you don’t respect the process

Back when I was a young art student, I took a class called “Sculpture: The Instability Of Things.” The teacher, a local artist named Laurie, was always challenging and bullshit-free — saying sloppy things like “I really like the aesthetic sense of the piece” in her class would earn you a quizzical look and a soft, devastating “What do you mean by that?” (The word “visual” was similarly despised, and even “abstract” was on notice.)

I did quite well in the class overall, but on one project I completely failed. I was trying to create a projected light pattern on the ceiling by attaching flashlights to a fan motor and placing that under a piece of plexiglas covered with glass bottles. (The assignment involved using recycled and repurposed materials.) The problem was that I hadn’t allowed myself enough R&D time to actually test this contraption, and when I tried to put it together on the day it was due, I discovered that even on its slowest setting, the fan motor was far too powerful, and the lights kept coming loose and flying across the room.

Laurie came into my studio and found me on the floor, everything in pieces around me. I lamely tried to demonstrate my idea by hand-holding the flashlights and moving them around in a vaguely circular motion under the plexiglass. She looked pained, and I stopped. Then she sat down and looked me in the eye. “You have a lot of ideas, but you don’t respect the process of making art,” she said. I agreed. She was quiet for a moment, out of decency. Then she mentioned that if I was interested in patterns of light I should look into the photograms of Moholy-Nagy.

I think about that moment a lot, because I think no one before or since has so succinctly described for me the narrative of failure that really bright, capable people often fall into. We don’t respect the process. We don’t respect what other people have gone through to get where they are. And we refuse to admit that a lot of things come down to luck and timing. Smart people, more than rich people or white people or even men, have got to be the most privileged motherfuckers on the planet. If you’re a smart, rich, white man, of course, your sense of entitlement is positively godlike.

I kid Dick. He knows that. Dick is actually a guy who did all the right things, in terms of achieving success. I don’t mean he was a strong academic performer. (He flunked out of Yale.) But he made all the right sacrifices. For example, having to hang out with assholes for forty years.

No, this post is about people who don’t understand at a young age the level of sweat and suffering involved in becoming emperor of the universe.

Because many smart people secretly believe they’re entitled to be emperor of the universe. Not, you know, literally. But, yes. Literally.

Smart kids tend to think, not in terms of what’s possible or practical, but in terms of what they’d like to do. That’s emperor-think. A smart person feels entitled to an amazing, interesting life involving little to none of the dull, tedious stuff that most people have to contend with. After all, they’re smart! (Every smart person, for example, secretly believes he could be President — and probably will be some day. Even Dick Cheney, with his bad ticker and his insanely athletic and healthy boss, probably believed deep in his shriveled little soul that he was going to be President someday soon.)

Unfortunately, research suggests that bright kids also quickly learn to be risk-averse, refusing to attempt things they’re not sure they’re going to be great at. They get used to being praised for being clever, and why would you give up praise and success in order to work hard at something, for a long time, with mediocre results?

Herein, of course, is a terrible tension for smart people, because, as Malcolm Gladwell never tires of reminding us, getting to do interesting, non-tedious things requires both a certain amount of luck (being smart is not sufficient) and a tremendous, unbelievable amount of practice:

Which is, of course, terribly tedious. And that’s just to learn one thing well. If the Beatles had also wanted to become neurologists, they would have had to spend another 10,000 hours doing that. Ugh — can you imagine?

Elana, who has been very focused on being a writer for ten years or so, once blogged about how many layers of struggle and lameness there are between you and the actual awesome part:

It’s kind of like, you’re on this uphill hike, and every time you think “Oh! THERE IT IS! THE PEAK!” you realize that it’s actually just a narrow ledge of a plateau. And you stand around there for ten minutes as you absorb, with no small amount of horror, the fact that the actual peak is still miles and miles away. And then you take a breath and set off for the next leg of the trek, and eventually you go “Whoo! THERE IT IS, the PEAK!”

And then you realize that you’re a sucker and you just did it again. And it goes on like that for some time.

I, of course, have not been focused on anything for ten years. I was focused on filmmaking for eight years or so, and then on the Army and being a linguist for another seven years… which means that I have essentially left behind two careers just short of actually getting decent at them.

I’m not saying I didn’t have good reasons for abandoning those careers. And, if I’m being honest, it’s probably true that in both cases I wasn’t spending my 10,000 hours wisely. But the upshot of that is that I’m now almost 37, I’ve been working for almost two decades, and I have not, really, accumulated the sort of experience that leads to one having an interesting job, or even a lucrative one.

But as of a few months ago, I had a plan. I was going to take the LSAT and apply to law school.

Now, before you say anything: I did my homework. I know about the bimodal salary curve for law school graduates, with its thin spike at $160,000 and its much larger hump around $50,000. I know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that competition for law jobs will be “keen” in the coming decade, and that even before the recession the legal labor market was only hiring 30,000 of the 45,000 new law grads each year. I contacted a number of lawyer friends, and one of them counseled hard against the idea, saying:

Here’s the thing: it’s a lot of money and a lot of time. The market is flooded with baby lawyers who can’t find jobs and second- or third-year associates who’ve been let go. If you really really just want a job, this makes law school seem like a bad bet. You don’t seem cut out for the kinds of jobs that pay the big money (too many morals and thoughts) which leaves you with nonprofit and government, neither of which pay.

If–but only if–you get into a top-14 school and you can work the finances so you’ll have a level of debt that you’re comfortable with, then fine, go. If you don’t, don’t. Apologies for taking such a pecuniary tack on this, but at today’s rates (my glorious school, UVA, is estimating total costs now at an astounding $60,000/year, between tuition and living expenses), it’s worth a hard look.

Crappier schools aren’t appreciably cheaper, and the legal profession is full of snobs. Everyone is obsessed with rankings, and where your school is in those rankings does determine your chances at all sorts of things.

So yes. I knew that things are not great. But that was not going to affect me, because I am a smart person. Also, I have the GI Bill.

Yes, GI Bill, my ace in the hole. With the awesome might of its $23,000 (approximately, including a living allowance) in my corner, I was almost 60% of the way to the tuition of most law schools in my area right out of the gate. Surely there would be some small scholarships available to me, plus my wife has this fabulous job! I would undoubtedly be able to come out of law school with almost no debt, take some awesome public interest position, and basically rawk as a human being. NO NEED TO THINK IT THROUGH FURTHER.

(you don’t respect the process….)

So anyway, last week I finally turned in all my law school apps — two very highly-ranked schools plus one second-tier but regionally respected school — and we finally sat down and just decided, for the sake of, you know, completeness, to plot out expenses for the different schools, because Elana felt under some pressure to come up with whatever we didn’t get in scholarships and GI Bill, and we wanted to have a clear idea of what that might entail.

For the very first time, we sat down with our Family White Board and drew up a matrix of all costs associated with going to law school, including buying a second car and putting H. in daycare. And, well, I’ll just let you take a look at the numbers for yourself:

Category UCLA USC Loyola (L.A.)
Tuition $40,600 $46,800 $41,270
Fees 1,660 1,100
Books $2,000 $2,000 $2,000
Day Care $15,000 $15,000 $15,000
Second Car $12,000 $12,000 $12,000
Misc. $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
Total Cost $75,600 $83,460 $77,370
GI Bill ($23,000) ($23,000) ($23,000)
Deficit $52,600 $60,460 $54.370

Does anyone else need to sit down?

Some of these numbers are certainly fudgeable. For example, you could argue that we could get a second car for much less than $12,000, and anyway that’s a one-time expense. But here’s the thing: we just bought a car a year ago, a very economical $5,000 family hatchback. We’ve already put over $3,000 in repairs into it. And that is not atypical, in my experience. Spend less on a car at the outset, and you’ll end up paying your savings to the mechanic. The $12,000 figure is a little arbitrary, but it does include our best estimate for a car still under warranty, insurance, registration, taxes, and gas. And while it’s true that it’s a one-time expense, all the schools on my list are likely to raise their tuition by several thousand dollars each year I’m in school, so I’m pretty comfortable with leaving this as a line item, even if its name changes next year.

There is, of course, something charming about the idea of going to law school in a $3,000 beater; it would go well with my tobacco-stained corduroy jacket, if not with showing up on time and getting my kid to daycare. Ah — daycare. The most brutal and irreducible figure. I mean, sure, you can bring that number down, if you’d like to leave your kid in an textile warehouse that smells like pee and underage labor. But really, the bearable daycares in L.A. seem to have settled around $800-1100/mo., and that doesn’t take into account additional care for hours that the daycare doesn’t cover. (A surprising number of daycares and preschools have hours like, say, 9am-1pm, which is kind of a big fuckyou to anyone with a job — i.e., the people who actually need daycare.)

Ahhhhhhh, shit.


(That was it. I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer for the big reveal.)

So… hm. What else am I interested in? What else am I trained in?

I happen to have this comprehensive list. In the spirit of trying to respect the process, I have included data on how long I estimate it would take me to become profitable in each of these fields. These estimates are almost certainly accurate. I would know. I’m a smart person.

Activity Level of Interest (1-10) Current Skill Level (1-10) Skill Required To Make A Living (1-10) Years To Close Skill Gap Salary Range
making music 8 1-2 9-10 10? N/A
shooting photos/video 8 5? 7? 1? $$-$$$
brainstorming stories 10 7-8? ? ? ?
writing stories 8-9 6-7? 8-10 3-4? $$-$$$$
math/formal logic 6 3 6 4-5? ?
biology 8 2-3 5-6? 3-5? $$-$$$
law 8 1 6-7? 3 $$-$$$
languages 6 3 7-8 (3 in Army) 2 with travel, 3-4 by study $$-$$$
military analyst 4-5 6-7 4-5 0 $$-$$$
architecture ? 0 ? 2? $$-$$$
teaching 4-8, dep. on subject 0-7, dep. on subject 5? 2? $-$$
computers 5 3? 6-7? 2-3? $$-$$$
military leadership 5-6 4? 5? .5 $$-$$$ (plus retirement)
religious studies ? 4 7 ? (ThD? Masters?) $$

EDIT: Elana says this post is depressing if you’re reading it from the outside. I don’t feel depressed by this, exactly, but here — watch the training montage from Rocky III. It’s very cheering!


12 responses to “you don’t respect the process

  1. I’m pleased by your employment of the family whiteboard to bring some of the paying-for-law-school issues to light, but I’m concerned that you left off what could be the most important step: paying it back. Knowing from experience that nearly everyone’s notion of what sort of lawyer they want to be changes exponentially from before they’re in law school (“I want to be a prosecutor, man, just like on TV!”) to the time that they graduate, what sort of lawyer do you think you want to be, and how much does it pay?

    Make up a number for your annual salary. If you’re not doing BigLaw, that number is likely between $55,000 and $70,000. I arbitrarily gave you $65,000, which after taxes comes out to about $4500/month (that kid sure does help come tax time). Whee! Sounds like a lot, right? But those same companies that were so nice and generous and gave you fifty grand a year in loans are also very, very good at making you pay it back–$150,000 in loans at 6.8% with a ten year repayment plan means you fork over $1700/month paying those puppies back, which all of a sudden turns your happy $4500 into a sad little $2800.

    There are ways around this, to be sure. To shill for the government–at once the hand that feeds me and the hand that picks my pocket–the new Income-Based Repayment plan is very generous, though it’s worth checking to see what effect Elana’s income will have on your payments. Some schools also offer loan repayment assistance programs, but approach these with a healthy skepticism; they’re a better marketing tool than repayment tool, and pretty much only end up assisting people who _really_ aren’t making any money.

    If you’ve run the salary numbers and the repayment numbers, and you can make them work for you, then yes, go to law school. But don’t go to Loyola. You’ve done the numbers, and it’s not any cheaper, so you’d be paying the same price for an inferior product, and assuming the same amount of debt for a degree that is less likely to get you to where you want to be. I’m sure that calling a Loyola JD an “inferior product” sets off plenty of people’s snob alarms, but as I’ve said before, law is a profession full of snobs, and everyone knows exactly where their school stands in the rankings.

    All this hierarchical thinking ties directly into jobs, and how likely you are to get a job. To an extent–more early in your law career than later, probably–where you went to school is going to be shorthand for how smart you are. Even if you’re the smartest person at Loyola (which you might well be), all of a sudden you’re still only Loyola-smart, because there’s no line on your resume where you can put “Yeah, I went to Loyola, but I had a fucking kick-ass LSAT and I could’ve gone somewhere much, much better if only I had better undergraduate grades and limitless financial resources and the freedom to move anywhere in the country just to go to school, so please please Mr. Hiring Official, count me as Harvard smart.”

    How much does this matter, job-wise? A ton. In the name of research, I asked a friend who went to law school with me how many of his fellow associates at Skadden went to top-fourteen schools. He looked at me like I had sprouted another head, and replied, “Um, all of them,” in a tone that suggested that I was being simple-minded for even voicing such a question. If you’re classified as only “Loyola-smart,” that limits your options. Loyola-smart isn’t Skadden-smart if you’re looking for a firm job, and it’s not DOJ Honors-smart if you’re looking for government work.

    “But I don’t care about getting the best job out there!” you protest. “I just want a decent job with decent pay so I can put food on my family!” Yes, but once you run the numbers and figure out how much you need to earn to make all those loans worthwhile, you need a pretty good job, and pretty good jobs are competitive, and people hiring for pretty good jobs gets tons of very similar applicants who are all finishing their third year of law school, and one of the easiest ways to weed out those applicants is to set an arbitrary bar for smartness. If they’re getting two hundred applicants for a job, why not start by throwing out everyone who’s not UCLA-smart?

    This is really long, sorry. Just my two cents, which are two slightly different cents this time than my standard “don’t go to law school” two cents. And this from a happy lawyer…

    • thehandsomecamel

      Alice — all sound advice, and thanks for walking me through the hard facts. My preference certainly goes: UCLA, USC, Loyola, and after we did all this charting we kind of came to the conclusion that Loyola might only be worth it if they gave me a full ride. (They have some scholarships for veterans, and I’m way, way above their 75th percentile on the LSAT, so it’s not inconceivable.) UCLA, the best of the three, is also the cheapest, by a slim margin, but because it’s the best I worry that even if I manage to squeak in on admissions, they might not be interested in giving me much money. And USC is wildly expensive, but also reputed to be generous. So we’ll see. If there’s money, I’d still like to do this — I’m interested in the law for its own sake, to be sure, and I feel confident I could get a job somewhere. But if there’s no money, it starts to seem like a bad bet….

  2. I went through this exact exercise a number of years ago – I wanted to be a public policy attorney, and ran the numbers. You could hear the screeching for three city blocks, and I came to the same conclusion that you did.

    Our situations are not comparable, however – fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about soul-crushing corporate servitude), I have a lucrative job doing work that I’m proficient in. I’ve done more than my 10,000 hours as a Systems Engineer, even though I’ve kind of lost my passion for it.

    Also, my kids are basically off the payroll, since I started so much earlier than you and Elana. That gives me a level of flexibility you guys currently lack.

    My current plan? Once we downsize this house into something more manageable and get it paid off, I’m going to phlebotomy school and getting my certificate. Then I can use it as my retirement job and also volunteer in free clinics and whatnot when I’m ready to stop working for pay.

    Good luck trying to find out what you want to do, Seth. And I don’t think it’s depressing – most people go through it, and you comments about Smart People™ not respecting the process resonated with me (she admits sheepishly).

    • thehandsomecamel

      Janiece —

      That actually sounds like a really cool plan! Elana, who at the moment is a Fabulous Hollywood Screenwriter, secretly longs to take EMT classes….

  3. I think you are right at the age when one does this kind of self-evaluation.
    Love the charts and envy them.
    Agree about smart people.
    If you get loose from CA some of those expenses would be less.
    LIke babysitting.
    But do law only if you really long to do law. Ditto any grad school.

    • thehandsomecamel

      Mom —

      All true. I think the question of what I “really long” to do is a kind of disheartening one, since the things I long to do are, generally, the ones with the most difficult apprenticeships. But some apprenticeships at least provide a modest income, or at any rate don’t require professional school tuition. So. We’ll see. Law school, as I mentioned to Alice above, really depends on the money now.

  4. I’m reading Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do With My Life?” right now. Not saying it holds any firm answers for you, but it’s kinda interesting and might add to the debate you have going on at the moment.

    If you decide to go to law school, all you have to do is upgrade to a 3-bedroom apartment and then hire me as H’s live-in nanny. See– solves my housing problem and your daycare problem in one easy move!

  5. Elana should really check into starting EMT school or pre-classes. There are stages, say Anna and Jeanne, so she could get started.
    And naomi has a terrific idea.

  6. Pingback: I think I’ll just stay down here | Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

  7. If there’s no EMT training that works (i.e. schedule, cost, etc.), there’s always CERT. (Citizens Emergency Response Teams). It’s run by FEMA (OK, stop laughing), and there’s one night per week training for 10-12 weeks.

    I started the training once, but got a job on location after the first 5 weeks, so I had to bail out. It’s actually a pretty cool program with a reasonably sensible mission.

  8. John the Scientist

    I don’t know what your academic background in biology is, but I’d say your numbers are a bit off the mark for that one. I have a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry but now make my living by essentially being a non-clinical Immunologist (though I did work as a Biotech commercial analyst for a decade as well), so I’m speaking from direct observation.

    If you have a few courses in college, up to Sophomore level, your skill level is essentially 1. If you have Junior or senior level classes, depending on which, it might range up to a 3. At graduation, depending on which shcool you went to, your skill level will range from 3.5 – 4.5. Even if you go for a (real, not Bruckheimer) CSI lab tech type job, the pay is not all that great.

    Expect, with a newly minted BSc, to earn on the low side of that salaray range ($30 – 40K) – you ain’t gonna be a “Research Associate” in biotech with a BSc until you’ve been on the job a decade, 5 years with a Master’s, or right out of school as a Ph.D.

    Master’s is a little better deal in Biology, maybe starting at $50K, depending on the job, and that’s actually the best ROI on the education dollar, at a skill level of 5 -6 and only about 2 year’s time investment. A Ph.D. sucks the fucking life out of you for 5 – 7 years, but you come out of it with a skill level between 7 – 8. The problem is that, on average, the pay is only $60 – $70K. While the Ph.D. education is often free (mine was, I was a DoD fellow in the years I wasn’t teaching or on NSF grants, and I came out with zero debt from grad school), the opportunity cost of five years of living on a $12 – 18K stipend versus $50K working with a Master’s is huge. It’ll take you roughly 10 – 15 years to break even on that opportunity cost. The Ph.D. starts to look better about 10 years in, when advancement opportunities in Industry begin to require a Piled Higher and Deeper, but more often than not, the opportunity cost to the older student does not justify the time required for a Ph.D. (not even considereing the 80 – 90 hour work weeks you put in the last year and a half of grad school writing your thesis AND doing all the scut work your advisor still expects out of you).

    I figure at 37, you’re not dumb enough to fall for the ponzi scheme of Academia, with its 2 – 3 two-year post-doctoral fellowships at $35K a year before you can start earning $50K in an un-tenured slot and fight 5 years for tenure – if you can compete with all the under-employed MIT and Harvard grads fighting to even land that entry-level slot, so I focused on the Biotech route in the above comments.

    One choice you missed was the MBA. Don’t even bother with the low tier schools, though. My company has a couple of SUNY MBAs working as Administrative Assistants, and not high level ones, either. The MBA is all about how hard your peers push you, and what kind of real-world projects your school can bring in (I worked on projects given to us from Fortune 100 companies when I was a B-School student) – anything outside the top 50 or 75 schools in world is just not worth your money becuase the students are low-tier and the projects are either made-up cases or marketing projects for the strip club down the street (which might be interesting, but not something you want to list on your resume, unless you want a job in a certain niche of the film industry…) . Part time MBAs are also a waste of money. Going full time, it’s a 2 year degree, which is a low opportunity cost. You might find something in the film industry with your connections, and you can do other things with it once you’ve got some job experience. The downside is, it ain’t cheap. But you can find a few bargains, and maybe a paid internship in the summer. Your languages won’t hurt, either, and you can probably pick and choose to find a company that isn’t completely run b sociopaths.

    • thehandsomecamel


      Thanks for the rundown! More evidence that I’m probably underestimating the difficulty of everything. 😉

      I’ve considered the MBA, but your description matches my assessment: the MBA is a lot like the JD, in that there are more of them than are really needed, and only the best schools make it a good deal. It is only two years, instead of three, but it seems like it would involve quite a lot of debt nonetheless.

      (The problem with both the JD and the MBA, in terms of the money, is that the GI Bill is based on undergraduate tuition, which is significantly less than professional school tuition. But in the UC system, at least, ordinary graduate programs cost about the same as undergrad, making them a much better deal for us.)

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