Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don’t Confuse Ends with Means

Since my return from Australia, a lot of people ask me if I miss anything about the old grind.  “Only the paycheck” is usually my response, though it’s not entirely true, as I do miss seeing a lot of the people at my old firm more frequently.  I simply enjoy life a lot more now.  Most people empathize with me, but there are still a good number of people that simply can’t understand where I’m coming from.

I think one way to explain this discrepancy is by understanding the difference between ends and means.  To me, being a lawyer was always a means to something else; a job in an industry that I wanted to be in, or a way to save up money so that I could pursue what I really wanted to be doing. 

For a long time, though, I didn’t have a plan as to how to make that happen.  It is at this point that a lot of people get caught up in the problem of exchanging means for ends.  Once you’re at the law firm, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the talk about making partner, without stopping to think if it’s what you really want with your life.  For some people, it’s a great fit, and a worthy end to work for.  For a lot of people, though, it becomes an end by default, as they either think that by pursuing something else, their life as they know it will end (perhaps with good reason, but usually for the better), or take on a number of obligations that force their hand, like a mortgage or car payment.  They lose sight of why they got into their line of work in the first place.

Now, if you’re somewhere you want to be for the foreseeable future, that’s great—I’m happy for you.  That is exactly what everyone should be striving for.  But a lot of people get caught up in what they think would be intermediate stepping stones for much longer than anticipated because they don’t want to “rock the boat” of their own lives, and are content to grind out a comfortable existence trading five days for two every week. 

For me, at least, this simply wasn’t good enough.  If you’re not happy right now, take a good, long look at your life and figure out what it is you really want to be doing.  This should be the “ends” of your life.  Your new “means” are how you’re going to achieve those ends.  You should have a clearly defined path for where you want to get, though it’s fine if that path involves a little bit of well-budgeted aimlessness to figure out exactly what it is you want to dedicate your full efforts to.  The only way you should exchange your means for your ends is if you’ve decided that your current means will make you markedly happier than your current ends.  Even then, you should rethink what your ultimate ends are, so that you don’t miss out on something that you really want to achieve in life.  The only real way to accomplish these things is by a good amount of frequent self-examination, so take one hour every month to sketch these things out and figure out if you’re on the course you really want to be on for the rest of your life.

Action Item: take an hour sometime this week and write down where you want to be one, five, and ten years down the road.  Figure out the best ways to get where you want to be, through internet research or reaching out to others in that field.  Repeat monthly to determine if your “means” are inadvertently becoming your “ends.”

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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