Originally Posted: 2006-09-13 12:29

Life Outside the Fast Lane

I was the poster child for "overachiever" as a teenager. I was on all of the sports teams, in the school plays, a fixture on the high honor role, and even class president two out of four years. I went to an ivy league school on an academic scholarship. I thought that I was pretty hot shit.

I hit college and I struggled at first because I had never studied in high school and because I had attended a very mediocre suburban public high school. My cohorts had gone to mostly private college prep schools; my high school's guidance counselor didn't know the difference between Cornell and Bucknell.

I persevered in my overachieving ways and ended up being Phi Beta Kappa, graduating with a 4.0 by retaking two classes that I had gotten B's in my freshman year. I went to a top ten law school and made the law review. I interned for two years at the Chicago office of a major Milwaukee firm and made more in 12 weeks during the summer than my parents made all year. I REALLY thought that I was hot shit.

I graduated and without even considering other offers, joined the same firm and immediately got put on the fast track for partner. I worked 80+ hours a week for nearly four years, never taking a vacation, seldom seeing friends, and literally never doing anything even remotely enjoyable. Making partner was the light at the end of the tunnel. This was the early 80's, the "me" generation, and $200k a year awaited me if I just carried on a little while longer.

I made partner just after I turned 30, much to the chagrin of some other associates. I had sealed the deal by getting one very large client to switch to our firm through some of those vaunted ivy league connections. I firmly believed that I was better than most of the rest of my peers because of my background, superior intellect, and tireless work ethic. I continued to work very hard, and it made me hard. I didn't like people, my friends annoyed me and I grew even more distant. My father told me that I had become a bit of an asshole. I thought that making partner would be a reprieve, but it was just the opposite. I had earned my keep and let everyone know it. I paid cash for a Mercedes and bought a big home just to show everyone how much I had made it.

Two years after making partner, I suffered a massive heart attack and nearly died. I spent nearly a month in the ICU. I had triple bypass surgery and a lengthy recovery. I got some cards, but the only people who came to see me in the hospital were my parents. I had been such an ass to my own brother that he wouldn't even send a card.

It is sad to say that it took something like this to get me to quit smoking, quite drinking to excess, to start exercising (I had gained nearly 40 pounds), and to realize that I was completely alone in life. I had no friends, no significant other, and no prospects. I was a partner in a relatively prestigious law firm. I had nothing.

I asked to take a brief sabbatical upon my return, but it was denied. I worked 40-50 hours a week for a while and was criticized by senior partners for my lack of work ethic and inability to bring in new business.

I ended up leaving the firm the following spring and going to work for a client. The pay was less than one third of my previous compensation, but the job was a new kind of challenge and far fewer hours. I was a little bored at first and felt slightly guilty for not working more hours. I spent more time with family, reconnected with friends, and met the love of my life. We were married within the year. I sold the Mercedes when I bought her ring as a symbol of me giving up that old way of life.

Twenty-some years later, I can say without hesitation that the heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me. It literally almost scared me to death. It is just pathetic that it took something so significant to make me realize how and where my life had gone awry.

Brevity was never my strong suit, for that I apologize, but the point of my post is this: true happiness is far more important than income, IQ, any type of social status, or anything else in this life.

Some of the people who still work at the firm make north of $500k a year now, but never once have I regretted leaving. Our household income and some sensible frugality allow us to lead a very comfortable life. My wife went back to work once our two children were in school, and we could probably stop working one of these years but neither of us have any interest in doing so because we both love our respective professions. My job allows me a great deal of flexibility, too, with eight weeks of vacation and flex time. I also get to leave two days a week in the fall to team teach a class at a local university. I never miss my son's football games or my daughter's recitals. You can't put a price on that.

If you're happy being a stoner and living in a studio on the east side, more power to you. If you love teaching, that's a wonderful thing and you should stick to it regardless of the income. The same, too, goes for someone happy with the "chase" of clawing his or her way up the corporate ladder to afford a McMansion in Mequon and membership at an exclusive country club.

Those who do whatever it takes to be truly satisfied in life shouldn't be criticized, they should be envied. Better yet, their behavior should be emulated.

I'm just glad that I woke up before it was too late.

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