Unhappy Lawyers and the Myth of “I’m not creative”

When I say “use your creativity” to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I get some highly revealing responses. Sadly, a common reaction is “I’m not creative.” I blame traditional schooling, Martha Stewart and Pinterest, and our consumerist society for this false belief. Every human being is born creative. At its most basic, creativity is solving a problem for which there is no known (to them) solution, or for which the current solution isn’t working. The artistic expression part of creativity is often just icing on the cake. Icing is yummy, mind you, but it’s not the whole cake.

School Conformity Nukes Creativity

With their focus on correct answers and conformity, schools tend to squash the creativity of all but the most abundantly talented creatives. As Dan Pink points out in his book A Whole New Mind (which you need to read if you haven’t), when children in 1st grade were asked if they are artists, all the hands flew up. By 6th grade, none of the hands went up. (pp. 68-69)

rubber ducks in colors

Education’s idea of creativity. Hey, the ducks may be in rows, but look at those different colors!

My own belief is that tween social pressure—when, developmentally, conformity pressure crescendos—exacerbates the message kids have gotten from most of their teachers: There is one correct answer, and one correct way to get there. Creativity is weird, and should be hidden from view.

Standardized tests ram this message down everyone’s throat. I’ve seen this pressure to conform thinking to a standard pathway again and again in worksheets my 4th grade son has brought home over the years. Far too many times, Continue reading

Edit Perfect Out of Your Alternative Legal Career Search–and Your Life

My torts professor was terribly fond of saying that you only remember something after you’ve heard it at least 5 times. He would then intone, 5 times, “Negligence is not a defense to an intentional tort.” And whaddya know, after 20-plus years, I DO remember that! And, unfortunately, quite a bit about Mrs. Palsgraf and her trouble with crashing objects that got repeated endlessly. (If only there had been YouTube when I was in law school, we could have just watched this and moved right on.)

perfection entry in dictionary

Perfect and its cousins may fill a dictionary page, but it won't fulfill you in work or life.

The same principal works on what we say to ourselves, too. That’s why I’ve been working to eliminate one word from my vocabulary: perfect. I use it way too much, and I don’t like the way it makes my brain tilt.

It’s a little odd, this obsession I have about ridding myself of that word. Mostly, I use it to describe something that works really well, or that fits the circumstances quite nicely. What’s so damaging about that?

For starters, it awakens my dozing inner lizard, Guido, who first gets excited about something finally being perfect; it’s about damn time! Then, Guido starts picking out all the flaws with whatever I’ve just described as perfect. Since that only takes a second or two, and since he’s up and about anyway, Guido then looks for other things whose flaws need pointing out. At this point we often veer into topics like money, my dowdy shoes, my singing, the amount of carbs I’m consuming, the exercise I’m not doing, or other fulfilling subjects.

Also, the stickler in me tends to pipe up annoyingly about how nothing on this amazing, gorgeous, wonderful earth is perfect, and so essentially I’m lying to myself and maybe others Continue reading

Chasing the Perfect Job, Ruining Your Alternative Legal Career Search

As I’ve written about several times (here, here, and here, for starters), perfectionism is an especially strong demon for most lawyers in their alternative legal career search. It’s one of the six attitudes that hold lawyers back in their search for a better career and life, and it’s got such a powerful hold over most lawyers that it gets its very own post.

Not following the perfect path, the pattern set by others, can lead to something fun and better.

The nub of perfectionism is worrying others will discover you are not enough, and gearing your actions and focus to eradicate that feeling of being less than perfect. The focus on the extrinsic—the partners will look down on me if I keep driving my dinged-up, paid-for Toyota, better get a BMW—keeps you from connecting with your authentic self. It’s all about external validation. Perfectionism walls you off from your own, fantastic inner wisdom, because it substitutes others’ judgments for yours. It keeps you conforming to others’ limitations, rather than exploring your own unique gifts.

Here’s a tip: No one is perfect. We all have flaws, some of them deep and juicy. Our flaws are what make us interesting and human. Lots of people think that if they were perfect, every single one of their problems would disappear. It’s more likely they would become insanely boring and horribly insufferable. And, they still wouldn’t be happy, because Continue reading

The Magic Perfectionism Turn-off Switch

Perfectionism is a really hard beast to defeat, particularly for lawyers. We’re surrounded by a culture of “no mistakes,” despite the fact that lawyers are people, people are not perfect, and people therefore make mistakes all the freaking time.

Creative experiments may not turn out perfectly, but they can magically turn off the awful perfectionism switch.

It’s easy to confuse perfectionism and striving to do your best. The outward appearance often looks the same: a good, or better yet, stellar result. In fact, most perfectionists attack the idea of not trying to be perfect as an idea of settling for failure, of settling for much less than can be achieved.

But that’s not it at all. As Dr. Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” (emphasis mine) It’s the toxic idea that you are your performance.

The opposite of perfectionism is what Brown calls healthy striving. Striving asks the questions “How can I improve?” and “How can I do this better?”

If the question you’re asking is “What will they think?” that’s a red, Continue reading

Tips for Lawyers To Exorcise the Perfectionism Demon

One of the hardest things about battling perfectionism as a lawyer is that you are surrounded, nay drowning, in other perfectionists. Law is about conforming, after all, and that is the heart of perfectionism: The more perfectly I conform (my thinking, my reasoning, my writing, my desires), the better I am regarded by others in my profession.

cartoon of demon emerging from man's mouth

Begone, you demon of perfectionism! I now have tips for getting rid of you . . .

At least, that’s how the thinking goes. It doesn’t necessarily match reality. When you think of the brilliant lawyers, what makes them brilliant is actually their ability to put together reasoning and arguments that haven’t been made before. That, my friends, is not conformity.

But for those of you who are faking law, who are not lawyers at heart, trying to appear like other lawyers is crucial. Because if they find out you’re not really one of them, you are out on your bum. You just know this. You might have to actually figure out that alternative legal career thing on a less leisurely schedule.

First, Accept Your Authentic Self

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, perfectionism is driven by the fear that we are not enough, and by the belief Continue reading

The Lawyer’s Demon: Perfectionism

Perfectionists love to say that they’re not trying to be perfect, they’re just trying to do ________ right. Semantics, people.

Perfectionism is about trying to stave off blame and shame. And as we all know, lawyers have superpowers when it comes to inflicting shame and shifting blame, and they use them for evil in a nanosecond.

businessman and devil figures

Perfectionism makes all kinds of deals with the devil, including in your career and worklife. Maybe it's time for an exorcism.

The reason this shaming behavior works so well in the legal profession is that almost all lawyers grew up living to other people’s standards, not their own. They bought in early to earning approval and acceptance through achievement and performance.

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, those are things like:

  • Grades
  • Rule-following,
  • Sports,
  • People-pleasing
  • Appearance, and
  • Manners

The foundation of this belief system is that “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” That’s why BigLaw attorneys, for example, can’t cope with the idea of moving to a small firm that isn’t a prestigious, high-profile boutique. Brand-name law firm equals accomplishment, Continue reading

Recovering Lawyer, Recovering Perfectionist

Lawyers are perfectionists. Admit it—you have often thought to yourself that if you had done more research, thinking, writing, arguing, digging your heels in, or just plain old tried harder, you would have had a better outcome, either at work or in your personal life. And even if someone else doesn’t, you come down on yourself like 20 monkeys on your back for not being better. More perfect.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, you might want to skip the rest of this post.

offering candles burning in church

These candles aren't perfect, but they get the job done. Image courtesy freefoto.com.

But there are times when perfectionism derails your life in less obvious ways, as I realized this morning. I’ve decided I need an altar in my studio. I want it filled with beautiful, meaningful objects and lots of candles. But I don’t have any of those beautiful, meaningful objects that I’ve collected on pilgrimages, for example. Heck, I don’t even have a robin’s eggshell or a feather. Continue reading