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How to be a Lucky Duck

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Lucky Duck

I recently gave the endnote at a law school conference, finishing with advice I wish I’d gotten myself as a young law grad. At the cocktail reception, a bunch of students told me they weren’t sure they wanted to be in law school in the first place and felt overstressed and trapped – but having come this far, they didn’t know how to give up this well-lit, well-trod path to achievement.

I’d just been reading the wonderful book “The Happiness Track” by Emma Seppala, Ph.D., science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (what a fantastic sounding gig!). This book powerfully busts open the myth that you must live a stressful life in order to attain happiness and success. I am talking about the tyrannical “never stop achieving” gene that afflicts so many of us. Seppala argues (and the science appears to back up) that — contrary to every signal overachievers get, starting in kindergarten — simply being happy is actually the best, most productive strategy for overall success.

An image I love from this book is the Stanford Duck: “On the surface, the students look like peaceful ducks, serenely gliding along in the sun … However, if you look under the surface, there is a dark underside: the ducks’ legs are furiously pedaling as they struggle to stay afloat and keep moving.”

I recognized myself immediately. How do you know if you’re a duck? Well, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.

As I looked out at this audience of incredibly impressive young women and men about to enter the legal profession, they nodded in recognition as I described my Tiger Mom upbringing and the gold stars I thought I had to keep collecting. I realized I was staring out at a lot of fellow ducks.

At the conference’s closing reception, several students asked if I would please email them the advice I’d included in my speech. One young woman called them the “rules for happiness.”

This struck me, not only because the idea of “rules” to attain happiness seemed paradoxical, but also because, ironically, the first “rule” was to try to stop following so many damn rules.

So, when asked to write in celebration of the International Day of Happiness, I thought it appropriate to offer (for what they’re worth) these Principles of Happiness, or the five pieces of advice I wish I’d gotten as a law student:

  1. Take (educated) risks. Figure out which rules were meant to be broken. If there’s something specific you want (an externship, a secondment, an overseas rotation, a networking event you want to attend), by all means, ask for it. Bosses and mentors are not mind-readers, after all.
  2. Remember that very good, as opposed to perfect, is often good enough.
  3. Pay attention to the many serendipities that fall into your path. The universe is trying to tell you something with these. Listen.
  4. Modesty is a good thing, but only in moderation. (In other words, own your talent. Give yourself credit when due.)
  5. Finally – best advice I wish I’d known back then – bring your authentic self to work. For so long, I hid my personality at the office. I labored diligently under the assumption that what my legal employer wanted was someone who ate, breathed, and slept corporate law – when in fact what most employers want is simply a smart well-rounded human being that both clients and colleagues like to be around.

Here’s to your happiness and success, all of you lucky ducks.

Helen Wan Helen Wan is a lawyer and author of "The Partner Track" (St. Martin's Press), the story of a young woman of color competing for partnership at a powerful law firm. She is currently at work on a new book about women and ambition, and frequently speaks on diversity and inclusiveness in the legal profession. Her author website is www.helenwan.com.