Credentials Won't Get You In The Club
And how I got started on my crusade against "golden tickets"
When I was growing up, I wished for nothing more than to be accepted by American society. My parents are immigrants, and I saw firsthand how challenging life could be when you were an outsider who struggled with the English language. So to me, becoming successful required me to be the opposite—articulate, polished, and part of the system.
I thought that becoming a successful lawyer would be my golden ticket.
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Of course, in the legal profession, becoming successful—at least in the conventional sense—requires that you collect a series of other smaller, but no less important credentials.It’s golden tickets all the way down.
That’s how I ended up spending my first two years out of college obsessed with getting a high LSAT score. I gave up hanging out with friends and partying to take practice tests. I knew how status conscious the profession was—with its focus on grades, school rankings, and elite credentials. I knew that getting into a top school would open doors that I never imagined walking through.
So I happily made that sacrifice.
It wasn’t a novel or brilliant plan. In many ways this was how we, as children of Asian immigrants, achieved the American Dream over the past 30 or 40 years. We worked insanely hard at school, killed ourselves for high scores on standardized tests, which let us collect diplomas and degrees that, we believed, gave us a shot at having a seat at the table.
I spent my 20s and early 30s laser focused on collecting these little golden tickets. No price was too high to pay. I remember skipping out on family reunions, trips with friends, and lots, and lots of parties—just so I could study for some exam. One of my biggest regrets was not going to the funeral of a friend from college—because it might get in the way of my Civ Pro midterm during 1L. I still can’t believe I did that.
But it worked. I ended up collecting a series of little golden tickets that led me to become a well-credentialed lawyer. I got jobs I never imagined I’d ever get—like working for an elite Biglaw firm and clerking for a federal judge.
Part of me knew that it wasn’t the right kind of work for me, though.And yet I stayed at jobs I hated, running along a path that I felt would lead me to the American Dream. It wasn’t just about personal success. It was also about my community. When I was growing up, I was told that I shouldn’t pursue a career in law because I wasn’t a white man, and I’d never break in.
I felt an obligation to remain on this “elite” path. At the very least I made my parents and my family proud. Growing up I was never that good at school, and would always get in trouble. Being viewed as a success story, a model for other up and coming kids in my community—it felt good. I was reminded every weekend, when I’d see friends, family, or my parents’ friends at church.
The weekdays were tough, though. Because I had to actually do the job. And I wasn’t doing well. I’ve written before about my struggles but I was never really accepted in Biglaw. I wasn’t on the partner track. I struggled to pass the bar exam. And I didn’t even like the perks of the job.
There was a moment when I picked up my head from the grind and wondered: What was the point of all that sacrifice, to get these golden tickets? I thought earning these credentials would lead me to work I found rewarding. But they didn’t. Instead I felt trapped.
The worst part was that despite my golden tickets, I didn’t feel closer to achieving the American Dream. It was all a facade. Every weekend I’d put on a happy face, and tell people yes, it was hard work but it was all worth it. But then I’d feel this extreme dread every Sunday night. Was that normal?
I think it was hard to accept that the golden tickets didn’t bring me to the promised land. Like, yes, I did have all the right credentials. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t relate with the powerful partners who were kingmakers at the firm. Which meant my success was superficial. Not real.
One of my most visceral memories was watching another associate on her last day (before she left to join the U.S. Attorney’s office) being visited by one of the most powerful partners at the firm. At the firm you never saw that happen. All the associates were stuck on a floor out of sight from most partners. So when you saw a partner around, it really stood out.
And this was a powerful partner.
I envied that associate’s success. The seeming ease with which she found an influential partner would would help her in so many ways with her career. Me? The senior associates struggled to even remember my name.
I wasn’t sure why our experience were different. Was it because she was white and I wasn’t? Was it because she went to Yale Law or Harvard College? Was it because she was just more charming than me? I really didn’t know.
I decided to leave this credential obsessed world. It felt clear to me that no amount of gold stars would let me join “the club.” I mean, I didn’t quit right then and there—but that was probably the moment I started thinking about what else was out there. What else I could do.
It took a couple of years, but you know how this story ends. I left. Because I knew the only thing worse than not being invited to the party, is showing up as an unwelcome guest.
In these traditional law jobs, I was bad at a lot of things. But being exposed to my weaknesses ended up being a great thing because it helped me figure out my superpowers.