Most lawyers, especially the ones reading this blog, do not have a sense of accomplishment and purpose from their work as lawyers. Unless you define accomplishment as “not committing homicide and otherwise making it through the day without a trip to the ER for a psychotic break.” (If that is your definition and you work in BigLaw, then I’m betting you feel a big sense of accomplishment daily!)
When you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and purpose from your work, you feel empty. The Wholehearted, as Dr. Bréne Brown calls them, have meaningful work in their lives.
Yet there is no one-size-fits-all definition of meaningful work. Sure, it sounds like we should all find meaning in working with drug addicts, inner city youth, or the rural poor, but the reality is that not all of us are going to find our unique definition of meaningful in that work, either. Meaningful work can be found in raising a family, gardening, painting, and yes even lawyering. As Brown puts it, “Culture doesn’t get to dictate” what meaningful is for you.
Meaningful work, as Brown outlines in The Gifts of Imperfection, contains several key elements:
- Your gifts and talents
- Making a living
And, there are a couple of things that crop up in the search for meaningful work that are distracting, but very, very common, like “supposed to” and self-doubt.
Lawyers’ Gifts and Talents
Gifts and talents are usually the hardest single element for unhappy attorneys to grapple with. Frequently, they think the only gift they have is one for analysis,
since lawyers usually have that ability in spades.
But the unhappiness comes from using that gift on the wrong kinds of problems. Legal analysis is not the only analytic skill game in town. Analytic skills are crucial in a host of jobs, and often give the performance edge to those who have strong analytic skills and are talented at something else.
You have other gifts. What they are, I don’t know. Maybe it’s writing, acting, cooking, or making connections, teaching, innovating, or exploring something deeply. I know you have gifts and talents, because you’re unhappy, miserable, and looking for a way out of what you’re doing now. When you don’t use your gifts, those miserable feeling are the result. As Brown says,
“Squandering our gifts brings distress into our lives. . . . When we don’t use our gifts to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear and even grief.”
Let’s review that list: emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear. Does that sound like a typical day working in law to you? Because it sure as hell describes almost every day I worked in law. If that’s how you’re feeling, you have your waving red flag of where to look to actually solve your unhappiness at work: Uncover those buried gifts and talents.
Not sure how to do the digging? Join me for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on July 6, 2011 at 1:30 – 2:00 ET to discuss how to start reconnecting with your talents and gifts. The book club is free! Just call (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). You don’t even need to read The Gifts of Imperfection beforehand, though after the call I promise you’ll want to. (And yes, it’s available for immediate download, for you last-minute folks.)
Next time, I’ll talk more about the connection between meaningful work and spirituality, and also the gremlins of “supposed to” and self-doubt.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who took several years to figure out one of her gifts was writing. Go figure. She helps unhappy attorneys unearth their long-ignored gifts and talents. If you would like help digging up your talents and gifts from their burial ground, schedule a discounted sample coaching session by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.