Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Path of Least Resistance is Paved with Good Intentions

When I was younger, I was always “good” at school.  I turned in my homework on time, never caused a ruckus, and never questioned the teachers’ authority—after all, they were adults, and adults always know what they’re talking about, right?

I also happened to be good at test-taking and, consequently, got good grades.  Not just in English and history, but math and science, too.  As I continued to get older, the classes got more difficult and extracurriculars came into play, but I still was “good” at most things.  Sure, it was easier to pull A’s in English and History classes, but I was still good at math, and science, though getting more difficult, really interested me, and was still certainly doable.

But then I started to encounter classes that I wasn’t so good at.  A “B” in chemistry.  A “B-“ in biology.  In college, a “B-“ in the next level of calculus.  I even had a “C+” in Spanish in high school that was changed to a “B-“ because of a rounding error; my average was 79.6.

Some of these classes interested me quite a bit—I just wasn’t “good” at them right away, or ran into a teacher that I didn’t jibe with, or didn’t do well for some other equally stupid reason.  Instead of buckling down and working harder on those subjects, I tried to skate through them as easily as possible before throwing them in the “do not take in the future” pile.  Pretty soon, I was taking almost exclusively history/English/Poly Sci courses, with a few random “easy” classes thrown in to fulfill prerequisites.

As college drew to a close, and the time came to choose a profession, I was pushed by well-meaning friends and relatives toward law.  I guess that’s what poly sci majors “do.”  I had no idea what a lawyer actually did, but everyone reassured me that a law degree was very versatile.  “You can do whatever you want with it!” was the common refrain.  Even though I wanted to do something more creative, or, barring that, in something like physics, those were either “impractical” or “too hard” in my mind; perceptions that were reinforced by the well-meaning individuals around me.

So I took the LSAT, figuring, “why the hell not?”  I studied from a Kaplan book at lunch every day and took a practice exam or two in the weeks leading up to it.  I didn’t waste money on one of those test-prep courses because, honestly, I wasn’t terribly excited about “the law” anyway.

Unfortunately, I ended up doing very well on the LSAT, and, at that point, in my mind, the die was cast.  I was going to law school because that was the path of least resistance.

Of course, here I am six years later, on a completely different path entirely.  The big problem was that I followed the path of least resistance for far too long, a dangerous decision.  Following the path of least resistance made my default reaction to adversity “shutdown mode,” where I just told myself I wasn’t good at whatever it was, and moved on to the things I still was “good” at.  In retrospect, this was flat-out cowardly on my part.  I never really had to work all that hard in school for anything, and consequently found myself headed somewhere that I didn’t want to be.

As the years compound upon themselves, the path of least resistance probably offers a fairly comfortable, safe existence.  I could’ve continued on as a lawyer at my old firm for a few more years.  Heck, I might have even been able to make partner there.  But being a lawyer, let alone a partner at a law firm, isn’t really what I wanted with my life.  I was just flat-out unhappy.  I had to venture off the path at least once in my life to see what’s out there; to see if I could make a go of it.  If you find yourself acting cowardly, the path to bravery is paved through areas where you are uncomfortable or otherwise encounter adversity (at least that’s what I learned from the Lord of the Rings movies).  Before I had a family to care for and all kinds of great “stuff” like a mortgage and car payment, I had to see how I responded to some real –life adversity.  

So far, so good.  Sure, there are days where writing can be a real slog, and I wonder if I made the right decision.  Sure there is rejection and there are setbacks.  But with each success I have now, I learn how to deal with those other obstacles in a more sustainable and bolder manner, and can feel myself gradually turning into the person that I want to be.

That’s self-actualization.

And it feels pretty fucking great.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and former 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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