Friday, September 30, 2011

anchors aweigh

Six months into joblessness, one thing I'm struck by is how thoroughly our identities are wrapped up in what we do for work.  It's like our careers (whether it be homemaker, freelancer, corporate lawyer, or otherwise) are, at our core, who we are.  Being a (practicing) lawyer gave me confidence in other areas of my life in ways I didn't recognize.  It gave me something to complain talk about at parties.  It gave me something to do during the day, so that I didn't have to structure my days, weeks, and months for myself.  Being a lawyer, and a pretty successful one, for someone three years out of law school, gave me a core feeling of competence as I moved through the world.  It also gave me a sense of pride, to be able to say that I was a lawyer -- I had obviously worked hard through law school and bar studying, and had passed the exam.  It gave me a sense that I had made it.  All of this anchored me in the world in a way I didn't recognize. 

Some (all?) of the security that having a job provides is illusory.  I didn't "make it" because I was a lawyer.  Being a lawyer wasn't really who I was, deep down.  I wasn't competent because I was a lawyer.  Firstly, we never really "make it" in life.  Anything we have can be taken from us, by a stock market crash or a car crash.  And the core feeling of competence I felt -- and which I have struggled to maintain since quitting -- actually has very little to do with being a competent lawyer, and much more to do with the breadth of knowledge I obtained by having DIYers for parents, the amount of reading I've done in my life, and my own innate curiosity.

It has been hard to hold my head high doing "nothing."  When I was in London, I struggled not to respond "nothing" to the what do you do question that Americans are so fond of asking (and that Londoners who spend a lot of time with Americans have learned to ask).  And I struggled to say that I stayed home, or was in between jobs, or that I was figuring it out, without feeling like some kind of flake.  It has taken me this time to learn to own it.  Sometimes I still struggle with it.  I've found that social situations can be much more anxiety-provoking when I don't have a script (I work for Biglaw; it's torture all the time; yes, I was at work until 2 am last night; I went to Berkeley; yes, it's definitely still full of crazy liberals, of which I am one; etc.)

I realize though, that far from doing "nothing," I've done more work in the last six months than probably any other six month period of my life.  I've done the work of sifting through who I am when the trappings are stripped away.  I've done the work of deciding whether lawyer is a hat I want to wear a little while longer, which required long hours of thinking about what I hated about my old job and what, if anything, I actually liked.  I've had to realize that lawyer is a hat, and not an identity.  I've worked on learning to have pride in myself and my ability to make hard choices, rather than just being proud of the things I have done or my accomplishments on paper.  It doesn't mean this work is done, but it is underway.

My first two tentative forays into the toughest legal job market in history have led nowhere, and now, as I am about to make a third attempt, I have to remember all I learned, and all I am working on, during my six month hiatus.  Even if it takes me a while to find and negotiate a job that fits with me and my many quirks, I need to remember that it's okay and to keep doing the work I have started.  My job is no longer my anchor in life, the Thing Which Gives Me Stability In The Stormy Sea.  I don't really even need an anchor.  I can weather the storm just fine.

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