Give up on anything but yourself

A thought-provoking post by Seth Godin today that isn’t really about politics, even though it asks whether Hillary Clinton should quit the Democratic race. What it’s really about is quitting, which Seth endorses in a book (that I endorse) called The Dip, and the danger of changing who you are in order to achieve your goal. Here’s the ending:

For a long time, we’ve created a myth in our culture that it’s worth any price to reach your goal, especially if your ego tells you that you’re the best solution. We’ve created legends of people and organizations that pursued transformative long shots to achieve great results.

I need to be really clear: pushing through the Dip and becoming the best in the world at what you do is in fact the key to success. But (and it’s a big but), if you’re required to become someone you’re not, or required to mutate your brand into one that’s ultimately a failure in order to do so, you’re way better off quitting instead.

This got me thinking about lawyers. Many lawyers are happy with their working lives — or at least they’re content, having decided happiness was too high a target to aim for. But a lot of lawyers are unhappy, sometimes deeply, with their job or career. A lot of them talk about quitting, and a growing number of them do — either to find another job in a more fulfilling environment, or to keep looking until they eventually leave the profession altogether. Neither the law, nor every job in the law, is for everyone.

But many others stay where they are and grow more unhappy by the day. Some do it out of financial necessity, especially recent graduates with mountains of debt or a family to support. Some stick it out in the stubborn hope that things will improve, despite the absence of supporting evidence. Some convince themselves that the intangible benefits (social status, professional prestige, family pride) cancel out the misery. And some subscribe to the fallacy of “sunk costs,” that they’ve invested so much time, money and soul into a legal career that they can’t give up now.

One way or another, the unhappy lawyers in this second group are going to wind up in the same place as the unhappy ones in the first group: in a different job or out of the profession. They don’t have a strategy for finding fulfillment where they are, and they probably don’t have the motivation to execute such a strategy if they had one. Sooner or later, they’ll have to give it up; from my perspective, it might as well be sooner, and I recommend The Dip for more on that subject.

But there are worse things than being in a career that goes against your grain; there’s changing your grain to go with your career. Some lawyers have gone this route, too: either in single-minded pursuit of career goals, or simply as a survival mechanism, they’ve moved away from who they essentially were and became someone they felt they needed to be. Faced with what they perceived as the difficult, exacting mold of the lawyer’s life, they twisted and bent themselves into someone new in order to squeeze inside and fit. You know at least one lawyer like this; you might know several.

I thought of those lawyers today too, when visiting the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog and reading reactions to a story of two Illinois attorneys who allowed an innocent man to sit in prison for 26 years because the guilty man, who confessed his crime to them, was their client, and they felt ethically bound to keep silent. I’m astonished that the sheer obviousness of how wrong they were to do this didn’t overwhelm them from the start; but I’m even more astonished by the WSJ commenters who support their decision. Here’s my favourite:

I don’t know. Letting an innocent man rot in jail — and we’re not talking club fed, we’re talking maximum security — like that. I just don’t know.

You don’t know? Seriously? If we don’t know that legal ethics is a subset of, not an overriding exception to, fundamental morality — if we really don’t know which of these two courses of action was undeniably the wrong one — then we’ve gone down the rabbit hole here.

Look, this is hardly a groundbreaking point, but it bears repeating, especially to recent law school graduates: no job, no career, no status is worth not being true to yourself and to what matters. You’ve spent three decades or more becoming who you are, through daily interchanges with family, friends, loved ones, classmates, colleagues and others, not to mention with literature, philosophy, politics, activism, religion, and the dazzling multifaceted nature of daily life. Don’t diminish that person in the mistaken belief that this profession demands abandonment of principle, compassion and decency.

In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The best lawyers, without exception, are authentic to their core: they know themselves, they know what’s true, and they’ve aligned their daily behaviour to their internal ethical clock. For their efforts, they have the respect and admiration of those around them, and they are as happy as you could ask to be.

A legal career should never force you to choose between who you are and who someone wants you to be. But if that choice is presented to you, then think long and hard about the value of quitting.

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