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November 19, 2019

Little Boxes.

Julie Q. Brush

It isn’t easy being a lawyer in today’s world. There is so much uncertainty and change in the profession. New norms and new rules-and new resilience required to successfully navigate the professional waters. “Life” is also harder. Increased family responsibilities (for both genders) and financial pressures – not to mention the general state of affairs of our planet-are realities that have created more emotional strain on professionals than ever before.

In order to cope, legal professionals have mastered the skill (and art) of compartmentalization: Taking tasks, responsibilities, feelings, emotions, values etc. and placing them…in Little Boxes. Little boxes that serve as partitions to keep our worlds as organized-and pain-free as possible. It’s a mind strategy that can be extremely effective for the high achiever.

But it also can be harmful.

Many lawyers compartmentalize work and life separately-and view the two as separate boxes on parallel paths. They create these silos primarily because: (1) They are unhappy in their jobs and compartmentalize work in order to more fully enjoy the other parts of their lives, or (2) They view work and life as separate and distinct. So they apply different criteria for each, and rarely integrate the “must-haves” for personal happiness as part of their career choices. It’s the expectation that work is not designed to maximize fulfillment. So it doesn’t.

But work and life are far from separate. Professionals spend a large portion of their days…and nights dedicated to work. So our careers are a vital component to our lives-whether we like it or not. And keeping the two estranged can be damaging. How?

  • When a professional is in a job/career that does not align with his-her personal values, inner conflict and disruption arise. In response, a “work self” is created to manage, survive…and excel in the work environment. It’s a split from aspects of a person’s true self and can cause feelings of disconnection, frustration and at times…anger.
  • Compartmentalizing enables professionals to increase their tolerance for stress, abuse, and overall discontent in their jobs by walling off the unpleasant and focusing on other areas of life including family, travel, friends, exercise, hobbies and “fun”. While the strategy may seem innocuous, it slowly, but surely chips away at a contented life and can undermine a career.
  • By not integrating a career with the values and the criteria that define personal happiness, a professional can perpetuate a cycle of poor career choices – A cycle which becomes increasingly difficult to break as time goes on and a profession deepens.

Regardless of how early or late a legal professional is in his/her career, it’s never too late to begin the process of bringing a little more life into work. The first step is self-awareness – and a good place to start is by asking yourself the following questions (in the positive and negative):

• What are my core values?
• In what circumstances do I feel most centered?
• Do I need to be in charge to be happy? If so, in what context?
• How much control do I need to be happy? If so, in what context?
• What makes me feel good about myself?
• What inspires and challenges me?
• What kind of people do I like to be around?
• What interests me intellectually?
• What situations cause me fear?
• What are my best skills?
• What do I like to do?
• How do I like spending my time?

Next, use your insights from the questions above and assess how they align with your current job, career and/or job prospects. As you do, a picture will emerge that will highlight the deviations and serve as a map to guide you through the areas that merit change.

There is no such thing as a perfect career…or life. That is certain. But by incorporating more of our souls into our career choices and commingling these Little Boxes more often, we can put ourselves on a path to move closer to both.

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