For Women in Law By Women in Law

Happiness is…Kim Jakeman reflects on ‘The Big Potential’ by Shawn Achor

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I began following author Shawn Achor about four years ago when I joined the management committee of Harper Grey LLP. My first exposure was by way of one of the best Ted Talks I have ever watched and will do you a favour and link it here. It is both hilarious and insightful as he relates an event from his childhood where he encouraged his sister to believe her drop from the top bunk bed, landing on all fours despite having broken her arm the week prior, made her a very special unicorn. It really is all a matter of perspective!

Achor studied at Harvard University and is well known for his work in the area of positive psychology. His book The Happiness Advantage is a great read for anyone searching for personal and/or professional happiness but it is The Big Potential that I want to tell you about as Life in Law continues to build on our belief that we are stronger together.

The Big Potential is provocative in that it considers the research behind why individuals in society today, just cannot get a strong grip on happiness. Achor provides a scientifically based argument that today’s society is breeding discontent because it has individualized success in a way that is harmful to the better good of the whole.

To illustrate his point, Achor begins his book with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”

This quote really summarizes the conclusion that the real secret to success is to develop a sense of interconnectedness with others and to build up those in your community, and by empowering others you will find a sense of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.

In the opening chapter he refers to the statistics on depression which struck me as nothing less than depressing in and of itself. Over the last number of years there has been an increased number of people diagnosed with depression and shockingly the average age of diagnosis has gone from 29 years 1978 to 14 years in 2009. He believes this has been impacted by the emphasis on individual achievement in school and on social media and postulated, as the basis of his research for the book, that if you focus on individual achievement you will hit a natural ceiling on happiness and potential.

Throughout the book, Achor provides powerful insight and examples (in and outside the corporate world) which identify how empowering those around you will provide a stronger and longer lasting sense of happiness. He explains why trying to succeed alone limits your potential and is less fulfilling. The concepts in this book are easy to implement in your own personal and professional life and community, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.

As an example of how you might see the “big potential” unfold in the practice of law, he relates a story of two partnership candidates, both women, who are being interviewed by the senior partners in the firm with reference to why they want to be partners and what they would  offer the partnership. Both women worked on the same project and when it came to discussing the success of the project one woman accepted all the praise while the other, knowing it might risk her bid at partnership, praised the entire team that worked on the file. She spoke of how it was the team’s success. When the senior partners gathered to consider the two candidates it was the lawyer who saw herself as part of a team that won out and joined the partnership table. The partners saw her as the type of lawyer they wanted in their firm, one who built the team and acknowledged the potential of the whole.

I know it is important for me, as a leader in the firm, to applaud the good work of our lawyers and staff. It provides the individual with a sense of self-worth and empowerment and I cannot help but feel pride, a sense of my own success, when someone else succeeds.

Shawn Achor says “the power of one made stronger by others”. Put another way – we are stronger together. Let us all realize the “Big Potential”.

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