Apparently, Harvard University has developed a module for its first-year undergraduates entitled Reflecting on Your Life. It is reported that before they get stuck in the grind of academic achievement, students are encouraged to ask themselves some questions: what are their deepest values? How do they spend their time? What do they want their lives to look like?
This prompts further reflection: in the legal world, why do we do what we do? What motivates us? Why do some of us choose to be senior partners, judges, chief executives, Queen’s Counsel, associates, deans, presidents, even writers of newspaper columns on law pages?
In a recent article in the New Statesman, reviewing Stephen Cave’s Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation, John Gray suggests that the whole of human culture might be an exercise in death denial: “In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave.
So, does what we seek to achieve in the legal profession matter, at all? Are we wasting precious time in fruitless pursuit of achievements when we could be doing…well, what? What is the benchmark for ‘success’ in our careers? Should we ask these questions at all?
This stream of consciousness was prompted by a remark at the conclusion of the last night of Core’s three Festival Fringe events. The events seemed to go really well. But, as he was leaving, one member of the audience said to me: “The best thing you can do is step aside and let others get on with it…” That was quite hard to hear. But there was, of course, something to reflect on in the words.
In the quest for significance, it is easy to assume that we have something to say, to contribute, to add, that it only works if we take responsibility… The ego is a strong force. But there’s also something about letting go: at the micro level, where we choose not to intervene in a conversation or decision and, at the macro level, where we no longer need or seek status or position for its own sake. There’s a sense of freedom in that. Paradoxically it brings a new kind of power, not of the traditional hierarchical sort, but the influence that comes with wisdom and absence of fear. As we reach that stage, we might also free others.
As Maryanne Williamson wrote, this is not about being small: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you… when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
For members of the legal profession, there is of course a need for authentic leadership. But for all of us, leaders or not, the key question may be: what or who are we serving? Self? Ego? Ambition? Mammon? The common good? Others? Justice? And how are we going about it? Are we liberating others to achieve their potential? Are we prepared to step aside and let others get on with it when to do so might make all the difference – to them?
Text originally published in the Scotsman on 5 October 2015.