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Invest Your Time In A Career That Is Meaningful

Over the past week I finished reading, When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. The book is Kalanithi’s examination of his education as a neurosurgeon, his diagnosis with lung cancer in his late thirties, and his death from the disease. Before attending medical school, Kalanithi earned a master’s degree in literature. He describes a long-standing interest in understanding life and death through the lense of great literature, philosophy, and, ultimately, medicine.

What stood out to me was that Kalanithi’s cancer struck just as he was about to finish his medical training. He had spent so much of his life charting out his course. In the book he mentions how he is soon to be considered to his dream job when he struck by cancer. In short, Kalanithi’s life had been a journey to a great height only to end just below the summit.

In many ways, Kalathini’s story is similar to Randy Pausch’s, The Last Lecture. Pausch also describes having the job of his dreams, a wife he loves and beautiful kids. Just when he has it all, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which ultimately kills him.

Both Kalathini and Pausch share common advice that each of us must take care not to spend so much time planning for the future that we fail to appreciate the present. Kalathini notes:

Everyone succumbs to finitude…Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens out in a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing of wind, indeed.

(When Breath Becomes Air at 198).

Pausch puts it succinctly, “Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.” (The Last Lecture at 111.)

So often I see lawyers who are grinding up the career ladder. They don’t enjoy their work but they want to reach the next rung of the ladder. Sometimes they sacrifice their own values or relationships to get there. Maybe they ignore their health or put off meaningful experiences. There is always another achievement, another case, partnership, more pay, something to strive towards.

Kalathini and Pausch are strong reminders that no matter how hard you work, how incredible your talent, and how sound your plan, some things are beyond your control. You may never get to the future you so carefully planned out. Or, as John Lennon put it, life is what happened while you were busy making other plans.

As a coach, I still firmly believe that you need to invest in planning out about your career. However, think carefully about the costs of executing that plan. Ask yourself if you will enjoy, or at least appreciate, the journey to your career goal. There may be times your path will be hard. There may be times that reaching your career ambitions will require some sacrifices and hard work. But, ideally the journey should have as much meaning as the destination. Note, I did not say the journey would always be enjoyable, but it should be meaningful.

For me, both Kalathini and Pausch are ultimately success stories because both describe the incredible meaning their work and their relationships to others offered. Kalathini continued to work as a neurosurgeon while undergoing treatment for his cancer and he found meaning in his ability to help his patients through incredibly difficult times, even as he faced similar difficult times himself.

As you plan your path to the legal job of your dreams, work hard, but keep in mind that there are no guarantees. Take time to be sure that your path is as filled with meaning as your destination.


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