Michelle is a recent escapee from corporate law who writes about finding a better way to work.
See her other essays on her blog workerberbeefree. She is currently writing a teen sci-fi novel and completing the renovation of her flat. Here she shares some reflections on her transition.
In November 2013, I quit my job at a Magic Circle law firm and walked away from my life as a lawyer. This was after dedicating 8 years to my legal career, including 3 law degrees (GDL, LPC, and a very expensive Masters in the US); 6 jobs at 3 law firms, 2 regulators and 1 international organisation; 6 published papers; and countless late nights staring at a computer screen and eating meals at my desk.
It wasn’t easy to turn my back on all that experience and all that hard work, but ultimately I realised it was crazy to feel tied to a decision I had made back in the second year of university. Far from cementing my fate, every year that passed just made it all the more urgent that I reassess the path I had set for myself.
You wouldn’t let a 20-year old tell you what to do, but that is what I was effectively doing by sticking to the “plan” that I had concocted 10 years ago, when I was an indecisive (and short-sighted) undergraduate. Thanks a lot, past self.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that my decision to leave law developed at the same time as my interest in the startup scene grew. I started to think about how I could apply startup principles to my own life.
Throwing good money after bad
Some people balk at my decision decision to leave my job because they see it as a huge waste of the investment I had made in my career up to that point. But looked at another way, my career was a startup that was haemorrhaging capital, where the capital was my own energy and effort. Year after year, I was plowing resource into an enterprise that was not generating the returns I was looking for.
From this perspective, my decision to leave law was an attempt to stem the flow or ease the “burn rate”. If a startup blows through its seed capital or other investment and fails to make returns then it risks becoming insolvent. I didn’t want to see what it would be like to bankrupt my life.
When you make an investment there is always a point at which you have to decide whether to double down or to cut your losses. One of the core concepts that stuck in my mind as I was making the decision to leave was the idea that just because I had done it for 8 years didn’t mean I should do it for another 8, or 10 or 30. Just as you shouldn’t throw good money after bad, I didn’t want to throw good years after bad.
Yes, I had made a huge investment in my legal career, and although many of my skills are transferable, my qualifications are sunk, unrecoverable costs. But when I considered whether to keep forging ahead on the path I had set for myself I realised: the only thing more risky than taking the leap to do something you love is not taking the leap. You risk missing out on life altogether.
What is your Unique Selling Point?
If you are thinking about leaving your job then there are other lessons from the startup world that can be applied to your career. Any business must hone in on its Unique Selling Point, to set itself apart from the sea of competitors. This is the first thing people explain when they walk into the Dragon’s Den, and conveying this message is the whole point of the “elevator pitch”.
Similarly, the path to fulfilling work (and, incidentally, being well remunerated) lies in the skills and talents that you have to offer, the contributions that only you can make. If you don’t know what these are for yourself then the probability that you will end up doing work you are really passionate about is pretty low. Your boss or your line manager won’t be able to push interesting projects your way if they don’t know what you’re interested in. In terms of a career change, figuring out what you are good at is a huge part of moving towards work that brings you more enjoyment.
When to pivot and when to abandon ship?
Another key startup principle is the idea of the pivot. This is when a startup changes direction in its product offering based on customer feedback. Twitter started out as platform for sharing podcasts. Flickr started out as an online game. Fab pivoted from a social network for the gay community to flash sales for design products and then pivoted again to custom furniture.
Going in-house is the classic pivot for City professionals. People find that they can leverage their expertise and move to organisations that hopefully provide better hours and a better working environment.
But what if you think the problem isn’t just with the specific job, but with your whole career path or industry? In those cases it’s important to consider what you are running away from and what you are trying to achieve. Knowing when to pivot and when to change course entirely can be the deciding factor in the success of a startup and the same applies to your career.
Either way, the idea of leaving behind a job you have worked hard at for so many years shouldn’t be a source of regret. The way I see it, I have an incredible foundation of skills developed while working for world-class organisations. It may not be completely relevant to whatever I do next but it’s nothing to sniff at either. [And if it really came to it, I could make you up a deal bible like it’s nobody’s business.]
It seems like everybody is talking about startups these days, and while I don’t think that lifestyle is for everyone I do think people would get more out of their careers if they approached them more entrepreneurially. Seeing your career as an enterprise or a project allows you to be more objective about what works and what doesn’t.
People tell me that I have made a brave decision to leave my job but I often think that they are brave to stay in theirs. You face all sorts of uncertainty after you escape — money, security, what to do with your days — but at least I no longer run the risk of going another 8 years wondering “what if…”.
Michelle is a recent escapee from corporate law who writes about finding a better way to work. See her other essays on her blog workerberbeefree. She is currently writing a teen sci-fi novel and completing the renovation of her flat.
(Photo credit: Jonas Nilsson Lee via unsplash.com)
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