My first year of law school was probably the craziest and most stressful year of my life. That’s because, in the legal world, a lot of your future career prospects are based on the grades you get in your first year. To make things even more stressful, almost every class I had that year calculated my entire grade based on a single essay exam at the end of the semester. The grades were curved too, which means, in a real sense, I was competing against my classmates for my grades.
Up until that point, I’d never really been a hard worker, at least when it came to school. In college, I didn’t do much work and would basically pull all-nighters and cram the day before final exams. It wasn’t the healthiest or smartest thing to do, but it worked out for me. When I started law school, however, I approached it very differently, determined to do the best that I could.
A lot of what drove me was fear. I took out student loans to go to law school and was terrified of graduating with no job and tons of debt. As a result, I approached my first year of law school with a seriousness I’d never had before (if you’re interested in a breakdown of my student loans, you can read more about it here).
Here’s what my schedule was like most days:
- 7 am – Wake up
- 8 am to 5 pm – Classes and studying at school
- 5 pm – Take the bus home
- 6 pm – Eat dinner
- 7 pm to 12 am – Continue studying
- 1 am – Sleep
For the most part, I spent about 14 hours every weekday going to class and studying. During weekends, I probably spent another 4-8 hours studying. It was a crazy and completely ridiculous schedule, but it paid off for me – I finished my first year ranked 13th out of about 250 students. And it put me in a position where I was able to get a lot of interviews and was essentially guaranteed to land some sort of prestigious summer associate position.
Looking back at it, it was nuts. I was basically doing investment banker-type hours, but for school. I probably didn’t need to study that much either, but as I said, I was terrified. I’d read way too many horror stories of young lawyers graduating with no job and tons of debt.
But there’s an interesting lesson here. You can do anything tough and crazy like this for at least a little bit. But it’s not something you should do forever. Too often though, a lot of us end up doing things like this for most of our lives.
You Can Grit Through Anything For A Little Bit
When I look back at it, I know exactly how I was able to work 14 hour days for weeks on end. Every semester was 15 weeks long, with my fall semester stretching from September to mid-December and my spring semester stretching from mid-January to mid-May. This gave me a set time limit for how long I’d have to put in these crazy hours.
I was stressed out and working hard. But I also knew that I didn’t have to do it forever. All I had to do was make it through a few months. I had it marked on my calendar exactly when I would fly home for the holidays and be off for four weeks before I’d have to do it again. Then when the summer came, I was off for 3 months before I had to go back for what would hopefully be an easier and less stressful second year of law school (the second year was still busy, but I definitely didn’t work as hard and I definitely wasn’t as stressed out).
The lesson to take away from this is that I think most of us can grit through tough work that we don’t want to do and consumes most of our waking hours, so long as we have a set time limit on how long we have to do it. And ideally, our time limit isn’t years. It’s hopefully weeks or months at most.
But You Can’t (Or Shouldn’t) Do It Forever
You can grit through anything for a short, defined period of time. But many of us end up gritting and grinding through our work for long, indeterminate periods. We tell ourselves we’ll stick it out for one more year, which turns into many more years. Or we tell ourselves we have no choice and just have to tough it out (it’s how my parents approached their jobs for their entire lives).
Or the thing that I think we really trick ourselves with – we break up our jobs into periods of time, gritting through our jobs for a while, then taking a two-week vacation, then going right back into it again. Our lives become periods of quasi-rest mixed with periods of dispassionate, life-consuming work.
At first glance, that’s sort of what it looks like I did with my first year of law school – gritting through my days for a set period of time before taking a period of rest. But that’s not exactly what it was. With school, I knew that once I was done with that semester, I was done with it forever. There wasn’t any catching up I had to do or worrying about what the state of my work would be like when I got back. Instead, once I finished my semester, I never had to look back at it again. And I knew that once I got through these two crazy 15-week periods of my life, I’d be able to move on.
It’s Why I Went On My Own Path
I spent 5 years of my life trying to figure out how to make things work with my legal career. I wasn’t happy with my first job, but I tried gritting and grinding through it. Then I found my way to another job, again gritting and grinding my way through it, hoping that I could make it work for me.
This dissatisfaction with how my working life was going is what led me to find the financial independence movement. I figured that was my way out. All I had to do was grit my way through life for a set period of time, save enough money, and then I could relax and do what I wanted.
But the problem with traditional financial independence is that it asks you to sacrifice a lot of your life. Even a 50% savings rate would have meant that I’d need to grit my way through the majority of my waking hours for almost two decades. That’s simply not sustainable in my view.
Could I do it if I had no choice? Absolutely I could – and a lot of us aren’t privileged enough to have a choice. Most of the generations before me didn’t have a choice when it came to their work – they just did what they had to do and gritted their way through their lives because they needed to pay the bills.
I’m fortunate though. I was born in the right time period. With the right technology. And with the right privileges in life. There are a lot of you reading this that might be in the same position as me.
I think most of us aren’t looking to stop working. We just want to do something that we can handle and that we enjoy – not grit our way through most of the waking hours of our lives.
That’s why I opted to go my own way, doing work that I find enjoyable (in this case, writing, blogging, and side hustling). For years, I used to dread Sunday evenings. Now, I don’t think about it.
I’m still working hard. I’m definitely not the richest I could ever be. And I have no idea if this whole self-employment thing will work for the long term. But life is long. And I’d rather live my life, rather than grit and grind through most of it.