Find a Career that Makes Your Eyes Light Up: Advice for Recent and Not-So-Recent Graduates

bowl of candy on desk

So, is there anything about law firm life that you miss?” asked my old friend, Tom, a big deal partner at a DC law firm.

We stood chatting late in the evening at a wedding reception a few weeks ago. Guests gathered by the dessert table; I was debating between the little parfait glasses filled with chocolate mousse or the fruit tarts. Or both.

No, not really,” I responded without giving his question much thought, my mind more focused on the tiny red velvet cupcakes as another option.

Tom tried again, “Really? Nothing at all about practicing law that you miss?”

O.K., so we were having a real conversation here, not just a polite inquiry among haven’t-seen-you-for-awhile old friends.

I countered, “Well, I did like advising clients. I always liked telling people what to do.”  I laughed,  “And I liked the paycheck. So did our mortgage company.”

Pause for a moment of silence while I recalled the thrill of my first sizeable law firm paycheck.

I also liked the candy. I miss that.” I told him.

You miss what?” Tom asked, with a puzzled look on his face.

(perhaps they didn’t have as much candy at Tom’s law firm as they did at mine?)

So I explained. “You know, the candy in the bowls that people kept on their desks.”

Every afternoon around 4:00 p.m. I would take a break and do a “power walk” around our law firm’s small office, stopping for brief chats with colleagues and staff and to select my daily rewards for making it through most of the work day. Susan could always be counted on to have a seasonal assortment, candy corn, turkey-shaped chocolates or peeps. Ned specialized in mints. David shared Tootsie roll pops.

The thing is that I don’t really even like candy.

Likely, though, that Tom doesn’t rely on candy as a work-day incentive. He is the kind of lawyer who loves what he does. I did not.

I thought of my conversation with Tom the other day while reading an essay by novelist Jonathan Odell, offering excellent, if unexpected, advice for graduates titled –  “Never Get Good At What You Hate.”

Odell, who left a successful corporate career at midlife to become a writer, reasons that if you do become good at a job that you don’t much like, then you will be asked to do more of it. And the more you do of it, the more you will be asked to do, and the more unhappy you will grow.

I recognized myself in his essay. I, too was very good at a career I didn’t much like. I didn’t hate it – I just didn’t love it. And what made it harder for me was being surrounded by colleagues who really loved being lawyers.

How could I tell?

Their eyes lit up when they talked about a new project, they relished a tough legal debate, they eagerly worked those long hours –  all because they had found that love for the law that bypassed me.

My law firm colleagues, Tom and my Dad, too, (now age 92, still practicing law at a firm he founded) – – they all share that gut level passion for the law that I lacked.

Over my lawyering years it became increasingly obvious that I was getting very good at what I didn’t like to do. It made me feel like an imposter, and while I hoped that no one around me noticed – I am sure that they did.

After 33 years of working hard, becoming a partner, earning the respect of my terrific clients –  it was only through the “luck” of having a defective heart valve go seriously awry 2x, that I was involuntarily de-lawyered.  I suddenly had all the time in the world to consider what I really wanted to do – return to my childhood passion, writing that does not involve any legalese.

Which makes me (if not my mortgage company) very, very, very happy. My eyes now light up (so my husband and friends tell me) when I talk about my latest writing projects.

I offer this cautionary tale for recent and not-so-recent graduates to ponder. And a question: how can you possibly know at age 22 or 25 – or at 58 or 62 what you will really like to do if you haven’t had the chance to do it?

Try this test with a few close friends. Let them sit in front of you. Then tell them about a few different work/life paths you’ve been considering.

Which one will make the work day go so fast that you won’t need candy as a mid-afternoon reward?

Which one will make your eyes light up?






Filed under 1st Job, Adult Kids, Baby Boomers, Careers, College, friendship, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, New Grad, Semi-Retired, Women in the Workplace

7 responses to “Find a Career that Makes Your Eyes Light Up: Advice for Recent and Not-So-Recent Graduates

  1. Stephanie Lebow

    Great post, though I fear showing it to Nora; she’s really feeling the lack of eyes-light-up inspiration and has long compared herself negatively to friends who seem to. Useful to me, too, as I’ve been thinking lately about what parts of my work I really love and what parts I don’t so much. But I’m actually writing because I decided to, for the first time since your first few posts, go on the site and see what kind of comments you’re getting (I usually read your post right in the email I receive). I was blown away by the favorable and grateful comments you’re getting from readers who found you by getting directed to your blog! The last time I looked (okay, a long time ago), it was all friends and cousins! You are really building something here; I’m so impressed, and happy for you. And very, very glad your eyes light up about it!

    Love, S


  2. This is so true.Glad you got out. I graduated college with a teaching certificate because I could always fall back on it, or so I was told. I am so thankful I never got a permanent job teaching because the short stints I did I hated it yet the other teachers and administrators told me I was a ‘natural’.


  3. This is great advice, and so was Odell’s. His reminds of how I feel about book reviews. Of all the writing I do it is my least favorite–BY FAR. But because I occasionally and consistently write them over the years, people send me their books and ask for reviews. Then I’m in the awkward position to say no because if I only write reviews that’s all I would write. They take extra time because they include reading the book, and it’s RARELY paid work as none of the places that pay me, pay me to write reviews.

    See–even writing that made me feel resentful. Nope, reviews are clearly not the kind of writing that lights me up.


  4. I left corporate life 10 years ago and do not miss it. Okay, in the beginning, I missed the paycheck and the intellectual stimulation. I did not miss the egos, the meetings and the fussing over trivial matters. That chapter closed and has been replaced with writing and yoga. Several people have told me that my eyes light up when I talk about writing. Enjoy your non-lawyer chapter.


  5. And I think it’s important to recognize that things can change, and there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to change your mind about what is going to make you light up. My current career certainly isn’t something I love — but I do love the people I work with, and am able to shape the job to involve things I like doing (and it pays the bills so that I have a roof over my head and the time to work on the writing I adore).
    I love the advice to not get good at what you don’t enjoy… so important!


  6. Your advice is similar to mine to younger folks; take any job in the industry or company you think you want to work in, and monitor your comfort zone, your satisfaction level and related opportunities within the field which you learn about by being in the midst of the industry. You may discover you like being the lead sled dog, or that you prefer the basement work room. But if you hold out for your dream job, it may not be what you expected when you finally get there, and you will have wasted a lot of time and opportunities.


  7. greg

    Nancy Wolf, the career counselor/therapist…that has a certain ring to it. As far as your 2x valve, it’s nice to have you around in whatever capacity you choose. As far as your criteria for settling in a profession, frankly I’m ambivalent but glad that it’s worked for you.


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