Know Your Limitations
Self-help gurus will tell you that humans have limitless potential. Are they right? Are there really no boundaries to what we are capable of doing? The answer is yes . . . and no. The key, I think, is the word “potential.” So, while it may be true that you potentially can do anything, in reality, we all know that we cannot do anything. Or, perhaps, more precisely, we all know that we do not do anything. Sometimes that is due to physical limitations (as a guy who’s under 5’6”, I’m never going to dunk a basketball without first climbing a ladder or jumping onto a trampoline). Sometimes the limitations are external forces (if you are in prison, you do not have the freedom to go on vacation in Florida for Spring Break), and sometimes those limitations come from within. Those are the limitations I’m focused on. Those are the ones you need to be aware of. Those are the ones you can do something about.
Indeed, having been fired or laid off from several different law firms, I’ve realized the importance of knowing your own limitations. In my case, that meant realizing that I really didn’t seem to have the psychological makeup or the passion to be a great lawyer. If only I had acted on this realization years earlier, I could have saved myself years of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Now, let me be clear, it’s not that I don’t have intellectual capacity to be a top-flight lawyer. I believe that I do, and results on various standardized tests and in other contexts seem to back me up on this. But law is a funny thing. It requires not only painstaking attention to detail and a plodding, endless well of patience, but it also–at least in litigation—requires a real zest for confrontation. You have to love the chess match.
I’m pretty good on the detail part, but I don’t do too well in the patience department, and the desire for confrontation—forget it. It’s not for nothing that one of my favorite hobbies is long distance running.
Unfortunately, I think I knew this right from the beginning. Now, in and of itself, this wasn’t the end of the world. But it was frustrating. There I was, slaving away, working endless hours, and feeling like a minor league baseball player who was never going to have a batting average much higher than his weight. But, like so many lawyers who are unhappy or whose careers are not progressing the way they had hoped, I lost sight of those limitations. I got distracted by the work, the money, and by ambition and the need for ego gratification. And, of course, there was the fear of not knowing what I’d do if I gave up the law.
So, I kept my head down and worked my ass off. And, I was able to hold my own.
Not long after I started my career in private practice, I began to receive subtle hints that something was off. Oh, sure, I could talk the lingo, but over time it became clearer and clearer to me that I was not on the same plane as my colleagues. They seemed to “get” things, which I didn’t. It seemed that they saw things in 3-D, and I only saw 2-D. Their memos and briefs were terse, incisive, and used immutable logic to go from beginning to end. My written work was wordy, bloated and often left gaps in logic that required the reader – senior partners or, worse yet, judges – to work hard to understand what the hell I was trying to say.
At first, I did what anyone in my shoes would do. I panicked, and I got scared.
Problem was, being scared didn’t make my work any better. In fact, it probably made it worse. I became tentative and second-guessed myself constantly, and as anyone will tell you, once you start second-guessing, it’s all over.
Not quite. Actually, it’s not over till someone notices.
Someone did. Someones, to be exact—the senior partners for whom I worked. And, as sure as night follows day, I got a call one afternoon to come into the office early the next morning to meet with a couple of partners.
They were nice. They were courteous. They told me how much everyone liked me, how I was a nice guy, fun to be around and easy to get along with. But, they said, your work just isn’t where it ought to be for someone of your level.
Although I knew they were right, to hear it said out loud was rough because until someone says it out loud, you can still pretend it’s not true. And, of course, there’s not a thing you can do to change it. So, this hurt. It hurt bad.
But, putting that to one side for the moment, what this incident did was merely confirm what I already knew: that I did not have the requisite “stuff” to be a great lawyer, running with the big dogs. I may have the “stuff” to be a great something else—and I’m hoping that I have the “stuff” to be a great comic, which is my new chosen profession—but I don’t have the stuff to be a “great lawyer.” My limitations—particularly my lack of passion for law and my lack of desire to engage in confrontation—doomed my legal career almost from the moment it started.
So, what’s the lesson in this? It means know—and acknowledge—your own limitations. Are your limitations ones you can address? Perhaps you just need help with your writing or with your trial advocacy or your marketing and networking skills. Perhaps you have tremendous passion for the law, but you just have one or two skill sets that are rusty or need sharpening. If that’s the case, and you want things to improve, by all means go out and do the things you need to do to improve your skills.
Or maybe you have the raw skills, the talent, the natural abilities, but you lack the passion, the drive, the commitment. That’s every bit as significant a limitation. Indeed, perhaps more so, for without passion and interest in what you’re doing, you’ll never have the necessary discipline to do all that’s needed to succeed, at least not over the long haul.
As a result, maybe this is the time to recognize that your dissatisfaction with or your failings in law are a sign that you should not be in the field. For example, Einstein, apparently, wasn’t much of a patent clerk. But, he was a heck of a physicist.
So, use this. Don’t get too down. Don’t feel like an abject failure. Don’t dwell on the feeling that “I’ll never be a great ambulance chaser.” Maybe you weren’t really cut out for it. Maybe you were meant to drive the ambulance.
Whatever the case may be, start by being honest with yourself. Know your limitations.