April 19, 2018

The Practice of Life (Part 2): Getting Started on Getting Happy

rhodesThis series is about happiness as a success strategy. Before we go on with it, here’s a quick update on a post a couple weeks back about lawyers learning to be entrepreneurs.

Last week I attended a CLE on “How to Manage a Small Law Firm.” It’s on a sponsored national tour, and offers training in the business of law that’s more systematized and supportive that you get with DIY. The following blurb from the CLE brochure shows how its connection to our current topic of happiness:

Law firms that are well-managed make lawyers happier. Law firms that are well-managed help lawyers act in a manner more becoming a professional. Law firms that are well-managed also tend to be more profitable than those that are managed by the seat of one’s pants, especially if those pants have never sat through even a single course about how to manage a small law firm.

The company behind this offers training, events, connections, workbooks, practical help. You might check them out. And now, moving along….

The Great Recession (Really? What was so great about it?) has been officially over for years. Scores of articles like this one from the Miami Herald have reviewed its indelible impact on the legal profession. Life in the business of law has changed forever, and many lawyers and law students are still feeling the aftershocks.

One of those is the psychological condition of “learned helplessness.” Here’s how positive psychologist Shawn Achor describes it in The Happiness Advantage:

What I’ve learned from many companies I’ve spoken with over the past two years [writing in 2012] is that the meltdown of 2008 and its aftershocks had instilled a form of learned helplessness – a belief in the futility of our action – a belief in the futility of our action – in many of the world’s workers.

Learned helplessness is when we know there are things we could do to help ourselves, but we simply can’t summon the energy or resolve to execute on them. Then, once a hopeless and helpless outlook takes root in one area of our lives, it seeps over into all others. Again, from The Happiness Advantage:

And it doesn’t end [with work]. When people feel helpless in one area, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations.

How do we reverse this insidious way of thinking? Getting inspired isn’t enough. Summoning lost willpower doesn’t work either. We can post inspirational quotes on the refrigerator door all we like, but we can’t rally around them. For example this one from Jim Collins’ Good to Great:

We are not imprisoned by our circumstances, our setbacks, our history, our mistakes, or even staggering defeats along the way. We are freed by our choices.

Inspiring? Yes. True? No doubt. But helpful? Not necessarily. It’s like our self-help circuit got disconnected, and all the motivational sayings in the world can’t reconnect it. Now what? We’re sick of the pity party, we’re not about to blame a recession, we want to get moving, but how to start?

The way back begins with self-awareness that that this is a real issue for us. And it helps to know we’re not alone. This inability to help ourselves is a malaise of our times. It’s really out there, and it’s not just us. Yes, eventually we’ll need to find the resolve within ourselves to go on, but sometimes it’s just good to know we’re not alone. No need to beat ourselves up. It’s not just a personal problem – millions of workers around the world are feeling the same way. The mere thought of that gets us out of ourselves, which means we can start to deal with the issue objectively. We know how to do that; we’re on familiar ground again. There’s hope.

The Happiness Advantage gives us some specific strategies for dealing with our learned helplessness. We’ll talk about them next time.

To be continued.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice and a registered mentor with the Colorado Supreme Court’s CAMP program. He offers career coaching for lawyers and leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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  1. […] We’ll give up a lot to maintain status and status quo – even our happiness. Trouble is, when we sacrifice our happiness, we lose our edge, which leads to diminished performance, which impedes success. Too much of that, and one day we find ourselves in the state of “learned helplessness” we talked about last time. […]

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