Lawyer Pessimism Triggers

What’s your pessimism trigger? Actually I would bet you have several. As I’ve talked about before, lawyers tend to be highly pessimistic. Dr. Martin Seligman, who has made a career out of studying optimism, pessimism, and how they affect depression, found that law is the only career in which you perform better if you’re pessimistic.

professional woman behind half full glass

The glass test is actually pretty useful.

But if you want to get the heck out of law, or even just be a happier, healthier person while practicing law, dialing down the pessimism is crucial.

I’m working my way through Learned Optimism, which Seligman originally published in 1990. It should be required reading for any lawyer.

One of the, oh, 53 gazillion really interesting things Seligman discusses is the role of internal explanatory style in creating a pessimistic or optimistic outlook. Explanatory style is how you explain events to yourself. Here’s a personal example.

Yesterday I attended a lunch at a group where I didn’t know a soul.
I was a bit late, and so I missed most of the pre-lunch chit-chat. I did chat a bit with the folks at my table, but I had definitely missed the best opportunity to gather some business cards. After the program was over, some folks lingered, but most sped out to get back to the office. No one approached me or tried to draw me in to a conversation.

Here’s where explanatory style comes in. A decade ago, I promise you I would have explained my experience at the lunch like this: “I totally screwed this up. I should have told my client I just couldn’t talk longer today. I should have seen this coming and rescheduled her. I suck at scheduling and administrative details. I always mess networking things up. This group is obviously very tight and I doubt I’m ever going to be able to break in. This was a waste of time and money.”

My reaction yesterday? Pretty different. “Gosh, I wish I could have gotten here a few minutes earlier. Well, I did the best I could. Sometimes clients just need to talk. I liked the woman I was sitting next to, hope I see her again at the next lunch. Any lawyer who wears a bright pink raincoat is worth getting to know! Too bad she had to leave early, but I’ll get her card next time. And I did hand a card out to someone else who seemed interested in career coaching, who knows where that will lead. The folks in this group seem to be pretty tight and work together a lot outside it; I need to find a way to get to know them somehow. I think I’ll volunteer for the service project they’re doing next month. That will probably help.”

I’m fairly sure you don’t have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to see which explanatory style will help me more in growing my business.

Seligman makes the point that pessimism doesn’t necessarily drag people down into the pit day in and day out. But for those who tend toward pessimism, when something bad happens, that triggers them into a spiral chute of pessimism, possibly right into depression.

I highly recommend taking this optimism evaluation test, available on Seligman’s website at Penn. (Free registration is required before you can take the test.) And then pick up Learned Optimisim. Or, keep reading this blog, because I’m going to be writing a lot about the book.

Also, you could notice in your life some common things that trigger that internal downer speech. Often, they are situations where you have little direct control. I’ve noticed for me it’s stuff like:

  • Traffic and parking. This was so much worse when I lived in the D.C. area. Every driver who cut me off was a jerk, the whole place was filled with jerks, and why do the jerks always come out on top and never have to pay for their sins? Yeah, healthy stuff like that! But telling.
  • Waiting for return phone calls/emails. If someone like a friend, relative, or colleague didn’t call or email me back as soon as I expected, I invented all kinds of reasons why. They hate me, I’m not important to them, they’re so inconsiderate, etc. I’ve had to really work to not go there, or at least tell myself that they might have a deadline, an illness, or any one of 34 things that had nothing to do with me in the slightest.
  • Job searching. Oh yeah, the biggie. If I didn’t get an interview, I was fooling myself that I had any marketable job skills. Or whatever I had was clearly not enough, and I would never be able to get a job like that. Or—well, you can probably fill in some blanks there, from your own internal dialogue.

So maybe you can spend a few days observing your own explanatory style. Many of those “truths” we believe about life aren’t so much universally true as self-fulfilling prophecy. See if you can spot a few of your own prophecies. It really will help in your search for a better job, in or outside of law.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, which also means she’s a recovering pessimist. She coaches attorneys on rediscovering their optimism so they can lead fulfilling lives and find satisfying work. Jennifer offers discounted, no-obligation sample coaching sessions. See if coaching can help you–email to schedule your free session.

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