Category Archives: Women in the Workplace

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?

 

 

 

 

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

Was it Something I Said? – – Job Rejection at a “Certain Age”

iStock_000044753522Large  doors

Rejection? Does it get easier to handle when you are older?

Rejection is something to learn from, I would tell my kids when one didn’t get the part he wanted in a school play or the other was not invited to a sleep-over.

You learn that “life is unfair” (my Dad’s favorite phrase) or “when one door closes, another opens” (my Mom’s more optimistic approach) or “don’t take it personally” (my husband’s soothing words of choice.)

I kept these phrases in mind when I opened my email last Friday to read:

Thank you for your time on Wednesday. There were a number of applicants for this opening. (Name of employer) regrets that we are unable to offer you the position of (job title) at this time. We wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

OUCH!

A friend told me a few weeks ago that a well-regarded, college planning company was looking to fill a part-time, seasonal position. I’m not looking for a job, I told her. But this ad, for a college essay specialist, has your name on it, Nancy, my friend insisted. You have the qualifications, you should apply. So I did.

To prep for my interview, I studied the Common Application college essay prompts for next Fall’s admission season. High school seniors using the Common App will write an essay, up to 650 words, on one of five topics. Here’s Topic #2:

 

 “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

How ironic is it that when I applied for a position to assist high school students in brainstorming, writing (their words, not mine!) and editing their essays that I was the one to experience failure?

It could have been something I said or didn’t say. Perhaps it was how I looked? Was I over-qualified? Under-qualified? Not a good fit?

I don’t know why I wasn’t chosen but I can, in up to 650 words, write about it.

1. “Recount an incident when you experienced failure.”

The last time I had a job interview was 23 years ago. Last week my interviewers were a great deal younger and there were two of them in one room. One sat directly in front of me, the other to my left, requiring a great deal of head swiveling. Thought I did well on that. One seemed friendlier, one a bit cooler. I answered their questions, perhaps too candidly, as is my nature. And then to a separate room to take a written test. I like tests, thought that part went well, too.

But I admit, as I left their building, I did not have that warm fuzzy (they liked me! they really liked me!) feeling.  I wrote a nice thank you note. Waited a day. Then the “regrets” email came.

2. “How did it affect me?”

I was surprised, not shocked, but I was upset. Got that pit in the stomach sick feeling. I called my husband who told me not to “take it personally.” Completely unhelpful advice. (Apologies here to my kids for ever saying that to you.) OF COURSE,  I TOOK IT PERSONALLY. They rejected me. That is about as personal as it gets. We do not want you. You may think you were right for the job. We don’t agree. Guess who wins.

I emailed a few friends who were rooting for me. More reassurance; I started to calm down. My stomach returned to its normal state (hunger.) It was late afternoon; I still had research to do for an article I’m writing on college mental health and revisions to make to an agreement I’m drafting for a non-profit board.

Rejection affected me – but not for long. Move on, things to do, next project, please.

3. “What did I learn from the experience?”

I don’t think I learned anything new. When I was younger, I tasted failure often enough. This time, even though I bounced back more quickly, failure had that same bitter taste.

In my 3rd year of law school, when I was hunting for my first job, I had a series of interviews at a small DC law firm that I really wanted to join. I eagerly waited to hear from them. Email had yet to be invented so it was a letter in the mail that gave me the bad news resulting in that same pit in my stomach sick feeling.

The next day I called one of the lawyers at the firm, an older partner who I seemed to connect with during our 20 minute interview, and asked him why I didn’t get the job. He was surprisingly candid. He told me  – “We all thought you had spunk, but your grades didn’t measure up.”

True. My college and grad school grades had been excellent, but my law school grades were less than stellar. And it was also true that I had spunk. Still do.

Yes, being older brings perspective, resilience, maybe even a bit of wisdom. But no getting past it, failure still hurts whatever your age.

What then did I learn from my recent brush with the world of employment?

That sometimes spunk isn’t enough, that your qualifications can get you in the door but now, as then, sometimes life is unfair (you’re right, Dad.) But when one door closes, another door opens. (you were right, Mom.) I’m going to walk through that open door now.

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Careers, College, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, Parenting, Second Careers, Women, Women in the Workplace, Writing