During a recent trip to Spain, I noticed how old and new meshed in the towns and cities of the country. Ancient, cobbled streets housed modern shops; beautiful facades from centuries past contained modern kitchens and baths courtesy of IKEA. Even those structures which stood intact had eroded with the passage of time, cannons, and pigeons. It struck me that this process of addition and subtraction permeates our lives, particularly in our professional formation. We often focus on what we need to add to our resumes, our skill sets, and our professional lives, and these new acquisitions can play a valuable role in developing professionally. We need continuing education as lawyers to maintain our skills and our licenses. We need to tackle new tasks and learn new law to help new clients. We need experience to be effective lawyers and leaders.
I think we may be less intentional about subtraction as a crucial part of the professional formation equation. To become wise counsel, we must become observers of life, recognizing those traits that lead to wholeness and being willing to let go of those traits and habits that erode us. Subtraction can take many forms: letting go of the need to control what we cannot; setting healthy boundaries regarding our time and relationships; acknowledging that we will not always win and that perhaps, we should not always win in the legal setting. Eroding the need to be perfect and to be right often feels wrong to those of us who have been the gold star getters of life. Remember gold stars? Those little magic signs that we were the best? I still remember the specific adhesive taste on the back of the gold stars I licked and put on countless charts during my life. But a relentless quest for achievement and perfection often elbows out authenticity because no one is on top and right and perfect all the time.
As teachers and mentors to our students, we can help with their professional formation when they observe in us the ability to be wrong, to rise from setbacks, and to acknowledge that failure is part of the profession. When we allow that erosion of perfection to happen, what is left may not be perfect, but it is authentic. Authenticity allows us to be better and more credible advocates and counselors. As professors, we give better advice and more effectively mentor when we acknowledge our own evolving process of flawed humanity.
How can you, as part of your professional formation journey, balance the addition and subtraction in that process? Where are you holding on to life-draining habits and practices, and where could you be adding value to your leadership and professional life? How can you guide your students through a process of reflection and action? One potential way to achieve this involves making two lists. On one, identify which investments of your time, energy, and attention made the most impact on your professional life last year, and on the other, which made the least? Reflect on what those lists reveal to you about what you might add and what could be subtracted from your life to add more value. We note that while this exercise works in your professional formation journey, it is equally interesting to ask this question broadly about your life.
Intentionally considering how your time is spent, what adds value, and how you want to change is an important and ongoing part of the professional formation process. Once you identify areas to change, monitor how you feel about having let something go. Do you feel relief? Do you miss that person or activity? Sometimes letting go of things we feel we should do but don’t really want to do can be the next big step in our development.
As you lead your students through this exercise, we recommend presenting this as a long-range planning tool. Remind them that life as a law student and as a lawyer comes with days and tasks that are not fun, easy, or comfortable. Law students must prove themselves capable of completing challenging tasks or assignments. Lawyers must gain the trust of their clients by meeting their obligations with integrity. Short-term sacrifices are sometimes necessary to ensure long-term success. Yet even in these challenging periods, we can find perspective and clarity to envision our futures.
Like the quaint towns I visited in Spain, each of us can have a future that is a magical mixture of old and new. Building new skills and relationships laid on the foundation of our authentic values and hard-earned life experiences can lead to exciting opportunities and meaningful engagements in our communities. And, if well lived, our journeys can help others along their own paths.