This post originally appeared on Law.com
Lawyers work hard. It’s what they do.
The good news is that hard work can be deeply satisfying. It feels good to do a job well done. Accomplishment gives us meaning. Hopefully this resonates with you because it’s a feeling you’ve experienced before, at least in athletics or academics, if not yet in your professional career as an associate. But it’s not just me making this assertion about the connection between hard work and happiness—academic research backs it up.
In the early 1980s, well-known psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a series of studies meant to understand the psychological impact of common behaviors we engage in every day. One of the major insights of his work was to show that depth generates meaning. He found that people are actually happier doing deep work than they are relaxing.
Based on his findings he concluded: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi popularized the term “flow state” that is used to describe the effortless feeling experienced by high achievers—from authors to athletes—operating at peak performance during periods of hard work.
It’s called “hard” work for a reason. Any time you’re trying to learn a new skill, or attempting to build something worthwhile, it’s hard. Most of us start enjoying something only after we get good at it. And it takes practice and hard work to get good. Take playing the guitar, for example. Practicing guitar is painful (physically and emotionally) and frustrating for several months until enough work has been put in to build up calluses and learn the basics. Once people earn their calluses and their skills improve, however, guitar starts to become fun and satisfying. Resilience is built up during the painful periods of any worthy endeavor, and serves as a bridge to the other side. If you want to do something that’s satisfying, most times you have to do it when it’s not.
One of the reasons that career dissatisfaction is so high among associate attorneys is that we, as members of the profession, don’t do a good enough job of explaining to young lawyers that things get better over time as they get better at what they do and build confidence. Passion for one’s career isn’t guaranteed, but it can be cultivated and attained over time. Getting really good at something is the first step toward becoming passionate about it.
Perhaps young lawyers who are struggling weren’t “meant” to become lawyers in the purest sense, but they can grow and derive meaning from a legal career over time as their competence grows. Practice, first, then mastery, are precursors to passion.
The point is that the type of intense work that leads to high achievement is not only remunerative, it can be psychologically rewarding as well. In light of work’s holistic benefits, it therefore makes sense to work in the most productive manner possible in order to realize the greatest benefits.
Lawyers work hard to accomplish important things. But it’s not all of the big, bold things we do during our lives and careers that lead to success. It’s the small actions taken every day that make all of the difference and lead to compounding results over time.
Author and marketing guru Seth Godin wrote on his blog: “The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.” It’s how lives and careers change too.
One of the starkest examples of the power of small, incremental progress is what happened to the British cycling team in 2003 after hiring Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. At the time, the team was mired in mediocrity, to put it charitably. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, and only one had won a gold medal in nearly 100 years at the Olympic Games.
Everything changed once Brailsford took over, but it didn’t happen overnight. Brailsford instituted a series of small changes over the course of several years, each of which, in isolation, seemed insignificant. These changes included things like teaching riders how to properly wash their hands to reduce the risk of illness, bringing along pillows and linens while traveling to improve the sleep of riders in hotels, and making tweaks to jersey and seat designs.
All of these changes, and hundreds more like them, were part of the execution of Brailsford’s strategy to harness what he called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” And gain they did. Five years after Brailsford’s arrival, the British team won 60 percent of the medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing. British riders then went on to win five Tour de France victories over the course of six years. Like consistent investments in the stock market over time, the British team’s small improvements compounded into huge gains.
As a young lawyer struggling to keep your head above water while grappling with the day-to-day urgency of the job, it’s easy to get caught on the hamster wheel and never take a moment to assess where you are and where you want to go. Even harder is figuring out how to get there.
Use the end of this year to step back and gain some perspective.
Cast a vision for yourself. Where do you want to go?
Determine what will it take to get there. What goals will you set for yourself?
Consider the means by which you can achieve your goals within the context of your busy practice. How can you break each big goal into smaller ones?
Start taking consistent action. What are the small steps you can take every day to move forward?
Yes, think big. But act small. Summon the courage to take the first, intentional step. Then take another. Pretty soon, as you gain momentum, the angst and doubt that clouded your first few years as a lawyer will be a distant memory. You’ll gain confidence, become more passionate, and the road before you will become broader and smoother. There will still be obstacles—there always are—but your past experiences will allow you to navigate them more easily.
The only thing stopping you from new and exciting achievements is getting stuck in the rut of doing things they way you always have. Harness the power of marginal gains. Your small actions will lead to big success over the long term.
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