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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

The Thriving Lawyer: The Power of Suspending Judgment

Anne Elizabeth Collier


  • While you can’t predict, you can position yourself for opportunity with these eight strategies.
The Thriving Lawyer: The Power of Suspending Judgment
Strelciuc Dumitru via Getty Images

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The unexpected can trigger worry. This worry drives us to figure out what happened, why and what’s next. The unexpected may manifest in an unwelcome turn in a client engagement,your career path or your personal life. As we try to discern what the tea leaves are telling us, sussing out whether the events of late are good or bad for us, we fear the worst. We analyze, trying to predict what will happen next or how to secure the best outcomes. As lawyers, we are predisposed to anticipate and plan for anything and everything, especially for calamities. We’re trained that way. Law, in fact, is the only profession in which the pessimistic actually do better than the optimistic. According to Dr. Martin Seligman’s happiness research, optimists do better in every profession except law.

Events occur and we are driven to judge them, pessimistically, I might add. I urge you to resist this temptation so that you can both enjoy the journey and secure better results. Consider the parable of the Chinese farmer. In the parable, neighbors console the farmer when his horse runs off. The farmer withholds judgment, unsure of whether the event was good or bad for him. The horse returns, bringing seven equine friends. The neighbors opine that the farmer is lucky to now have eight horses. Again, the farmer withholds judgment, unsure of whether the event was good or bad for him. The pattern continues with the son breaking his leg training the wild horses, and then the emperor’s men conscripting all able-bodied men except the son on account of his broken leg.

The lesson of the parable is multilayered: Withhold judgment even when circumstances appear dire. Trust that the twists and turns of life will result in positive outcomes. These days, the danger of judging too soon is that you judge based on fear.

This, negatively coupled with a lawyer’s ingrained or trained pessimism, skews assessments about circumstances, reducing the capacity to think creatively and solve problems. A mind clouded by fear can’t see the possible positive outcomes and thus can’t think creatively about achieving them. This negative mindset often paradoxically results in the feared or other negative outcomes. The point is that if you withhold judgment about whether an event was good or bad and instead focus on next steps, your capacity to effectively cope exponentially multiplies.

Once you have the capacity to recognize that the “bad” event may set the stage for something quite good, you will be able to both enjoy the journey and take the actions best calibrated to secure that something good. The rub is that you won’t know the outcome until you’ve had the benefit of hindsight. Consider the farmer: The first event in the sequence was the farmer’s only horse running away; the last was that his son was saved from conscription. Note how seemingly disconnected these events are. That is life.

The parable illustrates still deeper lessons. The absence of judgment allowed the farmer to be fully present and relaxed. He didn’t become attached to a particular result or judgment. Instead, we imagine that the farmer sensibly moves forward after each event. He is not distracted by unpleasant emotions because his “wait-and-see” thinking means that he doesn’t experience them. Further, his capacity to cope with each ostensibly bad event is not hampered by fear.

8 Strategies For Positioning Yourself For Opportunity

A person’s path is typically not straight forward or straightforward. There are good times and hard times. At times, the vagaries of life may appear as grave misfortune. Perhaps a relationship goes south or a job starts to bore. Life stalls. Or has it? Perhaps a door closed so that another could open to a wonderful new job, career path or relationship. Consider that you never know when someone is unwittingly doing you a favor. While you can’t predict, you can position yourself for opportunity with these eight strategies:

  1. Live in the present. Frustration about the past and anxiety about the future do not serve you. Be here now. Remember to suspend judgment as you pay attention.
  2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Recognize that discomfort isn’t synonymous with bad. Discomfort typically means circumstances are shifting, perhaps unpredictably, and possibly setting the stage for something quite good.
  3. Stay committed, not attached. Stay committed to your goals but give up trying to completely control and choreograph each step. Allow Lady Luck to intervene.
  4. Let the process play out. Trying to force inchoate outcomes only results in frustration and stress. Be patient and trust in your ability to navigate difficult waters. Be thoughtful about taking action.
  5. Adopt a problem-solving mindset. When circumstances appear amiss, don’t blame yourself or others. Instead, focus on solving the problem—or what’s next.
  6. Tame your inner critic. When it appears that you’ve made a mistake—and remember that the jury’s still out on whether the event is good or bad—figure out whether there is something to learn. Let go of the self-flagellation.
  7. Pay attention to what energizes you. Your body and emotions don’t lie. Noticing them is, in fact, a good way to break the hold of rationalizations that don’t serve you. If the thought of a new job or career path energizes you, maybe it’s time to explore options.
  8. Choose your story. As lawyers, we think we see everything objectively. When we judge from a place of fear, however, we add negative meaning to events without knowing it, thinking our interpretation is objective. If you feel pessimistic, shift your thinking with an interpretation that empowers you.

If you accept that whether an event is good or bad for you is unknowable until you’ve had the benefit of hindsight, all there is to do is stand in the uncertainty with confidence, benefitting from opportunities as they unfold. And yes, there are opportunities.