Letting in Uncertainty

By Helen Wan ’95

I was working as in-house counsel for a large company in New York when my agent sold my first novel, on which I’d labored for 13 years, on weekends and late at night, garnering an impressive collection of rejections. That phone call was the happiest of my life. Dizzy with joy and disbelief, I threw on my coat and left the office. It was snowing. I threaded my way through the holiday throngs and stopped to gaze up at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, tears in my eyes. A stranger walked up to me. “Lady, I don’t know what just happened to you, but congratulations.”

Two years later, my novel was published. I gave a reading at our local Brooklyn bookstore. Friends took me out for beers after. I thought, One day, I’ll have a great story to tell our baby son: Your lawyer mom once wrote a novel. You can do anything you set your mind to.

Illustration of career woman climbing pages of book
Then something unexpected happened. My book—about a young woman of color competing for partnership at a powerful law firm—started getting handed around from reader to reader. Law firms, law schools, and then universities, companies and leadership groups started calling to ask if I would come speak. People wanted to know about my next book. The Washington Post followed me to a bunch of my talks and ran a Sunday magazine story with me on the cover. I was still working my lawyer day job, and learning to be a mom to a 1-year-old. The speaking invitations snowballed. I panicked.

I am risk-averse by nature. Ironically, I’m descended from a line of risk-takers. Both sets of my grandparents left everything they had and knew to flee China weeks before the Communist Revolution in 1949, starting over in Taiwan. Then my parents left everything behind to immigrate to California. When so much upheaval is part of your family’s origin story, sometimes you wind up resistant to uprooting yourself. I’m not big on drastic change.     

Yet after my novel’s publication, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d chosen law over writing in the first place. It was instilled in me that I must choose a “practical” career. My decision went like this: What do I love? Working with words. Reviewing the troika of Immigrant-Parent-Approved Careers—law, medicine or finance—I thought, Well, lawyers work with words. So I took the LSAT.

Nineteen years later, presented with an opportunity to pursue my writing, I walked into my boss’s office to say I wanted to take a hiatus from lawyering. Since then, what has surprised me most is not how scary it is to no longer draw a steady paycheck. The big surprise has been how much my identity and even self-worth were tied up in what I did for a living.

“What do you do?” sounds like an innocuous question. But for the first few months after leaving lawyering, it flummoxed me. I would spin a labyrinthian response that made the questioner’s eyes glaze over: Well, I used to be a lawyer until I got my book published, and now I’m a novelist but my second book isn’t finished, and, well… At the end of my convoluted speech, a fellow preschool parent smiled and said, “Oh, so you’re a writer.”

Once, I was a last-minute addition to a reading in New York. I sat onstage, wearing the requisite black, fists sweaty. When the emcee mentioned my corporate law background, the other novelists and poets onstage turned to stare at me. I imagined them judging the impostor, picturing me dumping contributions into my 401(k) while they boiled instant ramen. I had not suffered for my art.

What was I afraid of? Being judged? Not being taken seriously?

These days, students often ask me, “Should I do what I love, or something practical?” I wonder what could be more practical than doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled. When I was in school, I wish I’d spent less time worrying about what other people thought, and more time figuring out what I was good at and enjoyed doing. 

All those years I spent following the well-trod path, I wish I’d stopped to consider where the bread crumbs were leading me. Just because there are more gold stars out there, do we have to keep collecting them? My corporate career led me to—at least supplied raw material for—my creative one. But it was by serendipity, not design. Knowing what I know now, I would have been a more active architect of my career. I would have taken more risks, and sooner.

I want our son to grow up believing, as I now do, that identity and self-worth have little to do with one’s job title and everything to do with how meaningful your work feels to you. I once heard a CEO say, “If you’re not having fun most of the time, you’re in the wrong line of work.” That’s a bit reductionist, but for me the lesson was this: It is an incredible privilege to do what one loves for a living, and I am grateful for it every day.

Helen Wan ’95 was associate general counsel at Time Inc. before publication of her novel The Partner Track (St. Martin’s Press). She is at work on her second book. Her website is helenwan.com.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae