Welcome to the Real World
by Doug McQuiston
Long-time readers may remember that one of my first pieces in The Docket was about watching my then nine-year-old son turn his first double play in Little League. On May 8, I stood on the Plaza in front of the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado, watching him pick up his Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs. I don’t know what was more overwhelming—watching my son graduate from college, or realizing that more than a quarter-century has flown by since I stood where he did, clutching my own Bachelor’s degree, on another May morning a long time ago.
As a father, I worry. It’s what we do. After all, when our children are adults, we can do little else. He leaves the University of Colorado in much tougher times than we faced so long ago.
My son and his classmates entered college in the Old World. In 1999, the dot-com boom was
in full roar.
Columnists were writing serious articles about how the "business cycle" was obsolete—stocks would just keep going up because of the burgeoning "New Economy." Martha Stewart was still worth close to a billion on paper. Kids just out of school were pulling down six-figure salaries, getting signing bonuses and Mercedes coupes as their company cars. Only a few people in Langley, VA knew who Osama bin Laden was.
But that was then. Before September 11. Before Enron and Global Crossing. Before airline bankruptcies, ImClone and K-Mart’s bankruptcy. Before 401Ks became 201Ks. Before we discovered the ’90s were not "The New Economy," but instead were nothing more than an elaborate house of cards built on lies and greed. My son and the rest of the Class of 2003 never could have predicted when they started college how different the world would be when they left. My generation may have done the crime, but his will do the time.
As I watched him graduate, my thoughts traveled back to when I stood where he stands now, facing my future. I
wasn’t one of those guys who ended up as a lawyer indirectly, going to law school because they didn’t know where else to go. Law school was part of "The Plan." I knew I’d be a lawyer clear back in the 8th grade. I would go to college, graduate, go to law school, then practice law in a small firm, over on the Western Slope, with my name on the door. Full of youthful hubris, I was determined to shape the future, by God—I would follow The Plan.
Phase I— College. I stood outside Folsom Stadium in Boulder on a warm spring morning in my CU cap and gown. I was happy. I had no job, no money and no prospects of either. But I had something better. I had "The Plan."
Phase II— Law School. Three years later, at Fleming Law School in Boulder, standing in another cap and gown (this time with a velvet hood), I finally received my J.D. Next came the Bar exam, and then it was, (at least I thought then), on to the Western Slope.
In law school, I took courses in mineral law, water law, oil and gas. These classes fit with The Plan. As a small town Western Slope lawyer, with my name on the shingle outside my office on Main Street, I’d need all that water law, and the oil business would help pay the bills, too. There was an oil boom on. Just like the dot-com boom, we all thought it would never end. It ended.
So much for shaping my future. With my wife expecting our first child, "The Plan" collapsed. Real life intervened. I looked for whatever job I could find, in a market so tight you could bounce a quarter off it. There was nothing on the Western Slope because the oil boom busted. Main Street was closed. I sent out a hundred resumes, and got just a handful of interviews. Luckily, I found a job with an insurance defense firm. It wasn’t water law, but when you’re about to become a father, you take what comes.
Now, 22 years have passed. I never made it to the Western Slope. I became an insurance defense lawyer because an insurance defense firm hired me. It turned out to be a pretty good gig. At least I have my "name on the door." Okay, I don’t own the door—it’s owned by a Fortune 500 insurance company, but my name is there nonetheless. I’m an "in-house" lawyer now, managing my own shop. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?
Other than the law degree, nothing I planned on back in the eighth grade came close to coming true. It’s probably the same for you, too. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Over its twisted path so far, my life has traveled the course it was supposed to. So has yours. So will my son’s. As John Lennon once said, "life is what happens to you while you’re busy planning for something else."
Now, as he looks over an even tighter job market than I did 22 years ago, my son looks at his future with a tight-stomached angst. None of his friends have found work, and like them, he worries that he lacks a Plan. I try to reassure him. I tell him he isn’t planning the rest of his life during these next few months, even if it seems like he is. I never even reached the spot I planned for in college. My first "career" position lasted three years. The next lasted a little longer—18 years. Who knows how long this new one will last?
The only thing my son can be sure of is change. The days of a "career position" are gone. Nothing will work out like he’s planned. Nothing ever does. If he’s really lucky, he will create his own careers, by doing what he loves and hoping someone will pay him for it. Life will happen to him as it has happened to me—not anything like I planned, but not bad at all.
When it became clear that my life wouldn’t happen according to The Plan, I dumped it and made a new one. I had a family, coached Little League, learned to flyfish and play the bagpipes. I have loved every minute of it. Still do. So my advice to my son was simple. "Never let your job define you," I told him. Do what you can to succeed, then enjoy the trip. Life, after all, isn’t what happens at the office; it’s what happens in the rest of your world.
Happy Graduation, Son.