Life is Once
“What’s a lobbyist?” I asked Angela in the food court at Willowbrook Mall.
It was the first week of summer after we had graduated from high school. Angela, No. #3 in our class, was headed to Johns Hopkins to study biomedical engineering so she could design artificial limbs for veterans or something.
I, too, knew exactly what I wanted to do. I loved television and film and, in particular, the way what I watched influenced my world view. With no siblings, I had spent so much of my childhood in front of a TV screen that I knew I wanted to crawl inside of it and make it crank out more of what I wanted to see. So I had recently told my Dad that I wanted to major in Radio-Television-Film because I wanted to “make sitcoms and movies”…
Remember the pilot episode of the Cosby Show where Theo told Cliff he wasn’t going to college? Instead, he was going to finish high school and get a job like “regular people,” e.g., a bus driver or gas station attendant. Then Cliff, in a game-changing moment in family sitcom history, replied “That’s the DUMBEST thing I’ve ever heard IN MY LIFE!” (Cliff also added my favorite pearl, “The government comes for the regular people FIRST.”)
The conversation with my Dad about wanting to do something that I’m sure sounded to him like I want to be a “waitrist” (a waitress-slash-artist) who lives at home and plays with a video camera went something like that, except instead of ending with a Cosby Show hug, my Dad began and ended our conversation with “@#$*&!”. [Message encrypted to protect your innocence.]
So it was back to the drawing board to come up with a career plan that my dad would be willing to finance – something prestigious1 with a guaranteed path to success like a doctor, lawyer, or “businessperson.” Basically, something that would limit the likelihood that I’d be moving back in with my parents at any point, which, as my Dad made clear, I was always “welcome to do…” but, he added, if I did, it would be a sure sign that I had failed at life.
So right there in front of Corn Dog 7, Angela and I went into the cypher like the two tiger kids that we were. Angela confidently assessed the situation: “Based on your strengths, what you like to do, and where you want to live, you should become either an agent in Hollywood or a lobbyist in D.C. You’d be great at either of them.” She then explained what a lobbyist was. (“It’s kind of like an agent in Hollywood.”) I have no idea how she knew what a lobbyist was, but I was interested in politics, and I absolutely loved the summers I spent in D.C. visiting my cousins….
So I graduated from undergrad, took the LSAT, went to law school, got an offer for a job in the policy group of a major law firm, passed the bar, moved to D.C., and became a lobbyist. Boom. I had the kind of job that wouldn’t cause my parents to be embarrassed when Cousin Larry Earl at the family reunion with a mouthful of Sock-It-To-Me cake asked, “What’s Akilah doing these days?”
By all accounts, I had a great life. I lived in the nation’s capital during the first Administration of America’s first black President and enjoyed the company of all of the enterprising, ambitious young minds that it attracted – not to mention the chi-chi restaurant and bar scene that was built to cater to us. It was an amazing time to live in D.C. I had scores of friends, awesome apartments in newly-gentrified neighborhoods, an overwhelming social life, disposable income, and no real obligations other than to show up to work appropriately clothed and make a contribution between the respectable hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday (give or take recepting2 on some evenings and weekends).
My job was pretty killer too. I worked with the best clients and had the world’s greatest “boss” (who cringes at the use of the word “boss”). D.C. is the home of political puppet theater, and I was a registered puppet master. I knew what I was doing. I was good at it. I got paid a lot for it. I even had time to do standup comedy on the side.
But at a time when I should have been ramping up – becoming a real subject matter expert on housing finance and secondary mortgage market policy; networking at more receptions, fundraisers, and galas; having drinks with another staffer; giving an elevator pitch to another Member of Congress; going on another date with a politico who went on and on about which of the amendments that he drafted made it into the WERTA bill – I just couldn’t get it up (if you will).
A friend g-chatted to me when I told her I was planning to leave my firm even though I was on the much-coveted “partnership track,” “You sure you don’t want any part of that?”
Here’s the thing. It’s not that I didn’t like what I was doing. It’s that I didn’t LOVE what I was doing. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. It’s that it was becoming more and more clear that it’s not what I was SUPPOSED to be doing.
Case in point. The day of the swearing-in of the 113th Congress was one of those days for which lobbyists live. Lobbyists pull out their list of old Members to get in front of and freshmen Members to meet. Excel sheets, highlighters, maps, schedules. Blueprints and battle plans. Then they swirl around the Hill moving, shaking, glad-handing, small-talking, and throwing their access and influence all around.3
But I REEAALLY didn’t want to go. I had been dreading it since I had gotten out of bed that morning because the swearing-in of a new Congress symbolized the beginning of yet another trip around the merry-go-round. I sat at my desk for hours trying to talk myself into it. Alas, I couldn’t be the only lobbyist in the District who stayed at the office. So I grabbed my blazer from the hook behind my door, tossed my “Hill shoes” and business cards in my bag, and threw myself out of my building.
As I was putting my face on in the back of the cab, I grew more and more nauseous with every minute that I got closer to the Hill to the point that I was literally ill when I stumbled out of the cab onto the steps of the Longworth building. I had going-through-the-motions sickness.
It’s not that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I literally couldn’t.
My decision would have been easier to explain to my parents, colleagues, and friends if my job sucked. Then I could have kicked over a trash can and crip walked out of the office with a stolen fax machine under my arm. And maybe sent a firm-wide email that said “May the smoke from the bridges that I burned today be seen far and wide! Muah ha ha ha!” as I made my business cards rain from the rooftop terrace down onto K St.
But that wasn’t the case. Things were good. Better than good, actually. But I knew at 17 what I wanted to do with my life. And what I was doing was not it.
So I packed my things and moved to LA. To spend my time doing what I love to do. To write what I want to write. About the stuff I want to write about. To make a few people laugh (like, at least 3). To do what I’m supposed to be doing. To see where it takes me.
Because life is once.
Former Attorney-Lobbyist, Future TBD
“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like… Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on.” – Paul Graham, How to Do What You Love, http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html ↩
The act of networking at a reception. This term can also apply to the act of networking at fundraisers, happy hours, dinners, galas, PAC retreats, etc. ↩
By the way, I have no moral objection to the way access and influence are used in Washington or “special interests.” I think it’s all quite sexy. No serious-minded lobbyist signs up for the gig without being down for that part of the ride. But once I got too far behind the curtain, it was mostly under-impressive. ↩