SMC coach Eric Barron follows an alternative path

His office is messy. Cardboard boxes partially hide a set of open shelves crammed with running shoes. Like you’d see in a bowling alley, their sizes are written on the back in black marker. A desk is squeezed into the corner, and a low white Ikea loveseat occupies the only open space near a window overlooking the Santa Monica College athletic field. Under the winter sun of Los Angeles, the track outside is a burnished red, the grass brilliant green, and the letters SMC painted in a startling blue. Coach Eric Barron, the office’s occupant, spends much of his days out on that field, coaching cross-country in the fall and track and field in the spring.

Under his baseball cap, his is a small, narrow face, with delineated features tanned by hours in the sun.

It could have been different. He could have been spending most of his day in a cool office building with tall glass windows, mahogany desks, a plaque on his door, and a personal secretary.

Eric Barron was a lawyer, practicing corporate litigation in a corporate firm, wearing corporate attire, and making corporate pay, before switching careers and becoming a coach at SMC in 2000.

There was no lightning strike or voice that encouraged Barron to take this untraditional step. It was a growing realization that he wasn’t happy at his job. As a corporate litigator, he was handling cases worth millions of dollars, but even after a win, he found little satisfaction in it. Ultimately, he was moving money from one company to another, and he was giving his life to do it.

The bright spot in his week was coaching a community running group.

Barron runs 35 miles a week, and has been running since high school. Barron began coaching when a running injury left him unable to join the community group’s workouts. Instead, he would time the runs and coach the members of the group, and found that he enjoyed it.

At work, he looked at the partners in his firm, the ones who had ”made it,” and noticed that although they made more money than he did, they weren’t any happier. According to Barron, that was the future that awaited him in the best-case scenario.

That is, if he had decided to stay.

Barron realized that he was sacrificing happiness and meaning for money and knew he wanted a change, but turning down the security and prestige of corporate law was not an easy decision.

What decided the matter was the suit.

Barron made two lists. He wrote down a list of factors he wanted in a job, like money, security and happiness. He knew he wanted to work with people and also that he didn’t want to wear a suit. His second list consisted of possible jobs. He then rated each job by the first list of factors.

­Clearly, coaching didn’t require that he wear a suit. It was something he enjoyed, it was a way to make a difference, and Barron was willing to take the steep pay cut that came with the switch.

Barron speaks of his move from corporate litigation to part-time coaching as if it were the only logical conclusion.

“You learn that you need a certain amount of money to live, to support yourself,” says Barron. “But beyond that, more money won’t necessarily make you happier.”

Now, Barron spends his days coaching students in more than just running. He says that for the students, coming to practice and watching themselves grow teaches incredible life lessons.

“You’re going to get out of something what you put into it,” Barron says.

It’s 2:28 p.m. and track practice starts in two minutes. Barron grabs his clipboard and a sports jacket, and heads out into the sundrenched field.