Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Ozan Varol (07JD) prioritizes doing nothing. That might surprise anyone who knows Varol, the winner of Iowa Law’s 2022 Emerging Leader Award and a person who does a whole lot of something.

A rocket scientist (really), attorney, professor, and – most recently – author, Varol has taken steps on his career path that are both conventional and unconventional. He recently finished writing his second book, “Awaken Your Genius: Escape Conformity, Ignite Creativity and Become Extraordinary,” and is gearing up for promotion and marketing in preparation for its release in April 2023.

Rocket scientist-turned-law professor

In 2003, Varol graduated from Cornell University with a degree in planetary sciences, which his LinkedIn profile states is an interdisciplinary program in astrophysics and geology. As a student, he worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers project. He recalls that he loved working on the project but there was one thing he didn’t love – studying astrophysics. He realized in part due to a class taught to undergraduates by a Cornell Law professor that he preferred studying the “physics of society” to the physics of…well, physics.

After college graduation, Varol took a job at a Washington, D.C. law firm to see if he might enjoy working in law. When that job confirmed his interest, he applied to law school, ending up at Iowa Law.

Varol’s own path was influenced by a professor, so it seems natural that he should take a job in academia. For ten years, he taught Constitutional and criminal law courses at Lewis & Clark Law School. In 2020, he released his first book, “Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.” Not long after the book’s release, Varol decided to step away from academia—a career that he once loved. He wrote in a blog post at the time that while he didn’t know for sure what was next, “I’ve outgrown this old skin. I’ve been teaching the same classes for nearly ten years. It’s become too easy. I stopped learning and growing.” Since then, he’s focused on speaking, writing a weekly newsletter, and working on his next book.

Doing nothing is subversive

None of what Varol does sounds anything like doing nothing. But he says making space has been one of the keys to his success. On a regular basis, he says, “I just sit on a chair with a pen and a notepad and just jot down what comes up. Sometimes nothing will come up. 95% of the stuff that does come up tends to be junk. But I find that you have to get the junk out of your system, out of your head, for those gems to emerge.”

Varol believes this practice is countercultural in the world of productivity and constant connection. “One of the most subversive things you can do in this hustle culture is to give yourself time and space to just step into the void. You'll find that taking your foot off the pedal can be the best way to accelerate,” he says.

Law Review entrepreneur

Varol credits Iowa Law with teaching him skills like writing and crafting arguments, which benefited him in the more traditional portions of his career as a lawyer and professor. But one of the most traditional experiences in law school – working on Law Review – actually influenced him as an entrepreneur. “It's a student-run journal, and I was the editor in chief, which felt like being the CEO of a small business of 16 other board members and the student writers,” he recalls. “Running that organization felt very entrepreneurial to me.”

Today, the professor-turned-entrepreneur says he would encourage students and junior lawyers to consider paths outside the norm. “I think a lot of us spend most of our life trying to contort ourselves to fit into boxes that other people have drawn, trying to color inside the sketches that have been drawn by somebody else,” Varol says. “If a traditional legal career does not align with you, figure out what you want to do and go do it. … A legal education sets you up for so many different possibilities.”

Varol warns people not to try to “Tetris” themselves into fitting a conventional shape, but rather find their own “shape and color.” To that end, Varol says he loves the idea of the Emerging Leader Award. “I do really love the word emerging. I always have and I will, for the rest of my life, see myself as a work in progress,” Varol notes. “All of us are going to be emerging for the rest of our lives. There is no such thing as ‘everything all figured.’ That’s the end. That’s when the credits roll. I hope to be ‘emerging’ for the rest of my life.”

And that’s far from nothing.