Success lies in meaningful work, self-development

Embracing personal backgrounds and new opportunities leads to professional achievement.

We all know that success begins and ends with hard work. While in-house lawyers and law firm partners have an obligation to be more inclusive and build initiatives to address the needs of diverse attorneys, the diverse attorney must first provide the foundation of success: hard work. In his best-selling book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that success has a predictable, identifiable set of markers. Rather than simply the product of individual intelligence, ambition and human potential, success is informed by culture, environment, communal ethos and shared vision. Individual intelligence and personal best efforts are often not enough. Gladwell’s recipe for success is brilliant in its simplicity.

Success means working harder than your peers. In what he calls the “10,000-hour rule,” Gladwell opines on how the Beatles and Bill Gates got from “high potential,” to good and then to great. Before the Beatles enjoyed breakout success, they reportedly played an arduous schedule of live performances in Hamburg, Germany. Performing seven days a week at points, the band played some 270 dates over a year and a half. So when their big break came, they had some 1,200 live performances under their belt. Similarly, a teenage Gates reportedly honed his early computer skills during the only time slot available at the computer lab near his parents’ home: 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Success means “winning” because of (and not in spite of) “disadvantaged” socio-economics or ethnicity. Gladwell illustrates this by chronicling the rise of the eastern European immigrants who, at the turn of the 20th century, built New York’s garment district. Many of these immigrants leveraged the occupational skills they acquired in their home countries to build successful lives in this country. They lived impoverished lives while starting and growing sidewalk family businesses that through effort, smarts and personal industry became large, profitable businesses. The children of these immigrants, many of whom worked in their families’ businesses as minors, went on to take the lessons of autonomy, hard work and meeting unmet needs, to build other successful businesses including some of the most profitable law firms in the world. Rather than being victimized by “outsider” status, success came by embracing their “disadvantaged” status as a competitive advantage.

Finally, success means identifying and mastering “meaningful work.” Gladwell illustrates the concept of meaningful work by describing the cerebral aspects of rice farming in Asia to exploring the radical notion of year-round school in the inner city of New York. In describing this meaningful-work notion to young lawyers, I liken it to a residency; not unlike the residency that our peers in the medical profession have. The residency or articling process is a period of meaningful work whose purpose is to transform academic theory into professional practice. Sadly, many young American lawyers never see meaningful work. Consequently, otherwise promising careers never realize their potential. Yes, success requires hard work. But hard work for lawyers that is not meaningful is ultimately squandered effort.

My point is this—we burden our profession and those who own and control it to be more “inclusive.” We ask “them” to build initiatives that reach out to and address the needs of the diverse lawyers in their midst. We ask them to build “pipelines” and to “mentor” and to “develop” diverse talent for the good of the profession.

But the burden of our success does not lie exclusively with the profession. We diverse lawyers have a role to play, which is nondelegable. The most successful and powerful individuals in our profession (regardless of their ethnicity, gender or orientation) would likely tell us that autonomy and meaningful hard work made the difference in their careers. And so it has to be with us. We have to play a role in our own salvation.

John Lewis Jr. is senior managing compliance counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.

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