Building your resilience muscle

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts:

"Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes."

Wise words, indeed, from an exceptional legal mind. It might explain why he has got to where he is. It's something younger lawyers, in particular, should pay heed to. For most students and young lawyers, there is no doubt that you chose a profession rife with challenges. Law will require you to exercise your resilience muscle and build it if you wish to succeed. Practice can be a hard slog; the learning curve is a steep one with little room for error. Couple that with exceptionally high expectations and you'll need to develop a growth mindset. You will need to learn how to re-frame, failure, adversity and obstacles in a way that facilitates growth and development. It's not easy, but this approach is essential if you are determined to succeed.

As Carol Dweck explains: In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, "oh, I'm going to reveal my weaknesses", you say, "wow, here's a chance to grow". This is key to getting ahead and steeling yourself against the inevitable challenges that will arise in your career. Particularly, early on in your career and coming out of law school you might find yourself out of your depth. It's common to fall into the trap of entitlement. But, stepping into a firm or your first role in practice can also be daunting. Daunting because of the nature of practice and the time and commitment required. It's daunting, because you find yourself in a new environment with incredibly bright people that just know a hell of a lot more than you. It's daunting, because the job is intense, with high stakes and expectations. There is no room for error. Big law, in particular, can be a very competitive environment. Factor in the crazy work hours and there will be no shortage of challenges early on in your career. But, you have to ask yourself this: "is this any different to what I expected? What did I think things would be like?"

It may take some time for you to make the adjustments but one thing is for sure: if you don't toughen up you won't last. The reality is there are lawyers who will make the sacrifices and develop the resilience, patience and wisdom to rise to the top.

But, whatever direction your career may take, you will have to overcome adversity, learn from failure and use it as fuel to do better next time. This is no easy mindset to foster but it's essential. Particularly for lawyers. In a nutshell, Carol Dweck explains again: When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world (the world of fixed traits) success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other (the world of changing qualities) it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

So, how do you go about fostering this mindset? How do you start seeing opportunity in adversity and the potential to learn and develop through failure? The first step begins with being honest with yourself about whether you are committed to practice and want to get ahead. Accepting this and making a commitment to it will be key. Secondly, you need to have an honest look at where you are at with your skills, knowledge and experience, and understand where you are starting from. Finally, you need to orient yourself in a way so that progress is always happening. Understanding your firm and what you will need to do to work your way up the hierarchy is also a part of this.

Once you have a direction and have made the commitment, you need to start exercising that resilience muscle. Accept that things will not always go your way. There will be others who may try to prevent you from getting to where you want to be. Realise that you have your own limitations that might also hinder you. Resilience is all about accepting these limitations and orienting yourself to work through these obstacles and challenges, knowing that this is the best way to achieve your goals in the long run. A big part of this is overcoming fear.

The main obstacle to forming this mindset is fear. Fear of what you don't know; fear of what others might think or say; fear of demonstrating your lack of experience; fear of asking questions and being proactive. All too often, people remain in the safe place where they aren't challenged. It's easy, but the price for doing this is stunted professional and personal development. If you want to be comfortable and secure, that's fine. Just don't expect to get to the top if you aren't prepared to step outside your comfort zone. Learning to be comfortable outside your comfort zone is the never-ending challenge. If you feel like you have plateaued then you aren't progressing. If you aren't progressing you aren't developing. For most lawyers, remaining here for too long is not a good idea and will lead to high levels of dissatisfaction over time.

So, here are some great principles to build and develop resilience and the growth mindset that will give you the best chance of success:

1. The reality is there is no other way to grow and develop unless you are tested. Life and work will throw up all sorts of challenges. Instead of the usual avoidance behaviour, which will see you kick the can down the road, you need to face it head on. Why? Because you are smart and clever enough to work it out. 2. You may not be able to control external events but you have the power to control how you react to negative events. You can let them torment you, break you or set you back permanently. Or, you can dust yourself off, absorb the lessons and become better, moving forward. 3. It will take time and practice to exercise and build this muscle before it becomes your default setting. Be patient and when things do get to you, don't let it set you back for too long. Keep a close eye on your reactions to things, monitor your emotions and sit with them. Just sit and observe them. Over time, you will see the effects become less and less. 4. Exposing yourself to new things, challenges and skills and feeling out of your depth is also a good way to develop the muscle. Stand up to the things you are anxious or fearful of and you will see how benign they actually are. 5. Start from a position of gratitude each day. Most of us take the basics for granted and this can make it hard to be motivated. Understand how fortunate you are at all levels and that career and success are only one part of your life. 6. Accept that which you have no control over and focus on doing the best work you can. Seek feedback and advice and be proactive. But, once you have given it your all, let go of the outcome by recognising that it's beyond your control.