How are you going to live on a literature degree?” my closest college friends asked me over and over as we walked through campus, with me carrying “Don Quixote” and they an accounting textbook.
Liberal arts majors get a bad reputation from their family and friends who are taking degrees in other fields, simply because they can't imagine how a history or philosophy degree can put food on the table or gas up (much less afford) a Porsche. The truth of the matter is that college isn't meant to cement a career path; it's meant to excite passion so that you discover what you want to do.
When asked, I always felt compelled to mention my course and quickly add that it is simply my pre-law. But, instead of asking what I adored about literature, everyone would wonder what law school I intended to go to. I caved under social pressure every time by announcing that I was where I was not because of any desire for the stories of Umberto Eco, but because it was a stepping stone to a goal recognised by adults as “acceptable.”
“What law do you practice?” everyone else seems to ask me today, 14 years later. I graduated with a literature degree, passed the bar examinations and taught both academic fields in my respective alma mater. And yet I have not spent a day at a law firm, and the last time I was at court, it was simply to comply with a law school requirement.
Instead, I live and breathe managing a serviced apartment rental that my brother (also a lawyer who doesn't practice) and I put up when I was in law school. With no formal training in business, and laughable artistic skills, I nevertheless ended up designing, furnishing and leasing out rooms for a living. During law school, I was dangerously addicted to looking at picturesque and modern apartments in Google Images, hoping to replicate their minimalist style into the rooms we were leasing.
“But what was the rest of all for then?” someone asked me recently. It was for me, of course! Being able to market a product or service is easy when you have a way with words. In college, I participated in a science-fiction short story writing contest sponsored by Fully Booked. I was 18 and had never written a story in my life. My work got shortlisted, and I never got paid a cent. Nevertheless, it gave me the self-esteem to believe that I could write and, most importantly, that people would read it.
I went on to write personal essays that got published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler one after another. They talked about the meaning of time, relationships, charity and the absence of it—essentially the human condition. By themselves, they weren't worth anything, but the skill of weaving words onto paper for the purpose of catching the reader's attention is golden, and you can exploit this skill wherever you want.
Years after the start of my essay contributions, I wrote about my business to Entrepreneur Magazine, the Inquirer, ANC, MYX TV, and courted them with the pitch of why their readers and viewers would want to hear about two lawyer brothers who decided to quit lawyering by becoming bellboys and interior decorators. All of these media entities were kind enough to give us a spotlight at one point or another through an article or even a TV interview. I used my “Atty.” not on a professional level, but as a punch line, hoping it would tell a good story. My Bachelor of Arts taught me that everyone is willing to give time to a good story with characters who become unlikely heroes.
In law, I discovered that while lawyers read and write a lot, a great deal of them can't use the written word outside of drafting pleading and demand letters. This is a pity, because our connected world opens us to so many opportunities on how we use words that we can't afford to not be creative and versatile with their use.
Literature taught me how creativity can take my mind to different worlds, and law brought gravity to my consciousness after I reached them. In a manner of speaking, they complemented each other in a way that no career talk in college that I attended could ever prepare me for. Entrepreneurs have the exciting job of always thinking big, but also condensing it into something feasible for execution.
When picking a college degree, don't pick anything just because someone else told you to. Pick it because you feel you'll find a drive to excel in it through passion, and that you'll have fun doing it! In the end, wealth and happiness are gifted most to those who persevere when the only thing one wants to do is quit.
Rafael Lorenzo G Conejos is a lawyer and former professor of literature and law at De La Salle University Manila. He dedicates this piece to all those taking a liberal arts course.
Copyright: Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network