Nineteen years ago, on the 3rd of August 1998, I got home at the end of the first day of my brand-spanking new career in intellectual property law.
I quite literally fell out of the car, on to the driveway, gathered myself up and made my way to my room. Frazzled, I drew the curtains and curled up in bed, hoping that some unseen force would magically take me back to an age where I could simply rely on the universe to take care of my needs instead of having to chart a course segmented into 6-minute billable increments.
I was 23 and 12 hours into my new career when I realized that this is not what I wanted to do with my life.
Prior to that, I’d enjoyed my short sojourn in science. I’d done a research Masters — a requirement at the time in South Africa if you had wanted to do a PhD — I’d co-authored two peer-reviewed articles, and my career in research looked bright. But I also had this gnawing feeling that I probably wouldn’t be Nobel material. It also started dawning on me that being a researcher in Africa might not fill the rather large bucket list that I’d been working on since the age of 15 and which required me to invest copious amounts of money in helicopters, Lamborghinis, and a smattering of chateaux in France, among other things.
At university I’d met a gorgeous girl (now my wife, in case she ever reads this) and I thought that perhaps she would be rather more taken with me if I announced that I would slip the moorings of a career in science to pursue the big bucks of IP law. These weren’t just any bucks, this was kryptonite money which a partner in a law firm had once drawn for me on a logarithmic scale. This had impressed me no end. I can remember following the upwards arc of their fingers as they had tried to impress on me how much they were making and that, this too, would one day be mine if I switched from science to IP law.
The girl — that girl — had seemed rather indifferent to all of this money-talk, but I still thought that this brilliant plan would at least assure me a new Porsche 911 every few years, together with enough money to take up rally-driving, heli skiing and mountaineering once I’d hit my late twenties. And then the de rigueur apartment in Manhattan (this was before Brooklyn became trendy, remember), the gabled wine estate in Cape Town, and the manor outside London by my late thirties. Obviously.
The plan started off well enough, with me securing a job at one of the largest IP firms in the southern hemisphere. It had been an offer that I had accepted with glee, knowing that I would at last be able to walk into a boutique and order a tailored three-piece suit, all the while casually mentioning to the fawning shop assistants that I, in fact, was a trainee patent attorney, you know. The shop assistants would no doubt be very impressed with all of this, because my income would be growing logarithmically and I would no doubt be back soon to buy a six-piece suit, or even an eleven-piece suit.
In my thrilling new existence that I had pictured, I had completely forgotten the recruiting partner’s opening line during my initial interview which, I kid you not, was (verbatim): “Why on earth would you want to join this godforsaken profession?”
But this rather ominous sign was soon left behind in the giddy whirlwinds and dollar signs flooding my mind, given that their job offer meant that I was about to escape the velvety clutches of science and create a secure financial future for myself and the girl.
Since an early age I’d been made to understand that we were an exceedingly middle-income household and in my young mind I had thus saddled up the responsibility for ensuring my parents would have enough to live on one day. Quite a responsibility for a 10-year old.
I had been lucky enough to have had incredible parents, but I’d been reminded from a very young age that “we’re in the red” or “we’re going under”, or my personal favorite that had me stressing no end: “The bank manager wants to see us”. Basically, all of those things well-meaning parents say to their kids to avoid having to buy them a new keyboard, skateboard, [INSERT RANDOM OBJECT HERE]. Most kids would have been impervious to this, but somehow these casual comments had made me obsessive about ensuring that I had a stable financial future and would be able to look after not only my own nuclear family one day, but also my parents, in case that dreaded bank manager with his comb-over and gold-rimmed spectacles ever came a-knocking. These comments were so casual, in fact, that years later when I mentioned them to my parents, they had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
But back to science. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed science. In fact, I had fallen in love with science more than I could have expected — the brief fling with genes and proteins had developed into a full-blown affair. I hadn’t done biology at school, but had somehow found myself being drawn into the world of genetics and biochemistry and physiology at university. Undergrad had been massively interesting and I had excelled. All very strange for someone who, in high school, had been intent on going into advertising or becoming a motoring journalist or an actor.
Yet nothing had prepared me for the joy of being let loose in a lab for my post-grad research. I enjoyed every second and was racing through my research in virology, cloning genes and isolating proteins like nobody’s business, trying to find a cure for a horse-slaying virus that nobody really cared about, unless they were a horse. Notwithstanding the (in hindsight) rather low social impact of my research, I loved it and excelled at what I was doing. I would lie awake in my bed at night planning my experiments for the next day, week, month, trying to figure out what this virus was up to and how it could kill a horse zillions of times larger than itself. My mind was in full-blown flow all the time and I was a machine, frequently sleeping underneath my desk over weekends while doing 48-hour time trial experiments.
Being a cocksure science graduate, I had said to anyone within earshot that I would only leave science for a job that paid a crazy amount of money or which was even more interesting than science. Now that I’d met the girl, the time had come to test this out. Patent law, as far as my understanding of it stretched at the time, fit the bill perfectly. Who was I to argue with this wonderful fate bestowed upon me by the universe — a job offer from a storied, illustrious IP law firm, of which I had convinced myself I was fully deserving, especially given my many years of obeisance and platitudes to the gods, the hallmarks of a supernice guy like me. This was payback time, baby, and I was ready to be paid.
In my mind, a patent attorney was someone who waltzed into companies, looked around with a steady gaze, and pointed out things that should be patented so that the client could make money from it. After the finger pointing on the factory floor, some poor sod would then be phoned and be tasked with writing up patents for the inventions that had been spotted, so that we could all go about making money from the inventions and I could start speccing up the seat colour on the Lambo during my Cristal-fuelled lunches.
Little did I realize at that stage that I would be that poor sod writing the patents and be precluded in most instances from taking a cut in a client’s invention, this being a professional profession full of professionals, after all. But still, I reasoned, if I just kept at it, the logarithmic money would keep the bank manager from knocking on the door.
As you would no doubt have figured out by now, a quick working-holiday at a patent law firm would have set me straight and saved me 19 years of agony (OK, not agony, but a somewhat blighted reality). But by this time, I had told my professor I was moving on, I had already started my law degree — studying part-time and at night — and I was finishing up my research thesis, all while still trying to impress the girl. I was living in Pretoria, doing a 1.5 hour commute to Johannesburg in the south, while the girl was studying vet science another 45 minutes to the north of where I lived. Little did I realize that I would soon be doing 5000 kilometres per month in my little Fiat Uno sans air-conditioning, a.k.a. the Human Bakery.
But, back to the first day of my illustrious new career.
I had left home at 5 am to be on time and to impress my new bosses. I arrived at 6:15 am, but was the first person there. I was exhausted and decided to recline in the car for a few minutes. I woke up with a shock 45 minutes later, and sped to the locked front door where I was eventually let into the building by someone who had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. This was entirely understandable given that HR had told me to be there at 9 am.
I was, of course, expecting a gabled archway and a fuzzy glow of trumpeting cherubs announcing my arrival, so their absence was rather conspicuous by my book. Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign.
Once the staff and partners started arriving I was given the grand tour and introduced to everyone. They all seemed terribly nice and in all fairness, in the three-and-a-bit years that I spent at that firm, they all were, with few exceptions.
As I was taken from office to office — how do you do, how do you do — I was struck by two things:
(i) how very Afrikaans I suddenly felt in an office full of English-speaking South Africans, and
(ii) the inordinate amounts of files on the tables of the patent attorneys.
I thought to myself that I’d better avoid getting any of those damn files on my table, as I had a distinct aversion to paperwork and admin. The files, to my mind at least, most likely related to building maintenance or staff matters and I resolved right then and there that I would do my best to avoid getting any of those dusty soul-destroyers on my desk until I became, at least, a partner in the firm one day.
Later in the day, as I was shown to my little desk at the end of the corridor, it dawned on me that perhaps I had had the wrong end of the stick, given that those damn files appeared to be everywhere, even on my desk. I use the word “dawned” quite loosely here — in fact, it hit me like a ton of bricks that the career was utterly, completely, overwhelmingly different to what I had imagined. I had no idea at that stage that there were different personality types suited to different jobs and, well, everyone else seemed to be content with all the dusty files and rather long-winded patent documents, so who was I to complain? I should just get on with it. After all, I’d snagged a highly sought-after position in a prestigious career not open to many others. As befitted a supernice guy like me.
Later that morning a few of the rusty stalwarts who’d been clerking for a few years took me to the Patent Office, which I was thrilled about. The biggest excitement, on my part at least, was when we started walking down to the basement to get the van to drive to the Patent Office. I could hardly contain my excitement, given that I would most likely be getting my first close-up peek of a few Italian exotics from Maranello, or perhaps a Bentley or two. In the months since I had received the job offer and finished my research, I had been thinking constantly about what I was going to do with all this money I was going to make, and being a car nut, I couldn’t wait to see what the partners were driving, the automotive gems hidden away in the private garage beneath their building.
Imagine my stunned silence when all I saw was a Golf VR6 with a rather ill-fitting passenger door, a sad-looking Isuzu truck, and a nondescript, middle of the range, grey BMW 525i. Where were the Porsches? The Ferraris? My tour guide for the day, a jaded trainee patent attorney that had had his fair fill of hardy perennials, smirked when I expressed my surprise that the partners of this esteemed establishment were cruising around in vehicles far below their station in life. Perhaps they kept the exotica locked away at home? He smirked and mumbled something about the trappings of wealth. Still, I was certain he was wrong, but the warning bells started ringing a bit louder, signalling that perhaps I had traded a career doing something I had enjoyed for, essentially, vaporware.
The Patent Office back then was a dusty heap in Pretoria, where I was astounded to see that they still adhered to the Victorian system — all the patent summaries were typed on small index cards. There were hundreds of thousands of them and here, I was told, I would be spending a large part of my clerkship doing patent searches through these index cards. Quite how this related to me waltzing through companies with my magical invention-pointing finger was a mystery to me, but still this gilded cage would be alright if only I could stick it out for a few decades I thought.
That evening at home, with the curtains drawn, curled up in a ball on my bed, I realized I had made a massive mistake. I tried speaking to my father about it, but his rebuttal was: “What else are you going to do?” Of course, given that this had been my first day, I didn’t have an answer at the ready, given that 12 hours earlier I had thought that I was going to be a hot-shot patent attorney in a 27-piece suit.
So I went back the next day. And the next. And the next.
I persevered. I kept going back for 19 years, across five patent law firms, two of which I started myself, over two continents.
For nearly two decades of my life, I would get up every morning and hope that, perhaps today, I would enjoy what I was doing. Perhaps today I would fit in. Perhaps today I would realize that writing patents was, in fact, my passion.
It never happened. I’d been hounded by something my grandma had once said to me: “Stop being lazy or you’re going to end up becoming a beach bum”. I was keen to prove her wrong. I know, it’s ridiculous, but sometimes something said at a critical time can set your course for life. The worst part was, the harder I worked to prove her wrong, the worse I felt mentally and physically, until all I could think about was becoming a beach bum.
Am I insane? No. Going through the ranks has a hypnotic effect — if only I can finish this exam, if only I can qualify as a lawyer, if only I can qualify as a patent attorney, if only I can become an associate. A senior associate. A salaried partner. A 4-point equity partner. A 7-point equity partner. A 14-point equity partner.
In primary school I’d wanted to become a reporter, like Tintin. Even though I’d had a half-brother and half-sister, they were much older than me, and I’d essentially grown up an only child. And now I found myself in this world of adults and it seemed as if they all thought that it was worthwhile doing this strange corporate thing, climbing this invisible ladder, snagging a parking spot closer and closer each year to the elevator. It made no sense to me, but these people seemed to know much better than me, so obviously it had to be worthwhile. What did I know after all, given that I had been educated by a man-boy comic book character with a talking dog? All of this was like a weird world that I had found myself trapped in, trapped because I was playing a cameo role in the story of my own life and I was the only one without a script.
A quick switch early in my career to another IP firm convinced me that it wasn’t the environment I was in that was having this effect, it was the career itself. Let me rephrase that — it was my personal drivers, my strengths, my narratives which were not fitting into this career. There were many personality types out there and while I could certainly draft a good patent and serve my clients well, it just didn’t gel for me.
So after I qualified back then at the age of 27, I did what any rational person should do: I quit. I wanted to go back to research. Which I did — I enrolled for a PhD. Same research group, same virus, same protein, same professor. I was thrilled!
There was, however, one deal that I had made with myself before quitting. I had vowed that if I quit my job and go back to research, I would make sure that I pursued every single possible opportunity that came my way. I had no idea how this would play out, but lo and behold, within a few weeks of me starting my research, I was approached by a friend who had an idea for a small medical device and needed help getting it out of her head and into the market. I was keen to try out my hand in startups, using the IP skills that I had honed over the previous five years. After all, I was now a lazy beach bum student.
The new idea worked — we teamed up with two medical engineers and got a product to market within less than 2 years, eventually entering the European market shortly thereafter. All of this was happening while I was spending 8 or more hours a day in the lab, trying to stop those damn horses from dying. This was thrilling, but harrowing at the same time, as we were bootstrapped, horribly under-funded and my co-partners were not interested in getting in outside money. And I had to get my research done. Remember the horses?
Yet, I learned more in those few years in that little startup than I would have in any other learning environment and I came face-to-face with the realities facing innovators. Cash flow. Tax. Unhappy employees. Difficult government departments. Stand-up fights between co-directors. I was now on the other side of the table — I had become the innovator, the entrepreneur, I had entered the hurly burly of the business world, as one of the patent partners had disdainfully referred to it years earlier when I had been a clerk.
And hurly burly it was. Ass-hurting ‘hurly’, with a bit of mind-melting ‘burly’ thrown in for goo measure (I have decided to leave in my initial misspelling as ‘goo’ measure, because it is a much more accurate portrayal of what the startup process is like — basically, it’s a knife-fight. In goo.)
But it was fun. It was exciting! And I realized that I loved being an entrepreneur. It was like I was in the lab again, free to experiment, mix things up, see what popped out the other end. I loved building a product which would give sick people a better Christmas than their previous one. It was addictive.
At the same time as all of this was happening, the research support team at the university where I was doing my research came to the realization that they had a qualified patent attorney traipsing around in their hallowed corridors, and started asking me to help out with patent writing and filing for some of the inventions coming through the university.
Given that I was part of the privileged disgruntled, I begrudgingly agreed to help, still driven most of all by my desire to prove my gran wrong. I could do it all! All of a sudden, I had a full-blown patent practice on my hands. Things started to take off, and within a short amount of time I was joined by a partner in the IP practice and we grew it very quickly to ten people. And eight people in the medical devices company. It was pretty damn hectic, but I enjoyed running the IP practice. Yet I was still violently ill and out of sorts whenever I had to write a patent. Which was, basically, all the time.
Chasing the money in law had still not made me happy or fulfilled, but for some reason I felt compelled to return to it, drawn by the upwards arc of that partner’s description of income. I loved science, and I loved entrepreneurship — both were places where I could have fun and do something purely because it would help other people.
But selling my soul while writing patents, chasing the money for the sake of chasing money, to me at least, was not what I had embarked upon in this adventure called life. Now, don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with being a patent attorney — it is a fine profession and I have grown to love my colleagues over the years and respect them immensely. Some of them are like brothers and sisters to me. Many of them are driven in their IP law careers by the same drive that I had had in science and entrepreneurship. They thrive when writing patents, they love the feeling of sending off a perfectly drafted patent specification. Acu tetigisti — touched by a needle — as my old patent mentor from a bygone era used to refer to a perfectly written specification with great satisfaction.
But for me, each patent had felt like an exam that I was writing — one wrong word and the client was screwed and could lose millions. Which meant I would be screwed. Patents are a seriously high-stakes business with careless words causing millions of dollars of losses every year.
So when I slowly realized that a career in patent prosecution was not for me, and that there are other people that actually like this shit, I felt that my impact would be minimal. I would never be as good as someone who loved this, who was in flow for the 10 hours they spent writing patents each day. Because of my inflated sense of self-importance, I had always felt that I had a mission on earth to help as many people as possible lead better lives. For me, that wasn’t going to happen while I was experiencing the tyranny of the desk, while for many of my colleagues, it was the exact opposite. They weren’t chasing the dollar — they loved this stuff.
In the meantime, the girl and I had moved country, I’d sold my stake in the medical devices company for a trifling amount, I’d re-qualified as a patent attorney in the new country to keep my visa going and I’d worked in-house for a massive global mining company. I was making a radical amount of money doing this as a contractor, but when commodity prices dropped, I was effectively out of a job. So I decided to do what any self-disrespecting, self-flagellatory person would do — I started another patent law firm. Yes, I realise this makes no sense and is something I need to discuss with my therapist.
But once again, this had been a fluke, brought about by the haunting bank manager with the comb-over and gold-rimmed glasses, and once again this was due to a university client, for which I was eternally grateful at the time. I was hopeful that I would be able to grow the practice quickly, make lots of money, and extricate myself from patent writing. But within the first year I realised that this was not going to work. Still, I soldiered on, trying to curb the downside by focusing on the part that I enjoyed — the entrepreneurial adventure of starting a new business, even if it was a patent law firm.
I was joined soon after by a partner with excellent patent writing skills, but still this did not allow me to focus on the bit that I excelled at — business development, invention discovery sessions, and keeping clients happy. I thrived when I could give talks, teaching people about the benefits of protecting their ideas. I thrived when I worked on my online course for young innovators, I thrived when I spent time working with groups of innovators to help them bring into focus the amazing IP ‘gold’ that they had created.
But chasing the dollar doing something I didn’t enjoy permeated every aspect of my being. My creativity dried up (again), together with my sense of humor. I started experiencing short-term memory loss, extreme fatigue, packed on the pounds, while my mood went up and down more often than iron ore futures. I was prickly with the kids and downright horrible towards the girl. I ended up being diagnosed with three diseases, one of them potentially fatal. Shortly after this, I was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.
In hospital, I had time to think. Perhaps it was the oxycodone, perhaps it was the glare of the fluorescent lights, but I resolved in that hospital bed that I would do everything in my power to get out of patent practice. Everything to stop chasing the dollar doing something I didn’t enjoy. Everything to get my mind, get my life, get myself, back.
And so I did. Some of my clients and colleagues were shocked, apart from the ones that knew me really, really well and who knew that I was marching to the beat of a different drum. But my clients, being entrepreneurs themselves, knew how important it was to do something you loved and cared about. And I realized that I had to love and care for myself as well, which I’ve found to be much harder than expected. Much, much harder. Because caring for yourself means taking time off. Going to the beach. Becoming a beach bum. Something which has to be avoided at all costs, of course.
It’s only been a short while now since I officially retired from writing patents and sold my shareholding to my co-director, but I no longer wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I’ve missed a client deadline. I no longer dread opening my inbox to see whether an examiner has shot down one of my client’s inventions. I no longer feel that my creativity is being drained from me because of my insistence of chasing the dollar rather than doing what I know I would enjoy and which would, goodness me, be fulfilling. I’ve had this feeling before when leaving legal practice behind, and I dare not return to it.
Who knows where this journey is going to take me? I’m nearly done with my book on IP for startups, my online course is ready to rock, I’m doing loads of public awareness talks and speaking at local and international events. And I have spent this time doing what I’m built for: helping innovators make the most of their IP gold and showing them how to use it to close money. I’m walking around in factories, pointing at inventions, and saying that someone needs to be phoned to write up the patents.
Same career, different perspective. Different things being chased, for very different reasons.
This time I get it: I now love doing my shtick. And I’ve realized that, even though it was something that made me physically sick, there’s a whole league of patent attorneys out there that love the practice of IP law and feel that they are making a dent in the universe in their own particular way. Yet I’m comfortable not being one of them. I’m comfortable being a beach bum.
I’ve also awoken to the fact that that every time I chased the money, I inevitably ended up depressed, hurt, and filled with anxiety. Every damn time. Yet every time I did something I enjoyed and which added value to the lives of others, I felt energized, relaxed, and capable of moving mountains. And I made more money.
And that’s the strangest part of all of this: my financial future is on track to comfortably exceed what I made while I was doing something that I had hated doing, just so that I could afford a 53-piece suit.
Originally published at medium.com