Nearly two years ago, I published my first book, The Wellness Doctrines. I have sold almost 4,000 copies worldwide, with sales on all six continents. I peaked at #2 on iTunes. I have delivered lectures and workshops in every Australian state and territory, as well as New Zealand and Singapore. I will publish my second book by the age of 30.
But – by some of my personal measures of success – I am failing.
One of the most commonly known personality traits of law students and legal professionals is competitiveness. A 2009 Legal Education Review paper found that lawyers are more likely than non-lawyers to see their grades and achievements as indicators of personal worth, and more inclined to view one-on-one interactions as networking opportunities, rather than meaningful social endeavours.
This was further confirmed when doing research for my first book. John (not his real name), who works as a legal researcher and academic, said:
“I’ve barely met a law student that isn’t competitive, and who didn’t place great stock in doing well. There is a strong level of identification with one’s result, and there’s this masochistic culture of boasting about the hours one works, and the drudgery one is prepared to endure to get one’s hands on the prize.”
In short: we in the legal profession are inherently competitive, and tend to compare ourselves to those around us. People in other professions, such as medicine and financial services, do this too.
It’s a somewhat natural inclination to measure ourselves against others. It helps us extrapolate our place in the world, and where we’re headed.
But it’s not necessarily conducive to health and wellbeing, especially if our indicators of success give rise to unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Despite the achievements I have made as an author, I too often get bogged down in thinking that, by virtue of my chosen path, I have not been able to earn and save as much money as my friends. I worry that they will be able to buy property well before me. I am jealous of their cool job titles, employers and career trajectories. Ultimately, I worry that – because of all this – they are better than me.
But these indicators of success are largely materialistic. On these fronts, I can’t compete (right now). If I re-frame the yardsticks, I can feel more fulfilled and successful.
In my chosen path, I have freedom and flexibility over my working week (I can start and finish at any time of day, whereas others may have to work late). I can wear whatever I want to work, rather than donning a suit and tie. And I have the capacity to change someone’s life for the better, either through written or spoken word. Not everyone can do that in their daily work.
As inherently competitive beings, it’s hard for us lawyers to shake the tendency to compare ourselves to others. What we can do, however, is manage that streak by better defining how we measure our success and effectively managing our expectations:
• Learn to be okay with not always being #1. It’s impossible and unsustainable for us to be the best and every single thing we do. Harness your concern toward that which you can tangibly make a difference.
• Have other activities in life where you can achieve. Don’t let work or study become the be all and end all. If you do other things – team sports, for example – you can make achievements that also bring pleasure and purpose to your experience.
• Communicate openly. Be honest with your friends and family about any concerns you might have about vocational direction, and where you stand. Often, you’ll find that you’ve built it up in your head to be worse than things actually are.
• Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Just as you can’t change the weather forecast, you can’t alter the career progression of others. Run your own race and measure yourself only against what you identify with.
Ask yourself what it you truly value, on a personal and professional level, and judge yourself and your success against that metric. Do you want to work on deals with major multinationals? Do you see benefit in defending vulnerable people living in difficult circumstances? Do you wish for balance in your daily life? Do you even want to be in law, or is it a stepping stone to something else? It is these questions, and not material concerns, that should occupy our thinking.
It’s okay to be competitive, in law or outside of it. Harnessing that competitive streak to be compatible with our personal values is what will help us maintain our wellbeing. it’s not always easy for me to reconcile having left legal practice…but so long as I’ve got my health, happiness and a sense of vocational fulfilment, I can’t complain too much.