How many people can say they love what they do for a living?  Day in and day out they are passionate about the work?

Not for the money. 

Not for the mega bonus.

Not for the stock options leading to a big payday.

Not for the fame or prestige.

They do the work that they do because they love it.  They care deeply and achieve satisfaction beyond the paycheck.

About three years ago a lawyer who I admire and respect – a superb legal mind and a
talented practitioner with a major Dallas firm – confided that he hated his job.  He was extraordinarily well trained at one of the best law schools in the country.  He sacrificed personally and financially to get his degree.  He edited the law review and earned academic honors.  He was one of the youngest partners at his firm.  Yet, he hated what he did.  He was miserable.  It was not the firm or the clients.  It was the profession.

Several weeks later I met him for drinks and dinner at a fashionable downtown
restaurant.  There were 11 other lawyers present – partners all – representing some of the best known firms in Texas, New York and Washington.  Frankly, I was immediately struck by the New Testament significance of 12 lawyers meeting for supper, but that is another story.

The men at the table were all successful.  They enjoyed the respect of their colleagues and they each made an enormous amount of money. When I asked how many loved what they did – the practice of law, there were several moments of silence.  Eyes rolled.  Smiles were exchanged.  Then snickers turned to laughter. 

I felt like an outsider who had just been the victim of an inside joke.  Skeptical that people could work as hard as lawyers work and still not enjoy it, I asked for a show of hands.  “How many of you like what you do?  Forget passion and love for a minute.  How many
of you just like what you do?”

Silence.  Then slowly, as if they were embarrassed, only four of the 12 raised their hands. 

“I hate what I do, but if I quit my wife would kill me.  She probably would divorce me.  I make a lot of money and she wants and expects the lifestyle.  I am not sure how I could earn this much money doing something else.  I feel trapped, so I tough   it out,” lamented one.

Another confided: “This is a miserable job, but I only have to do it for 14 more years
and then I can retire.”

Heads nodded and more knowing smiles were exchanged. There was a sense of resignation.  Or was it sadness?  They worked long hours, including weekends.  Their
home lives suffered. They were all well paid, but they were sacrificing so much for a career they clearly did not enjoy.

If there is hell on earth, I thought, I just found it.

Fame and fortune aside, this is a cautionary alert for college graduates as well as their parents who drive their high achieving children to pursue the prestige “money” jobs.  Do not find yourself in a trendy restaurant 20 years from now admitting to a stranger that your life is a horribly painful experience.  Do what you want to do.  Do what makes you
happy.  Pursue a career that, when you tell me what you do for a living, you can smile.

As the recession has taken its toll on not only the hourly wage earners but on executives, lawyers, bankers, and others not normally associated with unemployment, stories have emerged about once highly paid people putting aside their old professions to begin new ones in areas they always thought they might enjoy such as cooking, or teaching, or starting up a new company doing something they really believe in, and how happy and fulfilled they have become.

As Steven A. Cohen, the head of SAC Capital Advisors, and a man with an individual net
worth of more than $6.4 billion, said recently in a Vanity Fair article, he has achieved all that he has at great personal sacrifice through two marriages and killer hours in the office.  “I have been to the top of the mountain,” he said, “and there’s not much there.”

You only have one life. 

© 2010 John Gregory Self