Attorney Well-Being: Balancing Gratitude and Ambition

We are a driven people – attorneys.  We are taught that excelling in school – high school, undergraduate, and law school — will result in success in our careers.  Most of the time, this correlation holds true.  Sometimes it does not. 

Before there can be any success in a legal career, we have to trace back all the achievements it took to get there – passing the state bar exams, graduating from law school, getting good grades in law school, acceptance into law school, completing law school applications, taking the LSAT, graduating from undergraduate, applying to multiple colleges, taking AP classes in high school, getting great grades in high school…and on and on. 

To excel in school, though, we needed ambition.  Hard work and good grades were a must.  There has to be some degree of ambition belying any dean’s list honors or high G.P.A.  The idea of ambition is a complicated concept.  On one hand, it is linked to greed and has awful, negative connotations.  On the other hand, it is a driving force of industriousness and success, a necessity to get by and thrive.   

I’d like to look at that second side of ambition.  The softer, more necessary side of our mind that drives us to want to do more, give more, be more, achieve, and succeed – all with good intentions.  We need that type of ambition to be the best we can be.  Just like the army motto, an everyday, living our best life, Oprah-style, best-self ambition. 

What I seek to find, and what I think practicing lawyers would find interesting in achieving well-being, is a good balance between this type of ambition and gratitude.  Ah, yes, gratitude.  That ubiquitous word, we see so often, gratitude.  I struggle with gratitude.  It is true.  Difficult for me to say, but true nonetheless.  I struggle in a good way, if I can backtrack a little.  It is because I am trying to be grateful that I can say I struggle.  It’s not a good idea to struggle with gratitude by not being grateful for anything.  I think there is a difference.  For me, the struggle lies in the idea that if I am being grateful for my present life, then how can I ask for more?  How can I be ambitious and want to have an alternative legal career, or more success, or make a big move across the country?  Gratitude tells us to be thankful for the present – thankful for the gifts of the here and now.  But how do we reconcile this gratitude with ambition for our future?

I needed help so I went to some experts, but what I found is the opposite of what I was looking for.  Authors with completely good intentions are telling us to stop being busy, sit still, and feel the happiness that thankfulness brings.  For example, one author recommends that we find what we are grateful for, breathe in “enough” and use mindfulness to release ourselves from ambition[i].   I’ve already shared my issues with mindfulness, and here I am again finding issues with gratitude.

And then I found it – an article from a psychologist exactly on point.  This feeling of wanting more but also wanting to be grateful exists.  Maybe it is common, I don’t know, but I do know now that I am not alone in this feeling.  Not is this juxtaposition of gratitude and ambition a topic – but this psychologist has recommended tools to use to reconcile the differences between these two concepts.  Amazing!

According to Dr. Danielle Dowling, Psy. D., we can address this push and pull between gratitude and ambition in the following ways: celebrating in the now, curtailing the complaining, and creating a gratitude & ambition list[ii].  What does this all look like for an attorney interested in improving attorney well-being? 

Let’s put celebrating the present into action.  I know as attorneys we are very driven people, but sometimes that drive leads us to be out of the present moment.  I understand that being in the present is difficult, and I admit that mindfulness practice is not for me every time.  In this instance, I think when I am feeling distracted or down about wanting more in life or in my career, I will think of this first example of celebrating in the now.  In the simplest situations – shopping for groceries or waiting in the check-out line – smile, connect, and celebrate that this is a great life.  Listening to a great song on the car radio –   smile, connect, and celebrate.  If all that celebrating of life’s little moments fails to work, which it does fail for me sometimes, then I recommend running.  Not like running out the door of your office never to return, but running on a treadmill or outside on the sidewalks.  Running puts me in a zone of freedom to think and be present.  I guess I can add to my practice of running actually celebrating that I am running.  It’s a great feeling to run, why not celebrate that feeling?

Let’s catch ourselves complaining.  Ok, we’ve all been there, complaining to co-workers, friends, family, about a myriad of issues ranging from the small and mundane – I mean the weather – to something huge like losing a parent, or your child’s struggles with reading.  The issues range, but what does complaining get us?  Yes, it is cathartic to a degree.  Expressing our emotions is healthy.  Bottling them all up and letting it explode at a later date is generally not recommended.  But, what I am talking about is the complaining for the sake of complaining.  We can dial up our internal radar.  We all know what it sounds like.  I can find myself becoming aware of it in a conversation, and then how do you stop it?  I can try to switch subjects, but that is a delicate art.  I can point out a positive in the situation, but that can be met with crickets when the whole trend of the conversation was negative.  Find what works for you.  I would imagine that in the office, a positive, non-complaining reputation would attract more colleagues to want to work along-side you.  It should be that way in any environment.  The key is noticing the complaining, then curtailing it by stopping yourself from complaining and participating in complaining, and then supplanting the complaints by sharing positive view points no matter what the consequence.

Create your own gratitude & ambition journal and then habit stack.  Finally!  This idea is one that I don’t even think I knew I was looking for.  I have struggled with completely diving into gratitude journaling.  I don’t know what it was about it, but it felt unauthentic to me.  I would try to write lists of things or people or places I was grateful for, but I did not feel the connection I was told would happen.  I was told that by journaling my gratitude, I would somehow feel better about the whole world.  I was supposed to be able to notice a leaf turning red on a tree and feel this surge of happiness with underlying gratitude for that moment.  I can’t say that happened consistently or to the point that I would attribute my generally happy demeanor to the gratitude journal I was given.  On the other hand, it is not a bad idea to try.  It could work.  But alone, gratitude by itself, felt hollow to me.  Now, the concept of pairing my gratitude with my ambition makes sense.  I am definitely going to try this.  In fact, I think instead of just making a list of both concepts, I will start a journal.  The idea being, if I wrote five articles or twenty pages of a book, I would write that in my grateful column or in my first paragraph of the journal, then I would follow that with how much more I want – fifteen more articles, one hundred more pages – and why and how I can get there.  This seems like a concrete way of taking action while recognizing things that I am grateful for that have happened.  The practice of journal is a habit formation challenge.  The best way I know how to create a habit is to habit stack.  This means that I pick a habit I already have and then add this new habit of gratitude/ambition journaling to it.  My habit I have chosen is turning off the light at night.  If every night before I turn out the light, I can grab a journal (conveniently located on my nightstand – help yourself by making this easy!) and write down one thing I am grateful for that happened that day and one thing I want to do to fulfill my ambition.  Pick any habit at all to stack to – drinking coffee in the morning, eating lunch, whatever you do every day without fail.   

Overall, the balance between gratitude and ambition is a tricky one.  It feels elusive.  I don’t know if there even is going to be such a thing as a balanced equilibrium of the two concepts, but the act of trying to balance both is one that is healthy to acknowledge and take action on.  As attorneys, if there is going to be any success professionally, this balancing act is one to take to heart and sincerely strive for. 

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


[i] Sabino, Anna. Huffington Post. “Ambition, Gratitude, and Taste of Enough.” December 6, 2017. Available at:  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ambition-gratitude-and-taste-of-enough_b_11657816

[ii] Dowling, Danielle, Psy.D. Mindbodygreen.  “How to be Grateful and Want More At the Same Time.” No date listed.  Available at: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-13270/how-to-be-grateful-want-more-at-the-same-time.html

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