Friday, February 01, 2008

I've missed you.

But my absence was unavoidable. Part of the settlement.

The head of the firm discovered the blog -- more specifically, an associate, who obviously didn't have nearly enough work to do or he wouldn't have had time to be dicking around on the Internet, thought he could get some brownie points by passing it along -- and got the partnership to force me out because of it.

We negotiated a buyout, and I agreed to stop blogging for sixty days.

Today is my first day at a new firm, less prestigious than my old one, with stupider associates who come from less highly-ranked schools and who scored significantly lower on the LSAT.

Even the paralegals smell worse here.

I'm grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to start fresh, but, really, what's the point? I suppose this is how John Kerry must feel, or Joe Biden, or Bob Dole, or anyone else who's been on one track and suddenly finds himself having lost a battle and sees nothing ahead but more of the same. I'm sure Senate life is one thing when you feel like you can be President one day, but quite another when you know that chance has passed you by.

I don't mean to compare myself to a senator. My work has touched the lives of far more people, and usually in significantly more devastating ways. But I think my point holds true. There's a stretch of any intelligent person's career when you're striving for something. You have to be, or you couldn't possibly bring yourself to go to work every morning. The ambition has to be there, it has to drive you forward, or else I don't know how anything could ever get done. My biggest triumphs have been driven by ambition. The briefs I stayed up all night to write, as an associate. The clients I spent weeks wooing, as a partner. The underlings I pushed to give me their best, regardless of the consequences.

You can't create fear in others without having that driving force inside of you. If you're just doing it for the paycheck, you can't ever quite summon yourself to care enough to torture people below you. The mistreatment has always come from something greater than the looks on their faces when they find out they have to cancel a vacation. It's always been motivated by something more than just wanting to see them suffer. It's about making a name for yourself. Getting to the top. Proving to yourself and to the world that you matter. That you're not just another lawyer. Or another suburban mom or dad, regardless of profession, with a job and a nice house and a stagnant life.

So many people just go to work, come home, withhold love from their spouses and kids, and then do it all over again the next day. An "exciting weekend" involves a trip to the mall, or burying your wife up to her neck in sand at the beach, or telling the nanny she can go to the doctor and you'll babysit your kids for a couple of hours. And then maybe a vacation every five or six years to really spice things up. But that's never the life I wanted. I wanted more than that. I wanted power. Not necessarily the power to control others, although that's always fun, but the power to control my own destiny. To know that I was special. To know that I was different. To know that there was nothing I couldn't achieve.

And for a while, my life was just as I planned. There WAS nothing I couldn't achieve. Partnership. A seat on the executive board. Speaking slots at top legal conferences. Students begging me for interviews. I had it all planned out: run the firm by age 50, then turn my head toward politics, spend a few years as Attorney General, and then take a consulting job in the private sector so I could turn my three houses into twelve.

But all it takes is one fall from grace for the vision to change completely. I've always said, to my kids and to anyone who'll listen, that the key to happiness is fooling yourself into thinking that what you do matters. But once you go from the top of a prestigious law firm, with a view of the ocean and an entire team of recent immigrant custodial workers who think it's perfectly normal for the men in suits to throw food at them and laugh, to a place like this, with a view of a warehouse out my window, three partners to a secretary, and a vending machine instead of a cafeteria... well, the illusion is over. I'm nobody. I'm just one of a million people exactly like me, doing the same work, for the same Fortune 1000 companies, and earning the same seven-figure salary. I'm not that special.

And it hurts. It hurts to know that it's probably all downhill from here. I can't recreate the glory, I can't repeat the miracle that was my previous existence. I lucked into my life -- it wasn't all luck, of course, but I'd be a fool not to admit that luck played a part in about 4% of it -- and the odds of hitting the jackpot twice... well, it's not going to happen. I've reached my peak, and that hunger is gone. Partly satisfied by my former heights, but partly just beaten into submission.

So now what? Do I fake the rage and the passion to hurl office supplies at associates? Do I pretend to be someone I'm not, just to keep up appearances? Or do I settle into this life, show up late and leave early, act distant but cordial to my colleagues, and do mediocre work that will let me stay here for the foreseeable future but leave me unfulfilled and empty inside? Or do I use all of this as a challenge? As a challenge to be even better than before, despite the almost-certain lack of positive outcomes that will result. As a challenge to make those under me work for their future in a way I never really had to work for mine. As a challenge to find power where none really exists, and exert this imaginary power over anyone foolish enough to believe it's there. As a challenge to be a better man than ever before, as measured by the amount of tears other will shed in my presence.

I don't know. I don't know if I still have it in me to look quite as critically on those around me and make them feel so bad about themselves. I suppose I will have to see how it goes.

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