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Why Wait to Be Happy?

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New York City billboard, September 2017

Last week, I read a blog post by Leslie Beale, a former-attorney-turned-executive-coach, in which she explains that happiness begets success – not the other way around as we have all probably been told (at least once… usually by one of our old, crotchety relatives who has been beaten down by a lifetime of hard, seemingly meaningless work and now wants the rest of us to suffer through it like he did). While this principle may be at odds with what your great uncle told you, it has been repeatedly supported by scientific research. Instead of success leading to happiness, evidence suggests that happiness actually leads to success. That’s right… now you have an excuse to indulge in a few extra cuddles with your kids before leaving the house for work tomorrow morning or getting together with your “bookclub” friends even when you haven’t cracked open a book since graduating from law school. As Ms. Beal explains, “Happiness, contentment, and a positive outlook fuel our success. They allow our brains to become exponentially more creative. Our resiliency and motivation improve. We are more energetic and engaged.” (And if Ms. Beale’s words alone don’t convince you that positive emotions may very well be our universal superpowers, check out the voluminous research coming out of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, led by highly acclaimed psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now don’t get me wrong, just sitting around being happy probably won’t put food on your table. It is important that we recognize the value of hard work and not dismiss some of the valuable lessons that our old crotchety ancestors taught us. But studies show that when people approach their work with a generally happy or positive mindset, then their “performance on nearly every level – productivity, creativity, engagement – improves.” See Achor, S. (2012). Positive IntelligenceHarvard Business Review Magazine (Jan/Feb 2012) (meta-analysis, performed by renowned psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener, of 225 academic studies showing that happy employees have, on average, 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales, and three times more creativity than their unhappy colleagues).

But most of us, even very smart attorneys who have probably heard about the happiness-success connection before, tend to believe the lie that if we work harder, usually in a job we hate, we’ll eventually achieve some illustrious brass ring that will finally make us happy (and all those years of misery will be worth it). Ms. Beale says that this way of thinking “makes us observers in our own lives.”

Don’t think you can be fooled by this trap? See if any of this sounds familiar. Ms. Beale explains that most attorneys react to this success-first-happiness-second lie in one of two equally destructive ways: “Some of us become extremely aggressive and begin to push ourselves to achieve more and more. We work endlessly – always in search of the perfect job, the next promotion, the bigger salary. Others of us become paralyzed and begin to spin, repeating the same actions over and over with no real advancement toward our goals.” Have you ever said, I’ll be happy when I’ve paid off my student loans; or I’ll be happy when I’m making more money; or I’ll be happy when I’ve made partner? Ms. Beale cautions that if you have ever made one of these statements, you may have already fallen victim to the fallacy and are on track for a life full of misery and failure. I’m paraphrasing.

The reality is that most of us didn’t consciously choose to grow up and become pawns in the game of life. We start out following a script that we didn’t help write. People, sometimes the very ones who love us most, are happy to set goals and expectations for us to reach for and judge ourselves against. Get high grades, go to a good college, get into law school, find a well-paying job, bill 2,000 hours a year, develop new business, make partner, be happy. We look up somewhere in the middle of this timeline and question how we got here. We don’t remember why we chose to attend law school, why we took the job we did or what it felt like initially to be excited and engaged in our work. We become so focused on reaching the next carrot that someone else is dangling out in front of us that we fail to think about whether we actually even like carrots.

Science says that it is time to flip the script and write your own screenplay. Take back control. Do more of what makes you happy and success will follow.

I am not suggesting abandoning your life’s work or sitting around all day binge-watching Real Housewives. Nor am I suggesting that you won’t have to suck it up somedays, especially in the beginning of your legal career, and grind it out. But I am suggesting that you seek to define success on your own terms rather than be sucked into someone else’s story. Ironically, choosing happiness is hard. It is hard to buck the system. It is hard to do something other than the status quo. It is hard to thoughtfully reflect on your own values, strengths and priorities and chart your path accordingly. It is much easier to stay on auto-pilot and let someone else do all this for you . . . even when it requires working long hours and billing time.

Every day, I meet lawyers who are miserable in their jobs. They fantasize about other dream scenarios. They may like the work they do, but they wish they did less of it… or had more time to spend with their kids… or worked from home two days a week for a change of scenery. But they don’t seek (as in “actively attempt to find”) anything different. They hope for it… they wish for it…  they may even pray for it… but rather than doing the work to make their dreams a reality, they keep their eyes on their screens, bill more hours and become more and more unhappy (in and outside of the office). Or, even more frustrating (to me, the one in the business of dream-making), when that dream scenario materializes, they often reject it… or more typically, languish in a state of decision-paralysis until their dream job becomes someone else’s real job. Why? Because they are trapped in the lie that success precedes happiness and the myth that success follows a certain script of drudgery and misery, with happiness only appearing at the end of the story. Perhaps that three-days-a-week job didn’t look like someone else’s picture of how a successful attorney should be working. They were worried they’d be perceived by others as weak or lazy or…  AHHHH! not successful. So, they’ll wait two more years until they make partner (or get their kids through school or pay off the mortgage on their second home or…  fill in the blank) and then start looking for a job that will make them happy.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! What kind of a fairy tale is that? No wide-eyed kid dreaming of conquering dragons and living happily ever after would want to be the protagonist in that story.

Listen, you now have science – and more ways to practice law than ever before – behind you, pushing you to jump script, to ad lib, to think independently, to be brave. Lean in to your own life, your own career development, your own happiness. Learn your craft, analyze your strengths, set your priorities based on your own values and what you actually want to do with this one life you have, and do the work that you enjoy in the way that will allow you to experience happiness now (not years from now). Not only will you be happier, and ultimately more successful (in the ways that matter most to you), but it will piss off your old crotchety great uncle – who, come on, you never really liked anyway – and make your mother (and the rest of the people who love you) really happy too.

If you are interested in starting the self-reflective process and like assessments (the scientific ones – not the ones on Facebook that identify which Disney princess you are or promise to guess your age based on what you had for breakfast this morning), then I suggest starting at Penn’s Authentic Happiness Questionnaire Center. The self-assessments are free but require you to create an account. And if you want to see what kind of life-changing dream jobs Latitude currently has available, check out our Opportunities page or email me at creed@latitudelegal.com.

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