After eighteen years, tomorrow marks the first time I’m going back to high school.
Sure, I was in the gym for my sisters’ graduations, but other than that I haven’t actually been back in the building since the day I graduated and headed out into the world, a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old, excited for the next phase in my life. A friend of mine who is now a guidance counselor at the school asked me to sit on a panel of graduates to talk about my life since graduation, and how attending IHA (Immaculate Heart Academy) prepared me for college and the workforce. We’re speaking to a group of sophomores who are in a special program because of their top scores on the high school entrance exams, and although we’ve each been given five minutes to cram our entire post-graduate lives into a snapshot, all I keep thinking about is “What do I really want to communicate to these girls?”
This is an institution, in an area of the country, where the pressure is on – it’s quite acceptable for the girls to strive for excellence at great sacrifice to their happiness and mental health. Academic rigor is prized – by the school, by the girls, by their families; and add to that the addition of being well-prepped for college by being involved in sports, extracurriculars, and going above and beyond in every way imaginable. I’m not trying to put down the school – IHA was a rigorous foundation for me – the focus on writing and critical thinking meant that by the time I got to college, I had the basic skills so ingrained in me that I was able to focus on what I was really there to do – learn. I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers at IHA from Mr. McLoughlin to Ms. Fritsche to Ms. McDonough to Mrs. Sandt and more, who all cared about challenging me every day to be my best self. They gave me the building blocks upon which the foundation of my education was built, which allowed me the confidence to pursue my interests (rather than strictly the requirements) in college. And as much as I didn’t think of myself as a writer when I started at IHA, the emphasis on writing as a skill has been invaluable to me – first in college, where we also had a strong commitment to writing, and subsequently as a professional, where I write on a daily basis.
To toot my own horn for a minute, I was no slouch in high school – I graduated fourth in my class of 130 or so women – and the pressure was all internal. My parents were always asking me to be less hard on myself. But it seems that what I see today is a culture of this incredible rat race, where it’s okay to stay up until 4am working on your homework, only to be up at 6 the next morning for a full day of school, work, activities, and more schoolwork; rinse and repeat for months on end, so that you can get into the “best” college, all to do it all over again, so that you can get the “best” job, so that you can continue to do that until retirement. But why?
There is value in hard work – that’s not my point. I love to work hard. But the two things I want to tell these girls tomorrow (which will actually also translate to lessons for lawyers, believe it or not) are the following:
- Be open to opportunities.
- Enjoy the moments: they really do go by fast.
Be Open to Opportunities
This seems like an easy one, but it’s also easy to forget. I learned this in several different ways in school, and continue to learn it as an adult. When I was going into my freshman year of high school, I went to volleyball camp with some of the girls who would be in my freshmen class. I really enjoyed it, but didn’t want to try out for the team right away, because I wanted to meet people first and get to know them in school and settle in before I added anything in. That turned out to be a big mistake – I learned that only by joining things would I actually meet people and settle in (of course, I also met people in other ways, but joining things was a much more natural way to do it).
So by the time I tried to join the team my sophomore year, they didn’t want to take a chance on an untested player and I didn’t make it.
When I got to college, I remembered that, so I went out for anything I was remotely interested in. The fencing team looked cool, so I joined up, and ended up fencing on the club team for two years, as a saber fencer. I even won a trophy for third place once! (Sure, there were only five fencers, and two of them had never fenced saber a day in their lives, but I still have that trophy…and my saber) More importantly, I had FUN and met some great friends that way.
I took a computer science class my second semester of freshmen year because my boyfriend was a CS major – the boyfriend didn’t stick, but the programming did, and I ended up with a degree in computer science, and transferable skills that benefit me to this day.
I learned, I grew, I challenged myself and I learned what I liked and what I didn’t like. Rather than sticking to a pre-determined roadmap for my life, I stayed open to what my life could be, and it added richness to it, and that continues to happen. I’ve heard stories of people finding careers that way, expanding their practices that way.
For lawyers, there are two areas that I can speak to where this applies:
- Content marketing: If something interests you, even marginally, write about it! It may work, it may not, but you’ll never know if you don’t take a chance on it. Your audience will always sense if you have interest and passion in a subject. So while it obviously has to be related to the topic that you’re usually writing about, if you’re also passionate about food, or running, or photography, or an article in the paper catches your attention for one reason or another, why not find a way to relate it to your area of practice and use that to deliver your message? It will freshen up your content, inject some enthusiasm into your work, and you may find a new niche to focus on in your writing. At the very least, it will get YOU interested in your writing, and that’s the main goal here – if you’re interested in it, your audience will feel that, and it will draw them in as well.
- Networking: This works for networking too. We can easily get hung up on the idea that we’re *supposed* to be networking at certain events. But like when I first saw the flyer about the fencing meeting happening my freshmen year of college, maybe you saw something interesting that you’d like to attend. So what that it doesn’t directly tie into your practice or the law? Who’s to say that there won’t be a potential client who shares that interest and is also participating in that same thing? This will be trial and error, because there may be some interests that sound cool to start with, and you try out a gathering or two, and they’re just not what you thought. That’s fine – now you know what you don’t like and you can give the next thing a shot. This also works for extroverts AND introverts because it allows us introverts to pick the things that we’re comfortable with (and sometimes those things will be online first – yay!), rather than trying to force us to do things that we feel like we’re *supposed* to be doing.
Enjoy the Moments
I’m sure we all remember people telling us in high school and college, “Enjoy it. It really flies by.” And it certainly does. I don’t think any of us would disagree that time starts to take on a feeling of being incrementally faster, with each year seeming to speed up, even though rationally we know that isn’t possible. Once you hit adulthood, with responsibilities and people who really depend on you, it’s not as easy to take a time out, which is why adults tell kids not to rush their childhoods – I’m constantly trying to explain this to my nieces, who think I’m entirely wrong, as we all did when we were kids.
That doesn’t mean I’m someone who thinks that the best times of my life are behind me – you certainly couldn’t pay me to go back to my high school days (college, maybe). But there’s something to be said for taking a breath and appreciating the place that we’re in. And yes, this even applies to lawyers (maybe even especially to lawyers).
- Content marketing: When it comes to content marketing, I look at this more from the audience perspective. I read a statistic this morning that by 2015, the average attention span had dropped from 12 seconds (in 2000) to 8.25 seconds – crazy, right? We’re paying less and less attention to what we’re reading, which means it’s harder and harder to get (and keep) people’s attention. While I’d love for my advice here to be to slow down and really engage with the content you read, I know that’s just not practical – I’m not even doing that myself, so there’s no way I’m going to suggest that you do it.
Instead, my suggestion is to understand that “moments” are all we really have with our readers, and to tailor your content accordingly. How “scan-able” is your content? Can someone zip through your content and easily get a sense of what it’s about, what they’re going to get from it, and what the takeaways are? Are your paragraphs short and digestible? Do you embrace headers, lists, and other methods of breaking up your text?
If you embrace the limited attention spans that audiences today have for content, even though it seems counter to the advice I’ll be offering to the girls tomorrow, it will help you to make your writing more direct, specific, and valuable to your audience.
- Networking: Enjoying the moment as it applies to networking is, for me, about being present. I don’t mean that in some new age, fluffy sort of way, but in a more practical one. In this age of shortened attention spans, we’re not just guilty of scanning through content, we’re also guilty of scanning through people. How many times have you been at a function and realized that you’re only marginally paying attention to the person in front of you while you’re thinking about exiting the conversation, what you’re going to have for dinner later, who you’re meeting afterwards, or *gasp* even looking at your cell phone?
Instead, try really being THERE. Put your phone on vibrate and put it away – unless you’ve got a pressing client matter (and in that case, you’ve likely already cancelled the networking meetup anyway), you can handle being out of touch for the length of time it will take to have meaningful conversations with people until there’s a natural break. Really focus on the person in front of you, and on what they’re saying. If you’re not interested in that person, find a way to gracefully exit the conversation quickly and move on to the next one, but at least give the person the benefit of your full attention in the meantime – it’s only polite, and I hate to say it, but in this day and age, it’s actually a differentiator. Listen to what they’re saying with the intention of hearing it, rather than listening to reply (you know what I mean), and then when you agree to follow up at the end of the conversation, commit to it, don’t just pay lip service – that will also differentiate you.
We can easily get swept up in the tidal wave of being “busy” these days and we are all legitimately busy. But there is value in slowing down in the appropriate moments, such as in networking opportunities, and focusing on the people in front of us, really engaging with them, and then following up on that engagement, to build better business relationships for the future.
The one thing that I’m constantly reminded of, no matter what age I am, is that I’m never too old to learn something new – and I hope that I always feel that way. Perhaps that’s tip number three for the sophomores tomorrow: always keep learning.