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Are You the Manic-Obsessive Type?

Vivia Chen

September 29, 2011

Neurotic You're a lawyer, not a yoga instructor, so who says you have to be well-balanced or pleasant? Your work is excruciatingly detail-oriented and the pressure is relentless.

It might be fine to be somewhat obsessive about your work (arguably that's what people want in their lawyers), but are you dangerously so?

According to cognitive scientist and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in The Harvard Business Review, people who are "obsessively passionate" about  their jobs are "inflexibly, excessively, and compulsively committed, finding it difficult to disengage." And they run the risk of burnout, he says.

Does this describe you? Kaufman has devised a test to help you decide if you're heading for the edge:

1. Do you have enough energy? (Put another way: Do you like what you do?)

2. Do you define yourself by criteria other than work? If your "self" is a pie, how big of a bite does your work take out of it? (This is actually kind of fun--draw a circle, then see how the "wedges" of your life fit into the whole.)

3. Do you have a positive self-image? If you have a negative self-image, there's an "automatic subconscious association between the self and the concept 'unpleasant.' "

4. Do you use words like "want to," "get to," and "can't wait to" about your job? Rather than "must," "need," and "have to"? 

5. Are you able to stop working when you want to? Or do you continue on, even when you really don't want to?

6. Do you get into a state of flow? Flow, says Kaufman, "is an enjoyable experience, whereas obsessive engagement feels more urgent."

I'm willing to bet that many of your answers are "no," which, according to Kaufman, "are signs that you may have obsessive, not harmonious, passion" about your work. 

So what to do about this sorry state of affairs? Kaufman offers some solutions, though I'm afraid some are hard for the average lawyer (and most professionals) to adhere to:

1. Force yourself to take breaks. Kaufman says you should "schedule" things like lunch with friends or gym sessions so that it's harder to back out. (Okay, you can do that.)

2. Don't take work home. "Make it completely impossible to access your work once you leave work." (Not practical.)

3. Change your thought patterns when you work. Fake the mindset of the harmoniously passionate person "until you make it." Instead of using "must" and "need," Kaufman says to use words like "want" and "desire" about your work. (You can try, but it might be hard to find the "desire" to do SEC filings.)

4. Get a hobby. The idea is that if work takes up less "space" in your self-concept, "the smaller your chances of burnout." (You can do that.)

I don't disagree with Kaufman's assessment of what constitutes an unhealthy obsession about work, though I think some of his concepts depend on a rather romanticized view of work. How many jobs give you that sense of "flow"? And how can anyone not feel they "must" and "need" to get through the chores of the day?

But I get what he's trying to say--which is that we all need more equilibrium in our lives. "When one's life isn't in balance, passion can become obsessive and counterproductive," he writes. "When a person feels good about their self and the work they are doing, and is capable of disengaging, passion becomes a wellspring of long-term success."

But does this formula work for anyone with a high pressure job--like lawyering? (I asked Kaufman, and he replied via e-mail that he didn't know, though he said he was interested in the topic.)

What do you think? Do you know any big-firm lawyers out there who are "harmoniously passionate" about their jobs? I know some, but they're all semiretired.

Related post: Do You Have a Lawyer Personality?

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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I really enjoyed this article. Whether your an attorney or an overbooked businessman it is easy to overwhelm yourself by putting too much on your plate.

As someone who was recently diagnosed with major anxiety, I have to say this is some very helpful advice. A co-worker of mine keeps inviting me to see shows his son performs in-- I'll have to take him up on that.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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