October 31, 2014

The Practice of Life (Part 3): Taking Back Control

rhodesOne thing lawyers are up against in the Happiness Derby is that things can look good on the outside even if we’re dying on the inside. Being a lawyer is prestigious, and looking good doing it maintains not just our professional status but the status quo our brains love so much.

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.

Once we’re there, it’s easy to start pointing fingers – at colleagues, staff, clients, law firms, law schools, the judicial system….  We get a perverse short-term benefit from blame-shifting – we don’t have to take the hit for what’s bugging us – but it isn’t worth the long-term cost to our happiness. Blaming others gives them power over our work performance and our personal wellbeing:  they have to change before we can be happy, and we could be waiting a long time.

Instead of thinking, “The practice of law is making me unhappy,” how about if instead we think, “I am an unhappy person.” That may be unpleasant to admit, but at least now we’ve got our control back. We can’t control the externals, but we can do something about the person looking back at us from the mirror. (Anybody else’s brain just cue up Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”? Just asking….)

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor describes the importance of this shift from external to internal focus:

[T]he most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes. People with an external locus, on the other hand, are more likely to see daily events as dictated by external forces.

One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters, that we have control over our future.

Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance.

Interestingly, psychologists have found that … gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.

After all, if we believe nothing we do matters, we fall prey to the insidious grip of learned helplessness…

Too many unhappy lawyers get all the way to learned helplessness by keeping up appearances. The way back starts with admitting it’s up to get our mojo back.

We’ll talk about practical steps for regaining control next time.

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. […] that word “choice” again. Choice is essential to regaining that sense of control we’ve been talking about – which in turn is essential to promoting our happiness, both on the […]

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