A lot of unhappy lawyers get stuck because they don’t think they have any unique skills or attributes. Rather than embracing what makes them different and using that to fuel an alternative legal career search, they work on ways to endure the pain of doing what they’re fundamentally unsuited to do, practice law. They work on conforming more, even though it’s killing them.
I’m not judging that, because goodness knows I did it myself for a quite a while. And as thoughtful reader commented a few weeks ago on the Who Am I to Demand a Happy Job post, many of us “have trouble with this because it feels so conceited to say, ‘Gee, I have gifts that the world’s waiting for me to share!’ ”
Part of this self-doubt comes from being taught, in school and other places, that we are more valuable if we just conform and follow the rules—that getting the “A” is more important than the things that make us individual.
It’s the Industrial Revolution mentality, in which society needed a whole bunch of cogs to make the factories work. Precise conformity and replication are super for making factories efficient, but our economy has long since moved into more innovative areas of wealth creation—notice how all the venture capital goes into social media these days? Um, yeah. (Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, does an excellent job exploring this shift; I highly recommend it.)
Confusing Gifts and Money
Really and truly, we all have gifts. Our individuality matters; I firmly believe our purpose on this earth is to improve the world by embracing and living out our uniqueness. We all have many things that we do a little better than the average bear, and that make our heart sing. But in our ultra-competitive, what-have-you billed-this-week culture, we equate gifts with making money. Gifts that don’t immediately produce cash are doubted and dismissed.
Yet the world does care that you use your gifts. Your gifts do not need to earn you a million bucks or rock the entire world, country, state, or even city to make a difference. Worrying about the scale of your impact is worrying about stardom, not about actually using your gifts.
Worrying that you’re not going to be a rich star by using your gifts confuses two very different things: process and product. Or, maybe daily practice v. a performance. Lawyers, with their emphasis on performance, have a particular need to separate the two.
At its simplest, a gift is something that you enjoy doing that you’re slightly—and only slightly—above average at doing. Because what tends to happen is that we lawyers, particularly, think we only have gifts if we are exceptionally, stratospherically good at something.
Gifts Really Can Morph Into Jobs
Let’s take writing, since I do that and have for a while. When I first started thinking about getting out of law, I really wanted to write. A novel. A blockbuster novel, to be honest. Even before I acknowledged that I wanted completely out of law, I wanted to write. Heck, in law school I persuaded my intellectual property professor to let my seminar project be a short story about a lawyer’s ethical dilemma around an IP case.
But I was, um, concerned that I would make a complete ass of myself if I tried to be a writer. I worried that I was deluding myself that I had any writing talent. Never mind that I wrote onto law review and won awards in high school for editorial writing and poetry. After all, partners, even ones whose writing I actually respected, regularly edited the hell out of my work. I wrote long, turgid backstories in my short stories. I committed all manner of writing sins regularly.
Guess what? I still enjoyed writing, even though it scared me to death. I eventually got a job as a legal editor and reporter, my gateway job out of law. And looking back at some of those stories I wrote for my job, oh good gravy many were cringe-worthy. But hey, I did something less than perfectly and lived. Even better, some of my articles had glimmers of poetry. Most importantly, the more I kept writing, the better I got.
Now, I’m a decent writer. Have I published a novel? Nope. That would, for starters, require finishing one. (Details, details.) But I got paid for my writing for several years.
Fame Is Nice, Not Required
You probably never heard of me when I was a paid writer—and that is fine.You don’t need to be a star to use your gifts as part of a job that makes you happy. Notice how I’m still writing? It doesn’t pay as directly as it used to, but I still do it and I still enjoy it. In fact, I probably enjoy it more because I’ve divorced product (writing something to getting paid for that) and the creative process.
Next time, I’ll focus on why using gifts that will never make you money or help you career-wise are still worth pursuing. In the meantime, start totting up the things that you enjoy and can see that you do a bit better than average. Ask your non-toxic friends and family what some other things are that you’re blind to right now. What’s on your list? I’d love to hear about it.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist, but will probably never recover from being a writer. Yeah! She coaches unhappy attorneys on uncovering and using their gifts to create better lives and careers. Jennifer offers discounted sample coaching sessions to help you explore your gifts. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule yours today.