Of Competition, Stress, and Well-Being

Will, a white man with a brown beard, and grey glasses, wears a blue and peach plaid shirt. By Will Graebe 

Like many other lawyers, I grew up in a competitive family. The dinner table was a debate stage. Jeopardy was a full-contact sport. Performance and achievement led to reward and affirmation. This environment prepared me for many of the challenges I would face in my adult life—law school, the bar exam, and the stress of practicing law. Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that something was missing. This way of living was not sustainable for me. So, I set out on a journey ten years ago to explore my own well-being and to redefine what flourishing looked like for me. I’d like to share some of what I have learned.

This is not another article encouraging readers to meditate, write a gratitude journal, practice mindfulness, exercise, sleep and eat better, engage in service work, get out in nature, or change their mindset. While these are all valuable practices, by now, most of us know what we can do to improve our well-being. We have been inundated with well-being content offering specific wellness tools. Instead, what follows are principles that I have found helpful in guiding my well-being journey.

1. Well-being is a journey—not a destination.

Viewing well-being as a process rather than an end point is a helpful approach. We never really “get there.” Well-being is not a box that we check. It is about the experiences and connections we make along the way. It involves learning, growing, healing, and experiencing life’s joys and challenges. So, consider changing your mindset about well-being, and learn to focus more on the process and less on the outcome.

2. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Well-being is not a competition. Lawyers tend to be competitive individuals. We make a living out of being right and winning. That quality serves our clients well, but when it comes to well-being, that competitive spirit can be detrimental. When we realize we are comparing ourselves, we can shift our perspectives to a healthier mindset. We are all different. Every person has a unique genetic makeup and conditioning. We are all dealing with different challenges at any given time. So, stop comparing your well-being to others and focus on your own journey. And, whatever you do, pay no attention to social media feeds that make it look like everyone else has it all together. They don’t.

3. Give yourself grace when you fail.

Lawyers are perfectionists. When we fail or make mistakes, there is often a price to pay. As a result, we can often be our own biggest critics. When it comes to our well-being, though, we must learn to have self-compassion when we fail. We will fail at times. We will fall short of a fitness or diet goal. We will skip our daily meditation practice. When this happens, rather than judging yourself, just notice what you can change and course correct.

4. Set realistic expectations.

Be careful not to set yourself up for failure before you ever get started. If you are beginning a new habit, it might take a while to see the benefits of a particular practice. For example, when you engage in a regular meditation and mindfulness practice, you are rewiring the neural pathways in your brain. It takes time to replace deeply engrained behaviors and patterns with new ones. Be patient. Additionally, start small and build from those steps. Do not set goals that you cannot realistically meet.

5. Find what works for you.

Since everyone’s well-being journey will look different, choose something that you enjoy. Some people find meditation to be a relaxing and centering practice. For others, meditation might create anxiety. Do not force anything. If you want to make lasting change in your life, you must find practices that bring you joy and meaning.

6. Reach out for help.

If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of creating your own well-being plan or are dealing with serious mental health or substance abuse issues, reach out for help from a therapist, life coach, mentor, clergy, or the Lawyers Assistance Program.

7. Try something that is outside your comfort zone.

Because we are creatures of comfort, it can be scary to try something new. But the rewards may be worth it. You might discover that you really enjoy something that you feared. You might also become more resilient by overcoming the anxiety of trying something new. And you might avoid complacency that can come from routine.

8. Stop trying so hard.

The paradox of happiness and well-being is that the harder we try the more elusive it can be. Let go of your expectations. This will allow you to be open to making new discoveries. Enjoy the journey.

9. Apply a holistic approach to your well-being journey.

Mental health is only one aspect of your well-being. When designing your well-being journey, don’t forget to focus on physical, emotional, social, intellectual, occupational, and spiritual well-being.

10. Well-being is an inside job.

Your happiness and well-being are your responsibility. You will experience negative events and circumstances, and people will not behave exactly the way that you want them to behave. You have little control over events and other people’s behavior. You do have control over how you respond to such events and behaviors.

The Journey Begins Now

You are in charge of your own well-being journey. You know better than anyone else what it should look like. Don’t let the conditioning of your past get in the way of your own happiness. Let go of expectations. Find ease in change and awaken to adventure. As you set out on your own journey, give yourself the compassion that you would give to someone you love. And remember that it is not about getting to the finish line. It is about being present for each beautiful moment along the way.