“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did.” — Mark Twain
Actions and results define our careers. In some cases, we achieve resounding victories in winning a trial, closing a deal, landing a major client, or taking the mantle of leadership and driving a group, department or organization to great heights. At other times, we may have suffered defeats, but, in the process, learned valuable lessons that ultimately paved the way to future accomplishments.
It is ironic, then, in a profession that is replete with many gifted individuals who took important steps before and after they joined it, that inaction—or more specifically, inertia—is often the phenomenon that will impede them from reaching their full potential. Working with lawyers for more than three decades has revealed one overriding lament of those who have introspectively glanced back at their careers. Their regret, as Twain wrote, is of having failed to pull the trigger on some opportunities that arose at critical points in their careers.
Although there are some intrepid, indefatigable souls among us who seemingly are always marching forward, most do battle with procrastination, and its much more formidable relative—inertia—at various points in our careers. Procrastination confronts many more often, as briefs, memos, reports and similar tasks are shunted to the side until a deadline is lurking in the rearview mirror. Some need that pressure, and actually feed off it, while others rue that they didn’t finish the task much earlier, as that tension took a toll on them. In the end, though, procrastination almost always just defers action. It doesn’t stop it (as does inertia), as the assignment is eventually completed.
Inertia is a much more formidable foe, as it may first envelop us as if we slipped into quicksand but permanently embeds us, once it takes hold, in concrete. Physics defines inertia as a state of rest that keeps us in place until a force inflicts change. The grip of inertia can be so tight that it immobilizes one from proceeding, even when we intellectually know that action needs to be taken. This frequently arises in recruiting—especially in law firms—as the risk-averse, conservative environment is one that breeds inertia. It can also surface in so many other scenarios, such as remaining in a practice area that one no longer likes, not pursuing a new client or asking an existing one for new business, not writing a book, or refraining from making a speech that one knows would be a career boost.
Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician and author, addressed the topic in a groundbreaking 1967 study, “The Use of Lateral Thinking.” De Bono observed that “you cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” In essence, he explained, “this means that trying harder in the same direction may not be as useful as changing direction.” “Lateral thinking,” a term that he coined, is the mechanism that is necessary to overcome inertia and the tendency to eschew change by continuing to dig in the same hole.
Consequently, continuing to do the same thing, and hoping that it will somehow overcome the issues that have led you to conclude that change is necessary, is not a prescription for success. Lateral thinking—the ability to step back and map out alternatives to your normal way of doing things, even when those methods were previously successful—is necessary. Sometimes the ability to think laterally can come from within, but, in other situations, an external stimulus is needed to move you forward. This can be a real challenge in a career context, as the investment that one has made in an organization or situation often comes into play. Feelings of loyalty and even guilt can cause one to plug away and hope that things will turn around, even though one instinctively knows that the odds of that happening are quite low.
So, what factors allow inertia to develop? Five common causes are:
• Fear (of failure or the unknown).
• Risk aversion (which typically increases as we age).
• Becoming overly comfortable (and knowing that change will disrupt that state).
• Lack of confidence (which leads one to think that failure awaits).
• Being tired (and not having the energy to implement change).
A sixth cause, though—perfectionism—is the one that seems to rank the highest for many lawyers. This, in part, is understandable, as lawyers, even if they were not born perfectionists, have been trained to wait for the perfect moment, as timing can be crucial in the practice of law. For example, consider the trial lawyer who refrains from asking the clinching question on cross-examination until the trap has been fully set or the deal lawyer who gets the critical concession for his client by requesting it at a time of maximum leverage. In those settings, playing the perfect hand, at the right moment, was well worth it and was rewarded.
It, thus, is not a surprise that in other situations, such as the ones mentioned here, lawyers instinctively may want to wait until the sun, moon and stars perfectly align. The mistake in that thinking is that in the practice-related examples discussed above, the lawyer is able to control and choreograph the outcome. When other opportunities that involve change arise, however, control of the outcome is often impossible and trying to impose that, as the perfectionists among us are wont to do, opens the door to the vise grip that inertia will inevitably impose. A popular quote, from an unknown author, is apropos:
“Stop waiting for the perfect moment, take the moment you have and make it perfect.”
It would be irresponsible to write about this monster that is called inertia and to not provide some weapons to slay it. According to experts, and my own experiences, there are five primary methods to free yourself from the clutches of inertia.
First, it is important that you are at least open to hearing external opinions as to remedies for the situation you find yourself in, especially if lateral thinking is not your forte. Outside influences are frequently required to nudge, if not shove, you out of your stuck position. You may initially bristle at these efforts, as they may trigger the same reactions that led to your inertia, such as fear and disruption of your state of comfort. While you may ultimately decide not to alter your course, you should at least do so on an informed basis, and thus should carefully consider the advice you receive.
Second, as you’re preparing for moving forward, gear up for what lies ahead. If a journey awaits, be sure that you are physically and mentally strong. If this entails taking a short break, engaging in your favorite sport or pastime to clear your head, catching up on some much-needed sleep, or whatever you need to recharge your batteries, then, as the Nike ad says, “just do it.” In a similar vein, map the steps that lie ahead and plan your actions accordingly. It would contravene all the principles espoused in this article if this preparatory step took as long as plotting a military invasion; rather, set a very tight deadline to move forward and adhere to it.
Third, once you are committed to change, it is vital that you actually take a first step, no matter how small it is. A very well-known Chinese proverb is spot-on here, as it proclaims that “the person who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” If your efforts to change are coming from within, it may be necessary to shock yourself into action. There are a myriad of ways to do this, ranging from placing notes on a mirror in your bathroom to penalizing yourself in some way if you don’t do something by a certain date. Once again, reflect on how you have jarred yourself into action in the past and select the method that will work best now.
Fourth, while you may bust through your shackles and reach your goal quickly, be prepared that the trek may go sideways, or even backwards, at times. If you are not realistic in this regard, a few setbacks may be enough to cause you to retreat to the welcoming arms of inertia that are just waiting to give you another bear hug. Be ready to persevere and never forget that, as Confucius said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”
Finally, promise yourself a reward for accomplishing your objective and make sure you redeem it. As elemental as it may seem, there is no one among us who doesn’t respond well to rewards, so establish yours and have it inspire you throughout. It will help to make the effort even more satisfying.
Who among us has not uttered the recognition that life is short? Our careers, which are only a subset of our lives, are even shorter. Don’t let inertia rob you of pivotal years and successes that you could have achieved. As Dr. Wayne Dyer and his daughter, Serena Dyer, stated in the title of their new book, “Don’t Die With Your Music Still in You.” This admonition is as applicable to careers as it is to life.
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com. •