The Back Story
Truth be told, I came to this country to assimilate. I came here, “the best country in the world,” at age 16, to get an education from the best institutions, to work hard, gain “success” based on job titles, salaries and contribution to the greater good of the world. I came here to blend in and be part of something larger than me: a university, a legal system, a global law firm or corporation. I came to assimilate and disappear into the very fabric of this society, integrate and get a good life through working hard. I came to become American.
Who told me to do that?
No one, really.
Did I want all of that intentionally and consciously?
No. I was never aware that these were my drivers.
By osmosis, I absorbed the message that if I was smart, got a superb education, got great jobs and worked really hard, I would be able to fully integrate into America, so I could be successful even on American terms.
Nigeria was, and still is, a developing country, gaining her independence from British colonial rule only in 1960. Life was turbulent as this nascent nation discovered her identity after a civil war and as military dictators overthrew the government regularly to gain power and shift the focus of the country. My parents constantly fretted about our safety. To them, this meant getting us out of an unpredictable, often violent and crazy country to the US where, because this is a stable environment, we would be able to get a solid world-class education and build our best lives for ourselves.
For instance, often students in the universities in Nigeria would riot and strike and refuse to attend classes because of some policy that the government recently instituted and entire university campuses would be shut down throughout the country. It may take another four months for their doors to open again. I know people who took over 7 years to get their four-year college degree because of the university shutdowns.
I think my parent’s unconscious idea was that if they could just hold on, get their kids out of high school an get them into universities in the US, pay for their education, they, and we the kids would be fine. The stability of the US system was supposed to be the “cure all” for the ills that becoming an adult in Nigeria presented.
Let’s look at this “cure all” closely.
I went to awesome schools, first in Goucher College and then Georgetown University Law School. I was not the brightest bulb in the classroom, but I got through both institutions and managed to pass the bar and that was when the investment in my education was supposed to pay off. I had applied for jobs in large law firms as I wanted to do corporate work.
When I reflect back on those times, I realize that I thought I would be living the glamorous life of a New York Wall street attorney rolling in the six figures and I was just 23 years old or so. Or, maybe I would be in L.A. and doing the California thing and enjoying my professional life. That was supposed to be the last chapter of my professional life. I was just supposed to continue to progress and do well, as I had earned a coveted spot on the escalator of “the good life.”
I would then become a junior partner at a law firm and then a senior partner after the requisite number of years and then the big bucks would roll in. I would win amazing cases and be known for excellence in my profession. Right?
I did not get any “juicy” jobs. The interviews I had in New York scared me. When I went to the Big Apple for the interviews, I was rattled because everyone spoke Spanish to me and assumed I was Puerto Rican! Till this day, if you call me “Puerto Rican” or speak Spanish to me, I get mad!
I thought I could handle a big city like New York, but it frightened me as it was so busy, and folks were so rude. I felt totally insignificant in that big mass of human movement. I felt painfully isolated as the indifference of the city wrapped around me like a snug fur coat, trapping and choking me. And then at the law firm, in the interviews, I was expected to bill clients for 40 hours of work a week minimum and that often required 60 to 80-hour work weeks routinely. For a whole lotta money, more than I imagined!
My heart sank when I realized the time investment because I knew I was just not that hard working! I wanted to have a life AND be “a successful lawyer.”
Eventually, I found a small firm in DC to work for, but I wanted to relocate to somewhere warmer as I could not tolerate the cold weather. I also would take cabs places and discover that the cab driver was a lawyer who never passed the bar or was making additional income as a cab driver. I felt the competition was too stiff and I wanted to go to a city where everyone was NOT a lawyer.
Enter Atlanta. I applied for jobs and took the Georgia bar and relocated down here. Race relations had a different feel down here. It was warmer. There were successful black people all over the place and I finally felt like I found my groove.
I got fired from my first job after a year and dealt with the shame of collecting unemployment checks. Then I started working part-time for a solo attorney because that was the best I could do at the time. As his practice grew, my work became stable and then eventually I worked for someone else and finally, burnt out and hating “unreasonable” bosses with a raging passion, I decided to start my own practice, where I could call the shots and be my own boss.
I just could not find my stride.
What’s a gal like me to do, you know?
Magically, with many miracles and amazing open doors, I opened my law firm, elated and purposeful. It was like having a brand-new baby. I was proud. I was excited. I was stretched beyond what I could ever have imagined. It was awesome. In the beginning.
If you want to find out more about yourself very fast, open up a business.
I discovered I do not have the strongest administrative skills. I only require about 40% structure in my life and not 100%. I panic when money flow slows down. I don’t believe the customer is always right and although I am downright bossy, I do not like managing people!
But I hung in there and tried to overcome all my shortcomings.
I owned and managed my firm for 15 years before I had to shut it down in 2008 because, as a real estate firm, the failed economy decimated my business. I went from doing an average of a hundred transactions monthly to one in my last month in business.
I closed shop, breaking a commercial lease, laying off employees and racking up business debts all over the place.
I was devastated, and I felt like a failure.
I remember riding in the loaded U-Haul truck, as my then husband and I drove away from that building for the last time, and as we went around a curve, there was a double rainbow in the skyline. I burst into tears as I held on to the promise of the rainbow with every fiber of my being. Everything I came to this country to do, had just ended. I had no vision for my life beyond being an attorney. But that rainbow told me that life would continue.
I had practiced law since I was 23 years old and it was the dominant identifier of my life.
Now, 10 years after shutting my law practice down, I could not have imagined where I would be. I could not picture today. I could not imagine that I could be productive in a completely different way. Today, my level of creativity and productivity is more aligned with my natural gifts and I have full internal permission to express all of who I am in my work.
Most of all, I could not imagine how resonance with the work I do, my own “life work,” would feel like pure, elated joy in my bones, in my body.
This is what dignity in our wok feels like. It resonates. Our output resonates with our values and our identity.
The difference between the two business experiences for me is that one was designed based on what others had said that informed my idea of “who” I should be as a lawyer and the other was created out of the depths of my own soul, after I had taken the time to get to know myself better. The second business was based on the lessons I learned about my own fragile humanity after the first failure.
A Painful Reflection
Beloved, it is so painful to look back on my history and admit that I missed it and not by a mile, but by a thousand miles.
It took failure to help me turn on my awareness that I was pursuing an imagined role as “a successful attorney” and I was not listening to my “soul.”
Yet, as painful as this reflection is, it is necessary. If I never shut down my law firm, I would never have discovered that I had “true” gifts to share with the world.
Later, I came to an awareness that I actually hated the practice of law as the adversarial nature was antithetical to my core values. I came to understand that I was holding on to it because I was scared that I had nothing else to offer the world. I became aware that never questioned my allegiance to the status quo. I also came to recognize that I had not done any creative writing since I was in college which I loved and excelled in.
I realized that my experience of the practice of law, including my law firm, was transactional and really did not help people in the long run. It was fine in the beginning but as I grew, it was not enough, and I did not know it was not enough. My work today is transformational. I can say that my clients experience deep permanent changes when they work with me and the plethora of emails in my inbox tell me that my weekly writing is hitting a strong chord with people as they discover facets of their own experiences that they may never have considered.
Beloveds, what would your life look like if you approached failure with gleeful delight as you discover the hidden gift it presents?
You see, awareness, and reflecting on all the connected dots is liberating when it is done with an eye to find the gem in the backstory.
Assimilation is a myth and it is not truly possible. I could never have fully assimilated and kept my gifts and my own uniqueness. That first iteration of my professional life was slowly killing me. And I had no idea.
Too often, we push failure away. We dread it. We worry about it. We fear it. Yet, it is absolutely necessary to our success.
Today, I have the benefit of looking back over the last 10 years and seeing failure through a different prism than the one I experienced the day I shut my practice down and saw the rainbow.
No. It did not feel good at the time.
But I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would not have had the courage to move into the work I am doing now. My identity was too tied up in that label called “attorney.” I would NEVER have voluntarily given it up.
You see, the loss of that piece of my identity made room for my soul to become bare. I realized I really wanted to do something that I loved and that benefitted others. I realized that money was not enough as a motivating factor in my life.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the greenbacks! But once the basics are covered, I really do not get that lit up about it. I have never had the drive to make a gazillion dollars. For example, I love my Apple products. I am the Queen of Apple products. But I am deeply unsettled about Apple being the first company to reach a 1 trillion-dollar valuation. You don’t get there by being nice. Or by having the best products. You get there by ruthless strategy. If we knew the whole story, I just know that there are many victims in the path of that first of a kind financial valuation. I am not sure how I feel about that!
I still love all things Apple!
As I delve deeper and deeper into my life work, I find myself gaining more and more confidence, uncovering talent I did not know I had and even taking risks that feel like fun. This is a new experience for me. It took failure to get there.
As a lawyer, I was plagued with insecurities, increasing feelings of incompetence and I was completely risk averse.
Now I know that those were all messages from my soul, that most innermost precious aspect of myself, crying for help.
WhoWudaThunk that insecurity was actually a friend, trying to get my attention that I was not on the right path?
- Do you know how to read your insecurities?
- Do you know how to read your failures?
- Do you know how to discern your unique work pathway so that you can nourish your soul with your life work?
If it was possible for me, it is possible for you.
This week, embrace your failures.
Let me know how I can support you with that!