I’ve often pondered how it is that so many people end up in law who despise it. The level of discontent in the legal profession is really shockingly high—more than 50% of lawyers (some research here) say that given it to do over again, they would not go to law school.
Part of the problem, as I’ve written about often (here and here, for starters) is that our schools and institutions don’t serve us very well any more when it comes to preparing us for the future. Schools are still mired in the idea and structure that they are preparing us all to be good little factory workers, where conformity and quantity production matter most. Of course, the actual economy hasn’t looked like that for a quarter century, and in the last 10 years alone has changed radically. We’re not even the Information Economy any longer. Now, as Dan Pink talks about quite eloquently in A Whole New Mind, we are in the economy where high-concept and high-touch rule the roost. Innovation and creativity are the valued skills, but schools aren’t teaching that. They have little idea how, because they’re too busy treating kids as commodities who must attain certain test scores.
Creativity, Killed by Schools
The upshot of this is that creative people often get disconnected from what fuels them as they go through traditional schooling. Nothing stifles creativity more quickly than conformity. Creativity is “Let’s see what happens! This could be so cool!” Conformity is “Don’t try that, you don’t know what’s going to happen. What does the manual say?”
Another sure-fire creativity-killer is neglect, which often poses as lack of encouragement of young creatives. Rather than nurturing the seeds of talent and passion, parents, educators and peers often judge nascent creativity by the performance standards of seasoned creatives. Sketches should look like Picasso, stories should sing like bestsellers, musicians should never miss a note and actors should never forget their lines or lose their composure. At the very least, kids have to be the best in their class at their art form to be encouraged at all. There’s no point in nurturing false hopes, right? Funny how it’s never a false hope to want to be a lawyer.
Sure, there are always those whose creativity is so way-out there that nothing can diminish their platinum-strong sense of purpose. They actually take the art classes (against the advice of lots of adults), try out for the school plays, are in the choir or band, or are busily writing stories.
In fact, Pink relates a really sobering story about creativity and schools: Gordon MacKenzie, a chief creative force at Hallmark Cards during his lifetime, often visited schools to talk about his profession. He would admire the artwork on the walls, and then ask, “How many artists are there in the room?”
Invariably, the kindergartners and 1st graders all raised their hands, quickly and enthusiastically. In 2nd grade, about 3/4 raised their hands, but less eagerly. In 3rd grade, only a few held up their hands. By 6th grade, not one hand went up.
“The kids just looked around to see if anybody in the class would admit to what they’d now learned was deviant behavior,” says Pink. And I agree with him when he says we shouldn’t just cluck and say how sad. We should be outraged that our schools squash such an essential aspect of our children’s humanity. Creativity is the birthright of every human being, whether it comes out as a an artist, writer, fantastic problem-solver or amazing negotiator. Or as something that hasn’t even been created yet.
Even if the humanity argument doesn’t move you, the fact is that nowadays, companies are scrambling to cultivate creativity in their workforces to solve problems that they’ve never confronted before. Those problems won’t be solved by using the hammer of conformity that worked in 1980.
Did This Happen To You?
No doubt about it, if you have a very agile analytic mind, you’re often pushed into those smarty-pants courses that you can do well in where others can’t. Highly creative people are also very curious (cf., “Let’s see what happens!”), and it’s not like they mind learning about a vast number of topics, from love and betrayal in literature classes to string theory in physics to the Bolshevik revolution. So they get A’s because they’re curious and like learning stuff, not because they’re so especially suited to that area.
I’m not saying that everyone who gets good grades is a closet poet, actor, writer, sculptor or painter. There are plenty of people who are good students with a good analytic brain who will be very satisfied in a job that requires analysis as one of its key components: scientists, financial analysts, researchers, academics, doctors, lawyers—there’s a long list of possibilities.
But we’re brainwashed in our schooling to think that analytic gifts must be used in those kinds of professions, or they’re “wasted.” Never mind that to be at the top of nearly any career, you have to have some serious brain power. Good analytic skills help you figure out what’s fueling a trend, how to connect with people on various platforms, whether it’s better to take one course of action or another. Analytic skills don’t have to be the entire focus of your job; they’ll still get good use and make you better at what you do.
The Punch-List Life Goes To Law School
There are lots and lots of incentives to pursue the punch-list path. What is the punch-list path? That’s where you get great grades, do a bunch of activities because they look good on your college applications (maybe you even like them), and don’t really question what makes you come alive. Then you do it all again, only this time you pick out a nice major in college that leads to a career your parents/society approves of. Because you haven’t explored much to figure out what lights you up–it’s all been about the punch list.
When you’re young, everything feels new and exciting. You probably didn’t have enough experience to tell the difference between that kind of ooh-shiny excitement and the excitement that fuels your soul. So without knowing exactly what you wanted to do (since you weren’t encouraged to explore, but rather to complete the punch list), and because it was a prestigious, profitable, and predictable path, you went to law school. Phase 1 of disconnecting from your dreams is complete.
Oh, but Phase 2, in which you get almost completely disconnected from yourself, is coming. More on that next time.
Now you know I don’t just whine and bitch and moan about stuff. I’ll offer some solutions for reconnecting with yourself, and your dreams, in Part 3.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy lawyers on connecting with their happy, in work and life. Find out what that’s like by scheduling a discounted sample coaching session. It’s an hour that could change your life! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule yours today.