I’ve Done Everything I’ve Done by Accident

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash

I have some news: I gave up my position on the faculty of the UConn School of Law at the end of the Fall 2021 semester. It’s a bit unusual to walk away from a job as a tenured law professor—which is a fantastic gig, by the way—at the age of 52 with no real plans, so I thought I would try to explain myself.

The title of this post is something that economist Diane Coyle said on a podcast when asked to describe her background, and I think it roughly describes my career “trajectory” as well. There have been things that I very much wanted to do, and most of those didn’t work out. Then there were things that I kind of stumbled into, and some of those worked out very well.

The summer before ninth grade, I auditioned for the Juilliard Pre-College Program. I didn’t do it because I was particularly serious about music, but because I was one of the better cellists in Westchester County and I was looking for a good orchestra to play in during high school. I had no idea how good the kids at Juilliard were, and had I known I probably wouldn’t have bothered trying. Somehow I was accepted, and I immediately found out that I was one of the worst cellists in the building. But I really fell in love with music, I practiced a lot, and by the end of high school I was one of the better cellists at Juilliard, although by no means one of the best.

I wanted to be a professional cellist, but knew I wasn’t good enough to have a successful career, so I went to Harvard thinking I would go into math or science. Once there, I wandered through literature and economics before majoring in social studies, an interdisciplinary program for indecisive people. I spent most of my time playing cello, which was not great for my grades but wonderful in itself. I fell in love with opera playing The Marriage of Figaro in a production conducted by Ben Loeb, and my life has been much better for it. In my junior year (as well as my sophomore and freshman years), I played in the Bach Society Orchestra, which was conducted by Alan Gilbert. One night we were wondering who would take over after Alan graduated and we decided that I should audition, which was the first I had ever thought of conducting. With a little coaching by Alan, I won the audition and spent my senior year as the orchestra’s music director. Now, the funny thing about conducting is that because the technical standards are unclear—the conductor never plays a note out of tune—it’s easy to think you are a better conductor than you actually are. So I decided I wanted to be a conductor, auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music — and didn’t get in. That’s failure number one.

Instead, I went to graduate school in history, which was my backup plan, and I went to Berkeley because it was the only school that offered me a fellowship. So moving to California, my favorite place that I have ever lived, was pretty much a complete accident. I spent my first few years mainly playing cello and studying conducting, until I once again failed to get into Curtis and finally gave that up. The plan of record was to become a history professor, but it turned out that I wasn’t so good at original research. I was unable to get a decent academic job — although I didn’t try that hard because my heart wasn’t really in it — so that was failure number two.

Instead, I got a job at McKinsey and Company as a management consultant — not so much because I wanted to go into the business world, but because it’s one of the few companies that will give you a high-skill, high-pay, high-prestige job if you have a lot of education but no real job experience. In 1999, near the height of the Internet boom, I transferred from New York to the San Francisco office, not because I had any particular interest in the Internet, but because my wife needed to be in Berkeley to finish her Ph.D. More or less by accident, I wound up on a project at Ariba, then perhaps the hottest company in the “business to business e-commerce” sector. The head of product marketing, Jon Corshen, offered me a job, probably because I worked hard and was good at PowerPoint. I took it, even though I had only the vaguest idea of what product marketing was, because Ariba seemed a lot more exciting than McKinsey.

Then the Internet bubble crashed (twice), and Ariba became a less fun place to work. I remember my friends John Raguin and Marcus Ryu pitching me on the idea of starting a new company at a sushi restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, late one night at an Ariba “user group” conference. (Another memory from that conference is watching Earth, Wind & Fire perform for a nearly empty house — this is post-bubble, remember.) I eventually agreed, largely because my wife had gotten a job at UMass Amherst and I had no idea what other job I could get in western Massachusetts. That worked out spectacularly well.

Several years into that company, I started getting tired of the business world. I decided to go to law school in order to a public interest lawyer. (This is the blog post I wrote about that career change; you can see I was a better writer back then.) Just as school was beginning in the late summer of 2008, the financial crisis erupted. The day that the Troubled Asset Relief Program was announced, I had an idea for an article that needed to be written. I called Simon Johnson, who had recently left his job as chief economist of the IMF, and suggested that he write it. He cleverly suggested that we write it together. (I recall skipping torts class to do it.) After the Washington Post published the article, we had enough additional material to write something else for the Financial Times. Whenever I tell this story — which I don’t think I’ve done publicly — the next thing I say is, “I thought I was done.” But Simon had the idea to start a blog, which is how The Baseline Scenario was born. By January, we were hovering around a few hundred page views per day (I think, maybe a few thousand), and I was close to pulling the plug. But then Paul Krugman started linking to us, and Simon wrote a post about the “American oligarchs” that got him on Bill Moyers, and then he was on This American Life, and we wrote an article for The Atlantic that got a million views back when that meant something, and we were in the big time. That led to 13 Bankers, which got a huge boost when the SEC sued Goldman and Bill Moyers invited both of us for one of his last shows.

In the meantime, I was still planning to become a public interest lawyer. I did one summer doing legal services in Springfield, Massachusetts, and another in the capital defender’s office in Arlington, Virginia. But around the beginning of my third year, I decided for a variety of reasons that I would rather be a professor — so public interest lawyer wound up being another plan that didn’t work out. Luckily for me, UConn — one of the two law schools within an hour’s drive of my house — was hiring, and 13 Bankers got me the job (after the hiring committee’s first choice turned it down). And that’s how I became a professor.

So … is there a lesson in all that? As I said at the beginning, the things that I planned to do usually didn’t happen; the most enjoyable and rewarding things I’ve done began at least partly by accident. I ended up spending almost a decade at UConn, which is considerably longer than I lasted in any other job, and it would have been easy to stay there for two more decades. But part of me grew tired of doing the same thing year after year, and part of me … I don’t know … longed for the next accident. I’ve had so much fun doing so many different things that I didn’t want to look up from my desk at the age of 70 and realize that I had spent more than half of my adult life doing the same thing. And instead of waiting until I had a brilliant idea about my next career, I decided to make myself available for whatever comes next.

So here I am. I’m working on my next book, and I’ve done some volunteer policy work for a political campaign. I’m also playing in two freelancer orchestras, the New England Symphony Orchestra (next concert April 9 in Worcester) and the New England Repertory Orchestra (next concert April 27 in Worcester). If you have any ideas for what I should do next, feel free to suggest them—as long as they aren’t running for office or doing anything requires Senate confirmation. Those are right out.

I’m sorry this has been so self-indulgent, but I felt like I needed to explain myself, at least to my students. I‘m not sure there are any lessons you can take away from my experiences. Everyone’s journey is unique, and I know I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in many ways. (I’ve also been very unfortunate in some other ways, but, as my son says, we don’t talk about that.) Anyone who promises you that things will work out is either a liar or a fool. But maybe they will.

--

--

--

Books: Take Back Our Party, Economism, White House Burning, 13 Bankers. @UConnLaw. Chair, @southerncenter. Co-founder, @Guidewire_PandC. Freelance cellist.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Be an All-Star At Work

How Jackie Mitchell Tackles The Extreme Work Life Balance Of Being A Woman Business Leader During…

Why Millenials and Gen Z Are Rightfully Killing Some Industries

Leveraging both ‘Fast’ and ‘Slow’ Thinking in Project Management

6 Ways To Earn Respect As A Leader

ALeanJourney?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

Last-Minute(ish) Event Needs Checklist

The Best Piece of Career Advice From the Director of American Gods

Towards a clinical approach to knowledge management

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
James Kwak

James Kwak

Books: Take Back Our Party, Economism, White House Burning, 13 Bankers. @UConnLaw. Chair, @southerncenter. Co-founder, @Guidewire_PandC. Freelance cellist.

More from Medium

The Difference Between Billionaires And Oligarchs? A Star Reporter Weighs In.

I’m Not an Optimist

How To Survive Automation

A New Tech Democracy