The Word of Gold: happiness is an elusive concept, but there are proven ways of bringing it closer
"Happy new year” trips glibly off the tongue. Yet our profession is full of unhappy people. If this strikes a chord with you, I hope the suggestions below will help make a real difference.
Be gentle with yourself
“In my view, the solution is to work harder,” said Boxer, the ever-willing dray horse of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. His reward was despatch to the knacker’s yard, as soon as he passed his use-by date. Desire to serve and willingness to sacrifice are at the heart of what makes lawyers successful, but the cost can be unacceptable. The adrenaline rush of working under constant pressure, the satisfaction of feeling needed, even as we crawl home at a ridiculous hour, are for many of us core to our identity. Add the dread of personal failure, to which lawyers are notoriously prone, and you have the ideal recipe for a life pockmarked with exhaustion, fractious personal relationships and a constant undercurrent of dissatisfaction, which material success never eliminates.
Like alcoholism, the first step to recovery is acknowledging the problem. There is no instant fix, but start by telling yourself, firmly, not only is it OK to be at less than full stretch some of the time, it’s essential. And as part of this…
Learn to say no
Lawyers find it hard to say no, even when the work itself may not be especially interesting or rewarding. Junior lawyers don’t know how to say no to their bosses even when they are considerate, let alone one of the near or actual psychopaths rampaging around the upper reaches of the profession.
Saying no in a way that avoids career death needs diplomacy. If your boss asks you to take one more urgent job on top of an already impossible load, instead of a flat “Sorry, too busy,” say: “I’d like to take this on, but I’m already dealing with XYZ, which I’d have to come off. Which would you like me to prioritise?” For jobs which are not time sensitive, most clients will wait if you give them a definite date when you can deal with it. If clients need you to meet an impossible deadline, delegate. If you can’t, offer to arrange for another firm to take the work. It may feel painful, but is a much better route for you and the client than making promises you can’t keep, and landing both of you in a mess.
Value reflection over reflex
Baron Williams of Oystermouth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was once interviewed on the Today programme by John Humphrys, and asked about the Rwanda genocide. “Where,” asked Humphrys, “was God then?” The Archbishop asked for time to reflect before answering. Ten seconds of complete silence followed, which on radio seemed, perhaps appropriately, an eternity. But his answer was immeasurably more thoughtful for the pause.
Here beginneth the lesson: Emails don’t have to be answered routinely within nanoseconds. Not all calls have to be taken there and then. Speed of response matters, but not as much as the quality. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’d like a little time to think about this.” It won’t make you look stupid, quite the opposite.
Do good deeds
All happy people have in common that they help others, without looking for something in return. The more good we do for others, the better our own lives. This is not coincidence, it’s biology. The human race has been so successful because very early we learned the importance of cooperation – literally, “you scratch my back...”
Helping others not only makes us feel good at the time, it has the massive payoff that those we help personally and professionally are hardwired to reciprocate, and they do.
As the novelist Linda Stone put it, thanks to technology we live in a state of continuous partial attention. We check our phones 10,000 times per year. According to research by the University of Southern California, the average person now switches attention once every three minutes. This constant pinballing leads to “higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload”. Yet many of us wear overstimulation like a medal. Technology is a brilliant servant, but a brutal master.
Eventually, you will be replaced by a robot I guarantee will be called Lexie. Meantime, get into the habit of leaving your phone somewhere you can’t easily get it when you need to concentrate. Delete all those useless apps. Cultivate real friends, not Facebook ones. Tweet less, and stop instagramming your lasagne. Nobody cares. Relish boredom, or as it used to be called, peace.
I wish you a happy, healthy and fulfilling year ahead
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. Tel: 07968 484232 Web: stephengold.co.uk, Twitter: @thewordofgold