Rambling Man: Help! I’m Scared Of The Paycut That Might Make Me Happy

ally mcbeal

Dear Sir,

I’m seeking some career advice from one public interest-minded lawyer to another, although I feel a little weird even applying that label to myself given that I am currently employed by a big bad insurance-type place. Therein lies my question/conundrum: I only took this job because before this I was at a low-paying grant-funded position where it was far from certain our funding would be renewed. And before that, I was un/under-employed for ~2 years, which did a number on my finances as well as sanity.

The plan was to get my financial life in order and get right back to the civil rights world. But now I’ve been here two years and my bank account has healed but my dream of landing a great public interest gig seems to somehow still be unattainable. I’ve been on some interviews but no offers and I’m getting incredibly antsy/angsty.

The other part of this is that I live in an expensive East Coast city and so there are times when I’m scrolling through the job postings and a job catches my eye but then the salary is just cringe-inducing so it doesn’t make sense to me to apply. By no means did I go to law school to get rich, and I am very aware that I will be taking a pay cut wherever my next job ends up being, but between my overpriced apartment, mountain of student loans, and lack of a partner-with-a-second-income, I’m only a couple of steps above living paycheck to paycheck. I just don’t know how I would be able to make as little as some of these things pay.

Then I feel guilty, like if I were really committed to getting a new job doing something I actually want to do, I would somehow make it work.

Should I go for broke and go after one of these jobs and worry about the money later? Should I say screw you to this overgrown college town and move back to my hometown in the middle of the country, where I will have to take another bar exam and where there are probably fewer jobs overall, but where the cost of living is such that I won’t worry about not being able to pay rent? Please advise. 


Oh, there is no right answer here. If you had asked me when I lived in New York whether I could have found happiness in Boston, I would have told you I definitely could not, but then I was obliged by circumstance to go there, and I found happiness.

If you had told me I could find happiness in Hartford, I would have said you were crazy. I didn’t even really understand what Hartford was. I mean, yes, I knew it was a city, but I had no mental picture of it; it existed for me the way that quantum physics did: I understood that there were people who understood it deeply, but I accepted that I could not and didn’t really want to that much anyway.

Now I am in Hartford and I am happy.

Happiness is so weird. Some people move to a new place or a new job and stumble into a niche, and it all just seems OK: they make friends and find routines and settle in. Other people, of seemingly similar disposition, simply can’t let go of their long-held notions of how they want their world to be.

They move to places without coffee shops within walking distance and never get over it, leading live lives of quiet desperation thereafter, getting addicted to painkillers and having unsatisfactory extramarital affairs. I grew up thinking that walking distance coffee shops, bagels and the Times on Sunday morning, and listening to baseball games on the radio were the sine qua non of adulthood, and now I live in a city without a single fucking bookstore. Somehow it’s OK. That doesn’t make me a better person, it just proves that thing they always say on the internet even when they are not talking about cars: “Your mileage may vary.”

If I had to advise you on how to live your life in a way that would make me feel happy and fulfilled, I would start by noting that plainly, you are not satisfied with where you are now. Insurance companies and the law firms that represent them are, necessarily, places of uncomfortable moral compromise.

Sometimes moral compromise can be tolerated because it is intellectually engaging (see, e.g., building nuclear bombs), but insurance is boring. Once I was sitting on an Amtrak train next to a very attractive woman and we got to talking, and she told me how she was on her way back from a reinsurance conference — a pair of words so preposterous, I feel like I should put them in italics. She was really into reinsurance, and to be polite, I asked her to explain reinsurance, and she did, and it was terrible and her enthusiasm for the topic actually made her seem unattractive.

In your case, it’s safe to say that the decent salary and the overpriced apartment in the city with access to coffee shops and fancy cocktail joints and artisanal donut bakeries are not enough to make up for the soulless job.

So cast a wide net for jobs, at least all over the state in which you are licensed to practice law, and all the states with reciprocity, if there are any. Non-profit jobs are widely dispersed outside of the white-hot centers of academia, so there’s a good chance that you’ll only find what you’re looking for in some small city like Lowell or Springfield. (I’m going to assume that the overgrown college town you refer to is Boston, because it really is the ne plus ultra of overgrown college towns.)

You should seriously consider jobs in these places. They are chock full of the sort of cheap rentals that will accommodate your new, lower salary and Springfield has a really good, quite affordable Cajun restaurant. They will also give you the chance to live life in a way that is probably totally new and different. I don’t know if that will actually be good for you, but maybe it will be great!

That is the point about happiness I am trying to make — you don’t really know when it will show up. For example, prior to writing this column, I had never used the phrases “sine qua non” or “ne plus ultra,” although I was familiar with both. Now I have, and it feels nice.

Even if you find a job you like with a salary you hate right there in Boston, or wherever you actually are, you have options. You can move to a neighborhood where rents are cheap(er), or even to one of those working-class suburbs that people do not think about when they talk about “leaving the city for better schools,” like Brockton or Lynn. There is a lot to discover and enjoy in such places, if you are open to it. The rent is cheap, and sometimes these places have cool nicknames, like “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin,” or, here in central Connecticut, “Hard Hittin’ New Britain.”

I don’t mean to sound flip, but like I say, happiness is weird and unpredictable. If you are young, unattached, and dissatisfied with where you’re at, and you have the resources to try something new, why not do it?

Rambling Man is the Billfold’s advice column about trying to make a living and doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Email ester@thebillfold.com, subject line: Rambling Man.



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