I’m a firm believer that, for the most post, you are where you are in life because of the conscious decisions you have made.
Sure, there’s plenty of stuff out of your control that can have an impact your life — a serious injury that leaves you disabled, falling critically ill, getting fired, being left by your significant other, losing everything you own to a natural disaster, the death of a close family member, etc. But for the most part, I believe that if your surroundings are stable and your basic needs are met (shelter, food, health, education and opportunity — and I understand that these basic needs are *not* met for a large number of people (in the world, the U.S., Portland), you control your story.
For me, being an engineer-turned-attorney, living in Portland, living far from my family, renting a home instead of owning, being single and having no kids is the result of conscious decisions I’ve made. I’ve had the opportunities to change each of these circumstances, and I could change most of them very quickly, but I known that I have elected not to do so. I am where I am in life because of the conscious decision I have made. And if I don’t make the decision to affect any change in these circumstances, that’s on me. I no right to bitch or complain.
In the absolute, I have been blessed. As I recently posted, I am a lottery winner several times over. I am extremely fortunate. My basic needs are met, I have an interesting and challenging job that affords me some creature comforts, I live in an great town with amazing recreational opportunities and natural beautiful nearby, I have *two* loving families, and despite my bout with cancer, I have my health.
One interesting thought exercise I’ve thrown out to close friends, usually after a couple of drinks, is, if 1,000 versions of you were born under the exact same circumstances, how many of those 1,000 would be where you are right now in life. I think you can put a number on it. I’ve been wanting to do this exercise for myself for a while, and now with this road trip I finally have the time to give this some thought. (It goes along with me taking stock of where I am before contemplating where I want to go.) And the exercise has been insightful. Not so much as to how many of the 1,000 Dougs are in the same situation as I am, but more for realizing which decisions were the most impactful on my life (regardless of the likelihood I would make that same decision again), which decisions I would reconsider (I hesitate to use the word “regret”), and which ones led to times of happiness.
In short, out of 1,000 Dougs born to my circumstances, about 200 of them are with me right here, right now on this road drip, living under the life circumstances I’ve mentioned above. That’s more than I thought when I started this exercise. I thought it would much lower, even perhaps as low as 1%. Turns out that there were fewer major life decision (only 20 or so) and that i was more certain in those decisions than I originally thought.
I could go down each major decision one by one and discuss the likelihood that I made the decision that I did, but for some of these, that’s getting into “journal” territory, and this is a blog. I put a lot of personal stuff out there on this blog, but some of this exercise I’m keeping private.
First, I’ll cover the life-impact events that were out of my control. I think there’s a good number of Dougs that didn’t make it due to illness or accident. I think 20% of Dougs didn’t make it through stage IIIC rectal cancer.
Note: The American Cancer Society lists the survival rates of Stage IIIB and IIIC colorectal cancer (I was diagnosed at both stages) at 69% and 53%, respectively. So, me saying my survival rate was 80% may seem quite optimistic. But, being only 40 when I diagnosed, I felt I was an outlier. I always believed that given the average age of men diagnosed with rectal cancer was over 60, my odds of survival were better than the listed ACS survival rates.
I also think that a certain number of Dougs did not survive the “Mt. Rainier Death Glissade”. When I was in my mountaineering phase, my rope team and I found ourselves in an out-of-control glissade while descending the Emmons glacier on Mt. Rainier. The three of us slid several hundred feet in about 15 seconds and it was only until we were 100 feet or so above a yawning crevasse that we were able to stop ourselves. I also think a number of Dougs didn’t make it through a nasty infection in college; bit it when the car I was driving spun out of control on an icy Canadian highway at night into oncoming traffic while returning from an ice climbing trip in Banff.
Another decision out of my control was being given up for adoption at birth. I asked my biological mother about the circumstances of my adoption and she said there was just no way she could have kept me. So, out of 1,000 Dougs being born to my birth parents, all 1,000 of them would have been given up for adoption.
But that’s all of the life impacting events in the illness/accident/injury department I can think of.
There's one more event worth mention that was out of my control -- my parents getting divorced. I have no idea what the odds were that they were going to eventually get a divorce, but did it have an impact on my life? Yes. Absolutely. And ’ll leave it at that. Except to say that if I were to ever have kids, I’d have feel confident that the woman I decided to have kids with was my life partner and that I just wasn't looking for a baby mama. I’ve always felt that if I were to ever have kids (yes, that door is still open ...), that I’d need to find the woman first. If there were children, that would flow from a mutual decision to have them. I don’t think it’s a wise decision to enter into a relationship with the primary goal being to procreate. Kids come and go in a couple’s life and when the last one is out of the home, you sure as hell better have made a wise choice on who your partner is because you likely will have a lot of life left to live together as empty nesters. I've heard too many stories of couples getting divorced once the last kid is off to college.
As an interesting side note, my biological parents got divorced at roughly the same tough my parents starting having their own serious martial problems, so either way, I was screwed — all 1,000 Dougs would have had to go through that experience during their early teenage years.
Now, the impactful decisions that I made. Like most people, the first impactful decision I made was what to do with my life after high school. For me, there was no doubt I was going to college. I unenthusiastically considered a few other colleges, more out of a sense of obligation to at least look at more than one university before deciding where to go, but I always knew deep down that I was going to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I very much wanted to be a part of the UW Marching Band (yes I have a sordid band geek past) and it just so happened that Madison happened to be a world-class university. So, there was very little doubt I was going to college, that I was going to UW-Madison, and that I was going to be in the Wisconsin Marching Band.
After that, the next big decisions was switching majors from computer science to electrical engineering. I was a big computer science geek from middle school onward, and I just got burned out on it in college. I felt it was just more of what I had been doing the prior seven years on my own. What changed things was one day in some Comp Sci class I saw a guy talking to his buddy about his circuits homework and I was intrigued — here was something that I knew *nothing* about. This was probably my first major life decision that arose out of me having grown bored with something. It’s been a pattern throughout my life. So, I looked into electrical engineer as a major and career, was intrigued, took the bait, switched majors and never looked back. No regrets there — I had a great electrical engineering career before I bailed for law, and my engineering career opened lots of doors for my patent law career. Earning two engineering degrees were a boatload of work through the years, but I no regrets. I think the odds of me changing majors was about 90%.
Accepting an engineering intern position in Virginia had a big impact on my life. There was no doubt I was going to accept the position once it was offered. The internship impacted me not so much because of what I learned about the real world (which was quite a lot), but because I broke up with my girlfriend prior to leaving for the internship. I second-guessed that move a few months later, didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to mend things, and she moved on. That failure to reconnect took a heavy tool, and, looking back, made me leery of entering into relationships for quite a while.
Deciding where to work after college was my next big decision. Throughout my undergrad and graduate years, all I wanted to do was to work for Intel in Portland, Oregon. Based on everything I read, it seemed like a kick-ass company that was performing brilliantly and that Portland would be a great place to live. So, when I got the offer, I was thrilled … and promptly turned it down. To go to Austin (Texas! of all places) to work for Motorola. Didn’t see that one coming, but Moto did such a kick-ass job of recruiting, that I took the bait. The Moto visit was a three-day social outing and a freaking blast. The Intel visit was very, very technical with only a weak attempt at highlighting what the work environment would be like, and a laughable attempt at socialize with recent hires. Simply put, Motorola crushed Intel in the recruiting department.out-recruited Intel. Still, I gave Intel every chance, but when the hiring manager took 3 days to return a phone call to answer some simple questions I had (like, what *exactly* was the job you're offering!), it was too late. I had already accepted the Moto gig. I knew I was never going to stay in Austin permanently — I had zero interest in settling down in Texas -- but thought it’d be fun for a few years. And it was. The odds that I choose Austin over Portland coming out of college — I’d say 70%.
I stayed in Austin 3 1/2 years. Like I said, I always knew I was going to leave. I always knew I wanted to get to the Pacific Northwest, so when an Intel opportunity in the Pacific Northwest presented itself again (this time, outside Seattle), I took it. There was a 100% chance I was going to leave Austin and Moto, and there was a 100% chance I was going to take the Intel gig when it was offered.
Life at Intel was great for a few years, but I got bored. I was designing the same part over and over. I got so tired of it that it got to the point where I was writing resignation letters and then depositing them in a manilla folder in a desk drawer— not turning them in — just to get that frustration out of my system. I wanted to something *more* with my life. Something meaningful. Yes, I had a great engineering gig, and I was could have spent the next 30 years getting “fat, dumb and happy” as I put it — just spitting out designs year after year, but I felt that at retirement, looking back at how I spent my talents, that I would not be able to forgive myself for having done *only* that with my life. I thought that I could do something more.
I had gotten into mountaineering and the outdoors big time, and I wanted to do something that would help the environment. Something more than just planting trees on the weekend. Really make a difference, ya know? So, I started considering about becoming an environmental advocate. Since I was contemplating changing careers, I took a look at a few other professions — biomechanical/biomedical engineering, medical school (again ... I've flirted with it a few times in my life), physician’s assistant and physical therapist. In the end, I chose law school. Last thing in the world I ever thought I would do. I remember the exact moment when that seed was planted. I was on a flight home from somewhere and while thumbing through the in-flight magazine, I saw an add for the University of Vermont’s environmental law program. And I took it from there. So, I can blame the University of Vermont law school marketing department for the path I've been on the past 12 years of my life. So, odds that I was going to leave Intel - 95%. Odds that I was going to go to law school - 70%.
So now, where to go to law school? I was living in Wisconsin at the time so that I could get to know my biological family better, which I had located just a few years earlier, and Madison was an obvious choice. I was accepted at Washington, Lewis & Clark and UC-Boulder (all schools with respectable environmental law programs and that were in “lifestyle” cities), and after visiting each, the choice was clear. Again, it wasn’t even close. Madison simply recruited better. They were my people. Odds of going to Madison for law school - 100%.
And law school in Madison was great. I loved being on campus again, loved being in school again, and loved being around both of my families and friends. But law school eventually came to an end and I had to decide between staying put and accepting a patent law gig n Milwaukee, meaning I would remain near family, or accept a patent law job at a boutique firm in Portland, Oregon, where I could resume my Pacific Northwest lifestyle. (The environmental law thing didn't work out -- tough competition for the "green" jobs, and frankly, I liked patent law more). I saw it as having to chose between family and the lifestyle. It was a very difficult decision that could go either way. It was literally a coin toss and I remember saying, “Well, let’s give Portland a shot. If it doesn’t work, I can always come back.” I felt it came down to which — family or outdoors — I would take advantage of more. In the end, I felt it would drive me crazy knowing the Pacific Northwest was out there and I wasn’t living there, and I could always come home to visit family. Odds of me choosing Portland over Milwaukee - 50%.
And then there’s decisions I’ve made regarding my romantic relationships. I won’t go into the gory details, but about 4-5 of the 20 life-impacting decision I've made have to do with women. They’ve been decisions to break off a relationship, passing on an opportunity to re-ignite a relationship, failing to meet with a significant other to discuss our relationship (oh how life my different might be had I decided not to take a particular on-ramp one night … ), or the decision not to date someone at all.
Add all of the decisions and their likelihoods together, about 200 Dougs are here on this road trip right now. Some are dead due to cancer, illness or accident, some are married to one of several women who have been in my life (and maybe divorced ... ), some are living in Wisconsin, some are still doing computer science and some are in a second career other than law.
Ok, so that’s interesting and all, but here’s where I think the value of this exercise is …
- What decisions were good decisions?
- What decisions were bad decisions?
And, flowing from that …
- When was I the most happy in my life?
- When was I the least happy in my life?
Many of these were good decisions.
- Going to Madison for undergrad — I had lots of friends there from high school and my experience with the band was awesome. It wasn't all roses, but I had so much fun, and made many life-long friends.
- Going to Austin for a few years. Again, the friends thing. I made many life-long friends because of the way Motorola recruited. No way I would have made as many friends had I gone to Intel. I do a good job at making friends by plugging myself into an existing social infrastructure (marching band, the Motorola batch-recruitment effort). I do worse when I’m dropped into a new city and really don’t know anyone and have to build up a social network of my own (starting work for Intel when I left Austin, moving to Portland after law school).
- My career choice to go into electrical engineering was a good choice. My undergraduate and master’s degrees in those disciplines served me well. I also think it was a good idea to leave electrical engineering when I did.
Now, about being an attorney …
If you had told me in 2000 that I would be an attorney I would have looked at you like you had suddenly sprouted a second head. Being an attorney never appealed to me. It was just never on the radar. But, being a patent attorney has served me well. Which is funny, because, if being an attorney is the last thing I thought I would ever be, then being a patent attorney is the last type of attorney I ever wanted to be. I could have had my employer pay for law school if I knew going in that patent law is what I wanted to do, but it wasn't. I was hell-bent on environmental law. And I gave it hell. I did just about every environmentally-related thing in law school that I could, but in the end, patent law was just a better fit. Simply put, it was a better fit. All of law is pretty damn dry, but I took to patent law since I geek out on technology, and being a patent attorney you are always exposed to fun new inventions. Plus, from a supply-demand side, the odds were in my favor. Any law grad can be an environmental attorney, but only a law grad with the proper technical background can be a patent attorney. And with a killer engineering background, the patent law doors swung wide open. It turns out I'm pretty good at it too ...
Anyhoo, being a patent attorney has been a good decision for me, for the most part. At least, once I got to Intel. I couldn't have landed the Intel gig without my career in private practice, but it was a rough apprenticeship. Financially, I made less as a private practice attorney than I did when I quit my engineering gig (this, after going to law school for three years, taking on law school debt, and working a helluva lot more). Second, private law firm culture isn’t for me. I prefer working for a more egalitarian, transparent organization, where there are checks on people who don’t play well with others. Some of the partners at my old law firm …
Life at my current employer has been great — much better work/life balance, getting paid better, transparency on where the organization is headed and how the company is doing, and where everyone treats everyone else with a *lot* more respect than they did in private practice. But, still … legal life at Intel has been difficult. It has been stressful as hell the past year, and I have been working many, many weekends. In short, almost nine years into my legal career, law has taken a heavy toll on my life. I think being in private practice had a lot to do with me getting cancer (stress and depression are cancer risk factors), to be brutally honest, and I’ve wondered if l need to move on from law. But if I do stick with patent law, I think an in-house position at a big tech firm is probably the best as it is going to get for me.
- Moving to the Pacific Northwest from Austin. I totally embraced the outdoors. i love the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that the region offers. The cities there (Portland, Seattle) are well-educated and liberal, which is what I look for. I can’t imagine living in an area that doesn’t offer nearby amazing outdoor opportunities and has amazing natural beauty. (There are only a few cities I would move to if I were to leave Portland — Seattle, Denver, Madison, the other Portland).
- Going to Wisconsin for law school. Not only did it really feel like a homecoming (there’s nothing like the feeling of returning “home”), it was wonderful to be around my family and college friends again, but also — and this was a big factor in my decision — to get to *really* know my biological family. When it comes to adoptees seeking out their birth families, I’m the poster child. They have been nothing but welcoming and loving and I feel nothing less than a full part of their family.
The only “bad” decisions I’ve made are those having to do with relationships, and most of them I’ve realized they were poor decisions only in retrospect. And in relationships, you rarely get a chance to correct a poor decision.
When have I been happiest? I loved my undergraduate and graduate years in Madison. And most of it had to do with the marching band. It was my college sport and my fraternity. My time in Austin was pretty good because of the large social network I was plugged in to given the en masse hiring that Moto did. I was hired in a batch of 50 recent college grads, who were recruited in part by the previously-hired batch of 50 RCGs, and we helped recruit the next batch of 50 RCGs. So, right off the bat, that was a pool of 150 RCGs I knew.
Being in Madison for law school was a good time, mostly because I was back in Madison and had family and friends nearby. And, because I just love Madison. Law school was tough because it was a massive time suck. I had friends in law school, but they were more in-class friends. Nine years after graduating law school, there’s only 1 or 2 people from law school I keep in touch with.
One time in particular that was great was the 9+ months or so when I was able to work part-time for Intel remotely, from Madison. I was pulling a steady paycheck, working only 5/8ths time, around friends and family, and had the time and resources to go on a lot of adventures (backpack the Wonderland Trail, climb Denali, extensive backpacking in Olympic National Park). But that gig didn’t last forever. I had to fish (go back full time) or cut bait (go to law school). So I went to law school.
There were hard times growing up that I attribute to just that — growing up. But as an adult, my least happy time was those first few years after moving to Portland to begin work in private practice -- those first two years up until the time I had cancer. Looking back, those times were fucking brutal man. When I was law school, I interned at a Big Law firm and at the end of the summer they told me they didn’t want me back. That’s OK since I knew I wasn’t a fit — the entire summer felt like that scene from Caddyshack where the caddies get run of the golf club pool for five minutes — but the review they gave me really amped me up. I hate being told I can’t do something, and the fact that they raked me over the coals (a post-hoc justification for not having me back -- they didn't invite me back because I didn't kiss their ass all summer) really motivated me to show myself that I could succeed at a private law firm. If, for any reason, just to show them (and myself) that they were wrong. So, I poured myself into my full-time law school job to show that I could do this. But that led to too many evenings and weekend working. Too many nights where I would come home, plop down in the chair and either stare at the wall or watch episodes of Law & Order on Netflix just to kill time, until it was time to fall asleep and go to work again in the morning. Sometimes I'd just fall asleep in the chair.
Since there was no social networking infrastructure I could plug myself into, I was pretty lonely, and I got depressed pretty quick. I started seeing a social worker to try and pull me back from the ledge. And she wasn't that great. I decided that I had to make a change and I was going to look around for a different job, but then I got diagnosed with cancer. And there was no way I was going to quit my job when I was diagnosed with freaking cancer. I needed the insurance. My firm was wonderful with how they treated me, but it wasn't a fit. I knew I had to go.
Cancer Time …
Obviously, cancer sucks. Cancer blows. Cancer is a big fucking shit sandwich that you have to consume in whole before you can leave the table. Big time. As I mentioned, before I was diagnosed, I was in bad shape. Depressed as hell, stuck in a rut, seeing a counselor, and ready to quit my job. But cancer energized me. It gave me focus. It gave me a project I believed in - *ME*. I immediately snapped out of my funk because now I had something that would get me out of bed in the morning -- fighting for my life. Which, in some perverse way, is ironic because when you're down and depressed on things, your mind can go to dark places and wonder if makes a difference of whether you’re here or not. I don’t think it’s too hard to get to that point, and I’ll bet a lot more people get to that point than will admit. (And I do readily admit it — I’ve battled depression since I was a teenager.) But when I really was faced with a life-threatening situation, I went from a guy who was tuned out, sitting slumped in his chair staring at the wall, to sitting up straight, fully alert and engaged, and ready to fight. I wanted to live — there wasn’t a second’s doubt about that.
But, to the point, as much as cancer sucks, life was simple when battling cancer. I didn’t have to worry about the petty concerns of day-to-day living. I just had to focus on battling cancer. As a single guy with no kids, I didn’t have the burden/weight/guilt of wondering how/what my family would do without me. And that was a relief. The best nights during cancer treatment were when I would turn off all the lights, light all of the candles in the room, play some relaxing music or guided imagery CDs with my trusted canine companion curled up next to me. I miss the simplicity of that kind of day to day living. And in that sense, life during cancer was good.
This has been a crazy long post. I feel like it is almost the outline of an autobiography. But, as I’ve said several times, this was an exercise I felt I needed to do to take stock of where I am, and the exercise was worth it. I’ve always trusted my gut in my decisions, and my gut has served me fell for extra-personal decisions, but when it comes to matters of the heart, not so much. I’ve also learned that decisions that put me in a situation where there is no social network for me to easily plug into, I struggle. I’m an INTJ personality, and that’s just how they operate.
So, conditions under which I’m happy:
- good work/life balance (ideally, less than full-time work — e.g. part-time at Intel, my engineering gig at Moto and Intel)
- close to friends/family (returning to Madison for law)
- a social network I can plug into (Motorola new recruits, Wisconsin marching band)
- recreational opportunities nearby (Seattle area, Portland)
Conditions when I’m not happy
- Overworked (last year at Intel as an engineer; private practice attorney; past year at Intel as an attorney)
- Having to build up my own social network (all of my time in the Pacific NW)
Using what you have learned
So, if I’m going to make a change, and changes *ARE* needed, I need to maximize the conditions that make me happy. That means working less than I am now, having a stronger social network (which means either building up a new one in Portland (work ...) or moving to a city where one somewhat exists (extremely limited options here — Seattle, Denver or Madison) pretty much. I simply *cannot* afford to move to somewhere *new* (unless I have a partner), and it has to have recreational opportunities nearby. That makes Wisconsin a bit tough. But, to be honest, when I was in law school, I survived. I didn’t think too much about not being able to climb and hike and backpacking and snowshoe all of the time. Maybe I was just too busy with school.