This essay originally appeared in Escape The City.
When I started my career as a lawyer, I was so driven by what others thought of me. I simply was not equipped to “resist peer pressure, the herd instinct, the allure of money, prestige and security,” as George Monbiot so succinctly puts it. Years later, in a profession that didn’t fit who I was, I still remained in the grips of social pressures. Alain de Botton’s analysis of the dinner party question, 'So what do you do?' sums this up well, and “according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.”
I used to secretly love that question because I could say with a very English sense of false modesty “I‘m a barrister” and wait for instant admiration. I played up to the snobbery of those who took such a small piece of information and made a much larger judgement about who I must be. The reality was that any satisfaction I gained from this status was utterly hollow. The reality was that I was tired of fighting all day; the number of negative interactions far outweighed the positive ones, the crushing pressure of deadlines, clients and cases were just too much. I just didn’t care enough about the work I was doing and couldn’t go on any longer. It was only when I began to recognize my own in-authenticity, smugness and arrogance to get off on a job title that I realized how dissatisfied I actually was.
I’d like to share with you three social motivators that led me into law in the first place, and how these same social motivators- when defined on my own terms- actually helped get me to the place I am now.
What does it mean to achieve something?
I believed I was achieving success by jumping through all the required hoops at school, university and into my legal career. I felt respected, and admired. It’s easy to get caught up in achieving the best grades and the ‘best’ first professional job, and it’s just as easy to fight for that promotion and forget what’s important to you.
I remember asking a QC whom I respected what his biggest achievements were, and he told me it was getting off notoriously culpable clients three times consecutively, (in other words, he was proud that some very bad people had got away with seriously harming innocent people). He came alive during competition and wanted to win. That was enough for him, and a massive wake up call for me to get out. I realized I didn’t love competition as an end in itself, and I didn’t want to compete with the rest in order to feel like I was ‘achieving’. Nor was it enough for me to settle for someone else’s definition of success with the usual trappings of bonuses, raises and promotions.
As a lawyer I wanted to have a positive impact on my clients, my colleagues and society, but I didn’t tend to feel like I was achieving any one of these aims on most days. With all the hours that I worked, all the other areas of my life where I used to get a great sense of achievement began to slip away. This left me feeling isolated and I began to cling to the identity attached to my job.
Will Meyerhofer, an author and psychotherapist on law and life says, ‘lawyers are obsessed with prestige. But the real issue is a hidden fear of failing, being on your own, the terror that, unless you’re riding on the coattails of someone else, you’ll be lost in the crowd. The answer is addressing that fear by standing up as the person you truly are, and getting noticed on your own terms.’ Pursuing this idea of achievement with money and social status wasn’t going to make me happy, and as long as I was working only for this, I was never going to feel like I had enough.
What does it mean to feel powerful?
Money was a powerful driving force to keep me in law. Having money made me feel successful and as a result, powerful – I could buy all the things I wanted. And yet I felt powerless. I had absolutely no control over the volume and nature of the work I had to do, nor how I did that work. This I found very stressful. Power was held and often abused by my clients and my bosses- and any power that I had, I began to give away; I didn’t care about the outcomes of my job and I stopped caring about the power that I exercised. I began to realize that I had to think about the way I could use my abilities to exert power over the things I really wanted to achieve.
I started to build my sense of achievement on something wider than my job title or company. I looked to learn new things across my interests in human motivation, behavioral economics, careers theory and social psychology; pursuing things I felt naturally curious about. Then I saw how I could apply these to opportunities such as freelance work. (The rarer and more valuable the skills are that you’re learning, the easier it will be to find someone who will pay you for it.) I also found myself feeling this sense of real achievement through other activities; writing this blog post is an example for me – I can crystallise my learning, share something that is important to me and reach an audience beyond my immediate working environment. This gives me a great sense of achievement and power.
What does it mean to belong?
I’ve always wanted to belong to a group of like-minded people, be that playing sports, with friends or at work. When my personality was so stifled as a lawyer, I didn’t commit myself to the people around me to create a sense of belonging. I felt much closer to my lawyer friends from Bar School and we had a grudging camaraderie through our shared struggles. Looking back, I didn’t even consider leaving as an option until one of my friends decided to leave. It broke this sense that we all had to be in it together. During the transition that followed, I kept in contact with friends, many of whom were lawyers and other professionals on a different path in life. I could sense that some of these friends deep down would have preferred me to stay as I was, just like them as a professional.
That’s why it was important for me to join a ‘change community’ and find a real sense of belonging. I joined On Purpose, the social enterprise leadership programme for those who want to use the power of business to achieve social or environmental change. The community is so strong that I’m still going on weekends away with them four years on. Years later when I decided to set up my own business, I joined a Tribe at Escape, of which I’m still strongly tied to. On both occasions, something really powerful happened when I was surrounded by positive, like-minded people who all had the motivation and the ability to help each other make change happen in their lives.
When I look back at the person I was before – the person I thought would look accomplished, important, and powerful; the person that ‘fitted in’ and did what they were told – I see a completely different person to the one I am now. Back then, I see someone trying to define someone else’s definition of success. Today, I’m no longer chasing after other people’s definitions; I am making my own. I’m focusing on my own values along with my strengths and skills, and only pursuing things that are important to me. I’m eradicating the tensions between what I do and who I really am, and becoming a truer and more authentic me. I’m going from a member of the audience to the role of the actor in my life.
Martin Underwood is the Head of Career Strategy at Life Productions, helping lawyers and other professionals find a better career fit and take practical action through advice, courses and networking.
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