Every episode of Law & Order has the same structure.
The first half follows the police who investigate a crime, and the second half depicts the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.
This predictable formula has produced one of the most successful television shows of all time. Law & Order, and its many spinoffs, have been responsible for entertaining audiences since 1990.
The show, and other legal dramas like it, have also been responsible for generating a staggering amount of unnecessary law school debt by giving people an exceedingly wrong impression of what it’s really like to be a lawyer.
Over the past 10 years as a law professor, I’ve taught countless students who came to law school for the wrong reasons. Someone told them they are “good at debate.” Their uncle was a successful lawyer. They loved watching Law & Order when they were growing up so they always wanted to be a prosecutor.
In each case, the reality—as is often the case with reality—doesn’t match our soaring expectations. The mismatch results from a failure to do what the police officers in Law & Order do: investigate. Most people don’t bother to figure out what it’s really like to be a lawyer. Or a doctor. Or an astronaut.
The day-to-day reality of an astronaut’s life, for example, is vastly different from the glamour you see in movies. Astronauts are workhorses, not space cowboys. They don’t fly in space for a living. They train and prepare for a living. “I’ve been an astronaut for six years,” explains Chris Hadfield, “I’ve been in space for eight days.” The remainder is spent on the type of dogged preparation that would make for awful television (unless, that is, you’ve got an astronaut love triangle).
When there’s a mismatch between reality and expectations, you’ve got two options.
You can adjust reality to match your expectations by designing a career or creating a business that you love.
If that’s not an option for you, you can adjust your expectations to match reality by figuring out what it’s really like to do what you want to do.
If you want to be a neurosurgeon, talk to neurosurgeons and learn about their day-to-day reality. Collect multiple perspectives. Find neurosurgeons who love what they do, and find neurosurgeons who hate what they do.
If you’re thinking about going to law school, stop watching Legally Blonde and go sit in on a law school class. And keep in mind that attending law school is not the same as practicing law. You might love one and dislike the other (as I did).
If you want to work in a particular company, reach out to people who work there to learn what the culture is like. Find people who used to work there and ask why they left (their responses are likely to have the benefit of perspective that distance provides).
In the end, your career is the show you’ll be tuning into every day. Make sure it fits your expectations, and subscribe only to the series you like.
And remember: Some shows are good only for a few seasons. If the show is no longer bringing you joy or meaning, change the channel.
P.S. We often don’t change the channel because we find ourselves sitting in the cabin, rather than in the cockpit, of our lives. For more on how you can move into the cockpit and take the controls of your life, check out this episode on Andrew Petty’s excellent podcast.