It is a new year, and the reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life have finally stopped. During this holiday season, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the movie, and there are certain themes from the film that lawyers can carry into the new year.
The 1946 classic film tells the story of George Bailey, a desperately frustrated and depressed man whose life is transformed by an angel named Clarence Odbody, who shows George what life for his community would have been like if George had never existed. When George realizes he wasn’t a failure, his life completely changes. It is an iconic tale of redemption through a change of perspective.
Many lawyers experience stress in their lives because their beliefs feed and shape their anxiety and depression. For example, our personal definitions of terms like success, wealth and control will determine our mental and emotional health and our quality of life. Rather than continuing to suffer, what if we could adopt a version of George’s redemption and find a new way to experience life in the new year?
I coach lawyers and other professionals on how to be effective, profitable and fulfilled. Often, they are struggling with the beliefs they formed early in life, usually before the age of 6. These beliefs are often subconscious and interfere with their conscious goals by altering their perception of the events occurring in their daily life. These beliefs constitute cognitive biases or filters that alter our perception.
When you have a subconscious belief that you are not good enough or that nothing you do will be good enough, this cognitive bias will search the universe for evidence that you are not good enough and you will always fall short. A salary of $100,000 is not good enough; $500,000 is not good enough; $1,000,000 is not good enough. This is just one example of how we set ourselves up to fail.
We continually set our goals higher and higher with the result that we will never be satisfied. If we pass the bar, we want a successful career. If we join a law firm, we want to be partner. If we become partner, we want a bigger slice of the pie. We always want more, which means we will always suffer.
The way out of this negative belief system is simple, but not easy. We must release these negative belief systems (definitions) and replace them with rational, realistic beliefs about the events in our lives. There is a huge difference in the quality of life of someone who believes that they failed and someone who believes that they learned from the experience and can do better next time.
To prove this point, let’s examine these terms and explore how negative beliefs cause stress, whereas realistic beliefs can cause satisfaction and fulfillment.
James Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as Mary Hatch in It’s a Wonderful Life. Photo from MovieStillsDB.
This word can cause great stress and burnout, or it can produce satisfaction and joy, simply by how we define it. Take a second and write down your personal definition before you read any further.
Webster’s definition is “favorable or desired outcome.” Many people go further and combine this with a comparison of how they did with how others did. They are always looking sideways at their colleagues or celebrities and judging their outcomes with others. You might notice that Webster’s does not add “better than others” to its definition.
A more realistic, holistic definition of success is “doing the best you can.” When we focus on the negative instead of the positive, we suffer. We must accept the fact that we can only do the best we can because everything else is out of our control. Do you focus on what you achieved or what you didn’t achieve? This makes all the difference.
I would suggest that a healthy definition of success is “do the best you can and show up and enjoy your job.” Everything else is gravy. Quit looking sideways and focus on your own work. No one is going to remember how much money you made last year; they will remember your compassion, your kindness and your efforts. Sometimes, we make decisions that we will never make again. That is OK, it’s called life.
When lawyers burnout and quit, many times the underlying complaint is that they don’t make enough money to justify the stress. They have a limiting belief that wealth is only defined by how much money they make.
I suggest to my clients that they define wealth without reference to a dollar amount. For example, they should focus on what they have: a loving family; close friends; a safe home; a place to work; food to eat; or good health. For a large percentage of the world, these things are beyond their reach.
There are many things that we tend to take for granted, not noticing until they are lost. If we can be grateful for the things we have, instead of stressing over the things we don’t have, our stress levels dramatically reduce.
While many people think they want power, they’re really seeking control. We want control over our career, clients, friends and family. We want everything to be easy and effortless. We want our name on the letterhead and on the front page of the business section. We have preconceived notions about what we need to be happy. When the unexpected happens, we feel like we have lost control.
Stress is created when we look outside of ourselves for validation and acknowledgment. We assume that if we struggle hard enough, one day we will enjoy life. When we don’t get what we want or don’t get validation from others, we suffer. When we are satisfied with ourselves as individuals, we avoid stress.
We never have control over many of the events that happens in our life, but we do have the power to determine how we think about these events. Stated another way, the events that happen in our life do not cause stress. What we think about the events of our life causes stress. Ironically, if you can be positive in your beliefs, thoughts and emotions, you will be the lodestone and light that will draw others to you. If you exude confidence and kindness, you will attract everything you need. If you are having fun, people will beat a path to your door. That is true control.
George Bailey lives in all of us. When we suffer from unhealthy beliefs, we suffer. We must change our perspective to inspire a new kind of experience. For a completely different new year, work on shifting your unhealthy negative beliefs to positive beliefs. Like George Bailey, you will be glad you did.
James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]
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