Uncertainty, Your BFF in Alternative Legal Career Searches

Lawyers crave certainty. So does the rest of humanity, but if humanity’s desire for certainty is a 5, the lawyer subset’s need for certainty hovers around 9. Yet feed the beast of certainty every time it says it’s hungry, and you will shut yourself off to possibilities. Poof! There go some intriguing, rewarding career path searches.

Sacagawea and Lewis & Clark

Lewis and Clark didn't know how their journey would turn out, either.

I was struck by how addicted our society is to certainty over the weekend, when I was at a party Sunday night. One of the attendees—the one who was supposed to bring the wine!—had been standstilled for 3 hours on the interstate after a tractor-trailer jack-knifed. And he was a good 2 hours away.

For those of you who, like me, grew up in the Stone Age of communication before the blossoming of answering machines, then cell phones, think how differently this same set of facts would have played out before the late 1980s. Chuck wouldn’t have shown up at the party, and we wouldn’t know why. We’d have played the “I hope nothing’s really wrong” game. Someone might have called his house and gotten no answer; they wouldn’t have been able to leave voice mail. We were forced to dwell in uncertainty quite often.

The same was true of job searches in the pre-email era. Remember how we sent actual letters, worried about what color and type of paper to use? And never expected an instant response acknowledging receipt of our application. We weren’t sure if a lack of response in two weeks meant we were tubed or they still hadn’t decided. Oh wait, that’s still true.

Our cell phones, to name one thing, contribute mightily to our illusions of certainty. We can find out exactly where someone is, why people are late, and how to get to the restaurant that we just read the excellent reviews for on our phone. Hopefully those reviews are real, not paid for. Hopefully the Google Maps app isn’t squirrely.

The irony is that with all the automated tools we have at our disposal, a job search is still an exercise in uncertainty. People dither, organizations don’t get their act together, and often don’t care enough to invest even minimally in systems to let people know they’re out of the running.

Yet still, or maybe because of those uncertainties, we crave certainty when we look for a job. Craving certainty, we insist that we see how our whole career path will look before we take the first step. After all, that’s what we did when we decided on law school. There it was, glistening in the distance: We would have this degree, and it was our passport into a certain career path. We didn’t have to create that path, it was already discovered and trod by many before us.

Of course this is and was insane. Lots of people discovered, even before the current economic downturn, that life likes a good laugh, and often throws a monkey wrench into those glossy Hollywood images of career path that we carry around in our heads.

Certainty is an illusion that can cost you dearly, in unexplored dreams and hopes and a more fulfilled life. When you give up insisting on certainty, you throw open the door to possibilities. Not all of them will pan out—but not all of them need to. It’s the process of exploring, of going with uncertainty, that pays the dividends.

Exploring isn’t linear, but can yield dividends at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Do you think that Lewis and Clark really envisioned Microsoft when they set about exploring for the Northwest Passage? Yet, because that part of the country got explored, it got settled, and settlements grew into towns which eventually blossomed into Redmond and places like it.

Your career search may be more like Lewis and Clark’s journey than you’re comfortable thinking about. They often weren’t certain they were going to survive, let alone find the Northwest Passage. Before their journey, many assumed the Rockies could be crossed in a day, rather than the 11 harrowing days it took the explorers. The explorers had to depend on the kindness of strangers, luck, and persistence, along with the exploration skills they already possessed. They had to learn new things along the way.

Still craving certainty? Then look for it in yourself—certainty that you are skilled and valuable and that there are many places where you can use your talents and pursue you dreams. And be certain that if you’re willing to explore, you will find one of those places.

Oh, and be willing to turn of your cell phone for a while, too. Think of it as training yourself to live harmoniously with uncertainty.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who explores certainty myths with attorneys who want a change in their lives. How can you embrace uncertainty? Drop her a line at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com.

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