How to Fail at Everything

There’s not a lot of advice I feel genuinely qualified to give. But my strategy to fail at virtually anything is simple and proven: act without purpose.

It’s not that I actually have failed at everything. I’ve certainly had my share of successes. That’s why I feel so clear on the strategy for failure. The common theme in every mistake I’ve made, project I’ve lost interest in, and conversation that has gone fully off the rails has been to start without the end in mind.

In my work as a litigation attorney I do a lot of writing. Every document I generate has a purpose, and I always start by outlining the points I need to make to best get the result I’m looking for. I need to be clear and concise, because I’m often bound by word or page limits. The beginning of the document always states in plain language what I’m asking the court to do, so the reader can have the purpose in mind as she proceeds through my arguments and evidence. I never, ever ramble incoherently.

Without a shred of humility I can say I’m pretty good at my job.

In contrast, I look to my personal life and the words that have a way of falling haphazardly out of my mouth. Such different results! I often find myself surprised and confused by what I’m saying, and then frustrated when I’m choking on my own foot. Again. My mouth needs a word count.

My tendency to ramble is sometimes quirkily charming (she tells herself), but is more often a conversational Hindenburg. Recently, it’s become apparent that I can’t rely on the benefit of the doubt when it comes to an unclear message. Gaps in understanding are often filled with malintent. This poses a problem for me as you can imagine. It’s fairly difficult to have functional relationships when you have to spend a lot of energy trying to overcome the presumption you’re a criminal mastermind. Probably this is one of the undisclosed costs of becoming licensed to practice law; no one trusts the lawyer.

I regularly remind myself to assume good intent. This is hard. It started out as something I thought about because it felt like the right thing to do, but the more I practice it the more it becomes apparent how much it benefits me. I’ve seen the toll it takes on people to feel like the world is out to get them. When you assume positive intent, you don’t constantly feel the need to watch your back. You don’t have to parse every word of every communication for the hidden trap. This is not to say I don’t employ a healthy amount of skepticism. That is also necessary. I just don’t assume every opposing counsel spends the day plotting my personal downfall.

I can’t rely on others to assume my intent is good. I hope for their own benefit everyone works to master this skill, but it’s not the solution to my struggle. I’ve realized recently that the way to keep the gaps in understanding from filling up with evil green goo is to close the gaps. That’s something I can own. I’m going to work harder to treat important conversations like summary judgment motions. I’ll start with the end in mind, outline my thoughts, and stay within my word count limit.

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