All through the years that everyone asks you what you're going to be when you grow up, I thought I was going to be an English professor. My last year of college, I took the GREs and read up on PhD programs. Then I realized that I like books too much to study them for a living. I didn't want to read from a critical distance. (I don't regret that I didn't pursue that path, but in writing that last sentence I just realized that I'm not sure I agree with my younger self on that point anymore. At least if I had been an English professor I would have gotten to read literature all the time; as a lawyer I never had time to read literature, and it hurt.)
Once I'd decided not to be a professor, I was at a loss. I actually used the phrase "existential crisis" to describe how I felt, without irony. The path to be an English professor was well-mapped, and there were reassuring plaudits at each stage: grades and test scores and recommendations and awards and other stamps of approval from comfortingly elite institutions. Leaving that path forced me to ask myself what I wanted out of my life, which is another way of saying, what is the meaning of life? It's a big question that most people can't answer, and confronting it directly feels empty, and lonely.
For lack of any other ideas about what to do with a BA in English, I went into book publishing, and a few years later ended up in law school. I'm eliding a lot here, but it's not my intent to tell the story of my life here.
The point is, the way I feel right now about my life and career feels very similar to how I felt when I graduated from college. The pretentious and melodramatic phrase "existential crisis" is once again inescapably apt.
At times it leads me to ask, "what have I done?" I left a job that I enjoyed and at which I was pretty good, and now I feel adrift. But I also know that my satisfyingly high-powered job did not shield me from existential crises. It kept me too busy to dwell on it much, but I still felt like I was wasting my life on something that did not in the end matter to me very much. Which is exactly why I left. That and the needs of my family. It's one thing to waste your life on something you don't care about; it's another to see your family making sacrifices so that you can do it.