Forging Your Path

Nineteen years ago I was working at a large bank in the Capital Markets division. I worked with two middle-aged men who were very good at their investment banking jobs. Our small group sold housing bonds. Yes, the very type that stopped the gears of the financial markets from turning. The very ones that almost destroyed the financial industry. I won’t take the blame for the market crisis, nor should the men I worked with at the time. We were first on the scene in this marketplace. Once the money started pouring in it didn’t take long before sharks smelled blood in the water, jumped on board, and over-saturated the market. The two men I worked with retired, happily. I, on the other hand, was in my twenties and had to make some decisions about my future. These are trends. All trends come to an end.

I have always struggled between politics/law (the right choice for me externally) and the study of human behavior (psychology) (the right choice for me internally). I started my undergraduate work in political science and pre-law. That was the path of this starry-eyed twenty year old (Money and power, oh my!). But, I despised learning about history. B-O-R-I-N-G! Or, so it was at the time.

Then, I took my first psychology class. FASCINATING! I feel in love with the study. I remember the first lesson of the first day of my first psychology class. The Professor wrote his name on the chalkboard (No smart boards back in the day. Yes, I am THAT old). After his name he listed all of his very impressive credentials. A very massive string of initials followed his name. Wow!

My professor then went on to explain his credentials. He turned to the chalkboard, pointed at each letter individually, as he belted out a nursery rhyme. They weren’t his credentials at all. It was nothing more than a string of alphabet letters on a chalkboard (with some commas thrown in for good measure), which happened to follow his name. The lesson he taught that day was; “It is not what you know but what you convince other people that you know.” This lesson has served me well during legal negotiations.  The other lesson I learned that day was; “Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Educate yourself.” This, too, has served me well. I question (analyze) just about everything.

19 years ago, there I was, sitting in my office at the bank when I got the news my uncle had passed away. It was my mom’s brother. He had untreated diabetes. His death was a shock. No one saw it coming. That was a heavy day for me. It was the day I started to contemplate the mortality of those close to me. This was just one generation ahead of my own, my parent’s generation. It made me contemplate my future. What was it to hold? How was I supposed to respond? I took stock of my life as well as those of the people around me.

One thing that stood out to me during those moments of grief was the knowledge of the “sandwich generation.” I knew too well that I would most likely be THAT generation. This generation, the sandwich generation, would find themselves trying to raise their own kids and at the same time be caring for an ailing or elderly parent. The lack of preparation for retirement from my mom was glaringly obvious. Prior to dad leaving the home we became welfare babies. Raised with tax payer dollars.

During the week following my uncle’s death I gave a lot of thought about my crossroads. I needed to stop messing around and allowing life to happen to me. It was time to reflect. Time to become the master of my own destiny. The decision I was facing at that time is the same one that has always plagued me. Do I sign up for the master’s program in psychology or do I go to law school?

The promise of the money lawyers make was alluring. The money pouring out of the spigot in investment banking was thrilling. My $7.50 per hour banking job turned into a $75,000 income almost overnight. What’s a girl to do?

I went back and forth for the three weeks following my uncle’s passing. If I stay the psychology course I will earn community service pay for several years. Financially, this would be a step backward for my family. Can I really ask them to continue that sacrifice? I like having the ability to give my kid something more than a $3.00 box of bandaids as a gift. What about Mom? What if I become part of the “sandwich generation” as predicted? Will I be able to care for her? Where will the money come from? Is it fair to ask my husband and kids to make that sacrifice?

An attorney, on the other hand, well…. I’ve never seen a poor one. Fancy suits, polished shoes, big houses, luxurious cars…. They command respect and large retainers. The time to complete a law degree would take less time than it would to complete a PhD in psychology. Ultimately, I would be able to continue with my new level of income and even increase it if I go the law route.

The golden handcuffs latched tightly around my wrists. They had me solidly bound. I enrolled in law school. The path to success. It was, of course, the practical choice.

At the end of the first year of law school I was siting on the side of my bed feeling melancholy. I deeply sensed I had made the wrong decision in my career choice. But, I was too far into it now. I had let the allure of money choose my path. There was no turning back at this point. In that moment I made a deal with myself. I would work as hard as I could. I would generate as much money as possible. I would gladly shoulder the weight of this career (decision) if God would see fit to provide for Mom and ensure my kids are provided with the opportunity to do what they “love” and not “what they have to do for money.” Let my kids work for the love in it and not for the money associated with it. I kept my end of the bargain.

Fast forward nineteen years. Mom is gone. One child is grown and succeeding in a field she loves. The other child is on the cusp of high school graduation and forging his own path. What is a girl to do?

Choosing a path in life isn’t easy. Sometimes we are allowed to do it with much forethought while other times life forces us in a particular direction. We do the best we can and make our decisions with the best information we have at the time. Looking back now I can say that law school was not a “wrong” decision. It was the best decision at the time for my family. It was the “right” decision in terms of what society expects. Grind it out. Give a 110%. Climb the corporate ladder. Prove your value in worth in terms of income and materiality.

At the time earning a living and financially contributing to the needs of my family was important. Overcoming and succeeding in less-than-friendly to female environments taught me strengths I didn’t even know I possessed. Would I do it again? No. But, the lessons I’ve learned have been extremely valuable to me on a personal level.

From the ages of 20-40 this “grind-it-out, prove your worth” mentality makes perfect sense for our current world. But, as I get closer to 50 than 40, the things I find value in have changed dramatically as my needs and the needs of those I love have also changed. I wish I knew then what I know now…

Do I think people have to go to college to be successful? Absolutely not. However, I also never, never discourage it either. I encourage people to chase dreams and happiness. Your life has to contain value to you. You are the one who has to live it. Happiness is not evil nor is it selfish.

I do, however, often ask people this one simple question; “If money were not part of the equation, what would you do?” Now, tell me all the reasons why? Today, I find I am asking myself that same question. Some habits just die hard.

The good news is life is not stagnant. Life is always changing, always evolving. The definition of success is personal. The definition changes as you do. Almost all errors in life can be corrected. We are often given opportunities to start again. It may not be an easy decision or an easy task, but I have found it is almost always worth it. Sometimes we get to make the choice to change. Sometimes change is forced upon us. I like to think of life as presenting a series of beginnings as opposed to a series of endings.

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