When I was growing up, I figured out a helpful thought exercise to put things in perspective. First, think of the worst possible outcome from any situation. The worst possible outcome usually, by definition, involves nuclear war or a pandemic. As a kid, these worst-case scenarios usually involved the Cold War turning hot, finally using all those nuclear drills we learned in school, and later Saddam Hussein.
Second, think on that worst outcome for a little while until you come to terms with it. Obviously a world-ending catastrophe would be very bad, but the whole thing is really out of your control and, once it happens, either it’s going to be all over quickly or you’re just going to have to adjust to your radically new circumstances. If you are one of the survivors, dwelling over the fragility of our lost civilization is just going to make things worse. Instead, you’re just going to need to accept things and get on with it.
Third, use this newfound viewpoint to give new perspective to whatever current situation you’re dealing with. Usually the absolute worst realistic bad outcome from whatever you’re facing — be it a test as a student or some brief as a lawyer — is that you end up spending the rest of your life homeless and disgraced and living in a cardboard box under a bridge. Compared against dying slowly of radiation poisoning after being responsible for the downfall of civilization, that’s not too bad. And the more realistic worse-case scenario, as a student or a lawyer, usually is that someone yells at you.
Lawyers too often worry in a way that either paralyzes them or caused them to act rashly and make bad decisions. Don’t let it happen to you.
Don’t Worry In A Nonproductive Way
Of course, you need to carefully calibrate any worries to maximize your performance and edge. The goal is always to convince yourself that failure has disastrous consequences — a single typo in a brief should haunt you for years — but you must carefully balance such thoughts so that they only positively affect your performance. Any fears that negatively affect your performance must be banished.
Since law tends to attract the pathologically risk averse, many lawyers allow nonproductive fears to influence their actions. But that is bad.
Keep Things In Perspective
Instead, you should use the three-part thought exercise to keep fears in perspective and act accordingly. No matter what you’re facing, unproductive anxiety will only make it worse. Even when the stakes are high, a blind panic never makes it better.
Indeed, no matter how high the stakes, usually small errors can be corrected by subsequent acts. Even when they can’t, the worst-case scenario is usually the rest of your life living in a cardboard box — or sometimes prison, depending on the circumstances — and a blind panic will only bring you closer to that result.
Keep Calm And Carry On
So whatever you do or face, don’t panic. Instead, keep a calm, balanced demeanor as you pursue whatever task you are pursuing. No matter what, it will result in a better outcome than blindly worrying about what will happen. Buckle down, stop freaking out, and get on with it.
Matthew W. Schmidt has represented and counseled clients at all stages of litigation and in numerous matters including insider trading, fiduciary duty, antitrust law, and civil RICO. He is a partner at the trial and investigations law firm Balestriere Fariello in New York, where he and his colleagues represent domestic and international clients in litigation, arbitration, appeals, and investigations. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.
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