It was the fortune cookie that probably changed my life.
"It is easier to quit at the beginning than at then end", the cookie from some forgotten Thai restaurant said. It wasn't really a fortune, and I am annoyed when that happens, but when I got that piece of paper shortly before I was to move halfway across the country and start school, it stuck with me. It spoke of something that was very much on my mind, even though I wished for these thoughts to go away.
The fact was, according to my own best judgment before it was displaced by something else, I was not supposed to be starting this journey that I was starting. I had been feeling the doubts for months, but I ignored them. If I did not take a long hard look immediately, I would go down a path that was wrong for me, and it would be a lot harder to quit at the end than before I started.
Fortunately, I did change my mind before I compounded the mistake and it was too late. At the last minute, yes, but better late than never.
About two years ago, during what was a very chaotic part of my life, I made the decision to check into furthering my education. Before long, I had narrowed my choices down to a Master's degree in some technical field, such as Information Security, or a law degree. My goals were to get involved in public policy in the areas of data security and data privacy. Governments and corporations are accumulating ever-increasing amounts of data on people, and so far the ways in which that data are protected are lacking. Identity theft, databases full of misinformation, government overreaching...there was a lot to be done in this field, and I wanted to be a part of it. Although I was working in the IT field for a state legislature, I felt that I needed something more in order to have the kind of impact on policy that I was looking for. Eventually, I pushed aside the Masters degrees to focus my attention on possibly pursuing a law degree.
As a Political Science graduate, it wasn't a stretch for me to seriously consider law school. A lot of my classmates in college were aiming for law degrees. One of my college roommates did the same. The reason I hadn't really considered it before, though was that I didn't feel any great need in college to become a lawyer. Nobody in my family was a lawyer. I wasn't feeling pressured by relatives or by history to follow that path. It was a possibility that existed in the back of my head, but it was about as far from a driving ambition as you could get. About the only time I thought about it is when other law students said how hard it was, and at times like those, smart and cocky as I was, I did wonder how hard it could really be. School had always come so easy for me, so it seemed impossible that law school could really be that hard. Fortunately, merely going to law school to test out how difficult it was never came to pass; there aren't many dumber reasons than that to go to school.
When I seriously looked at going to law school to get involved in public policy, I quickly determined what my boundaries would be. Since public policy jobs are not well-paying, and the field I was interested in was so new with possibly few good opportunities to do what I wanted, I could not go to school if it required me to go into significant debt. Such debt would preclude me from having the flexibility to take the kind of job that I wanted to take, or even eschew the field of law entirely if I found that I didn't like it. Since law itself wasn't my passion, and since I didn't want to really "be a lawyer" in the typical sense of the word, locking myself into needing an associate position at a big firm was not doable. In addition, what little ego I have required that I go to a quality school, not Hollywood Upstairs Law School and Shoe Repair. In the end, I decided that unless I got a full-tuition scholarship to a fairly prestigious school, I would not commit. The investment in time and money would simply not be worth it to me in my situation.
Of course, if I wanted a full ride at a good school, I would need the necessary credentials. My GPA was a 3.61, not bad, but certainly no 4.0. I would have to do very well on the LSAT to get the kind of scholarship I wanted. I figured that a 170 or higher would be a good starting point, and I spent a while studying for the December 2005 test. At this point, the investment in time and money was incredibly low: aside from studying, some books, and the test, I didn't have much invested in the process. I thought I could walk away relatively easily should things not go my way. What I didn't know was that I was starting down a path that would alter my thinking and psychology in no small manner.
A few weeks passed, and before the start of 2006, I received my LSAT score: 167. An impressive score for sure: it was, after all, in the 96th percentile. It was a bit lower than I was shooting for, and lower than I was used to on standardized tests. Curse the LSAT's lack of a math section; had it had one, I would have done better for sure. However, it was close enough to my target score to make me think that I should keep on pursuing this, see where things ended up. A few points less, and I probably would have given up right there and moved onto something else.
Some more time passed. Since this is a big decision, I start to think that seeking out some advice would be a good idea. I bought some more books, this time about applying for school. When April comes around, I read the latest law school rankings in U.S. News and World Report. This was the first step away from reality, into the insular world of law school admissions. There are huge flaws in the USNWR rankings. They are essentially self-perpetuating and measure all of the wrong things. Schools, judges, lawyers, and just about everybody else decry them as being unreflective of the things that really matter in schools. All the same, firms pay attention to them in their hiring, applicants pay attention to them in their application decisions, and schools do everything in their power to increase their ranking at the same time deploring them for not measuring the nuances of different schools. Is it a good idea to follow these rankings? Probably not, but everybody does it. I did it too.
Like a good applicant, I speny months writing and rewriting my application essays. Like a lot of other applicants, and probably not very wisely, I began to narrow down my school choices based on the USNWR rankings, and where I thought I wanted to live when I was done. In my essays, I was being true to my public interest roots, writing that this was indeed what I wanted to do with my degree. At this point, I was still focused on my ultimate goal, although that had begun to waver.
Then, I started getting involved in online forums for law school applicants. These provided a lot of advice on where to apply, what to write about, and all of those issues that applicants face. Unfortunately, through no fault of any participant, it was also an echo chamber where all of the "tried and true" advice was passed around repeatedly to all neophytes. The validity of those rankings. The importance of attending the highest-ranked school you are accepted to, regardless of financial considerations. Terms like "Third-Tier Toilet" were tossed around. I started to get caught up in the hype, and started to forget exactly why I was doing this.
I bought more books on the law school experience. Sometimes, they reinforced what I was hearing online. When they had advice that I should have heeded, such as the desire necessary for succeeding in school, and the follies of going into serious debt when you want to be as flexible as you can with your degree, I ignored them. Either I thought these things didn't apply to me, or I had begun to change my plans internally. I was starting to become just a bit arrogant, I was starting to focus on the wrong things. It would get worse.
I ended up applying to ten schools. At approximately $70 per application, this was a not-so-insignificant amount of money, at least to me. In reality, I could certainly afford it, and if I was going to be economically rational about things, I should have looked at this sum as a sunk cost: if I did not get huge scholarships from any of the prestigious schools I was applying to, then I should have realized there was no way I was going to go on to law school to "recoup" this investment. Unfortunately, I did not look at it rationally. My investment in time and money was increasing, of course, but it was still not much in the grand scheme of things. $1,000 spent on fees and tests, a small chunk of time every day spent revising and editing essays and filling out applications. In other words, less than 1% of what it would actually cost in time and money to attend law school. However, I didn't see it in those relative terms. I was getting sucked in, demanding that my time and energy be rewarded.
I got my applications in early, so I had to wait a couple of months for schools to get back to me. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, I got my first acceptance letter. Not bad! It even included a small scholarship. Was this a good school? Yes it was. Was it a full-tuition scholarship or even close to it? No. Was it a school I was even interested in attending? No. Given these facts, it would seem that such a letter would not have made me happy, or influenced my decision in any way. Instead, I was in. I was "accepted". A school wanted me, after carefully considering my application, résumé, essays, GPA, and LSAT score. The fact that by my own criteria this school would not work for me or my goals was completely ignored by me. What mattered was the adrenaline hit, the buzz. I wanted more.
I got more. Both acceptances and rejections. I was realistic about the rejections, since in applying to the best schools I applied to schools that I did not have a good chance of being accepted to. Even so, they hurt. They didn't want me. Other schools did though. Feeling what undoubtedly so many other applicants had felt before, I would show them. I would be such an awesome lawyer, those schools would rue the day they turned me down. Reality should have set in at this point, making me question how this would actually happen, and how I would show those schools that they had erred? Details did not matter at that point. I would team up with the schools that wanted me and do it.
The funny thing about these acceptances, when they came, was that none of them had significant scholarship offers attached, save one, and that was from the "least prestigious" school. And that still wasn't close to a full ride. However, those criteria mattered less and less as I collected my letters and compared them with people online. What mattered was keeping up with them. Eventually, I had pretty much forgotten what my goals were, or why I had started out doing this in the first place. Instead, I needed to go to the best school possible, based on the rankings. It didn't matter that it would set me back more than $100,000 in debt, or that such debt would prevent me from doing what I wanted to do after school. I'd changed my plans: instead of doing public policy work, I'd be one of those first-year associates in a large New York firm making $170,000 a year, working 70 hours a week, being abused by partners, and in general having no life outside of work. It would be glamorous, all the ladies would want me, I'd be living the high life.
Right. This from a person who was proudly non-conformist, who generally didn't have much time for being told what to do by self-important old men, and who worked hard but enjoyed having a life outside of the office. Hell, I had never even worked in a law firm before, let alone one of the huge megafirms that chew up new associates and spit them out worn, tired, and broken. Plus, I was no dewy-eyed recent college graduate: I was old enough to know that you work to live, not live to work. Nevertheless, I was going to work for one of these firms because that's what ambitious law school graduates do if they are good enough. Not to mention that when you have enough debt to buy a small house, you have little choice but to find a job that pays enough to service that debt.
In March, with the admissions season winding to a close, what I should have done was sit down with all of my offers, taken a good hard look at them, remembered why I was doing this in the first place, and realized that I had not achieved my goals of getting accepted to a good school with a full-tuition scholarship. This would have meant no law school for me in the near future, barring any changes in circumstances, but it would have been true to what I wanted in the first place. Instead, I was talking with others about how stupid it would be for me to go anywhere but the top-ranked school I was admitted to, and dreaming of a life that I had never known before and went contrary to my personality. Law school wouldn't lead me to the life that I wanted; instead, I changed my definition of the life that I wanted to fit with law school. Insanity.
I didn't stop and objectively reasses my decisions. Instead, time was running out. I had to decide where to go to school, as deposits had to be in by April. At this point, short a $200 deposit, I still could have easily walked away with little problem and little investment. But my ego was starting to take over. People were proud of me, and I felt good telling people I was going to law school. They were happy for me even though I was not terribly happy for myself. Law school was far enough away at that point, though, that I felt that time would take care of generating the necessary joy and excitement.
I'd chosen a good school in another state (one that would lead to that six-figure debt in all likelihood), so that meant finding a place to live, roommates, the whole bit. At each of these steps, I could have backed off, said this wasn't right for me, and done something else. I didn't. I got caught up in getting ready, stressing out over it, making sure I was organized and ready go, even if my excitement level was low and waning all the time.
Some of you may wonder if I had any doubts at all, seeing as how my plan was, by my own reckoning, fundamentally flawed. The answer was yes, I did have doubts. Nearly every day, for months. However, I ignored them. I hoped that they would go away. They would, temporarily, only to return in a day or two. I repeated this for weeks and months on end, again never sitting down and facing them squarely to determine if there was anything to these doubts. I was in my bubble, going full steam ahead over a cliff, hoping something would happen to put me back on track. Nothing did, however. The closer I got to leaving, the less I wanted to do it. Whenever people asked me if I was excited about school, I lied and told them yes, despite the fact that I was increasingly ambivalent, then hostile, to making probably the biggest change of my life, a change that would have repercussions for decades to come. There are times when you have to accept life-altering events as they hit you, but this was not one of them. I had a choice. I could choose not to do it.
I sold my car and many of my belongings, quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and left home. Once everything was done, once there was nothing but me and the U-Haul and the open road, I didn't have any more distractions. I didn't have anything to keep me from these thoughts. I finally had to face all of these issues, and face them I did. Clarity once again came back to me, almost too late. It was tough. I knew that I had already made huge changes to get to where I was, but when you got right down to it, continuing on with school would only compound my errors. I talked to people and reread the books, this time with an open mind, and saw all of the warnings I had ignored before. This school at this time was not the way to reach my goals. If I continued down this path, I would probably end up trapped in a life that I did not want. And it was all completely avoidable.
So I sat down, thought long and hard, and took the cookie's advice: I stopped before I started, despite having made so many decisions leading up to it.
My investment in time and money at this point is a lot more significant than it was four or five months ago, when I really should have put the kibosh on this thing, but relatively speaking, it is still peanuts compared to what law school would entail. I did spend enough to give the economy a good boost, and I suppose I got a bit of a vacation out of the deal. I'll have to take care of lots of loose ends, in much the same way as I did before I came out here, but I'll survive.
People reading this may have a lot of reactions. Some of you may think that I was incredibly stupid for letting this get so carried away when I could have easily made the decision long before it had any real impacts. To you, I completely agree: I was a complete idiot. Some of you may think that I don't have what it takes to hack it in law school and that it is a good thing I didn't go. To you, I also pretty much agree: Although I think I have the skills to succeed in law school, what I didn't have was the desire, and desire always trumps skills in just about everything you do. Some of you may think that I am going to regret not going to school, because it is always the things we don't do that we regret most. Truthfully, this is what troubles me more than anything else, although my heart tells me that no, I won't regret leaving, because it was the right thing to do, and that I probably would have regretted getting involved in something I don't care for a lot more. Then, there are some of you who might think I'm a quitter, a flake, a loser, or your favorite adjective. Hearing these words does sting, but I think it does take courage to admit when you are wrong, and change your mind. Just looking at events in the world today, how much better would things be if our leaders could admit they were wrong before it was too late?
Let this be a cautionary tale. Determine what your goals are, and determine what you need to do to achieve them. Do it before a fortune cookie tells you to.
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