Pursuing Your Dreams Without Giving Your Loved Ones a Heart Attack with Nnamdi Nwaezeapu (TFLP 092)
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu is a law school student, entrepreneur, and author of Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer: How to Pursue Your Dreams Without Giving Your Parents A Heart Attack.
On this episode Nnamdi shares how his experience as a first generation student shaped his decision to pursue his entrepreneurial interests and create a resource for others grappling making an alternative career choice.
Leap Of Faith
This interview is Part 1 of 2 with Nnamdi, who was returning from a two-year leave of absence from Columbia Law School as a 1L. We’ll be sharing Part 2 in a few weeks, but in the meantime this part of his story is full of many of the common challenges that can be experienced by people who are questioning their careers.
After one semester of law school, Nnamdi decided to take a leap of faith and pursue his entrepreneurial interests. He co-founded a startup called Mango with a former senior software engineer from Microsoft where they were trying to democratize high-quality life coaching. They attempted growing that for eight months and then decided to close it up.
After that, he started working for a Munich-based startup company called Mind Shine, which does mental fitness training. He was working for them and was talking to everyone he could about his career path, should he be a lawyer or not?
It was during these conversations that he realized no one was able to provide him the resource he was looking for and he had the idea to start working on his book “Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer: How to Pursue Your Dreams Without Giving Your Parents A Heart Attack” to help people who are in similar situations to pursue their interests without making everyone around them freak out.
The Child Of Immigrants
One of the reasons it was important to Nnamdi to write his book, and for me personally to support it through The Former Lawyer Community was that he was a first generation student, something that impacted the pressures he felt.
His father immigrated to the US from Nigerian and despite having a degree in chemical engineering, he worked as a security guard at Ross, the clothing store, working 80-90 hours a week for the first 10-15 years of Nnamdi’s life.
This is a common story for a lot of children of immigrants where their parents do an intense amount of labor, and put themselves through stress and debt oftentimes, to finance their children’s education, with the hope that by doing that, their children will go on to be successful. Unsurprisingly, the three careers that they tend to push their kids towards are doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
Ohe reason for this seems to be the prestige, they get to call home and say, “Yes, my son is a doctor. My son is a lawyer. My son is an engineer.” The other reason seems to be that with these titles, their children are “stable investments.” These professions will always have work, anything outside of this rings the alarm bells.
Reality Is Different
The reality is that in America there are tons of other paths to success, many of which have equal, if not greater job stability than doctor, lawyer, and engineer, but many immigrant parents don’t see this.
Nnamdi’s book, then, works to help both the children of immigrants figure out what are some of these other paths are available, and the parents to understand that there are other alternative paths.
More importantly, it helps both sides understand where the other is coming from.
Individualist Vs. Collectivist Cultures
One of the big issues Nnamdi had when trying to figure out whether or not he should take a leave from school was that all the responses he received were very individual focused. There were a lot of comments like, “F what your parents say. F what anybody else wants. Do what’s best for you and that is it.”
That individual approach didn’t jive with the experience that he had growing up as a kid, which was when he got a new job, that money that he earned wasn’t just his own, he had to distribute it to his dad, mom, sister, and brother.
Essentially, when Nnamdi was making decisions about where to go for school, it wasn’t just a personal choice, it implicated his family. It even implicated his extended family because they looked to him and other children as guides on how to navigate the American lifestyle.
This was a big motivation for writing his book in the end, he wanted to tease out that in many cultures the collective has greater importance than the individual, so growing up this way at home and facing an environment that says otherwise outside the home in America is challenging.
We can see this even within the idea of self-care, something that puts so much emphasis on your personal peace, your personal wellbeing as being the epitome of self-actualization. This is a very Western concept, and getting people to understand that in some communities, showing respect for your community, and making decisions with your community in mind is not just a form of weakness, but is actually a culturally sensitive issue.
This is one reason why in the end of the book Nnamdi talks about the importance of giving control to your parents, or giving some semblance of control to your parents when trying to make a career decision. One of the best ways we can gain trust is to give control to someone, as Rachel Botsman states in his book. So if you can bring your parents into the equation of what you’re doing, you kind of satisfy that collectivist desire that your parents have in wanting to be included and part of the decisions that you’re making, while also allowing you to pursue this interest that is perhaps exclusive to you.
Carrying More Than Yourself
One major point Nnamdi hopes to bring home is that as a first generation student, you are carrying more than yourself. In Nnamdi’s case, he has siblings, cousins, and nephews who are back in Nigeria, looking at him and the decisions that I make. He is carrying much more than just himself.
He recognizes that when he makes these decisions, he’s bringing a lot of people with me. So having a tool, a resource like his book that is sensitive to that particular context was important to him. This applies to people with kids, it applies to anyone who has someone that’s dependent on you. You have to make different decisions than the person who has no other external obligations. Your decision making has to take into account the other dependents that you have in your life.
University of Good
Becoming more individualistic is not the answer, certainly. There is no one approach. Nnamdi learned this shortly before law school while coping with the trauma he was going through in his quarter life crisis. He started University of Good, and as he recorded little podcasts, one of the things that repeatedly came up was the realization that in the current era, there is more information out there than ever, there are a lot of blogs and people preaching. Some of them have achieved some level of success, and then they give blanket statements about how to get to their position, their place in life.
What unfortunately happens with this is that people take this hard rule, this fixed, bright-line rule, as lawyers like to say, and then they try to apply it to their life without paying attention to whether or not that actually works with their reality.
We have to take the responsibility of asking, does this apply to me? Does this work for me and my circumstances? And unfortunately, because of the culture that we’re in, we don’t often do this. The desire to be successful or accomplish whatever it is frequently stops people from living in reality.
Why a Leave of Absence
Prior to his quarter life crisis, Nnamdi had interned at a large firm and got to experience the finer side of being in this industry, he was taken out to fancy dinners, was paid a lot, and worked in a nice office.
He went on to work with a group of trademark lawyers and felt that law may be the world for him, he saw that the lawyers seemed excited to work and happy, it felt like a fit for him. His junior year of college he signed up for the LSAT and interned at a boutique securities litigation firm. He loved that work, ended up returning as a paralegal to his prior internship, and enjoyed so much about his experiences.
It wasn’t until he was 25, a few months before he was about to start law school, that he had a quarter life crisis. His long-time girlfriend broke up with him and for some reason, the blinders he had had on about becoming a lawyer were knocked off.
In addition to these experiences, while out one night on a date, and after a few drinks, he had a conversation with someone at a bar who came up to him and asked what he did, he paused and said he was about to start law school, but wasn’t so sure. It turns out she was a former lawyer, she had just quit her job as a real estate finance attorney to run a startup, and she said he needed to take leave or not go at all. It was her opinion and experience that if you think you want to do the entrepreneurial thing, you should go explore it while you are young.
This conversation stuck with Nnamdi, and while he pushed through the first semester of law school, as he entered the second semester, he knew he needed to try his entrepreneurial ideas or he would regret it.
The New Plan
With his leave of absence finalized, Nnamdi made a plan to move to Portugal to work on his idea. He told his parents he had taken a leave of absence, but months after the fact, so they were shocked obviously.
He was set to go to Portugal and then realized he had the wrong visa. So he had to change plans, moved in with his parents, and got to work.
This experience, in retrospect, taught him many lessons and is something that he includes in his book. He believes he could have taken actions to make the experience better for everyone, in a way that invested in him without hurting his parents.
One of the main lessons Nnamdi shares with us, and especially children of immigrant parents, is that undoubtedly they have made substantial investments in your success, so they expect to have some voting rights over what happens to the “company” of you. They are your investors, so to speak.
When they made the sacrifices and investments into you, you didn’t know it, but there is a “terms sheet” that comes with all the time that they are spending raising you, cleaning up after you, paying for your fancy education. And part of that terms sheet says that you’re going to become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.
Now, if you decide that you are not going to do that, as you can imagine, your investors are going to be like, “What the hell? This is not what we invested in. You have to explain it. Why are you doing this with the money that we spent? We only spent this money because we wanted XYZ to happen. And you’re telling us that you’re taking the company in a whole different direction.”
Once you have that context around how your parents view what you are doing, the next thing is to think about how you can give your parents some control over what is happening. For example, prior to making some strong declaration that you are going to do XY Z, you could present to your parents and say, “Hey, I’m really thinking that I want to do this, this, and this. And I was hoping that you guys might be able to help me come up with a plan for how to do it.”
Once you do that, it no longer becomes a scary, individualist child flying off the rails. Instead, it is now my responsible child expressing interest in doing something else, and coming to the sage, wise investors for more guidance and advice. Just that small shift can change the dynamic of the relationship such that you may be able to get buy-in from your advisors to go in this other direction. But when you don’t involve them in the process, it almost inevitably is going to result in immense conflict, and they will be actively at every turn trying to prevent you from going after his alternate path, which doesn’t help you in the end.
That’s one core lesson Nnamdi shares in his book, backed by personal stories and some research-backed strategies to help you succeed. More to come in Part 2 of our conversation in a few weeks.
Connect with Nnamdi
- Nnamdi’s Book: https://tinyurl.com/dhcw9d7u
- Email: [email protected]
- Noodle (his consulting service): https://noodle.consulting/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/mynameisnnamdi
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nnamdi-nwaezeapu-56b50554/
- University of Good: https://universityofgood.com/
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Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to the Former Lawyer podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Cottrell, and on this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they loved. Let’s get right to the show.
Hello, everyone. This week on the podcast, I’m sharing my conversation with Nnamdi Nwaezeapu. Nnamdi is the child of immigrant parents, and he wrote a book called Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer: How to Pursue Your Dreams Without Giving Your Parents A Heart Attack. And we connected during the period when he was getting ready to publish that book. And he was actually on a two-year leave of absence from Columbia Law School as a 1L. And he’s since returned and is finishing his 1L year and continuing on. So this conversation is in two parts because we talked a lot about the book, and then also about his story, and in particular, some of the unique challenges that he faced as the child of immigrants, and some of the sort of common challenges that can be experienced by people in that position when they’re approaching questions about their careers.
So this is the first half of the conversation. The next half of the conversation we’ll release in just a couple of weeks. I hope that it’s helpful for you. And I want to mention before we get into it that because Former Lawyer helped to sponsor the production of this book, I have a number of copies, nine of them to give away. So we’re going to do this very simply. If you write a review of the podcast, and then just take a screenshot of it and email it to [email protected], and if you’re one of the first nine people, we will mail you out a copy of Nnamdi’s book, which you’ll hear more about in this episode.
Okay, let’s get to my conversation with Nnamdi.
Hey, Nnamdi. Welcome to the Former Lawyer podcast.
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Thank you for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I am excited to share your story. It’s a little bit of a unique story, slash conversation, that we’ll be having. So why don’t you introduce yourself, and we’ll get right into it?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Sure. So my name’s Nnamdi Nwaezeapu. I’m a 1L at Columbia Law School currently. And I took a two-year leave of absence from law school. So I started my first semester, and then took a death defying leap from school to go and pursue my interest in entrepreneurship. And that journey was while exciting for me, extremely excruciating for my parents and loved ones. And so I decided to write a book called, Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer: How to Pursue Your Dreams Without Giving Your Parents A Heart Attack, to kind of help people who are in similar situations to mine pursue their interests without making everyone around them freak out.
Sarah Cottrell: If such a thing is possible.
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Right, exactly.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, so I was trying to remember the exact timing, but I think that we originally connected on LinkedIn. Is that right? So can you share with people a little bit about sort of the process with the book and the timing with your leave of absence and all of that?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yes. So I started law school in August of 2018, and then I ended up taking a leave around January of 2019. And so from that point until I guess it would be like January of 2020, I was trying to build my own company. I had co-founded a startup called Mango with a former senior software engineer from Microsoft. We were trying to democratize high-quality life coaching. And we did that for maybe eight or so months, and then we never … It didn’t really go anywhere, and so we decided to close it up. And then after that, I started working for a Munich-based startup company called Mind Shine, which does mental health fitness training, or … Yeah, mental fitness training is what they call it.
And so I was working with them as an account manager, their first US employee. And so during that time, I started … I think it was right around the beginning of January, 2020, I started writing the book. And I was doing it through a program called The Creator Institute. The head of the program reached out to me on LinkedIn, and I just started putting the pieces together for this book that I wanted to write because at the time that I left school in 2018, I was trying to talk to everyone that I could. I was talking to attorneys. I was talking to people in business areas that I wanted to be in, trying to figure out whether or not I should stay in law school or whether I should do this leave of absence.
And the results that I got were pretty underwhelming. There was no … It was pretty much like personal anecdotes coming from person to person, pretty much them projecting their life onto me. And so I wanted to basically create the resource that I wish I had had. And so I think it was around maybe April or May that we connected on LinkedIn. I was looking for attorneys who were kind of operating in that space of realizing how limiting the legal profession can sometimes be for your personal wellbeing. And so I saw the work you were doing with Former Lawyer, decided to reach out and see if you would be interested in being interviewed for the book.
And so I think that’s how we connected. And it was obviously super fruitful for me, not only because you contributed to the pre-sale of the book in a very, very substantial way. I don’t think the book would have happened without you. But I think more importantly, the insights that you shared around how to decide whether or not the law is right for you were really powerful for readers, and obviously for your Former Lawyer community.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. And let’s talk a little bit about why this book in particular, like why you wanted to write this book. And specifically for me, I just want to share a little bit about why I thought it was important. And the piece of it that, to me, was particularly important is that experience of being a first generation immigrant, which is not an experience that I share, but it comes up. I hear from people in that position all the time. And I’ve interviewed people for the podcast who also were in that position, and they talk about some of the sort of unique pressures and challenges that they faced, in particular with their parents, but also many times with their community. And so can you talk a little bit about that? Because I am sure that we have many people who are listening who are in that position. And for me, that was an experience that I really felt like there needs to be a resource that speaks specifically to this experience from someone who understands what this experience is like.
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yes, yes. Absolutely. And I don’t think I touched on how big a driving factor that was for me. But yeah, so my dad is a Nigerian immigrant. He moved here to the States when he was 25. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he just had conviction that he was going to make it here in America. And so he spent a lot of time. He started out, despite having a chemical engineering degree from Nigeria, because of the way that stuff goes, he ended up here, working as a security guard at Ross, the clothing store. And he did a lot. He was working pretty much 80 to 90 hour weeks for the first 10 to 15 years of my life, trying to set me up to be able to succeed.
And this is a common story for a lot of children of immigrants where their parents do this intense amount of labor, put themselves through stress and debt oftentimes, to finance their children’s education, with the hope that by doing that, their children will go on to be successful. And unsurprisingly, the three kind of careers that they tend to push their kids towards are being a doctor, being a lawyer, or being an engineer. And the reason is in addition to their prestige, they get to call home and say, “Yes, my son is a doctor. My son is a lawyer. My son is an engineer.” These things are like obvious, that they’re successful.
But there’s the other element of them being stable investments, so to speak. So it’s kind of like a doctor is always going to have work. A lawyer is presumably always going to have work. An engineer is presumably always going to have work. And so if you attempt to do anything outside of that, the alarm bells go way, way off. And the reality is that in America, there are tons of other paths to success, many of which have equal, if not greater job stability. For example, working in HR as a talent specialist, working as a sales rep. There are tons of jobs that have equal stability, equal prestige, but the parents don’t see this.
And so the book kind of helps both the children, or the children of immigrants figure out what are some of these other paths that are available. And it also helps the parents to kind of understand that these other alternative paths are available as well. But more importantly, it helps both sides understand kind of where the other is coming from, if that makes sense.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It definitely does. And can you talk a little bit about … You talk in the book about like the difference in experience if you are raised in a more individualist versus a more collectivist culture, and how that can sort of play out in this particular kind of scenario. So can you talk about that a little bit?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that was one of the big issues that I had when I was trying to figure out whether or not I should take a leave from school because I went to Columbia for undergrad, which is pretty much the epitome of a Western education, very individual focused, no collaboration. Kids would be ripping pages out of textbooks so that they could succeed over their classmates. And as a result, when I was trying to get advice about what I should do, much of it was this very callous, like, “F what your parents say. F what anybody else wants. Do what’s best for you and that is it.” And I knew in my gut that that didn’t jive with the experience that I had growing up as a kid, which was when I got a new job, that money that I earned wasn’t just my own. I had to distribute it to my dad, my mom, my sister, my brother.
When I was making decisions about where I was going to go for school, this wasn’t just a personal choice. It implicated my family. It implicated my extended family because they frequently would use … They looked to the other children as guides for how to navigate this American lifestyle. And so that kind of kernel was a big, big push for me to get the book done, because I really wanted to kind of tease that out, that in many eastern cultures, or many non … Yeah, Eastern cultures, I guess, the collective, the group has a greater importance than the individual. And so for those children of immigrants who are raised in the West, they are born and raised in this environment that says, “Do what you want. Do what’s best for you.”
And you see it a lot today with the self-care movement and all of these things that put so much emphasis on your personal peace, your personal wellbeing as being the epitome of self-actualization. But it’s a very Western concept. And so getting people to understand that, that in some communities, showing respect for your community, and making decisions with your community in mind is not just a form of weakness, but is actually a culturally sensitive issue. I think it’s really, really important. And it’s why in the end of I think it was one of the later chapters in the book, I talk about the importance of giving control to your parents, or giving some semblance of control to your parents when trying to make this decision.
So a lot of times what happens is that kids will take this individualized approach, doing what’s best for me, and just make a dramatic leap without consulting anyone, without getting advice, largely out of fear that their parents are just going to say no. But there’s plenty of ways. Rachel Botsman is one of the researchers that I talk about in the book. And she says that one of the best ways to increase trust is to give people control. And so if you can help your parents, bring them into the equation of what you’re doing, you kind of satisfy that collectivist desire that your parents have in wanting to be included and part of the decisions that you’re making, while also allowing you to pursue this interest that is perhaps exclusive to you.
Sarah Cottrell: So many things. I think there are so many important things in what you just said. So the first thing I think that I want to highlight is the importance of this understanding of like I think if you’re someone who has grown up in a Westernized, very aggressively individualistic culture, you don’t even realize. Like you don’t realize that because it’s literally, to you, it’s just like the way that things are. And so I think that oftentimes, in sort of these conversations about career and whatnot, like you said, when you were trying to sort of get advice from people, it was just like, “Well, what’s the problem? Just do whatever you want.” And the piece that you said that I thought was so important was just because you’re sort of taking other things into consideration, having a more collectivist mindset, it’s not a sign of personal weakness. And I think very much so, when someone is operating from that aggressively individualistic, sort of Western mindset, that is going to be the perception. Like, “Oh, well you’re just not willing to stand up to them.” Or something along those lines.
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yes. It’s crazy. I mean, someone literally told me to grow a pair as I was trying to make this decision, which I knew to be big because I have siblings. I have not only siblings, but cousins, nephews who are back in Nigeria, looking at me and the decisions that I make. And I’m carrying much more than just myself. So when I make these decisions, I’m bringing a lot of people with me. This is not some … And so when you get advice like that that says, “Grow a pair,” it really can cause some mental anguish. And so having a tool, having a resource that is sensitive, sensitive to that particular context that you have as someone who perhaps has more people relying on … And you know what? The same thing goes … It’s not even just culture, right?
I think even, let’s say you have kids. If you have kids who are dependent on your income to go to school to be fed, you have to make different decisions than the person who has no other external obligations. Your decision making has to take into account the other dependents that you have in your life. And I really do think part of what makes your work at Former Lawyer so great is because the mentality of your typical hard-charging lawyer is that if you’re not enjoying the big law path track, you’re just not good enough. You just didn’t cut it. You’re just not able to make it. And there’s nothing else to be said. And so if try and discuss the problems that you are having with one of those hard-charging folks, you’re going to leave that conversation feeling pretty emotionally bruised. And so I think having community, having a place where people understand some of the problems you specifically are dealing with is so empowering.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that’s so true. I think there is this tendency to attach, and as we were talking about before, almost like a moral weight to the way, like you said, to whether you like or don’t like working in a certain work environment, for example. But the other thing that I think is important, and you mentioned this a bit ago, but the reason that I think this conversation and what you are talking about in the book is really so essential is that I doing think that we should be telling people you have to throw away your entire … Like you must become individualist in order to figure out the right path in life.
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yes.
Sarah Cottrell: Like that cannot be the answer. And to your point about, for example, another example being like when people have children, I have witnessed in some of these conversations, not within Former Lawyer Collaborative, but sort of out there in the broader world, where there’s this sense of like, oh, well if you say, “I need to consider X or Y because I have kids,” then it’s almost treated as like, “Oh, well you’re using it as an excuse.” And don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely use your kids as an excuse. You can use your parents. It is absolutely possible that someone is using certain things as an excuse to not maybe make some hard decisions that they know that they need to make. But the idea that, like as you said, having kids, you should just kind of not take that … It’s not even based in reality. Like forget whether it’s sort of reasonable. It’s like not based in the reality of that person’s experience. Yeah, so do you have any thoughts about that?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: No, I mean that is … I’ve spent a lot of time. I have this pet project called University of Good, which is something I started shortly before law school to cope with all the trauma I was going through in my quarter life crisis. And as I record these little podcasts, and one of the things that repeatedly comes up for me is the realization that in the current era, there is more information out there than ever, and there are a lot of blogs, and there are a lot of people preaching. And some of them have achieved some level of success. So they’re maybe a partner somewhere, or they make a certain amount of money per year, or they’re where you think you want to end up in your life. And then they give these kind of blanket statements about how to get to their position, their place in life.
And what unfortunately happens, I think, frequently, is that people take this hard rule, this fixed, bright-line rule, as lawyers like to say, and then they try to apply it to their life without paying attention to whether or not that actually works with their reality, like whether or not that rule is actually helping them or not. But they just keep applying the process because this random … Not random, but this person said that it works. It’s like the way I like to think of it is like I’ve started doing these yoga classes during quarantine, just following these little YouTube clips. And one of the things that they say is like yes, we are doing this wild flower pose that requires you to contort your body in all these ways. But if you physically cannot do that, the instructor can’t see you. The instructor is unable to provide you with advice based on your specific body and how you are moving.
So you have to take the responsibility of going like, “How does my body feel right now?” If I’m in excruciating pain doing this pose, you should probably stop. You should just keep doing it because an article said that yoga is good for you. If it’s causing you to rip muscle after muscle, stop doing it and reassess. But unfortunately, because of the culture that we’re in, I don’t think that people do that. The desire to be successful or accomplish whatever it is frequently stops people from living in reality, so to speak.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. So let’s talk a little bit about your own story. You’ve touched on it some already, but I just want to sort of orient people. So can you just talk a little bit about what made you decide to go to law school in the first place? And then sort of how you ultimately decided to take that leave of absence and kind of that whole process?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yeah, so my first exposure to the legal field was through an internship at one of those giant law firms, like the big, global law firm. And it was a great internship. They took me out to fancy galas, paid me a ton of money, got to eat steak and stuff. And this was just my first … I mean, it was my first time being like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” And the office was made out of marble. So it was like really, really, really, really exciting for someone who grew up from … I was middle class, but you know what I’m saying? I just had never experienced anything like that.
And then when add on top of that I worked with a group of trademark lawyers primarily, and they seemed happy. They seemed like they were excited to go to work every day. There were making jokes with each other. And so I was just like, “This seems like a good fit.” And this was in my junior year of college. So right then and there, I signed up for an LSAT course. I started taking it the summer after my junior year. And then I then took an internship at a small boutique securities litigation law firm in New York while I was finishing up my senior year.
And again, it was great. It was super fancy. I could see the place where the ball drops in Times Square from my office. It was just awesome. And the work was cool. And again, people seemed happy. They seemed like they were enjoying what they were doing. So I was pretty much sold. And the law firm that I first interned for, they invited me back to come and work as a paralegal in their trademark group. And so I did that for three years. And it was extremely enjoyable. I loved everything about it, from the billing. I loved billing. I loved putting in my hours and writing the little descriptions. I loved being able to talk to clients and be their counselor, so to speak.
Obviously with an attorney in the room. I wasn’t doing unauthorized practice of law. And yeah, I just had a really, really good time. But what happened was perhaps, I think it was like a couple months before I was to start law school, I basically had a quarter life crisis, like your stereotypical one. So like my long-time girlfriend broke up with me, and that was so painful. It was like the worst thing. And I was just like … I reached 25 and I was like, for some reason, the blinders that I had been wearing about going to become a lawyer had just been knocked off.
I think someone gave me a book of lawyer jokes. And I hadn’t read the book, but that summer, after everything was going awry, I opened the book and started reading it. And there were all these horrible lawyer jokes in there about how … And it was like they just were so rude. Here I was thinking that people look at lawyers as being this prestigious, awesome job. And then here’s this book of these people just presenting lawyers as like the scum of the earth, like just horrible people. So that just set me off.
And I was like, okay, I don’t know what’s going on, but I need to see if this entrepreneurship thing, which had been like bubbling in me throughout college, and I try little things here and there. I was like I just need to try this to see if that’ll work, because it doesn’t seem like people hate entrepreneurs. But it does seem like they hate lawyers. So I remember I told my parents right before I was supposed to start at Columbia. And it was great. I had a scholarship. They paid a ton of money for me to go to Columbia for undergrad, so they were just like, “This is great.”
And I think the moment that I decided I was going to take a leave, where I was going to go pursue this dream of entrepreneurship was I was drinking, I was on a date. I had a couple of cocktails, or a lot of cocktails, and this lawyer who worked at Arent Fox, literally it felt like it was preordained or something like that. She walks up to the bar where I’m sitting, pulls up a chair in front of me, because that’s the way the bar was setup. And she just starts talking to me. And she’s like, “Oh, what do you do?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m a student, doing a fellowship, about to start law school, but I’m not sure.”
And she was like, “Look, if you think you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to either take a leave, or ideally, not go to law school at all.” And she was like, “I just left my job as a real estate finance attorney. And I’m going full time on my startup company doing like happy hour reviews.” And she was like … And I’m not laughing at her. I hope that she doesn’t hear this. It was very inspiring to me that she was just like, “Yeah, don’t go to law school. If you think you want to go and do this thing, at least take some time off and go and explore it while you’re young, because if you don’t, you’re going to get to your 30s and you’re just going to leave anyway, and you’re going to feel like you wasted a bunch of time.”
And so that conversation made it pretty much impossible for me to do well my first semester in law school because in addition to all the other quarter life crisis stuff, now I was like I had advice from this woman who was doing what I presumably thought I would want to do, telling me absolutely not to do it. And so I managed to crawl my way through the first semester, but as soon as I sat down in class that second semester, I was like, “I got to get out of here or I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life. And I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had left and gone to pursue my dreams.”
So I had a couple of thousand bucks saved up from the loans that they had given me. I had a vague plan for what my startup company was going to be. And I was going to move to Portugal and work on this idea. And I submitted my leave of absence, and I jumped out of the plane. So that’s how I ended up taking the leave. And my parents were shocked, as you could imagine. I didn’t tell them for months what I had done, so they thought I was still in law school.
And it wasn’t until I had bought this huge bag, I had bought the US to Europe plug converter thing, and I was about to go leave for my flight to Portugal when I realized I didn’t have the proper visa. And so everything just like … I finally came down out of my high of leaving the school and I realized what I had done. And so I moved back with my parents. That made things even worse. And I talk about this in the book. And so yeah, it really … And I look back at it now, and I don’t regret my decision at all. I know that if I hadn’t done that, I would have regretted it forever.
But, that being said, there is still lots of things that I could have done to make that experience less painful for everybody in my life, and so that’s what this book kind of does. It gives you some strategies, some context to help you understand why you should care what your parents think when you’re trying to make these decisions, and then how to do what it is that you want to do without hurting those who truly love you, care about you, and more importantly, have invested in you, oftentimes either substantially from a monetary standpoint, or from a time standpoint. So yeah.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit about some of those things. So for people who are listening who have an experience sort of similar to yours, what are some of the most important things that you would tell them, or maybe even that you wish that you did differently?
Nnamdi Nwaezeapu: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think the first thing to understand, and this is pretty much the first chapter. It’s like one of the first few chapters in the book, is that if you’re … Let’s just focus exclusively on children of immigrants. So if you are a child of an immigrant, your parents almost undoubtedly have made substantial investments in your success. And you could kind of think of it almost there’s like these SPACs that you can now invest in, where you’re like you’re investing in a company, and whatever they do, you’ll get returns from it.
It’s kind of like that. They’re investing in you, and by virtue of the investment, they expect to have some voting rights over what happens to the company of you. So you are the … Let’s just imagine you’re the CEO of your company. And they make this investment. And they give you a terms sheet when they make this investment. You don’t know, you just think that they’re being your parents. But there’s a terms sheet that comes with all the time that they are spending raising you, cleaning up after you, paying for your fancy education. There’s a terms sheet that come with that.
And part of that terms sheet says you’re going to become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. They don’t ask for much. They’re just saying, “With this investment that we’re giving you, we would like you to turn that into you being a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. We think it’s a respectable profession. We think it’ll provide you with a sizable and reliable salary. And so those are the conditions on which we are making this investment.” Now, if you decide that you are not going to do that, as you can imagine, your investors are going to be like, “What the hell? This is not what we invested in. We want some … You got to explain it. You got to help us understand why this other thing that you’re saying you’re going to go do is … Why are you doing this with the money that we spent? We only spend this money because we wanted XYZ to happen. And you’re telling us that you’re taking the company in a whole different direction.”
And so because of that, once you have that context around how your parents view what you are doing, the next thing is to think about how you can give your parents some control over what is happening. Because if you try to just take the company in a different direction without getting any input from your board of advisors, obviously you’re going to strain the relationship. But there are things you can do. So for example, prior to making some strong declaration that you are going to do X, Y, and Z, you could present to your parents and say, “Hey, I’m really thinking that I want to do this, this, and this. And I was hoping that you guys might be able to help me come up with a plan for how to do it.”
And once you do that, it no longer becomes scary, individualist child flying off the rails. It now is my responsible child expressing interest in doing something else, and coming to the sage, wise investors for more guidance and advice. And just by that small shift you change the dynamic of the relationship such that you may be able to get buy-in from your advisors to go in this other direction. But when you don’t involve them in the process, it almost inevitably is going to result in immense conflict, and they will be actively at every turn trying to prevent you from going after his alternate path, which doesn’t help you in the end.
You would be better served to have your investors supporting you on your venture, rather than your investors pulling out, being angry, constantly preventing you from succeeding. So that’s one of the key themes that we talk about in the book. And there’s obviously, I have stories in there from Yvonne Orji, the character on HBO show Insecure. And she talks about how she navigated that decision of not going to med school and becoming a comedian. I have stories from people like Stephen Ozoigbo, who’s a venture capitalist who took a different approach to succeeding in America. And so the book really does a great job at weaving in personal stories from those who have gone before you, or gone before us in building lives for themselves. And it also includes some research-backed strategies to help you succeed.
Sarah Cottrell: So that’s the first half of my conversation with Nnamdi. Tune in in two weeks to hear the rest of that conversation and all about how he ended up where he is now, and lots more that he learned through writing this book.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to download my free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, at FormerLawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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