Details, Details…..Confession of a Former Associate

It’s really hard to excel at something that you don’t like.

At my first law job after my clerkship, I was one of forty lawyers to join a prestigious 450-lawyer firm. As our training ground, we newbies were distributed throughout the firm and assigned to help more senior associates on big cases and deals. My first rotation was Securities, where we most often represented the underwriters of huge equity or debt offerings. I tagged along with the senior associate, listened on conference calls, and helped with the massive papering of a deal. There were underwriting agreements and SEC  filings choc full of legalese and “risk factors,” and I was to help mark them up — making changes to boiler plate language, proofreading, making conforming changes from one document to another. It was heavy on the details, and at the beginning I didn’t understand much of it, which made it even harder. The later at night it got, the more the words swam on the page and lost their meaning.

Now, the truth is that even when I am fresh as a daisy, I am not enthusiastic about details — I’m a classic Intuitive (N) on the Myers Briggs personality type. I like the big picture a lot better than the nitty gritty, and I often need to have a grasp of the overarching concept for me to make sense of details. This was particularly challenging at the firm because the overall structure of these deals was fairly complex — often driven by tax consequences and heavily negotiated risk allocation. I was out of my element. Thank goodness for Gail, the senior associate who checked my work and caught what I missed. When I got my documents back from her with red marks all over, I felt as if I were getting a failing grade from a favorite high school teacher. It was almost worse that she was so kind about it — it only heightened my chagrin at the careless mistakes I had made. I was used to being good at most things I did, and it was disheartening to screw up —  after all, it wasn’t rocket science!

I stayed it it for a few years, and I improved, but it was always a struggle, and managing the minutiae made me edgy. When I finally  threw in the towel, there were lots of reasons I left, including the long hours and lack of meaning I found in the work. But upon reflection I see that a major reason I left is that I knew I would never be really good at it. Even if I reached a level of understanding that would have helped me comprehend and track all the details better, I would always be out of my element.

Business magnate and owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban discourages readers from “following your passion,” urging them instead to “follow your effort.” Cuban seems to think that searching for your passion is just a cop-out way to avoid hard work. He reasons that skill follows effort, and skill building leads to greater enjoyment and then even to passion. This was certainly true for me with cycling, which didn’t enjoy until I started training for a big ride. But there’s a limit to what you can achieve if you lack even a spark of interest beyond wanting not to screw up. You are unlikely to transform aversion and anxiety into passion.

The take-away here? I agree with Cuban that passion can be cultivated by hard work. But you need to find something in your work that you care about or enjoy, and you are more likely to find enjoyment if the tasks you have to master are in your preference zone, whether it is managing details or conceptualizing, working independently or collaborating closely, planning precisely or adapting on the fly. Then you are much more likely to be able to improve and advance and create a satisfying — dare I say passionate? — career.