I’m on a teeny, tiny little tear about materialism lately. If I were writing for the average factory worker, maybe this would be the wrong time to harp about the evils money can work in your life. But for law factory workers (aka, BigLaw), confronting materialism is important. If you don’t see it in your life, if will affect your choices and keep you stuck without your seeing why.

Lawyer caught in mousetrap
Creative lawyer, meet BigLaw money.

In other words, if you don’t see how the focus on the things shapes your attitudes, you will think that you can’t choose an alternative legal career that pays much less than the ridiculous salaries of BigLaw.

One of the ways we stay stuck is by clinging to the things we know—especially the ones that give us some modicum of pleasure. In initial coaching sessions, when I ask lawyers what gives them pleasure, they usually trot out lists of material goods and experiences that only money can buy. Rarely do I hear a client talk about the sun on his face, the smell of spring flowers, or time spent with a pet. I almost never hear clients talk about the pleasure of making something themselves, except possibly cooking.

We are all, regardless of Meyers-Briggs Type, current job or past training (or lack thereof), inherently creative beings. As I’ve talked about before, our culture and particularly our schools not only don’t know how to cultivate creativity, they actively crush it by about 5th grade. This is not that rant.

Cash Isn’t Creative

When you don’t have lots of cash laying around to buy a ready-made solution, you have to get creative to solve a problem. It’s that old saw, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When you don’t have $400 monthly to spend on clothes and shoes, you get busy creating a different response to the dilemma of self-image. You search out less expensive alternatives. Maybe you figure out that you can buy some inexpensive decorative buttons and accessorize a $10 t-shirt into something fabulous. Maybe instead of $200 month for a personal trainer at the gym, you get a video and a friend.

Maybe you just plain old do without, seeing that you won’t die or even be all that miserable. Like me and cable. I found out that I could indeed live without my HGTV addiction, and actually get more done because I don’t have the easy out of TV distraction. Well, there is Netflix streaming, but somehow having to make an active choice and navigate through a couple menus seems to be a big enough hurdle that I usually don’t go there.

When you can’t have the exact thing or solution that you see in a magazine or on TV, you are forced to do something different. Something more unique, rather than the shiny nirvana waving in front of you. You might have to dwell in uncertainty for a while:

  • What is the essence of this thing that I really want?
  • What can I do without?
  • What happens if I can’t figure out a decent substitute?
  • Maybe I can figure out something even better. What could that look like?

Uncertainty is the birthplace of creativity.

Beyond the Shopping Cart

Creativity is not seeing something carefully staged and presented, and adding it to your shopping cart. Yes, you may end up with a new and interesting living space as featured in the Pottery Barn catalog, but it’s someone else’s uniqueness, not yours. We have confused the thrill of acquisition with the thrill of creating.

More fundamentally, when your response to a problem is to solve it with an instant, money solution, your creative muscles atrophy. You start to think you aren’t creative, and aren’t a decent problem-solver. You start to believe that money has to have your back, because you yourself are not up to the task.

I know, you’re saying, “But kindergartners are better than me at making stuff. Even if I did have the time (and I don’t), I want the stuff that looks good.” I get that. I’m not suggesting that we all give up our day jobs and learn carpentry, metalworking, farming, mechanics, gardening, painting, sculpting and sewing so we can live like pioneers. Though I do think a lot of that would be great fun and do us a lot of good. Like teaching resilience and self-reliance.

Create a Different Response

Instead, I invite you to focus on one area of your life where you tend to spend your way to a solution. Brainstorm about different ways to get there that involve spending little, if any, money.

There is a catch: you cannot insist on a perfect solution. See if you can spend half of what you normally would and get an 85% solution. And pay attention to the extras you get with the imperfect solution.

For example:

  • When your favorite heels or sandals are showing wear, don’t buy a new pair. Get the heels replaced, and cover up the worn parts with heat-set crystals, beads, clip-on ornaments, or paint. Or all of the above. Heck, Dr. Scholl’s painted, beaded and embellished sandals are all the rage, and they go for $250 a pop. You can re-work what you’ve got, and what you know is comfortable, for a mere $25. And have a damn good time doing it. Even if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you want, you still stretch and experiment.
  • Instead of signing an expensive gym contract, go to a park with a nature trail and climb rocks, walk off the path, use picnic benches for standing push-ups, and just explore. Forget about heart rate and focus instead on heart’s delight. Your core muscles and your spirit will thank you.
  • If you need a piece of artwork, make it. A prepared canvas, some brushes, a couple tubes of good acrylic paint, some interesting graphics from magazines or packaging, and some Modge-Podge, and you’re good to go. You don’t even need the graphics if you like a colorwash instead of a design. It’s an afternoon project at most, and no one else will have anything like it. Unless of course you offer to make someone another one after they admire yours.
  • If you’re tired of an outfit but there’s nothing wrong with it, go button and embellishment shopping. JoAnn’s and Michael’s are a great source for this kind of stuff, along with local specialty fabric shops and my favorite, thrift stores. For less than $15, you can create an expensive designer look—yours!

These are small solutions to small problems. That’s exactly where you need to start—with a less-than-earthshattering problem. You need to bulk up your creativity muscles, since they’ve been neglected for a while. You’ll be amazed how quickly you get creatively toned and fit if you keep tackling those small projects. And how those creative, problem-solving muscles can get used in so many parts of your life.

You may find yourself highly uncomfortable creating your own solutions. They might not feel enough–professional enough, polished enough, original enough. Maybe they actually aren’t. That’s fine, really, because you tried something different. You let yourself stretch outside your comfort zone. You gave your creativity muscles a much-needed workout.

More likely, though, it’s about feeling that you yourself are not enough, without the money solution to back you up. So let yourself dwell in uncertainty, and keep trying to create solutions that aren’t the easiest, most obvious thing. That’s how you let the Universe in to work magic in your life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who used to be embarrassed to shop at thrift stores, but now adores their creative opportunities. She coaches unhappy attorneys on how to embrace their creative side to find solutions to their career and life dilemmas. See if coaching can help you with your dilemmas by trying a discounted sample coaching session. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set yours up today!