A few years ago, I decided to take a trip to Dubai for New Year’s Eve. This was a pretty last-minute decision, but I was feeling the travel bug, and a friend of mine had recently moved there. She was gracious enough to offer me her couch to sleep on, and I figured, “What the heck? If I stay in Chicago I’ll probably do something boring and predictable like hang out at a bar and drink in the New Year.”
Twelve hundred dollars later (eek!), I was the proud owner of a round trip ticket to Dubai. I didn’t make many plans other than hanging out with my friend and skydiving, which was pretty much how I spent all of my free time back then. It sounded like a perfect little getaway. I excitedly packed my bags, smiling as I threw a swimsuit into my suitcase while snow swirled around outside the window of my Chicago apartment.
The day of my trip, I bubbled with excitement. After about 24 hours of travel, I landed in Dubai at 3 a.m. Even the late hour and long customs line couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I was in the Middle East! How cool was that? After finally making it through customs and pulling some of the local currency out of an ATM, I hailed a cab to take me to my friend’s apartment. I hadn’t wanted to wake her up in the middle of the night to come get me, so I opted for a taxi. I will admit, though, that getting into a cab in the middle of the night, in the middle of a strange country where I didn’t know a single word of the language, was a little… sketchy. For some reason, this didn’t occur to me until I was in the back of the cab, speeding down the highway that was lined with billboards full of Arabic words that looked like gibberish to me.
Luckily for me, my cab driver was a very friendly guy who spoke excellent English. As we made our way toward Jumeirah Beach, he asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m a lawyer,” I said.
“An attorney! Wow,” he replied. I saw his eyes in the rearview mirror, widening in genuine admiration.
“Yes, an attorney,” I said, smiling humbly but feeling a sudden puff of pride in my chest.
This man didn’t know anything about me, but he respected me instantly on some level when he learned that I was an attorney. This was only a few months after I had passed the bar exam, and it was the first time I can remember having that experience, but it definitely wasn’t the last. Sure, I heard my fair share of annoying bad lawyer jokes. But over the course of the next couple of years, people would ask me what I did for work, and instantly consider me smart and successful as soon as they heard I was a lawyer. They didn’t know anything else about me—only that I had made it through the grueling years of law school and passed the bar. That was enough. It was an easily recognizable social symbol of success. A white collar career that served as a little badge of honor, a little gold star on my chest saying “I’m worthy of respect.”
When I first toyed with the idea of giving up law forever, that taxi driver in Dubai instantly came into my mind.
What would I tell people, if I didn’t tell them I was a lawyer? What if no one ever respected me again, once the prestige of a law career faded from my résumé?
I’d like to say I didn’t care, and that I said “screw society and its desperate need for prestige.”
But the truth is, it was really hard to come to terms with the idea of doing work that didn’t automatically make other people respect me.
At the end of the day, though, I realized that it didn’t matter if other people respected me, if I couldn’t respect myself. And I knew I could never truly respect myself if I didn’t find a way to have the courage to chase after what really mattered to me.
It wasn’t easy. The path wasn’t straightforward and mapped out for me. A lot less taxi drivers automatically find my career choice impressive these days.
But that’s okay. Because when I look in the mirror at the end of the day, I know that I’m doing amazing things, and making people’s lives better. And that feels pretty great. I would even dare to say that it’s a life that’s worthy of respect.
I almost missed out on a life that I love, to hold onto a life I thought other people loved. And that would have been an incredible tragedy. Success isn’t about others thinking you’re important. It’s about having the freedom to truly be the person YOU want to be, and to live every day in the way YOU want to live. If your career isn’t doing that for you right now, then it’s the wrong career.
You only get one life. Forget about prestige, and make that life into something that matters to you.