Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

The Culture of Law (10): Don’t Show Me The Money

It’s not the legal profession’s fault that you can make good money at it. The problem is when we use that as an excuse for personal powerlessness.

Personal powerlessness is when we buy into Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat as a cultural and personal norm that can’t be challenged. We think that way because our brains are running on established cultural neural pathways. There are other options out there, but pursuing them will cost our brains their cherished peace of mind.

We don’t need a research survey to tell us there are other ways to measure value than money, but consider this one anyway:

“Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads. Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors.”

If you’re willing to try something other than money and prestige, how about…

A Utah lawyer starts a flourishing non-profit law firm, where clients pay based on income.

Or this New York Times story about lawyers who have chosen less remunerative law careers:

“Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

“Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being.

“However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

“Lawyers in public service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.”

Some lawyers went straight to these alternatives out of law school, others got there by exiting private practice. That path isn’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for a different option than show me the money, why not? While you’re thinking about it, consider this BigLaw partner’s case against being too enamored with the prospect of making money in the law:

“Becoming a lawyer is a great way to improve your standard of living if you come from a family of poors who thinks rich people “worked for every penny they had.” But if you are a lawyer, your income is pretty much restricted to how many hours you can work in a day. That’s no way to live.”

(“A family of poors”? Hmmm. Never heard that one before.)

Lawyers who opt for greater satisfaction for less pay are bucking a cultural norm that measures value in terms of money, which is in turn a function of hours worked — another cultural value standard. They’ve probably had their epiphanies and are on the Jerry Maguire path, and yes, as we saw last time, they will suffer for it.

And so will those close to them, as we’ll see next time.