How a friend's Facebook status changed one young lawyer's life

At the beginning of a promising law career, Renatta Austin thought her life was on track. Until she started seeing status updates from a friend... that made her question everything.
Renatta Austin witnessed a great tragedy and gained a new perspective on life.
Listen to the full episode9:44

When Renatta Austin thought about what it meant to be successful, she had a very specific picture in her mind: a job with a legal firm on Bay Street, spiffy suits, rubbing elbows with important people, and money. 

It was a version of success she held on to from a young age, a vision that propelled her through law school. When she graduated, she managed to turn that imagined picture of success into concrete reality.

But something felt off. Renatta had a nagging feeling of doubt, a sense that maybe she'd missed something in the path she'd set out for herself. Surely there was something that would leave her satisfied at a much deeper level. Money and power are always nice, but what about passion?

Renatta Austin

Renatta was constantly turning the question of passion around in her head. She had a strong desire to pursue community-based lawyering, but she also knew she had bills to pay – including heaps of student debt – and the responsible choice always seemed to be sticking with the job that paid well. Then one morning, like any other morning, Renatta opened up Facebook. 

A friend from law school, someone Renatta loved and admired, had been diagnosed with cancer. She had posted a status update to let her friends know she was sick. Over the next eight months, Renatta's friend documented her struggle with cancer: the appointments, the chemotherapy, the hair loss. And Renatta followed along, checking each update, waiting to hear some good news.

Life is completely unpredictable. Things can change in a matter of months.- Renatta Austin

"She was so humble, so graceful, so generous in sharing her experience with people on Facebook," Renatta remembers. "It really forced me to take a long hard look at my own life."

For Renatta, watching her friend's struggle in real time had a deep and lasting impact. She says her friend did everything right – she worked hard, made responsible decisions, was a decent and caring human being. But instead of enjoying the benefits of her dedication, she was fighting cancer. Renatta decided it was never a good idea to wait to pursue one's passions and dreams. The right time was right now.

"There's no guarantee that I'm going to be here 10 years from now. I realized that I have to start living now, so as a result I made the decision to leave the kind of work that I was doing... and pursue my passion of community-based lawyering and frontline work."

"Even though it doesn't look like the traditional success of working downtown and wearing a fancy suit every day, I'm really happy and it makes sense and feels right. This is who I am."

About the producer

Naheed Mustafa
Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning producer, writer, and broadcaster. She began her career as a freelance reporter when she left Canada and moved to Pakistan where she worked for both local English language media and newspapers back home. After coming back to Canada, Naheed added broadcasting to her list of media platforms and became a regular documentary contributor at CBC Radio. Alongside documentary, Naheed has also worked as a producer for a variety of news and current affairs programs at CBC Radio including Dispatches, As It Happens, The Current, and Ideas. She will spend the upcoming year as a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto as the CBC/Radio-Canada fellow.