Do you recognize yourself in the statement that lawyers are mostly pessimists? Several social scientists have studied this peculiar phenomenon. It´s peculiar because pessimism not only makes you unhappy, it also keeps you from being successful in most professions. Unless you are a lawyer. The famous Martin Seligman (one of the founding fathers of the positive psychology movement) stated: “There is one glaring exception: pessimists do better at law.” For most people, a pessimistic outlook can lead to depression; for lawyers, it´s a contributor to success (which of course does not make us immune against depression).
To me, it is no surprise that we lawyers are pessimistic and that this contributes to us being successful in our profession. After all, we roll up our sleeves and get to work mostly when the sh** has already hit the fan: disputes, divorce, crime, authorities making dawn raids etc. Even when we are not doing that, we are thinking of all the possible ways said sh** could hit the fan: When a commercial lawyer drafts a shareholder agreement for co-workers starting a business together, she thinks about how and where to litigate when they start to quarrel. When a family lawyer advises a starry-eyed couple of soon-to-be-newlyweds on a prenuptial agreement, he thinks about their divorce. When an in-house lawyer implements a compliance program for her company, she is thinking of anti-corruption agencies investigating the company. It´s quite hard to have fun on the job when your job requires that mind-set.
That´s probably the reason why many lawyers get this incredulous look on their faces when you ask them whether they are having fun. Former Harvard Business School professor and leading professional services firm consultant David Maister has explored this in his book “True Professionalism”. According to his queries, “the typical professional in a top firm is positively enjoying his or her work about one day a week. […] Many professionals seem to have given up on the dream that professional life can be fulfilling.”
But maybe fun is not the word we are looking for; I at least used to have a hard time attaching that label to my work. Until I stumbled on the concept of flow and found it to be much less elusive than fun, easier to grasp and easier to achieve at work. What is flow? It is a mental state that occurs during a certain activity and where you are so absorbed by what you are doing that time seems to fly past and your self-consciousness disappears. How do you get into this blissful state? Flow requires three things:
- A clear goal: Climb that mountain; hit that stop volley across the net; write that convincing brief; get the buyer to agree to your client´s purchase price.
- Immediate feedback: The mountaintop gets closer; the stop volley drops right behind the net; your brief is concise and brilliant; negotiations are concluded successfully.
- Most importantly – the challenge of the task is just right (Daniel H. Pink calls those “Goldilocks tasks – not too much, not too little): The difficulty of the task needs to be a step (or two) above your current abilities and makes you stretch yourself. This balance makes you fully focused and motivated, which makes the activity its own reward and the experience highly satisfying.
As a lawyer, I experience flow when I am drafting a commercial agreement that balances the legal necessities with both commercial pragmatism and what is feasible in the client´s everyday work when the agreement is being executed. As a coach, I experience flow in coaching sessions where I am required to fully focus on my client´s way of thinking and working. In both cases, the experience is deeply satisfying for me and my clients seem to benefit from that.
How can you find flow in your work?