Pessimism is what makes attorneys so brittle and unable to bounce back from mistakes quickly. In other words, they are not resilient. Dr. Larry Richard has pegged lawyer resiliency in the bottom half of the general populace. Folks, that ain’t good.
Here’s how that lawyer pessimism looks in action. A lawyer sees any mistake she makes as a personal failing. Since it’s only about her, she is highly reluctant to talk to other attorneys about her mistake—the tendency among nearly all attorneys is to hide, frankly.
The culture of law firms often reinforces that belief, because it’s far easier to blame the easy target than to examine the failings of the ecosystem lawyers have created for themselves. You know, the one that doesn’t teach, just expects you to somehow get it from distant observation, with little hands-on training, no feedback or constructive criticism? The one in which attorneys are stretched far too thin, get far too little rest and rejuvenation, and don’t get any feedback, period, let alone positive reinforcement? Cause yeah, nothing about that environment would produce mistakes by an individual.
Hiding, not Learning, From Mistakes
So, in a group of pessimists, lawyers try to bury their mistakes, shift blame, and basically hide from recriminations if at all possible.
This hiding allows the permanence of the failing to become self-fulfilling: I always blow really big depositions. I never interview well. And maybe there is some truth in that, because rather than saying to themselves, “Wow, I made a mistake. What could I do better or differently next time?” lawyers just sit in their own little hellish corner and berate themselves. In effect, lawyers hide from opportunities to learn and improve. And, make themselves increasingly miserable in the process.
So that one mistake sends lawyers down the slippery slope to the conclusion that nothing they do matters. They have been caught, tried, and convicted by their fate. They are helpless, and therefore doomed.
Stop me when this doesn’t sound familiar.
Actually, I’m going to stop myself, because you’re smart, and you can spot the pattern here and see at least a few places it’s true in your own life. The question is, what the heck can you do about it?
Radio Station K-FKD
The good news is, there’s lots you can do to change this self-defeating pattern. The bad news is, there’s not an instant, miraculous cure—sorry, I don’t trade in silver bullets. Like anything worth doing, there’s some effort involved. The payback is pretty huge, though.
First, next time something goes badly for you—you get some undeserved criticism, someone cuts you off in traffic, you don’t hear back from your dream job application within a month—start listening in on what Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird calls station K-FKD (sound it out). That’s the voice in your head that plays
the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.
Just notice that voice. This is the easy part, cause for most of us, it plays all the time. It was 24/7/365 before that phrase was even invented.
Then, see what your consequences are that arise from those beliefs. For example, if your personal K-FKD station does indeed believe that everything you touch turns to shit, do you mutter “it doesn’t matter what I do, I will never be able to be good at this” and then give up working on your painting/short story/music?
Once you’ve identified those beliefs and consequences, it’s time to start calling their bluff. Are those beliefs true in all circumstances, no ifs, ands or buts? I seriously doubt it. So if they’re not, it’s time to gather some evidence of that.
So far, these steps are much like what happens in therapy—not a coincidence, since this is former Am. Psychological Assoc. president Martin Seligman’s approach in a nutshell, and he pioneered much of the research on what works to alleviate depression.
Why Optimism? Why Not Neutrality?
It’s a highly useful exercise to challenge station K-FKD, and broadcast your own radio show in response. What I find, though, is that those tools only get you part of the way there. Challenging your beliefs and adopting new, healthier ones will make you become less pessimistic. You won’t necessarily become optimistic, though.
The switch to optimism requires tapping into hope and dreams. This is how you work magic in your life. Dreams are our magic.
To tune into those dreams, do those things that light you up, and do them frequently. (And should you need some suggestions, you can check out this, this, and this post.) It’s simple, but surprisingly hard work for most of us.
If you find you need some help with that fun work, well, you know where to find me.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys and other pessimists on how to find better radio stations to listen to than K-FKD. If you want help changing your station, give coaching a try. Jennifer offers free, no-0bligation sample sessions—email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule yours today.