The practice of law is challenging. We go to school, usually work under more-senior lawyers for a while, and then begin to work with our own clients or start our own practice. But lawyers often find it difficult to identify their inner motivations and rely upon those motivations to see tasks through to their end, especially tasks that they dread. My husband recently experienced a true test of motivation, and if I must say so, passed with flying colors. But he still questions what really happened and why. I wish I knew the secret so I could be just as motivated.
GROUP MOTIVATION IS EFFECTIVE
Susan Weinschenk, who holds a doctorate in psychology, wrote in an October 2012 post for Psychology Today’s Brain Wise blog that competition especially helps motivate men when the pool of competitors is a small group rather than a large one. My husband’s experience is the perfect example.
My husband does CrossFit workouts with a group of neighbors three to four mornings a week. His leader suggested they all get on the “erg” rowing machine and do a “5,000-meter time trial” as a benchmark they could revisit in six months to measure their progress. Everybody did the trial on their own time and wrote the results on the whiteboard (evidencing public accountability). A week after everyone else had done their trial, my husband finally got around to his. Before he started, he noted that completion times ranged from 20:00 for the fastest competitor (a retired FBI agent, older but in better shape than any of them) to about 24:00 for the slowest.
My husband is not the most fit among the group by a long shot, but he had an advantage in that he used to row crew for fun, so he knows a little something about proper form. However, about three-quarters of the way through the trial, he was out of gas, huffing it bad, but there is this little computer on the machine that shows a gazillion statistics, including “projected finish time.” He saw that it was projecting a finish of 21:30—and suddenly he had a chance to be first or second on the leaderboard—so his competition gene kicked in and he started pouring it on, punishing the pain with excess. He finished with a 21:04, although he almost gave himself a stroke (no pun intended).
Shortly thereafter, he discovered that while everyone else had done their trial at the lowest resistance setting, he had done his with the machine set at 7 out of 10. (Slap hand to forehead, providing a prime example of why you attend class instead of just getting the notes from someone, or why you actually review the rules!)
While he is proud of his effort, the question that’s still nagging at him weeks later is whether he would have pushed himself as hard if
- he hadn’t seen the other guys’ time splits first,
- he had known he was rowing at a much more difficult setting, or
- he had rowed at the lowest setting and found himself easily crushing the competition with a sub-18-minute projected time finish at the 3,750 meter mark.
Would he have rationalized easing off the pace, even just a tiny bit?
The truth is, he could not have produced that score without the external motivation of the competition. His friends helped him to perform at his best, without even knowing it, without even being there. At that moment, even though it was painful, some part of my husband figured, “If they could do it, I should be able to as well.”
BELIEF IS MOST IMPORTANT
Ray Galbreth, the longtime executive director of Delta Chi Fraternity, was always fond of saying, “It wasn’t the feather that made Dumbo fly.” If you don’t remember the movie, Dumbo was the little elephant with the big ears who is supposed to fly but simply can’t until his friend, Timothy Q. Mouse, gives him a feather and convinces him that it has magical powers that will make him fly. And fly he does, until the feather slips from his grasp during a show, causing him to panic and fall from the sky until Timothy yells to him, “Open your ears. The feather was just a gag. You can fly, honest, you can!” Dumbo spreads his “wings” and history is made. In short, Dumbo flew because his friend helped him believe he could.
In 2006, Rhonda Byrne published The Secret, a best-selling book about positive thinking. Essentially, she posited that the law of attraction and positive thinking would create life-changing results, leading to increased wealth, health and happiness. Her theory is a little cultish for me. It reminds me of the outrageous claims of the prosperity preachers who gained popularity in the 1940s and ’50s, mutated and escalated in the 1970s and ’80s through flashy televangelists, and continues today with health and wealth ministries, prosperity gospel or the belief that through tithing and offerings you can become healthy, successful and prosperous in life.
While group dynamics and belief can certainly be helpful, for lawyers, the dreaded deadline is usually what gets us motivated.
THE DREADED DEADLINE IS THE KEY
The life of a lawyer is such that there’s always something to fill your day: phone calls, drafting, researching, reviewing, client development, CLE—the list is endless. When I complained about this during my first year of practice, a friend told me, “Your inbox will always be full, so you can’t lose your mind over it.” As you slog through your inbox, those items that motivate you the most will lead to your best performance.
Unfortunately, a looming deadline is the only thing that motivates some people. Deadlines can be, and are, extended too often. I don’t like to ask for extensions because I don’t like them being held against me. I try to return discovery responses in 30 days, turn in pretrial stipulations on time, finish all discovery without asking for an extension—and even turn this column in on time! By always trying to get to my deadlines on time, it makes it easier to ask for extra time when I really do need it because of an emergency.
In a perfect world, I would be motivated enough not to need the competition, not to need to believe in the power of positive thinking and not to be forced to do something because there is a looming deadline. But life gets in the way, and sometimes the most we can do is try to keep our heads above water and be the best we can be.