A wise man once said that the greatest gift the human race was ever given was death. He explained this concept by describing how the existence of death is what gives life meaning. The “umbrella rule” that he generated from this concept is that one should only live for things that he deems worthy of giving up his life for. Only something that we value so much that we would sacrifice everything for is a cause worth living for.
There is a lot of truth in that statement, and it makes an excellent starting point for people interested in truly examining their reasons for living. Many times we go through life on autopilot, never stopping to think about what is really important to us. By the time we hit our mid-life crisis, it is usually too late. Time only goes in one direction, and once it is gone it can never be regained.
There is no better time to ponder this question than at this stage in our lives. While we are students, we are doing things that will hopefully lay the foundation for who we are and what we will be involved in for a large part of our lives. Our career will take up much of our lives and success will be gained at the expense of great effort and sacrifice. Our health, our families, and possibly even our happiness may fall by the wayside while we chase the golden ring of partnership. One thousand years ago, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany wrote, “at cost of his life he earns his bread,” in his description of the human condition. This has never been more accurate than it is today, especially in the billable-hours world of “biglaw.”
What then is the answer? Should we all look deep inside ourselves and figure out a cause worth dying for? Do we stop interviewing with any firms and run to the rainforest to protect the indigenous vegetation? Will working in a job that allows us to fight for a cause we truly admire make us happier human beings?
In some cases, the answer may be yes. However, not all of us are cut out for non-profit work. “Living on LIPP” may be possible, but that lifestyle is definitely not for everyone. In addition, many of us might not have social causes that are of great importance to us. Furthermore, many of us who do eventually come to realize that whether we are saving the seals or wasting the whales, a job is just a job. You may have a nasty coworker, a lousy boss, or a corrupt political structure. You may even get fired.
What, then, are we left with? Is there no hope for us to achieve happiness? Will we end up living for no greater meaning than the thought of the next free lunch or the next big vacation? I, for one, would not be able to stomach the thought of such an existence.
I believe the answer lies in a slightly different direction. Yes, we will all have careers. Yes, many of us will become prominent, famous, and wealthy. However, it would be a mistake to rely on these goals as the means of defining ourselves. While we are in school, there is another goal we should be working on that is as important, if not more so, than getting an offer from a top firm. This goal is the development of a meaningful life separate from our career.
All too often our generation defines a person by what they do. In many cases, net worth is synonymous with self-worth. One of the first questions we ask people upon meeting them is invariably, “so what do you do?” followed by “Who do you work for?” How do you answer that question? What do I do? I am a father, a husband, a person, a member of my community, and many other things. Oh, and I happen to be a law student too.
From the beginning of time, man relied upon a greater image of self than the work he happened to be engaged in. A farmer did not define his identity as someone who toiled tirelessly for the lofty purpose of feeding the starving masses. A farmer worked because he had to provide for his family, and that was all. His occupation was part of who he was, but it was not everything. It is a relatively modern concept that man should define himself by his occupation. In many cases, that may be the source of our unhappiness. A job can be fulfilling, but it probably will not be a cause worth dying for.
So go out now, before it is too late. Get yourself a life that’s worth dying for. Find a mate, buy a dog, have some kids, feed the poor, kill the rich, save the seals, join the army, become an alcoholic, discover the cure for cancer. Whatever works for you. But do not accept your dream job thinking it will define you. Life is too precious to waste.
DK is a 1L who lives in Brookline, MA with his lovely wife and his two kids.