Fear and Loathing on the Mountainside

When I was younger I never really had any grandiose ambitions; I enjoyed learning and felt that being a history professor would let me get paid to do something I loved. Initially, being a graduate student was exciting. I got to be so many different people: I was a scholar, a teacher, and a colleague to many brilliant people. I watched them pour their lives into their work and create something that truly was theirs. It was an honor to witness.

I traveled the world too. I went to archives in Russia and looked at documents that hadn’t been seen by anyone since the 1880s. I was welcomed into the home of a man whose German ancestors made their living farming on the steppe of Siberia. I was, he proudly exclaimed to everyone who would listen, the first American he had ever met. But when I had to list everything on a two-page CV I could not help but think, “Is this it? Am I happy with the person on these pages?” In so many ways it was this sense of doubt over the direction my life had taken that led me to quit grad school. I wanted my life to have a purpose again.

If you drive through my hometown you’ll see a plaque on a building on the south end of Main Street. It marks the spot where my grandfather had his first law office. He practiced law in Wyoming for nearly fifty years and, even though he is gone, his legacy continues to shape my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m at the gym or buying groceries, people know who I am because of him. (I’m sitting in his cabin right now, watching my fire die down while I type out my thoughts.) Sometimes I think that maybe if I could be half the man and half the lawyer he was, then maybe I could look back someday and know that I had achieved something.

It’s funny that I compare myself to grandfather now, because for the longest time I never wanted to be a lawyer because of him. I believed that no matter how skilled I was or how much I success I had, it would always pale in comparison to everything that he accomplished. This was in spite of the fact that I had a suspicion that I might actually enjoy being a lawyer. I loved to read books on just about anything I could get my hands on. (Never read pessimistic philosophy alone in a cabin in the middle of woods. Bad vibrations. I’m listening to Simon and Garfunkel to compensate, but it’s not helping.) I enjoyed problem solving and being someone people could rely on to explain things, regardless of the subject.

For a while I thought I was realizing my ambitions as a historian and I felt content with my life. But after a few years I could no longer avoid wondering if I had gotten on the elevator on its way down: funding for research gets cut seemingly every year, tenure-track jobs are practically non-existent, the reach of the university administration is limitless, and the desire to produce new ways of looking at the past leads to esotericism (and in my case, a dissertation topic with which I had no real connection). I felt the same doubt in my teaching. It became increasingly harder for me to enjoy my job when so much of it came down to explaining things like stagflation to students who only wanted to know because it was an exam term. Is this why I read so many books?

For all the effort I put into my education, the end result seemed so insignificant. I was competing for $10,000 a year grants with hundreds of other applicants. I was writing and giving conference presentations that I’m sure nobody remembered a week later. (When someone tells you they enjoyed your presentation, what does that even mean)? I was living on a stipend that was less than $20,000 annually. I knew things wouldn’t get much better. At best I would get a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in a part of the country I would never live voluntarily. Or I would get stuck as an adjunct instructor, getting paid a pittance even though I had a PhD. In either case I’d still have to deal with the increasingly more corporate university. I so desperately wanted the chance to do something else (preferably something that would continue to challenge me intellectually) and actually get paid something to do it.

Once I decided to leave academia I needed to find a new career path, a particularly daunting challenge for someone who had never held a “real” job. Indeed, I felt like I had to spend most of my job interviews defending my decision to first become a historian and then to become something else. In the end, I got the distinct impression that everyone felt like I was too old and overqualified for the positions I was seeking. They never could seem to get past the fact that I was a historian. I needed to do something to reinvent my identity and the only people who seemed to value my skill set were the pre-law advisors and attorneys. (I still have a nagging suspicion they just wanted my student loan money). My career path seemed to have come full circle. I had to decide if I really wanted to be a lawyer, like my grandfather before me.

It was the most difficult decision I ever made, but in the end I chose to attend law school. On some level, I have no idea what I’m getting myself into and I’m still freaking out about taking on student loan debt. But it was too exciting an opportunity to pass up. It was a chance for me to develop an entirely new professional identity. It was also a way to take everything I had learned about myself and make something positive out of it. Looking back, I probably would have been miserable as a twenty-two year old law student. A career, salary potential, living standards all were not something I really thought about. I also lacked ambition. I was always a good student because I did what people told me to do, but I never asked myself what I hoped to accomplish. Now that I have much more specific goals for myself, I am much more confident about what I can achieve. I’m still having trouble avoiding the comparisons to my grandfather, but sometimes it good to have lofty ambitions.


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