career: find something challenging that matters.

May 7th, 2015 · 29 Comments

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A few weeks ago, after I wrote this post, I got an email from a reader asking me to write about a different career topic, one that really resonated with me.  She asked if I had any advice for tackling those mid-career moments when you struggle with motivation and direction:

Hi Katy,

I’m a longtime reader (I found your blog via Ramshackleglam years ago!) and loved your recent post on wearing red for a confidence boost; I was wondering if you had any further advice that have helped you with your career or still follow to this day.  I’m not in the legal world but I would love to hear any tips you have on how to navigate a demanding job without losing motivation or feeling overwhelmed by everything.  Or even how you managed your time to successfully run a blog and write three books on top of being a lawyer!

My first year in my current role was fantastic as I had so much to learn, but now that I can navigate things easily I’m not sure how best to hone other ‘professional’ skills, or even show my managers I am ready to work at a higher level.  So this was just in case you had been thinking about writing more work-related posts – yes please! 🙂

I thought about this a lot, and get ready, pour some coffee, because, man, I have a lot to say.

In some ways, it’s easier to be relatively junior in many fields.  Sure, the hours are long, but in most jobs, for the first years, someone tells you what to do.

Sure, there’s a reason for that: you don’t have the training and experience to know exactly how to do everything, yet.  So your job (even in a very challenging career) initially is more task-oriented.  The downside is that you’r often working really hard, long hours, but the upside is that you have a pretty good sense of what’s on your plate at any given moment. 

But here’s the thing no one tells you: that changes.  If you stick with it for a while, suddenly you’re not the one taking orders anymore.  You’re giving them. 

That’s a little terrifying.

And it’s also completely amazing. 

Here’s the thing: it’s a scary thing to be in charge.  But at the same time, being in charge means that, suddenly, your work feels incredibly important.  For me, it marked the moment when my job became a career.  It was when my work stopped feeling like work and started feeling like a vital, integral part of my life. 

And you know what?  It wasn’t the moment that I started my own practice.  It would be easy if it were; that’s a clean story.  “All I had to do was start my own business, and then I was the boss and everyone lived happily ever after, the end.” But that’s not the real answer. 

The real answer is: it happened at moments, off and on, at different points in my career. 

Here’s one example.  When I was about three years out of law school, I worked on a case that exploded from a relatively small, discrete project into almost a year of non-stop work with dozens of people tackling different parts of it.  I was a third year associate, and found myself suddenly managing a team of a dozen other associates who were only one or two years junior to me.  This wasn’t because I’m an exceptionally good lawyer, although I’d like to think that was part of it.  It was partly luck, and it was partly because I’d worked really hard at the beginning of the case to make myself indispensable to the partners who were in charge of the case, and they’d decided I could do it.

Overnight, my role was flipped.  Usually, as a junior person, you’re the one asking all the questions.  But suddenly, I was the one answering them.  I was saying “yes” and “no” and deciding what got passed along to the partners at my firm and the client, who were trusting me to manage the small stuff myself and know when to consult them on the big stuff.  It was terrifying, and it was really, really cool. 

And I felt like what I was doing was important.  People were depending on me.  I’d check my blackberry at 3 a.m. not because I was scared that I’d get into trouble if I didn’t, but because I felt like my input mattered to the work we were doing. 

But.  You know there was going to be a ‘but’, right?

That moment didn’t last forever.  A year later, that case had ended, and I was still working long, hard hours, I wasn’t as excited about them as I’d been before.  I didn’t want to spend five more years getting back into that same leadership role that I’d stumbled into by accident.  I loved the people I worked with, and I still had the same job, same title, and yet something had changed.  It was the kind of high-stakes, demanding job that required you to give 100%, 24/7.  And there’s no way to do that if your heart isn’t there.  There just isn’t.

People sometimes hear that you should love your job, and they think it means that work should be all fun, all the time.  “I love windsurfing and I’m supposed to love my job, so I guess I’m meant to be a professional windsurfer!  Whee!

But the best job isn’t going to be fun all the time.  It’s going to be hard and challenging and sometimes require effort you don’t feel like you have.  You’re going to beat your fists against walls and feel like you have no idea how to get from where you are to where you want to be.  Those are really hard moments. 

So where do you go from there?  How do you figure out when you’re in that moment, and what you can do to change it?

When this reader wrote to me, she asked about finding career motivation and feeling overwhelmed.  But those are two completely separate things.

I feel overwhelmed all the time.  I have a career and a family and a house and two dogs and this blog.  Some days, that’s a little overwhelming.  I think it’s ok to feel overwhelmed sometimes.  And I think it’s ok to admit it. 

But the motivation side isn’t a question: it’s the answer.  I have a very demanding job.  But my career motivation doesn’t stem from winning and losing, or from the excitement of going to court, or the adrenaline of negotiation.  Some of that is part of it.  But what motivates me are two things. 

My work is challenging and I think what I do is important. 

That’s it.  That’s the secret to loving your job.  I can give it to you in five words.

Find something challenging that matters.

It doesn’t bother me that the work is difficult; I like hard work.  But that work has to matter.  It doesn’t have to matter to anyone else.  It doesn’t have to be high-paying or glamorous.  But it has to matter to me. 

For me, those two are enough.  They’re where my heart is.  When I check those two boxes every day, I feel good when I go to sleep at night.  Even when I’m stressed out or overwhelmed or unsure of what to do next.  And on the flip side, when I’ve gone through moments in my career without those, I’ve lost motivation. 

When I started thinking about this post, I thought that my answer was going to be: I can’t tell you what motivates you. 

But, actually, I think I can. 

Find work that’s challenging and that matters.  To you, not to anybody else.  Look deeply into your heart and your gut and if you don’t like what you’re doing, then change something.  And then change something else.  Keep going until your vision is crystal clear.

It doesn’t mean everything will be easy.  In fact, it probably means the exact opposite.  You will work harder if you approach your career this way, but it will be because you want to.  It will be for yourself (even if you aren’t the boss).  You will be choosing it because it matters to you. 

Almost six years ago, I ran a marathon, and I used to joke that the secret to marathon training was this: You get to the point where you want to stop running.  And then you just keep running.  And pretty soon, you’ll have run a marathon. 

But I think I was a little bit wrong.  Sure, that was part of it.  You can’t run a marathon if you stop after a few miles.  You have to keep running.

And yet it was more than that.  I came across a moment in life when I wanted to run a marathon, and I chose to run a marathon.  The motivation to keep running was completely secondary: the choice was to run the marathon in the first place.  After I made that choice, all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.

In a lot of ways, running that marathon was the best piece of life training I’ve ever gotten. 

And I think it’s also the best advice I can give.  Commit to your career like you’re choosing to run a marathon.  Turn left or right, slow down, ice your knees, hobble along, sprint for a little while and then crawl if you have to.  But just keep running.

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Photo credit: Kate Robinson

Tags: life · work

my life, squeezed into one single day

April 29th, 2015 · 3 Comments

Photo Apr 28, 6 58 39 PM

I have to tell you guys about the day I had yesterday.

So, first thing’s first: Bear wakes up at 6 a.m. on the dot, before the sun even rose.  I get up, feed him breakfast, and go upstairs to play with his toys for an hour or so before school, and out the window I catch a glimpse of this incredible sunrise:

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Look at that. 

And just as I’m about to contemplate the meaning of the universe and the incredible, vibrant, amazing creations of our planet… it’s time to drop Bear off at school and head…

To hair and makeup for a photoshoot.

And not just any photoshoot!  Houston Magazine is featuring me as a Power Lawyer this summer, which is a really big deal for my law practice!  We’ve been putting the pieces together for this photoshoot for a few months, and I was so excited when the day finally came along. 

So, off to the salon for two hours of getting camera-ready. 

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Can I please look like this all the time?  That hair!  Oh my goodness. 

Truthfully, I was a little nervous about the photoshoot because I’ve done a lot of them for this blog and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re terrible.  It sounds crazy to say that getting all dolled up in hair and makeup and having someone take your picture can be terrible (and, obviously, I mean “terrible” in a very #firstworldproblems kind of way), but sometimes creative people have different visions and when you have a photographer and a shoot coordinator and hair and makeup people who are all creative and each have their own way to do things… well, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  But this one was important to me, and I wanted it to be great.

And it was. 

It was awesome.  We had a great photographer, and everyone was on the same page, and once we’d settled on what I was wearing, an hour later, boom, we were done. 

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Oh, did you think that was all?  Not even remotely.  So… onto the next part of my day.

But, yup, this crazy day continued.  Because next, I was headed to a fashion show!  Houston designer David Peck was showing his spring collection at his new flagship space, so I headed off to see his beautiful show and see some fellow Houston fashion bloggers. 

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The show itself was stunning, and you know me: if I can sip prosecco at noon on a Tuesday, I’m a pretty happy girl.  Throw in the fabulous company of Caroline, Candace and Lyndsey, and some beautiful clothes, and David is lucky I ever left his showroom, because, man, that was a fun afternoon.

After that, I had a few hours of time while Bear was at school to squeeze in my actual work, which I won’t spend a lot of time detailing, but I think it’s important to remember that, even during a particularly glamorous day, there was also quite a bit of time devoted to my real work, which are less-glam things like conference calls, drafting discovery, case development and strategy, and a lot more.  It’s easy to pick a day when I had something monumental, like a photoshoot, to highlight my law practice, but the truth is that the most important part of my work is the day-to-day time I spend tackling issues that are important to my clients. 

And then, a few hours later, six o’clock rolled around, and I picked Bear up, changed into some baby-friendly, washable clothes, put on my glasses, and spent an hour like this:

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And, you know what?

It was the best day. 

It was my whole life, collapsed into a single day.  It was life as a lawyer melting into life as a blogger melting into life as a mom, all in the space of about twelve hours. 

When I started my law practice, I decided to make an effort to talk about my career more on this blog.  That felt like an important decision for me, because for a long time it felt like I was being pulled in two different directions: part of me was juggling this high-intensity career where I worried that if people knew about my blog, it would make me seem less professional or less driven.  And the other part of me was juggling this glamorous, crazy life in the fashion world where I worried that being a lawyer was somehow “uncool.”

But a little over a year ago, I made a conscious choice to be open about both sides of my life.  Yes, some days I go from law to fashion and back again.  Some days, I sit in front of my computer all day long, writing briefs and responding to emails, and that’s not more or less “cool” than attending a fashion show, it’s just a different kind of day.  Truthfully, I like them both. 

And at the beginning and the end of the day, I sneak in some precious moments with our baby boy.  Even if I’m bleary-eyed at 6 a.m. if I have to put my newly-coiffed hair into a ponytail so it doesn’t get pulled by messy baby fingers.  That part of my day is incredibly important too. 

So I wanted to share it with you guys.  Because you see a lot of discrete parts of my day-to-day on this blog, but I thought this was a particularly good day to show how everything gets weaved together.  Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard, but that’s the thing about balance: sure, it takes effort.  But it’s so incredibly worth it. 

Tags: life · work

workweek chic: my confidence-boosting red dress

April 6th, 2015 · 4 Comments

Red Suit 9.Final

For the first few years of my career, I worked at a huge law firm in New York, and it was a pretty incredible experience.  I’d never had a full time job before (I went straight from college to law school), and for the first few weeks, I was so nervous and excited that I pretty much held my breath all day long.  I was constantly working at a breakneck pace — it was ordinary for me to eat dinner at my desk almost every night, and pretty common for me to collapse into a car home at 2 or 3 a.m., only to get a few hours of sleep and head back to the office. 

If that sounds awful… well, it sort of was, and it also sort of wasn’t.  I was twenty five and didn’t have much in my life besides work, and Chad’s a lawyer too, so we were pretty much on the same insane schedule.  I was excited about the work I was doing (many of those late nights were spent on an incredibly rewarding case, which I wrote about in January) and I really liked the people I worked with.  The hours were tough, but those early pedal-to-the-metal years were also kind of fun.  Everyone was as intense about their careers as I was, and we all committed to the work that had to get done. 

And I also learned a lot

A lot of what I learned is specific to being a lawyer: how to write a brief and pick a jury, how to prepare a client to be deposed and how to be courteous and professional even when the other side is being completely outrageous.  They’re lessons I remember to this day. 

But I also learned something else: how to appear confident and professional, even when I was twenty-five and completely terrified that I had no idea what I was doing.

As much as I learned from the work itself, I learned more from the people I worked with.  And although I worked with a lot of wonderful male lawyers, truthfully, I paid more attention to the professionalism of the senior-level women I worked with.  Law has traditionally been a very male-dominated field, but that’s changed dramatically in the past decade or so (like many industries, of course, it still has a long way to go).  One of the tremendous upsides to this shift is that my law firm had a number of female lawyers who were five, ten, and twenty years ahead of me on their own career tracks, and often, they made a special effort to look out for female junior associates. 

So I’m going to share one of the tips I got with you guys, one that isn’t specific to law at all.  When I was a first year associate, I was sitting in the office of a junior partner, and she was talking about what it’s like to argue in a courtroom filled with men, when sometimes (if not often), you’re the only woman there.

And she filled us in on a little secret.  “When I want a boost of confidence,” she told us.  “I wear a red suit.  I don’t know why, but there’s something about wearing red that always makes me feel strong.”

Wearing red is a small thing, but the small things really matter.  When that partner told me about putting on her red suit, she wasn’t saying, “sometimes it’s intimidating to be the only woman in the room.”  She was saying: Here’s what I do when I want to feel as good as I can.  Here’s a small thing that, for me, makes a difference. 

And, you know what?  It’s good advice.  When I’m getting ready for anything from a big meeting to an oral argument, I make an extra effort to dress in a way that boosts my confidence.  So in honor of that piece of advice I got years ago, I’m sharing this Workweek Chic outfit today.

My own confidence-boosting red dress.

And, hey, if you’re on the fence about red in your industry, I have an easy workaround.  There’s a reason Louboutins have a red sole!

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Side By Side

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Tags: style · work