50 Lessons For Women Lawyers- #20 Dream Beyond Perfection!

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there’s no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.”


My husband and I recently adopted a beautiful son. Wanting to be the best parents possible, the positives and negatives of our childhoods were analyzed. For me, the reflection revealed a main characteristic developed that deeply intertwined with my legal career—perfectionism. Although this attribute resulted in some pretty sweet successes – a silver lining – it also meant I was petrified of failure—a significant professional impediment. To illuminate, during a conference addressing perfectionists’ low self-esteem, decreased self-confidence, and minimalized achievements, a story was told about a female lawyer who let perfection overrun her practice. For years, she reviewed all of her office’s work before it was finalized, the only way she could ensure perfection. Problematically, capacity limited her review capabilities, preventing her practice’s growth.

Additionally, the mounting documents required around-the-clock work to the exclusion of family and friends. The lawyer was unhappy both at work and home until eventually realizing that abandoning perfection would cause professional and personal growth. She committed that moving forward, at least 10% of her daily work would be “wrong,” as dealing with the fallout from any associated mistakes was faster than perfection. The model was a success. Like this lawyer, self-esteem, confidence, and failure issues often negatively impact women lawyers. To overcome such obstacles, women lawyers can use the following strategies to mentally reset to connect with the best within themselves.

Ask “how will,” not “what if.” For years, I constantly repeated all the ways I would fail. “What if I don’t get into law school? What if no law firm hires me? What if I can’t develop clients? What if my branch office is unprofitable?” What if, what if, what if…Despite my successful record making 100% failure unlikely, I never once challenged myself with a positive question like, “Melanie, how will you excel in law school? Serve as an effective associate? Provide impeccable client services? Motivate and empower others?” My singular focus was short-term negativity, not long-term goals or strategy. Thankfully, using the techniques herein, this mindset eventually shifted to planning for success and embracing failure, allowing me to find professional purpose, create a personal brand, expand my mentorship, and enjoy a newfound peace. So, the next time you start asking yourself, “What if I fail?” refocus on: how will you achieve your most audacious dreams?

Don’t dwell. Learn and move forward. Like the “what ifs” early on, my mind was overrun with everything I wish I had done differently, that I wished had gone differently. Sadly, these alleged inadequacies oftentimes did not warrant the attention received, and rather, were trivial occurrences, such as a comment made at a party or a typo in an email that no one likely remembered but me. Despite the insignificance of these trivialities, they consumed my mind to the exclusion of forward-thinking thoughts worthy of my attention. Thankfully, a mentor stopped this negative habit by teaching me to learn from an imperfection by briefly recognizing how the moment could have been improved and then immediately moving on from it. Maya Angelou summarized this practice well when she reflected, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Take her advice—when future imperfections surface, stay positive, focus on what you will do to change the outcome the next time, and smile knowing that due to the experience, you are now a better professional and friend.

Mentally practice positivity and goal achievement. Like physical exercise, mental positivity must be consistently practiced. Try the following techniques to build your mental prowess.

Learn through mentorship. My outlook changed upon attending women’s empowerment programs. Learning from inspiring women, a key takeaway is keeping a physical object – a stuffed toy gremlin, for example – that represents your internal naysayer in your office. When leaving for important business matters, look at the “gremlin,” say “goodbye,” and physically depart from your internal self-doubt.

Focus through journaling and vision boarding. Consistent journaling, even if only for a few minutes each session, fosters goal achievement. For example, begin each workday by writing your daily goal, such as, “I am a great litigator.” Or, “I inspire my attorneys to provide service excellence.” These statements affirm what you will do, not what you want to do, which can breed self-doubt. Next, write what you will do that day to make your goal a reality. For example, a great litigator might draft her theory of a case to avoid litigating without a clear theme. Likewise, the firm leader inspiring service excellence might give each firm attorney a blank notecard to complete for a client. Vision boarding images of your goals to hang in your office is similarly a good reminder of the dreams you will achieve. Two lawyer girlfriends annually co-host a party for local female attorneys to complete their boards together and cheerlead for each other. During the exercise, clip additional images to hang in your closet at home and on your bathroom mirror. Viewing these images over time opens your mind to the reality of big dreams that originally seemed unachievable.

Gain motivation from podcasts and audiobooks. Busy professionals have little time for non-work-related reading. You do, however, have time to listen, such as while driving or exercising, so replace your exhausted playlist with inspirational podcasts or audiobooks. To start, list five trailblazers from whom you want to learn. Search the podcast app for such names. The podcasts that scored such interviews are likely podcasts to which you want to consistently listen. Additionally, during their interviews, your heartthrob trailblazers will mention what inspires them. Add the referenced people and books to your list, and also review the related podcasts recommended by the app. My list is a note on my phone to easily personally reference and share with others. And, it is often used, as podcast and audiobook listening has afforded me tremendous growth, especially concerning the topics herein.

Embrace the awesomeness of failure. A recent podcast featured famed gymnast Nastia Liukin sharing that the singular standing ovation she received during her career was not after winning 2008 Olympic Gold, but after falling flat on her face at the 2012 Olympic Trials. Why? Because she got up and finished the competition despite knowing that her gymnastics career was over. She also connected with many others who believe that the worst possible outcome is failing to pursue your dreams, not “failing” to achieve them. Thus, when analyzing a new potential goal, consider if you’ll regret someone else accomplishing it instead of you. If so, pursue it using the strategies herein to plan your “how wills” and silence your “what ifs.” Additionally, change your definition of “failure.” An outcome different than that originally envisioned is not “failure;” it’s a chance to learn and grow on the best path for you. So, when things don’t go as planned, take a deep breath, yell “plot twist!” and move on.

Be a dreamer, not a perfectionist. In sum, many women lawyers grow up believing perfection is the gold-standard. Oppositely, it oftentimes is unattainable, stagnates law practices, and precludes personal and professional growth. Thus, to find true happiness, forget the idealism breeding your fear of failure and unapologetically pursue what brings you true joy.

Reprinted with permission. Originally published in 50 Lessons for Women Lawyers – From Women Lawyers, by Nora Riva Bergman, Berroco Canyon Publishing. Copyright © 2019

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