the coincidental career track (part 1 of 4)

If I look back at my career so far, I could claim that I executed a logical, sophisticated strategy that inexorably led me to where I am today. That narrative would sound like this:

I always wanted a career that centered on helping people. I therefore decided to attend law school. While there, I recognized that insurance was a key driver of the American economy that also has a huge impact on how people in need of support obtain appropriate aid. So I took a job at the largest firm on Long Island to develop a full understanding of insurance law.

After losing my leg in a 1996 accident, I become especially interested in the issues related to the intersection between insurance and health care. That led to me taking a position at a law firm that represented doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice litigations. From there, it was only a short step to co-founding a prosthetic facility, where I was responsible for making sure that patients had appropriate access to medically necessary technology. My unique area of focus was creating effective insurance appeals.

After 5 years of that, I realized that assisting people with limb loss one-on-one, while rewarding, had a limited impact on the limb loss/difference population as a whole. So I then took a role with a prosthetic component part manufacturer because I could use my skills for the benefit of every amputee in the country.

It’s a great story. It’s also fictitious.

How do we get to where we are today? Here’s my path.

*   *   *

My entire adolescence revolved around three activities: (1) sports; (2) reading; and (3) writing. If I was truly a skilled person, I would have ended up an incredibly urbane professional baseball player who authored a groundbreaking, hilarious look at life in The Show that critics would have called “the 21st century Ball Four.” But by college, it was pretty apparent that the whole “I want to play for the Red Sox” thing wasn’t going to pan out.

Confronted with that reality, I shifted my focus to a seemingly more attainable goal: I would become a guitar-slinging rock star. Only one thing stood in my way. I had never picked up a guitar, much less owned one. My girlfriend/wife-to-be, apparently content to nurture my delusion, bought me an acoustic guitar and then, a year or two later, a sunburst Fender Stratocaster. I taught myself basic chord shapes, sporadically took lessons, and over the course of the next 12-18 months, developed enough skill to figure out how to play basic versions of songs I liked.

Since I attended a liberal arts college, I was surrounded by a nearly limitless group of equally reality-averse individuals. So it wasn’t hard to form a band. We spent our first month together doing what all great bands do: picking a band name. We ended up (I think) calling ourselves Vibrating Egg. We thought it hilariously clever at the time, a fact made sadder because we came to that conclusion while sober.

Having navigated this significant career hurdle, we moved onto song selection. Because none of us could read music or understood anything beyond the most rudimentary music theory – i.e., “Hey, those things on the lines are notes!” – we opted to play covers. Had I stopped and thought about the path to rock stardom, I would have abandoned the venture at this point post haste, as playing only covers puts you on the fast track to weddings, crappy bars looking for crappy classic rock bands, and bar mitzvahs. But unrestrained by any connection to reality, we plunged ahead to master the following playlist, most notable for the fact that none of the songs required any technical or vocal expertise:

  1. Hey Joe, Jimi Hendrix (Note: soloing a la Hendrix takes tons of technical expertise, but the verses are easy to play. In other words, if you ignore the one thing that makes any Hendrix song so amazing – the guitar solo – you can “play Hendrix.” That was our workaround to the utter absence of technical expertise that each of us possessed in breathtaking scope.)
  2. Take the Skinheads Bowling, Camper Van Beethoven
  3. Blister in the Sun, Violent Femmes
  4. Surfing Bird, The Garbagemen,
  5. Pretty Pink Rose, Adrian Belew (see parenthetical for Hey Joe and replace “Hendrix” with “Belew”)
  6. Running Down a Dream, Tom Petty
  7. Destroyer, The Kinks

Our career as a band consisted of one paying gig at an afternoon volleyball party outside our dorm. We rattled through the playlist to the roaring sound of complete audience indifference. Having failed to secure a record deal, we quickly disbanded. The breaking up part was, by far, the closest we ever got to resembling a real band.

Now I had to figure out what to do with my life.

*   *   *

When you’re winding up your college career and realize that your primary skill is the ability to read and write about Shakespearean literature, you quickly learn that your professional options are limited. I could have gotten a job, some real-world experience, and socked away a few bucks. Instead, I decided the smarter option was to incur $90,000 in tuition debt and spend the next 3 years of my life studying law. I did this while consciously stating to anyone who would ask, “I don’t want to actually practice law.” I just thought that having the degree would magically transport me from No Possibility Present to Limitless Future.

(At this point, you should be asking yourself, “How much dramatic license has Dave taken with his own life? He has to be, at a minimum, exaggerating.” Remarkably, I am not. I can say with 100% certainty – and my wife will validate it, since she was there – that my plan for a career was to get a degree in a discipline I didn’t plan on practicing. And that would somehow lead me to the perfect job.)

I took the LSAT’s. I’m still not sure why a person’s ability to determine which of 4 horses got a green bow and which got a red one in the “logic” section of the LSAT distinguishes between a Fred’s School of Law student on the one hand, and a Yale student on the other. In any event, after receiving my mediocre LSAT score and applying to schools, I learned that I had gotten into Albany and been wait-listed at St. John’s and Hofstra.

One visit to Albany was all it took to convince me not to go to law school there. (It even occurred to me that getting a real job would have been preferable to living in Albany.) St. John’s was located in Queens, which was part of New York City. I had heard that people got mugged there. Because I considered St. John’s somehow dangerous because it was a Borough, I ended up deciding that Hofstra was the law school for me. (Again – I’m not exaggerating or making this up.)

I armed myself with a letter of recommendation from a senior partner at a Long Island firm who was also a family friend, camped out outside the Dean of Admission’s office, and informed his secretary that I wasn’t leaving until he saw me.  I waited, letter in hand, to meet Dean Douglas.

Next week: Part 2.

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