What Eddie Izzard Can Teach You About Your Legal Career Search

I’m a fan of wit and irreverence, so of course I love Eddie Izzard’s humor. Anyone who can coin the term “executive transvestite,” come up with the brilliant riff of Cake or Death, and poke such delicious fun of Anglican music is someone who deserves every bit of success that comes his way.

Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard, the master of resilience. Oh, and comedy.

I stumbled onto an airing of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story on PBS recently, and I found more reasons to adore Izzard. That guy knows how to fail, epically. And then get up, dust himself off, and keep right on going.

While Izzard seemingly burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, he had been failing away spectacularly for years. He flunked out of college his first year because he was so consumed by getting into the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. He spent years experimenting with doing street performance there, plus acts in more traditional venues where he would get at most a handful of people to watch. He took on jobs as the emcee of comedy shows in places where he wanted to be the main act but couldn’t get a gig—then he transformed the emcee role into getting himself noticed as a great comedian in his own right.

This has everything to do with an alternative legal career search, because it’s about that thing that many, maybe most, lawyers lack: resilience. Resilience is what can get you unstuck. It’s that willingness to try something, fail, not beat yourself up about it, and move freaking on. You take what lessons you can from bad experiences, and don’t let them keep you doubting yourself.

This lack of resilience is not (just) me blathering on. Larry Richard (a lawyer with a doctorate in psychology) has studied the personality traits of lawyers. Compared to the general population, attorneys as a group fall at the 30th percentile mark for resiliency. So yes, Houston, we have a problem.

Part of that problem is that most lawyers lack what Izzard has had for years: A deep-seated belief that they are doing what they were born to do. Note that I didn’t say Izzard had a profound belief that he was a great and wonderful comedian; he just knew he was a performer of some type, and he liked getting laughs. And he liked writing. So what did he do? He performed comedy. He took notes on what worked, kept those things, and then dumped what didn’t and tried new material.

He did not spend a lot of time, near as I can tell, beating himself up about how if he were really a comedian, he would have gotten more laughs, or instant gigs in the hottest comedy clubs, and since he didn’t he therefore must not be a comedian.

Izzard’s resiliency stands in sharp contrasts to that of many, many lawyers. In a nutshell, resiliency is

  • having a flexible, optimistic attitude
  • responding positively to ambiguity
  • being proactive, rather than reactive, and
  • adopting a mind set that is open to change, and exploration.

This does not sound like the average lawyer, does it? Indeed, as Richard said to me in an email discussion we had earlier this year:

The key here is that this is not a normal bell curve—rather, 90% of lawyers I’ve tested score in the bottom half of the Resilience trait, i.e., their scores are 49% or lower. Lawyers are thin-skinned, defensive, and slow to rebound from criticism, rejection, or setbacks. This one trait makes them somewhat averse to intimate relationships, and lots of research shows that intimate relationships is one of the best predictors of happiness. Do the math, and you can see the implications of this one.

Yes indeed, we can.

But what to do about it? Unlike skepticism, which Richard says is often a learned trait, “It’s more probable that this particular trait [resiliency] has a hefty dose of genetics behind it, and that those entering the law were already low on the trait when they chose law.”

Yet even if you’re born with relatively low resiliency, you can learn better coping strategies. Are they going to be as easy for you to use as a person born with more natural resiliency? No.

But let’s say you aren’t born with a lot of musical talent, and yet want to play the cello. You’re not going to be a cello player of  Yo Yo Ma’s caliber, but you can still get better at playing the cello by showing up and practicing. You will be better at the cello by practicing than if you didn’t practice at all, right? And unlike cello playing, resilience helps everyone lead a happier, less angst-filled life.

If you’re not sure where you are on the resiliency scale, you might want to take this online quiz.

Some ways to develop resiliency are:

Maintain connections with others—you know, that thing about having friends and family you don’t neglect constantly.

Embrace your whole identity, not just the work part of it. In other words, have a hobby, a bit of spiritual life, and do things that promote your health.

Work on a positive self-image. Law tends to tear down your esteem (understatement of the year), so you need to actively focus on the traits that you value about yourself—sense of humor, creativity, musical talent, athleticism, kindness, whatever it is.

Change your view of mistakes. They are not damning evidence of your incompetence, but golden opportunities for learning. Really. Even my judge told me this, back when I was a young and still unjaded lawyer.

Of course, it’s easier to say to do all these things to develop resilience than to actually do them. So if you need help, I know this recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys on resiliency . . .

And in the meantime, catch a showing of Believe, watch it on Netflix, or buy the DVD or get it via iTunes. It will be inspiring time well spent.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys on how to be more resilient in their life and career search. Sometimes she even gives fun homework like watching Eddie Izzard. She offers free, half-hour sample sessions with no strings attached. Contact her at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com to schedule your sample session. Or to share the latest Eddie Izzard news.

4 thoughts on “What Eddie Izzard Can Teach You About Your Legal Career Search

  1. This is very interesting. I’m intrigued by your comment that law tends to tear down your self-esteem. Why do you think that’s the case?

    • So many reasons! One, the DNA of law is to deconstruct–arguments, logic, documents, rationales. And it bleeds over very easily into how lawyers treat other people. Two, most lawyers are NTs on the Meyers-Briggs Typology Indicator, which means they like using analysis (tearing things apart) as a primary way to navigate problems; feelings make them uncomfortable to varying degrees, and often lawyers deal with that discomfort by pretending that feelings don’t exist. So they trample all over feelings. Third, lawyers operate as perfectionists; since no one is perfect, there is always something wrong with what you did, you’re never enough, and that is very bruising to self-esteem. Those are 3 things that leap to mind, though there are lots more reasons that go into the mix, like valuing money above all else.
      Thanks for your question, I appreciate it.

  2. Pingback: Change Your Station from Lawyer Pessimism | Leaving the Law

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