Friday, October 31, 2008

Pyro Follow Up

It’s been one of those weeks when the reality of the worst economic downturn in generations is nothing but a faint echo outside my office window. Things are actually PICKING up here at the office and I’m just trying to keep my head above water.

But hey, why worry? I have my Halloween costume ready to go and the promise of copious libations and assorted mischief is definitely in the air. :)


For now, I wanted to share the following narrative. It’s something I put together in response to some questions I got this week. I hope this adds some context to my previous post. As always, constructive comments, complaints, and annoyances are always welcome. Have a great weekend everyone.

Why did you burn your law diploma?

At some point, I realized that a great deal of my self-worth was tied to being a Harvard law grad. Burning my degree was just a way to continue this process of simplification. I still have fond memories of Harvard. My three years there were the most intellectually stimulating, most meaningful of my entire life. But, ultimately, I want to live my life on my own terms without needing a piece of paper to justify my own worth.

Was there a trigger to your move to shun excess and pursue a simpler life?

After years of working 12-hour days, giving up countless weekends and canceling vacations at the last minute, I just had enough. I eventually realized that I was slowly losing my life, one billable hour at a time. In the end, it makes no sense to trade 90 percent of your waking hours for a chance to buy expensive clothes, be seen at fancy restaurants, and indulge in all sorts of excess. More recently, a friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is nothing like being made aware of your own mortality to help you focus on what truly matters: family, love and friendship.

How far have you come? Are you downsizing, or is this more of an attitude shift?

I've been taking small, deliberate steps since last year to simplify all aspects of my life. Thus far, I have decluttered my house and have arranged for the sale of most of my furniture. Up next, leaving my job, selling my house and taking some time off to figure out next steps.

If you've already begun shedding material gains, is there anything you miss?

Not so far. Embracing voluntary simplicity does not imply that you have to accept abject poverty or that you need to reject all material comforts. Voluntary simplicity encourages you to shed anything that does not have genuine value to you. In my case, I no longer find a need to patronize Citronelle on a weekly basis, or head out to Vegas to spend a couple of thousand dollars every chance I get. I now spend money on things that bring me meaningful joy. And it just so happens that most of these things are so cheap, they are practically free.

Why did you want to become a lawyer in the first place? What were your expectations coming out of law school?

The honest answer is that I went to law school because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I had a vague sense that I wanted to work in the public interest field, but I did not know in what capacity. In the end, I was seduced by the prestige of all the law schools that accepted my application and by the opportunity to make a difference. And then the reality of incurring $120,000 of law school debt plus the allure of making a six-figure salary changed everything. By the time I left Harvard, I had already bought my first $1,000 suit.

Is there a way for you to continue on a legal career path that will satisfy your desire for simplicity?

I am definitely interested in transitioning into the public interest field. Finding a legal job that satisfies my intellectual curiosity, assuages my moral convictions, and allows me the opportunity to explore my other interests is a priority.

Why chronicle your transition so publicly in a blog? Is there something cathartic about blogging openly, or does committing yourself in public force you to stay on course?

I started the blog as a way to keep track of my progress. At first, it was just a matter of outlining all of the things that were not working in my life and figuring out practical ways to resolve them on my own. Early on, I found that interacting with other people who were confronting similar issues was another way to brainstorm and encourage simplification. There is something about anonymity that allows people to drop their guard and be open about the things they want out of life. I have learned that there is great value in sharing yourself with others, even in the shadows of anonymity.

What have you learned about yourself and what other lawyers are going through in regards to work/life balance issues?

I have learned that there are other ways to live my life and that I should follow my heart, no matter where it leads me.

I've also learned that there is something seriously wrong with law firm life. I've been blogging for five months now, and I am still surprised by the sheer number of e-mails I receive from other lawyers who are dealing with some of the very same issues I struggle with. I think there is a yearning out there for a way to reconcile the demands of a legal career with other life goals. Many lawyers feel that they have rejected important aspects of themselves in exchange for a life they no longer feel they want to live. They feel trapped because they have to pay a mortgage, student loans, private school tuition, etc. ... but have no idea how to get out.

I think it is important to emphasize that not every lawyer working at a law firm is unhappy. Some of my very best friends have thrived in that environment and are genuinely happy. If you derive genuine, meaningful pleasure from the profession and can overcome all the obstacles that this lifestyle places on your personal life, then you have it made.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bill h said...

I resonate with the idea of not being defined by what you do. Still, I believe that the things we admire about Atticus Finch are not just idealistic ramblings, but instead, achievable and reasonable goals for a lawyer. I wrote this for our local public radio station a couple of years ago, it's a fair description of my feelings about service and law:

rachaelgking said...

Kickass costume! I will be wearing "Something Terrible and Relatively Unrecognizable I Clearly Threw Together an Hour Ago."

Anonymous said...

whoops! what I meant to say was...
You HAVE to read the Monk Who Sold his Ferrari if you have not already done so.
Second, you have to try yoga - in particular Ashtanga yoga (sometimes spelled Astanga).

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack, let me just say that I found your blog through the ALA Journal Weekly's email newsletter. (It's ironic that I only started getting and reading these after I left the law.)

I was in a similar situation... didn't know what I wanted to do with myself after college, so I went to law school (it was "practical"). Wanted to go into public interest, but Ivy League law school debt and a lack of job offers in that area meant going to a law firm. I didn't enjoy it at all, and after years of hating my job and feeling tied down by that diploma and the debt, I finally left.

I still owe a ton on my student loans, but I'm now getting my master's in information science, and I enjoy it so much more. I'm happy with the decision I've made, even if it means never making $100k a year.

Congrats on moving forward with your life!

Anonymous said...

When I went around telling my bosses at my old "BigLaw" firm that I was leaving with no clear idea of what I wanted to do next, they tried to look supportive, but I could tell they thought I was crazy. I spent the next year traveling in Africa, running my first marathon and volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and Amnesty Intl. It was one of the best years of my life.

When my money started running out, I found a job as in-house counsel for a nonprofit, and subsequently took over as the head of the organization a few years back. Outside of marrying my wife, I look back at that decision as the most important one of my life because it helped me to answer the question of what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Good luck, and godspeed.

Anonymous said...

Jack, I'm a lawyer in Chicago who has dealt with many of the same issues as you. I honor your work and your commitment to change and simplicity. I strongly encourage you to consider the idea of taking your work to a deeper level by clearing out some of the emotional clutter that may be preventing you from finding true happiness. As you are clearly aware, true happiness doesn't come from outside distractions. It comes from our connection with others. Take a look at:
This is a program that offers weekend retreats for men. Not surprisingly, we have many lawyers that go through the "Breakthrough Weekend". I was skeptical about the program years ago, but I quickly learned that the opportunities offered on the weekend have the power to not just change lives, but to save lives. Years ago, I was terribly skeptical about the notion of going on such a retreat. I had all the judgments that I think most men have about men's weekends (e.g., "Are we going to be running around the woods naked and pounding on drums?"). There is a weekend coming up in December in Southern Wisconsin that you may want to consider. I'll be on staff for that weekend and would love to see you come out for it. My name is Ryan. In any event, I wish you the very best of luck in your journey.

Anonymous said...

Hey, just wondering if a long walk is in your future since your header image comes from a GDT trip.

Maybe it's just a pretty picture...

Shinyung said...

Best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack-- What a comfort to read your blog. I gave notice right after Labor Day and walked out shortly thereafter. I had not done the planning you're doing, but I'd started cutting back on expenses in June and had run the numbers to make sure I had enough $ to make it for at least 6 months without any significant problems. Best decision I ever made. The only regret I have is not walking sooner! I look fwd to following your journey.

Jae Jagger said...

Unfortunately when your feelings of self-worth come from outside circumstances, not within yourself, then that worth is subject to wild changes based on what you are achieving.

For myself, I think too much of my self-worth (or lack there of) comes from my physical appearance. It leaves me to be heavily wounded by stray comments or criticisms. It's such a superificial and silly way to live, and it's self-reinforcing every time I make money that way. What is stranger still, most of the time, when I look in the mirror, I distaste what I see back.

I don't know how I managed to become this way because when I was younger, I was focused on different things. This is probably the single reason why I don't believe sex work is right for me.

(For me, dancing was just upping the casual sex game, making it more challenging and interesting.)

I have a personal blog, and on there, I wrote once that I really felt like I should be a doctor. A doctor, who I really like, wrote in a comment that she felt the same once, but later realized that she was still wasting her life.

Who gives us our feelings of self-worth? It should be our parents, we internalize their opinions of us, if we're the good child, or the bad child, if we're the smart one, or if we're dull. Parents send us these messages, and then they become the running monologue in our heads as we grow up, either keeping us from achieving self-actualization or by being a loving guide through every trial.

For those of us who parents don't send the right messages, we grow up feeling like we're without, needing the outside world to reassure us of our value. Sometimes the world is kind, and sends us friends or a life partner who teaches us how to love ourselves because they accept us for the person we truly are, without money or the houses or the cars. Sometimes, you can receive this through a psychotherapy.

And then again, sometimes the world isn't kind, and we continue to strive blindly on the outside when we are clearly lost on the inside--and no one ever finds us.

Disposed Ameircan said...

Hi Jack!

I burned my law degree several years ago. Only a few people knew about the incident. I wonder how many others have burned or otherwise destroyed the document reflecting their law degree. Perhaps others will come forward now and confess! I also tore up the docs reflecting my being admitted to Illinois, Ohio and Maryland.

My reasons for doing this are probably not identical to yours. I am still a lawyer but not practicing. I work as a union rep. I hope one day to have the time to do all of the other things I have a passion for i.e. playing hammer dulcimer, photography and writing.


Living the good life....together!! said...

Dearest Jack,

I believe that a person can do anything they set their mind to. I didnt believe this advise until I had a hard lesson in it...Check out The Secret, the movie. The power of your intentions can move the world for you....

Lots of Love

the girl from neihu said...

Hey there ... Just wanted to write and tell you that it's a beautiful view from the other side of the leap. Last year, I quit my job as a mid-level associate at a big firm in DC and moved to the other side of the country with only a few ideas of what I could do next. Before leaving I had a Plan too - lived more frugally than I did when I was in college, pumped half my paycheck into student loan debt, put half of the rest into savings, and read a lot of self-help books. Now I'm actually *practicing* law for the first time in my life, I'm never bored, and my work is always meaningful. Such a change from the days when I did shit work for ridiculously long hours, took frantic work-related calls during my own engagement party, dropped everything to run into work on a Saturday to do more shit work, took abuse from partners and senior associates with anger management issues, and constantly struggled with anger management issues of my own!

I also liked your post about your conversation with your mom. I can't tell you how many of those I had. Now that the economy has tanked, I'm getting the "I told you so" accusations, but it is so, so worth it ...

Jack said...


Thanks for this additional post. I am in total agreement with you. Kudos on the This I Believe segment. Always loved the original and the updated series is fantastic.


Now I have to know what your actual costume turned out to be. Pictures required...


No, had not heard about the book, but will definitely add it to my book reading list. And as for Yoga, already tried it, though not Astanga in particular. Will look into it.

Jack said...


Kudos on your decision! For me, it just means that I am at the early stages of a process that will hopefully lead me someplace similar. Do keep in touch.

Anonymous #1,

I have a feeling we have a great deal in common. Africa, for me, is just a metaphor for getting OUT THERE, somewhere. What is so exciting is that I can absolutely see the end of this. As well as the beginning of something truly special. Life is wonderful...

Anonymous #2,

Thanks for the info. Will definitely check it out. One of the benefits of where I am at the moment is that everything is a possibility. Just need to get things together first.

Jack said...


Long walks are my present AND future. The truth is that when I first started the blog I surfed the web for an image that would capture something essential about this process. This one seemed perfect. DO tell me if you guys require attribution. I didn't start doing that until a couple of months into writing the blog.




Sounds like you are happy with your decision. What, in particular, made you leave? Do keep in touch.

Jack said...


"Sometimes the world is kind, and sends us friends or a life partner who teaches us how to love ourselves because they accept us for the person we truly are, without money or the houses or the cars. Sometimes, you can receive this through a psychotherapy." This resonates with me. After all, what else can prop us up when the fears of rejection and the ephemeral things we base our self-worth on are no longer relevant?


Maybe we have headed (are heading) to different places, but from the sounds of it, we have a great deal in common. Kudos!


Thanks for the comment. Someone else mentioned the Secret to me the other day. Definitely curious. BTW, very glad you are back.

Unknown said...

I am a third year night student. I work during the day.

I am utterly terrified that my ambition will continue to consume the other aspects of my life, as it has thus far. I keep getting assured that this is just law school, but I have the sneaking suspicion that I'll maintain this lifestyle until I either burn out or force myself to back down.

In any event, I'm trapped until I pay off the looming student loan monster. Sometimes, despite how much fun I have at work and that I'm happiest when I've been intellectually worked over, I think law school is going to leave me with a piece of paper, a string of failed relationships, and crippling debt to come home to. So I get back to work.

It's a trap.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 2nd year associate in a major law firm. I hate my lifestyle and want to follow your foot steps soon. Can you please give me some advice? How much longer should I do this? I still think I should try to kick it here for at least another year to save more money.

Maybe I'll set my blackberry on fire and post on youtube.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a good post. As someone who is trying to figure out what defines me (or rather, how I wish to define myself), I enjoy reading how others are approaching it. I want to say more in this vein, but the words aren't coming tonight. At any rate, thanks for the glimpses inside your own journey.

And I agree with you re: the anonymity of the blogosphere allowing some of us to be more open with where we really are; we can do this in a journal of course, but getting feedback from others is helpful in a way that private journaling can't accomplish and when baring yourself to those closest to you isn't always easy or productive. You get more objective feedback, I think, than you might from those close to you, who "see" you in a particular way, or who have their own expectations of you, if that makes sense.

Jack said...


That is a very evocative comment. It can be a trap. I would caution that it doesn't have to be. Maybe the key is to be very aware of the pitfalls and prepare yourself for what follows. It also helps to have people around you that can catch you if you fall. Finally, remember that there are many ways to fall and that some are filled with outward, but meaningless success.


All I can say is that you should put together a realistic, rational exit strategy that is specific to your circumstances. Stick to specific deadlines and don't extend them unless there is a reason to do so. Check out some of my earlier posts on this. If you really want to move on you need to push yourself out. But before you do i would definitely do some soul searching to make sure this is what you really want. Sometime we try to escape the material (i.e., you job) when what's really at issue is something inside.

A Square Peg,

Thanks! As always, I dig your website a whole lot more than mine. I actually find it more practical and grounded.

Anonymous said...

You are so right that you have to follow your heart - whereever it may lead. It's a hard path at times, but way worth it in the end.

I just want to say that I admire you for what you are doing - not everybody can make the choice to truly follow their dreams. You're doing it, and I commend you for that!!


JamesCh said...

Jack, I admire your desire to simplify and the thought process you've begun here. But you've only just begun. You're more impressed with yourself than is warranted at this point. Living off of investment income to pursue traveling and outdoor sports is not exactly living a simple life --it is simply retiring to a life of leisure on the strength of your riches. It's a marginally higher aspiration than what all your friends and colleagues are doing, since you've stopped the pursuit of more and more stuff -- but it's still basically a life of privilege and leisure you're aiming at. Burning your law degree is great theater -- but you haven't actually given anything up by burning it. You're still a Harvard Law grad, with or without the paper. And in two years when life seems rough, you could always return to being a big-firm attorney, or could write a book about this experience and make a bundle all over again. Consider really doing this, by giving everything away, and letting your bar license(s) lapse, and living off of your week-to-week earnings from a blue-collar job. Then you'll really have given up something. A lot of people actually lead hard and simple lives, and not by choice. The life you're proposing is neither hard nor simple, it's simply a very long vacation. (I grew up poor and something about your conception of a simple life is vaguely insulting to me). I do believe your intentions are noble, but they are also self deluding. Think hard about the grains of truth in the things your mother has said. There is a difference between inactivity and philosophical simplicity.

Jack said...


Always awesome to hear from you. Glad things are going well with you guys. Don't stop posting photos. :)


That's definitely on the extreme of the voluntary simplicity process. I can't say that I won't go that far, but I sure can't say that I know how I will feel about things over the next couple of years.

What I do know is that what you are describing is but one possible way to live a simple life. I am not embracing poverty; I am seeking simplicity as I see it. There is no inherent wisdom in being poor. But there is a lot to learn when you choose to live richly.

Just Roaming The Cities said...

Just found your blog as I was traveling about other peoples blogs, and I'm, really glad that I did. It is so refreshing to see someone just DECIDE to change their life and to just, well, BE. BE happy, BE what you want to, BE the person who you admire.
All of us spend so much time living out other people's expectations and rules that sometimes life can just SUCK entirely and we don't know why we're not satisfied.
I was glad to read your honesty about having kids--because lets face it, the world expects you to do it to "be happy". I think if, or when, the time is right for you, because you still get the lump in your throat at the cute baby shots and the family happy pics, that maybe the possibility lies out there for you to procreate. The great thing is, you can decide about that because we have choices here, like you've demonstrated. (just watch out who you hook up with, haha)
Kids are one of the most fulfilling, but on the other hand completely all-encompassing things in a person's life.
And most of us (myself included) leaped pretty hard and fast into child-rearing without realizing how much of yourself it really takes. And I am 100% glad I did it, and my children are almost grown now (youngest 16+) but it was worth every minute to see them be happy and succeed.But at the cost of myself, mostly, which I'm now reviving again.
But whats success, really? And that I guess is part of what you're re-defining by your blog.
Keep it up, I for one enjoy reading of your journey :) thanks