Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

Sounds like astute advice, huh? Really practical. (I can just imagine you rolling your eyes.)

But what if I told you that at least some of those nagging doubts about whether or not you are on the right career path could actually be addressed by taking stock of your happiness levels? The concept is not as far out as it may seem.

Chasing After Happiness

If you read anything in the world of pop culture, you know that happiness is elusive. We chase it and it runs from us. We get close to it and then do or say something that drives it away. Through my years spent working with lawyers exploring a career change, I have found this to be as true in our professional roles as it is in our personal relationships. We think we seek out what makes us happy, but we don’t always know what it is that we truly want or whether getting it will actually allow us to feel fulfilled.

We tell ourselves that becoming a partner, manager or C-suite lawyer is our chosen path. But how often do we stop to break down what that role might really entail and how it might impact other things we value? Achieving the goals we set for ourselves can be one path to happiness, but not at the expense of all the other things we crave. How much less satisfying now are goals set long ago and left on “auto-pilot,” or goals borne out of a need to please or placate others?

Recognizing What Makes You Happy

The toughest part about buying into the “don’t worry, be happy” adage is that we don’t always know how to just “be” happy. All of us have been fooled into thinking that someone or something outside of ourselves will provide the answer, only to be shocked to find out that getting what we thought we wanted wasn’t the solution at all.

Better to turn the mirror on ourselves and look into which pieces of life’s puzzle truly delight us. There are no good or bad answers here, only more and less truthful ones. There are the rote answers that we give because we have always given them and there are scary, gut-wrenching answers that require looking into our psyches and digging deep.

Spoiler alert: reality checks can be painful. I’ve worked with lawyers who billed unending hours to accumulate money and prestige, only to realize that their true joy depended more on making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. I’ve worked with clients who have given tirelessly to a cause, only to feel burned out, disillusioned, and saddened at having let themselves down financially, emotionally, and personally by being absent when important personal events required their presence.

A sad truth is that most of us focus more on our unhappy moments than on the times we feel real joy. Can you remember where you were the last time you felt deliriously happy? Who were you with? What you were doing? Can you identify a happy place (or multiple happy places) where you feel good and whole and strong? Maybe it’s playing a sport as part of a team or curled up alone with a good book. Perhaps you notice it when you are standing in front of the stove cooking for a crowd, or sitting behind a computer researching whatever is on your mind. The illustrative experience can and will be different for each of us, and that’s perfectly OK. What’s important is the ability to recognize these personal “happiness triggers” and use them to steer toward appropriate career goals for you.

Injecting Happiness Into Your Career

Once you have a good idea of what makes you happy, outline how that information translates into your professional life. If you are happiest when you are working with other people, reject jobs that require you to be or work alone for long stretches at a time. If you crave action and regular changes of scenery, you may find a desk job to be soul-sucking. “Big picture” people tend to experience frustration in settings requiring attention to every minute detail, and detail people are often incensed by those who focus primarily on getting things done, rather than on the process of doing them right and in order.

Consider also the industry in which you choose to work. If you are a tax lawyer with a passion for fashion, you will undoubtedly feel more engaged in reviewing the tax liabilities of an international retailer than of the local municipality. If you follow the markets as a hobby, look for a new career option in the financial marketplace. We don’t need to isolate our interests from our careers; to the contrary, the more our work aligns with who we are, the happier we can be during our working hours.

Granted, most jobs mix tasks and industries, and very few of us only get to do the things we like. But play the percentages. If a significant majority of the time you spend at work is spent doing things you don’t enjoy, in settings you dislike, with topics that bore you, among people with whom you can’t relate, it stands to reason that your happiness and your subsequent career satisfaction are at risk.

Don’t Worry, But Do Take Action

While “don’t worry, be happy” sounds nice, I don’t encourage passivity in achieving a great career fit. Determining what you want from your career, and what will make you feel like getting up and going to work every morning takes work! Self-assessment is only the first part of the process. Once you can articulate what you want, you have to be willing to get out and scour the marketplace for the kinds of roles (legal? quasi-legal? non-legal?) that will value the skill, style, energy, and interests you bring to the table.

Remember, that although worry is passive, curiosity requires action. Exploring if and why your career has stalled is productive. Envisioning how you can jump-start a dormant career is dynamic. Conducting market/industry research and seeking out informational interviews require proactive work on your part. None of it is easy, but all of it is doable and can help you turn your career worries into career joys.

About the Author

Cheryl Rich Heisler is the president and founder of Lawternatives, a career consulting firm helping lawyers explore career alternatives. She is a member of the ABA Careers Committee. Contact her on LinkedIn or via email, cheisler@lawternatives.com.

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