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The Trap of Romanticizing

With a career, getting inspired is great. But getting real is essential.

Key points

  • In choosing or changing a career, it’s important not to be overly romantic.
  • Financial security matters in terms of your overall happiness, so it needs to be a consideration with work.
  • A sense of purpose makes a difference in your work. It should be a meaningful pursuit.
  • Choose your work wisely and perform due diligence before committing.
Jane Austin
Source: PICRYL

Cassie became a lawyer because, in the 1980s, everyone became a lawyer. She’d been a Ph.D. student in English at a very classy institution but, whenever she walked past the law school, she got a frisson—that’s where the real glamor was. Those people would redraw the lines of force that governed mundane reality. By the following autumn, she had enrolled.

It was a funny three years, Cassie told me. While it was sometimes interesting and always mind-expanding, the glamor she’d expected was missing. Law school was a hyped-up 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.

But 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. But something was missing. She kept imagining herself as a professor of English, a high priestess of the culture. But for a long time, she did nothing. 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.

Maybe Cassie would have stayed a lawyer, spinning daydreams of a forsaken calling, except that she met Michael. Michael was her beau ideal, a professor of Irish literature at Oxford. He was spending a semester at a local university and they became inseparable. When he returned to England, she visitedd 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. Cassie felt tongue-tied around Michael’s friends but thought that she needn’t have been if she’d followed her original career.

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 she’d read books all day and make glittering friends. Her previous agonizing over what to do had vanished. “I don’t need money,” she thought. “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. Okay, it was interesting. 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.

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. “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 needed money, but had no idea where to look for work.

But Cassie showed pluck. She took courses. She made contacts. She found work. Not great work, but it paid the rent. When we last spoke, she wasn’t exactly happy, but she was philosophical. What she wanted now was the kind of happiness that a woman pushing 60 could settle for: a modicum of security, some peace, some dignity.

So, what can we learn from her experience? Probably the most important thing is not to romanticize any profession. Cassie 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. 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. But it’s wrong to think that all of our problems will vanish if we just walk off into the unknown.

Cassie 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 choosing the proper career.

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 means of support, make sure you know what you’re doing.

Cassie imagined a life with little basis in reality. So, when we contemplate a career change, we need to ask ourselves: What is my ulterior motive? Are my aspirations based in reality? Is my new career supposed to fill gaps in my life that, in the clear light of day, would seem way too cavernous for any career to fill?

When we feel desperate and lonely, our judgment is colored. We are willing to take risks that we convince ourselves are not risks at all. So, we should ask ourselves: If the purpose of taking this leap fails, will there be enough left in the place where I lande to have made the effort worthwhile? If the answer is No, if we invested all our emotional capital in a potential mirage, then it’s probably wise not to take the leap at all.