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Sep 12

Getting a competitive advantage at work

I liked this observation in an article in today’s NY Times. Written by an ex-Cravath associate, it explains why he left the law to become a journalist:

After several years I felt it was time to consider my future. I had wonderful assignments and congenial and stimulating colleagues. Still, I could see the winnowing process firsthand. Of the 20 or so associates hired each year, one or two might be chosen to be a partner. Some years there were none. I waited each year with keen interest to see who was tapped for the equivalent of lifetime tenure. What did they have in common?

They weren’t necessarily the brightest. Everyone there had impressive test scores and academic credentials. They weren’t, as I had expected, the hardest-working. Everyone aspiring for partner worked long hours and gave the appearance of hard work. They weren’t the most personable. Cravath was refreshingly meritocratic, and gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and social and academic pedigree all seemed irrelevant.

Finally it came to me: The one thing nearly all the partners had in common was they loved their work.

This came as a profound revelation. Of course they worked long hours, because it didn’t feel like work to them. They took great satisfaction in the services they rendered their clients.

You couldn’t fake this. The partners seemed to have some sixth sense. I enjoyed my work. But I had to admit I didn’t love it the way they did.

At times I found this mystifying. How could anyone tackle a complex tax problem with such enthusiasm? Or proofread a lengthy indenture agreement? Why couldn’t I love a prestigious, high-paying, secure job like they did?

At the same time, it was liberating. It was obvious to me that someone who loves his or her work, whatever that might be, has a huge competitive advantage, not to mention a satisfying and enjoyable life. Somehow people who love what they do seem to make a living. So I started pondering what I might love as much as some of my Cravath colleagues loved practicing law.

(Emphasis added.) It’s the same theme that Steve Jobs spoke about in his famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech – “you’ve got to find what you love”.

As much as a “tiger dad” as my dad was when it came to studies when I was back in High School, he never really pressured me to take one of those occupations that Asian parents typically want their kids to take (then again I can’t say he approved of my initial choice of degree). After a few decades of doing what he did as a career, he would say to me that one of the key take aways from the experience was that you have to be able to wake up in 10, 20 years and enjoy what you’re doing. The fact that I ended up in law anyway is somewhat ironic, but it’s a decision I came to make myself several years after high school. A decision you make yourself is a much more informed one than a decision that someone else has made for you.

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