What Elmo Can Teach Unhappy, Blocked Lawyers

My husband has many talents, and one of them is picking the most obscure crap imaginable to put on our Netflix queue. Usually this irritates me, because I’m just not that into World War I movies, John Wayne, or subtitled foreign films about Soviet occupations. But then he goes and finds stuff like Doc Martin, or last Friday night’s feature, Being Elmo. I was completely unprepared for how much we could all learn about alternative legal careers and risk-taking from the story of a puppeteer.

Kevin Clash with Elmo

Kevin Clash and Elmo may have been destined to meet, but neither of them knew that. They were just doing the work.

Kevin Clash, the man you never see while watching Elmo on Sesame Street, grew up in what was locally known as Chocolate Town near Baltimore. He was 9 when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. He was immediately transfixed.

When he was 10, he noticed the black furry lining of his dad’s raincoat and was seized by an irresistible impulse to use the lining to make a puppet. So he made his first puppet, a monkey with a Muppet-like face, and put it on his parents’ dresser.

After he’d finished the puppet, it hit Kevin that he might could get in some trouble for cutting up his dad’s coat. He was already hiding when he heard his dad call him downstairs. His dad looked at him, and simply said, “Next time, just ask, OK?” Remember, this was the 1970s, in a black family kind of scraping by.

I imagine today most parents would lecture their kids about valuing money, not destroying property, and all other kinds of things related to money and material goods. Kevin’s mom said her reaction was, “Oh, I’m not worried about that coat. Kevin’s going to be able to buy lots of coats for us.” Perceptive lady.

No Firm Plan

Fast-forward, and at 17 Kevin is working at a local TV station as a puppeteer on a popular kids’ show. He watches everything he can about Jim Henson and the Muppets, trying to pick up techniques for his own puppet-making. He sees a special about some of the large Muppets, and it features Kermit Love, who engineers many of those special Muppets.

Kevin really wants to meet Love, and to his utter amazement, his mom calls Love. On a senior trip to New York, Kevin goes to meet Kermit Love, who, as Kevin recalls, “looks like Santa Claus.” Love seems to take an instant liking to Kevin, showing him around the workshop, working on the construction of the puppets Kevin had brought. Not long after graduating high school, Kevin starts working for Love, and finds work in 2 series. Things are going well, but Kevin still longs to work directly with Jim Henson on Sesame Street.

I’m going to stop the summary there, way before Kevin meets Jim Henson and eventually lands on Sesame Street. Because here’s the important thing that unhappy lawyers need to see in this story: Kevin Clash didn’t know how this was all going to turn out. He had no idea he was going to create, through a random chance, one of the most popular TV characters ever.

Kevin Clash didn’t have a guaranteed road map of success. I’m not sure if he ever lost much sleep about that; the movie doesn’t really talk about it, so I tend to think not. What he knew is that he liked making puppets, he liked puppeteering and interacting with children, and he was really, really fortunate to be working with Kermit Love. I’m sure he also knew he was a black kid without a college education in competitive New York City.

How Lawyer-Think Would Have Destroyed Elmo

If Kevin Clash had been trained to think like a lawyer, he would have been hyper-focused on

  • what he didn’t have (money),
  • what he wasn’t (white and educated), and
  • how he didn’t know what was coming next (when both his series got cancelled).

He would be like most of my clients, in fact. He would be so concerned about security, safety and career path that he would hide in some soul-crushing job, worrying that he might not be able to afford something like a gym membership or cable, instead of worrying about how to learn more about what he loved.

Fortunately for millions of kids across the planet, Kevin Clash just kept on doing what he loved, despite the barriers. So when fate threw him a curve ball, in the form of another, then more-famous puppeteer throwing the Elmo puppet at him in disgust and saying, “You want to give this a shot? I hate this muppet!”, well, Kevin Clash was ready.

Will you be ready when life throws you that curve ball of chance to do what you love? Or will you still be a well-paid, miserable lawyer? What will your choice be?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy lawyers to focus on the things that make them truly happy and blissful–which aren’t usually things at all. If you would like to experience happiness and finding your bliss, schedule a sample coaching session to get started. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com today to set up your appointment and get going toward your bliss.

6 thoughts on “What Elmo Can Teach Unhappy, Blocked Lawyers

  1. This is my favorite recent post – excellent real-life story of the good that can come from self-knowledge and pursuing an interest and goal. And yes, a lawyer would have spotted all of the potential pitfalls and screwed it all up…

  2. I just wanted to add some obscure information I just grabbed off of The Archdruid Report:

    “The accident of plate tectonics that opened oceanic barriers between the Old and New Worlds had an impact on disease that wasn’t clearly understood until quite recently. Most of the world’s serious human pathogens came to our species from domestic livestock, and nearly all of that happened in the Old World, because Eurasia happened to have many more species suitable for domestication than the New World did. One at a time, over the tens of millennia between the closing of the Bering land bridge and the voyages of Columbus, pathogens found their way from animal vectors into the human population, epidemics swept the Old World, and the survivors gradually picked up a certain level of resistance. Those pathogens didn’t cross the ocean to the New World until the first European ships began to arrive, but when they did, they hit the native people of the Americas all at once. Within a century of 1492, as a result, native populations collapsed to 10% or less of their precontact levels.

    The scale of the dieoff can be measured by a simple fact still rarely mentioned outside of the specialist literature: in 1500 the Amazon jungle as we now know it did not exist. At that time, and for many centuries before, the Amazon basin was a thickly settled agricultural region full of sizeable cities and towns with thriving local and long distance trade. The first Spanish explorers to travel down the Amazon described it in these terms, which were dismissed as fables by later writers who knew only the “green hell” of the postcollapse Amazon. Only in the last two decades or so have sophisticated archeological studies shown that the conquistadors were right and their critics wrong.”

    I did not know that. I’m actually very surprised by this information. Not about the dieoff, which I knew about, but the Amazon jungle thingy.

  3. This is a really great post. I went into law because I thought that you need to have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, then you’re being foolish. That’s the way I was brought up. My extended family includes a large proportion of professionals. Why? Because there’s an established path to becoming a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, etc.

    But that’s not the only way to live. And that’s not how most people (including many of the most successful people) live. You follow your interest, and you follow the opportunities that life presents. Maybe you make it, and maybe you don’t. But life doesn’t come with a step-by-step instruction manual for success and happiness.

    Great insight. Easy to describe. But acting on it? For a life-long path-taker, surrounded by a family of path-takers? Whew, that first step off the cliff is a doozy!

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