It’s heresy to suggest that working hard won’t solve your problems. Especially in the dysfunctional billable hours culture that lawyers have constructed for themselves. Since my job is to be a heretic, though, I’ll just say it: Hard work is not going to get you out of the miserable mess of a career you’re in.
While I rail a lot about how working too many hours makes you about as useful as the average lush in your job, this rant is not about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about when you need to cut your losses. That’s right: when to actually quit, bail out, cut and run—you get the idea.
The Theology of Hard Work
But first, let’s focus on the whole theology of hard work. I’m not actually suggesting that hard work doesn’t have a place in your life. It absolutely does. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl, author of Flow and several other superb books, talks about how hard work is what gets you to mastery, to the place where you are so deeply immersed into your work that you lose time, in a very connected, joyful way.
Problem is, most lawyers don’t work on hard on stuff that they even like, let alone love. They just grind through the task list. Think about it: Is there anything, even one little item, on your to-do list today that you’re looking forward to? Something that lights you up a tiny bit? Or is it more like a list of mildly to completely loathsome tasks that lie before you?
That, my friends, is why the theology of hard work fails us so often. There are certainly many things in life we must do that don’t bring us particular joy (dishes. laundry and cleaning toilets are at the top of my list). But when the vast majority of your time and energy gets sucked into a list of loathsome tasks, you become depleted rather quickly. Is it then any wonder that it’s hard to get out of bed, and go to face that list of loathsomeness?
So when I hear clients say, “But I’ve put so much time and effort into law, I don’t just want to walk away,” I quietly gnash my teeth. In my head, that statement translates to “But I’ve put so much time and energy into killing my soul, I can’t stop now!”
Value First, Then Work Hard
For hard work to work, you need to value the thing you’re pouring that effort into. There has to be something about it that feeds you, nurtures you, and has meaning for you. And please, when I say has meaning, I’m talking about your very own, personal definition of meaning. Not your parents’, your schools’, or society’s definition of meaning. If the reproductive cycle of newts holds meaning and fascination for you, then THAT, dear reader, is what you need to work hard on. There is a reason for that attraction, and your job in life is to follow the Universe’s lead and figure out more about it.
Do you have to quit your job to follow that pull? Maybe. Maybe now, maybe later. My crystal ball is on backorder (dammit), so I really can’t say. But what I can say is that refusing to follow a call means you are putting all your hard work into the wrong thing, and that is a sure-fire recipe for misery.
If you cannot scale back the demands of hard work on stuff you hate in your current job, or if you cannot add things that bring you some slices of joy, then yes, it is probably time to get serious about cutting your losses. Figure out the direction of your dreams, and then find a job that will put you closer to them. Find a job that requires hard work on something that you can look forward to.
Work hard on what matters to you. For everything else, there’s phoning it in. Or outsourcing!
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who works on hard on her writing and other creating, and on helping unhappy attorneys discern the thing that would light them up if they worked hard on it. If you need help with finding your inner light, schedule a discounted sample session by contacting Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Improper use of the word heretic, though we know what you’re saying