Of course, there aren’t just two lives in life. There are many.
But to simplify things for my simple self, I say there are two lives.
The personal life and the public life.
By personal life I mean the doing of those things or savouring those moments that enrich us, that make us content, that makes us grateful to feel alive, that make us feel life is worth living and a pleasure to be. Being with loved ones, doing what we really want to do, and finding flow in that, time to take care of ourselves as well, for example.
By public life I mean the doing of things that gain us success, acclaim, promotion, and fortune from our career, our skills, abilities, and experience. Examples of these are professional success, professional and public acclaim, earning a lot of money, the appearance of success, deliberately winning awards.
We become acquainted with public life when we enter the realm of earning a living. I know some may say, yeah, but we already do so during tertiary education. I acknowledge that. But my reply is those are dress rehearsals. They are like a moot. It’s serious, intense, and intellectual, but it has no real impact on anything.
Once we enter the realm of having to earn a living, we are thrust into public life. We didn’t sign up for it, but we have little choice in the matter. Our wage gives us skin in the game of public life.
Despite the lack of voluntariness, it is surprisingly easy to get drawn into public life. It’s easy because everyone seems to be doing it, having fun and doing it well. It’s easy because it is more stimulating, intense, immediately rewarding, and feels more important compared to personal life. Because of that, public life can be addictive. Worse, when it is conflated with personal life, the personal life becomes secondary, if not ignored altogether.
That’s when things go wrong with both lives. It begins with neglecting to pay attention to our personal life and ends in unhappiness with both. We fail at personal life when we neglect our family, our friends, our passions, our physical, psychological, and emotional health, our own needs. But we fail too if we live our personal life to the exclusion of public life. Contentment is found in a dynamic discerning balance between the two.
When we fail in personal life, instead of managing it better, it is easier to throw ourselves into public life.
I think it one of my responsibilities to my lawyers and those who work for us to give them an opportunity to manage and live both lives well. It is important for their personal life and career in the law in the long term. Because, if possible, I want to work for a long time with those I retain in the firm. I want them to be healthy, hearty and whole not just for the next four or five years but the next twenty to thirty, long after I am gone.
In real terms that means giving space, time, trust, and freedom to my colleagues to manage their energy, time, and work. It means I permit the occasional liberty during office hours. A half-hour to sort out a personal matter during office hours once in a while. Just have someone cover for you or you have it covered then go. There is no need to be so calculative about working hours. But that cuts both ways.
My lawyers are about as free as me in how they manage their time. I don’t like to micro-manage and constantly order people about. I often tell those that come to the firm that we treat each other as adults. That means they are responsible for whatever work is given to them. So long as the quality of work is expected and deadlines are met, I don’t get in the way of how they do their work. I only get involved when quality and deadlines are not met, or a client complains.
It also means I check in on my colleague’s workload to make sure it is not overwhelming, and where possible, assign them interesting work. I like to think that those with a genuine interest in law need essentially those two things to flourish – interesting work and the time, space, and support to do good work – and they are content. Overwhelming ourselves with work although provokes a sense of exhilaration at times, more often leaves a bitter aftertaste and a sense of emptiness after the case is over.
That is not to say when there will be moments of great intensity and dedication required of us to do the work. However, those moments should not be on a daily or weekly basis. These moments, if they can be helped, should visit us a few times a year.
Working is akin to riding a horse. Constantly working with great intensity is to ride a horse at its fastest for a long time; the horse is not the better for it and is likely to expire far quicker than if it were ridden at reasonable speeds. A horse can only run at its quickest for two to three miles before becoming exhausted.
It is the same with our efforts at work. We can work at a burst for a few days at a time. After that we become exhausted. We need to rest and recuperate. We can go on but we will be the worse for it, we will wear ourselves out until we cannot even enjoy our work anymore. We begin to hate it, dread it and suffer more than we should for it. That is the feeling of being overwhelmed and burned out. It is important to recognise and avoid this.
To me, it is important my colleagues have the time, energy, and space to attend to the personal side of their life. It is of great importance to me that my colleagues enjoy the work and how they go about it. If they have peace of mind in their personal life it will carry over to their professional life. Contented colleagues are likelier to have satisfying relationships both within and without the firm. Contented colleagues often translate to satisfied clients and a pleasant workplace environment.
There was a saying I came across recently which I found apt: We discover our second life once we realize we have only one life. I thought the saying applied to what it meant to be living the life we need.
But now I think it applies to the personal and public life dichotomy too. As addictive, stimulating, and seductive the public life can be and is – the personal life is the only life. If we don’t get that life right, all our other lives will be a perversion, a tragedy, a farce in spite of all the accolades, awards and adulation we receive.
The beauty is once we get that personal life in order the accolades, awards and adulation become bright baubles and meaningless distractions. And we find accolades in smiles and paid fees, awards in camaraderie and conversation, and no need for adulation.