Legal Practice

Harnessing Growth Mindset to Advance your Career

Happy New Year (and yes, this isn’t a mirage, it’s actually a new post)! I’m hoping everyone is having a great start to the month and is easing back to work/preparing for the new semester nicely.

Because January is always all about new beginnings and progress, I wanted to talk about the importance of your mindset and how you view your abilities and skills. Likely, many have heard about growth mindset and the importance it plays in your ability to succeed in school and career. I probably first heard about this in undergrad as a Sociology major, but it didn’t really resonate with me until many years later when I attended the HNBA Latina Law Academy here in Chicago.

At the Academy, the program focused on empowerment and harnessing our growth mindset to succeed. In her work, Dr. Carol Dweck discusses two mindsets: fixed and growth. A fixed mindset assumes that your ability is static. Meaning, that your skills, talents, intelligence are already set and a person with fixed mindset may opt out of challenging situations or pick easier options because they 1) don’t want to be viewed as unintelligent and 2) don’t view opportunities for growth as beneficial because they don’t believe they are capable of rising to the occasion.

People with growth mindset, on the other hand, thrive on challenges and believe skills and talents can be improved. Essentially, you look for ways to advance and grow. And what I was taught at the academy was that most Latina lawyers are equipped with growth mindset. It is often this perception that allows us to see past bad situations (poverty, systemic barriers, doubters, etc) and push ourselves to aim high (and then work hard to achieve those goals).

So I don’t have to tell you the importance of growth mindset because you already have it. But what I do want to discuss is how we can use this predisposed idea of ourselves to help offset both the doubt that comes from our internal voice and from outside haters telling us we can’t do something we’ve set out to do.

Of course doubt is common when you’re beginning your career. You’re suddenly responsible for very important matters that can impact someone’s life for years to come (no biggie, right?). It can be so overwhelming that you may find yourself suddenly demure because you’re scared of messing up or declining complicated cases because you’re worried you can’t handle it. While having doubt about your ability is normal, you can’t let that doubt paralyze you from progressing.

Instead, you have to reach into the mindset that has always propelled you forward and find ways to push yourself to grow.  And when you enter a new stage in your career, whether it’s a new job or the start of law school, the first step to continue progress is to acknowledge that you will need to put in (more) effort. Those with fixed mindset view effort as a tell-tale sign that they’re not capable. But if you flip that idea and view effort as just another step in the process rather than a recrimination of your intelligence, you’ll find that working to increase your skills will be much easier.

As you begin a new challenge you need to remind yourself of the following:

One. It’s ok to be scared. Some attorneys are flippant about the work they do, but for many of us–especially those of us with a connections to the communities we serve–we know how important the work is for our clients. It can feel scary to have such responsibility thrust upon us. It’s ok to feel out of your element and scared about what you’re charged to do. But feeling that knot of anxiety should also excite you. You should view it as a sign that you are seeking out challenges and working to increase your skill set. If you find that all the cases you work on are easy or feel like they are low-stakes then you need to be honest that you’re not taking cases that will help you grow.

Two. It’s ok to need more information. When we’re new (or new to something) we don’t always have all the information. We may feel like everyone knows exactly what to do, except for us, so we don’t ask questions because god forbid our boss or coworkers realize that we’re not the second coming of Learned Hand. I’ve been super guilty of this. When I worked on my first federal case, I was so nervous about the fact that I had no idea about the procedures or next steps. I didn’t want my co-counsel to think I was stupid so I hesitated asking him questions. Which is really laughable, because this guy had 40 years of experience and there was no way he didn’t know that I knew nothing. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t just hope to learn what I needed to by chance and that I needed to ask him questions. So I came prepared to each of our prep meetings with notes and questions about the theory of the case, procedure, the client, etc. And you know what happened? He answered them. LOL He didn’t call me dumb or tell my boss to take me off the case. This underlined to me how it’s important to seek out information when you don’t know it and to not care so much if colleagues or others realize there’s info out there you don’t know. Because when you seek out information, you learn it and that helps you become better. Get comfortable with acknowledging the areas where you lack and finding ways to supplement them.

Three. Affirm your talents. It’s one thing to recognize where you need to grow and to work hard to meet those challenges. But you also have to remind yourself, that you are capable of growth and change. Your talents and skills aren’t static. They are flexible and if you look back at your own education and work history, you can pinpoint time and time again where you bumped up against a barrier and then worked hard to overcome it. You’ve done it before, you know how to push yourself, and you know how to work hard. Having a law license doesn’t mean that the hard work is over–it’s just starting in different ways. Remind yourself of all the ways you’ve pushed yourself to grow and set a plan to keep doing it.

The great thing about the growth mindset is that it likely already lives in you. You just have to work to nourish it and recognize the signs of doubt so that you can overcome them and push yourself to the next step in your career. Here’s to a great start in 2019! 

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