Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Happiness Project (excerpt)

I could not say it any better myself:

I'd started out in law, and I'd had a great experience. But when my clerkship with Justice O'Connor drew to a close, I couldn't figure out what job I wanted next. 

During this time, I visited the apartment of a friend who was in graduate school studying education, and I noticed several thick textbooks lying around her living room. 

"Is this what they make you read for your program?" I asked, idly flipping through the dense, dull pages. 

"Yes," she said, "but that's what I read in my spare time, anyhow."

For some reason, that casual answer shocked me to attention. What did I do in my spare time? I asked myself. As much as I liked clerking, I never spent one second more on legal subjects than I had to. For fun, I was writing a book, and it occurred to me that perhaps I could write books for a living. Over the next several months, I became convinced that that was what I wanted to do. 

I’m a very ambitious, competitive person, and it was wrenching to walk away from my legal credentials and start my career over from the beginning. Being editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal, winning a legal writing prize—inside the world of law, these credentials mattered a lot. Outside the world of law, they didn’t matter at all. My ambition, however, was also a factor in leaving the law. I’d become convinced that passion was a critical factor in professional success. People who love their work bring an intensity and enthusiasm that’s impossible to match through sheer diligence. I could see that in my co-clerks on the Supreme Court: they read law journals for fun, they talked about cases during their lunch hours, they felt energized by their efforts. I didn’t.

Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice. Therefore, career experts argue, you’re better off pursuing a profession that comes easily and that you love, because that’s where you’ll be more eager to practice and thereby earn a competitive advantage.

I love writing, reading, research, note taking, analysis, and criticism. (Well, I don’t actually love writing, but then practically no writer actually loves the writing part.) My past, when I thought back, was littered with clues that I wanted to be a writer. I’d written two novels, now locked in a drawer. I’ve always spent most of my free time reading. I take voluminous notes for apparent reason. I majored in English. And the biggest clue: I was writing a book in my free time.

I have an idea of who I wish I were, and that obscures my understanding of who I actually am. Sometimes I pretend even to myself to enjoy activities that I don’ really enjoy, such as shopping, or to be interested in subjects that don’t much interest me, such as foreign policy. And worse, I ignore my true desires and interests.

“Fake it till you feel it” was an effective way to change my mood in the moment, … but it isn’t a good governing principle for major life decisions. By “faking it,” I could become engaged in subjects and activities that didn’t particularly interest me, but that enthusiasm paled in comparison to the passion I felt for the subjects in which I naturally found myself interested.

Self-knowledge is one of the qualities that I admire most in my sister. Elizabeth never questions her own nature. In school, I played field hockey (even though I was a terrible athlete), took physics (which I hated), and wished that I were more into music (I wasn’t). Not Elizabeth. She has always been unswervingly true to herself. Unlike many smart people, for example, she never apologized for her love of commercial fiction or television—an attitude vindicated by the fact that she started her career writing commercial young-adult novels and then became a TV writer.  …

“I worry about feeling legitimate,” I confessed. “Working in something like law or finance or politics would make me feel legitimate.”

I expected her to say something like “Writing is legitimate” or “You can switch to something else if you don’t like it,” but she was far more astute.

“You know,” she said, “you’ve always had this desire for legitimacy, and you’ll have it forever. It’s probably why you went to law school. But should you let it determine your next job?”


“You’ve already done highly legitimate things, like clerking on the Supreme Court, but do you feel legitimate?”

“Not really.”

“So you probably never will. Okay. Just don’t let that drive your decisions.”

Leaving law to become a writer was the most important step I ever took to “Be Gretchen.” I’d decided to do what I wanted to do, and I ignored options that, no matter how enticing they might be for other people, weren’t right for me.

-The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

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