed the world. (Whether she realized it or not, Cassie could craft an argument). But what was she to do? For a long time, she did nothing. She sulked. She told people she was unhappy, and they told her she didn’t know what a good deal she had. When she was lonely, which she was increasingly, she imagined that professors of English were never lonely because it was all just one big book club. “I was naïve,” she told me.
Enter the Real Professor
Maybe Cassie would have stayed a lawyer, spinning daydreams about a forsaken calling, except that she met Michael. Michael was her beau ideal, a professor of Renaissance literature at Oxford. He was spending a semester at a local university and they became inseparable. When he returned to England, she visited, and saw a vision of academic life that seemed straight out of heaven: Glorious gothic towers. Bells. Evensong. Small, gossipy gatherings straight out of Iris Murdoch. It was beyond romantic, but still teeming with romance. Everyone was sleeping with everyone, then waking up to read poetry. Cassie felt tongue-tied around these people, but thought that she needn’t have been if she’d followed her original career path. Michael told her that she was a natural literary critic. “You’re my best reader,” he said. When they talked about whether it was too late for her to become a professor, he said that it wasn’t.
Cassie visited Michael a couple of times. Deep down, she thought that the only way to remain in his orbit was to become a professor. In fact, that’s just what she set out to do, full of heady notions of finding a perch where (oh, Oxford!) she’d read books all day and make glittering friends. Her previous agonizing over what to do had vanished. She was not deterred by friends who told her that academics make no money, that they spend all their time fighting over crumbs. “I don’t need money,” she told them. “I need excitement.”
By the time she came to see me last year, Cassie had been-there-done-that. She had left academe and was looking for work. It had been like nothing she had imagined. Now in her late 50s, she wondered what it had been about. Surely, it wasn’t about finding love, or even making friends. It was one long slog towards getting tenure. Community? Forget it. Everyone kept their head down, working. Okay, it was interesting. She had written books and articles, and spoken at conferences all over the world. She’d been awarded fellowships, and even spent a year in England on sabbatical. But she felt poor and isolated. As an academic, you had to go where the jobs were, and she’d wound up in the South – which she hated. “You know,” she told me, “I went into it thinking I would find kindred spirits. But it wasn’t like that at all.” Her dreams of Oxford couldn’t have been loonier. To rub it in, Michael had married while she was in grad school. Then he divorced and remarried an American fourteen years his junior. “I just didn’t see the point anymore, so I left.”
As we spoke, Cassie seemed like a study in disappointment. She confided that maybe she would never have left the government if she hadn’t been so lonely – that stuff about Puritanism was, she surmised, the fevered product of a desperate need to suppress the real issue. “I convinced myself that somehow, if I just got a Ph.D., Michael and I would stay connected. I convinced myself that American universities are just like Oxford, a mythical Oxford imagined by an outsider.” Cassie blamed no one but herself for having messed up her career. “I suppose I could have stayed in academe forever. But I’d have gone crazy from the South, and the boredom, and just not caring anymore.”
We spoke about what Cassie could do. She was sure that no one would hire her as a lawyer, since she’d been out of the profession too long and there were too many lawyers anyway. There were no academic jobs, even if she wanted one, since so many new hires were adjuncts – underpaid part-timers whose lives were miserable. She needed money, but had no idea where to look for work. She had no contacts.
But Cassie showed remarkable pluck. She took courses. She made contacts. She found work. Not great work, but it paid the rent. A lot of it was part of the gig economy, which was notoriously unstable, but interesting. When we last spoke, she wasn’t exactly happy, but she was philosophical. “Hey,” she told me, “I’ve been looking for happiness my whole life, and maybe I was happy for two years – the year at Harvard and the year in England.” Cassie had learned to settle, after putting herself through so much turmoil and suffering so much emotional upset.
So, what can we learn from her experience? Probably the most important thing is not to romanticize any profession. Cassie had turned a prospective academic career into an impossible encounter with lovely men. She had imagined a refuge from the day-to-day plodding of the law, without first investigating its academic counterpart. In effect, she’d gone looking for love and excitement without knowing what she was getting into. She’d kissed off a good income and a solid pension for what she knew would leave her in reduced circumstances. As Cassie put it, “I wanted to believe that I could pull it off no matter what. I was desperate, and ran away with myself.” Obviously, that was a mistake. Sometimes, radical change feels like the only possible solution where everything feels wrong. But it’s also wrong to think that all of our problems will vanish if we just walk off into the unknown. Cassie didn’t really know what academic life was like, and her imagined new milieu turned out to be a mirage.
The Trap of Too Much Free Will
Once, Cassie said that the old Mick Jagger song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” was her default anthem. It made her happy, in a way, just to realize that her foray into career-changing was part of a pattern that afflicted a lot of people in a lot of different ways. “At least I wasn’t singularly dumb,” she said. True, but she still could have avoided all the disappointment if she had talked to people first, and found out what a life of scholarship was really like. In a sense, she had been unconstrained. She was a victim of too much free will. As Cassie will tell you in her professorial mode, this is a particularly American affliction. “In a lot of places, people just don’t have all our opportunities,” she said. “The point is to know when to take them and when not to.”
Cassie is one of the most reflective patients that I’ve ever had. She has thought through the trajectory of life, and learned from it. “I know,” she said, “that looking for happiness can be dangerous. We have to make so many decisions.” The point, of course, is to make them wisely, which she’d be the first to admit that she did not. She confused looking for love and excitement with looking for the proper career. When she was still teaching graduate students, she’d tell them not to follow her example into the profession. “But they never listened to me. They looked at what I wrote, and never looked behind it.” Cassie is a perfect example of the need to perform due diligence. No one says to give up the potential for an exciting career just to keep one that’s safe but boring. But especially when you’re your sole mean of support, make sure you know what you’re doing.
Cassie’s friend from law school, Lenore, practiced for thirty years, made millions, then retired early so she could get a Ph.D. She never became a full professor, like Cassie, but she’s teaching and having a great time. Cassie wishes she was Lenore, sort of. “I’m more creative than she ever was. She’s terrifically competent, but none of her stuff is inspired.”
Maybe, in the end, Cassie identified the real problem: some people are too creative not to take a chance on life. They can’t stand waiting around for the right time. The problem is they may suffer for their creativity -- like the true romantics that they are. Thankfully, she still has time to make better choices moving forward.