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:
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.)
I AM GOING TO COME OUT OF LAW SCHOOL AN IMPOVERISHED, INDEBTED MOTHERFUCKER JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.
(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|
|languages||6||3||7-8 (3 in Army)||2 with travel, 3-4 by study||$$-$$$|
|teaching||4-8, dep. on subject||0-7, dep. on subject||5?||2?||$-$$|
|military leadership||5-6||4?||5?||.5||$$-$$$ (plus retirement)|
|religious studies||?||4||7||? (ThD? Masters?)||$$|
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!