Thinking for yourself

I’ve been getting back into lifting recently as I find it very rewarding and the endorphin rush works wonders for my depression.  The only drawback as a coping mechanism is the fact that you have to allow recovery time, meaning that you have to take days off in between workouts even if you’d really rather blow off some steam in the gym.

But I digress.

One thing you find with fitness is that arguments rage about the best training routines, nutritional protocols and lifting techniques.  Almost everyone has a friend who is “really into fitness” and to whom they defer all critical thinking about how to train.  To disagree with them would invite accusations that they were getting above their station – “how dare you critique my reasoning when I am in better shape than you?”.  Results speak for themselves, right?

Well… not necessarily.  Your Fit Friend’s opinion on issue X is just one of several variables.  The guy with good genetics who does the 100 press-ups programme consistently and watches his diet will get better results than the guy who talks a big game about Starting Strength but never gets off his arse and actually goes to the gym.  I might respect the first guy more, but that’s not the same as agreeing with him.  Disagreement is not mockery.

To give you an example: my former housemate was a bouncer who could bench press 120kgs, which is quite impressive compared to Joe Bloggs (albeit not by strength athlete standards).  He also had a six pack, whereas I had obviously consumed several six packs over the years.  So when he started lecturing me on what I was doing “wrong” with my routine – e.g. by deadlifting more than he could – should I have taken his word as gospel?

Nope.  Compared to most people (and me), my housemate appeared to be in good shape and possessed of good upper body strength.  But I knew a few aspects of his routine were wrong based on everything else I had read.  He lifted every day rather than allowing his muscles to recover; he neglected squats and deadlifts based on the misguided belief that it would “look wrong” if he could squat more than he could bench; and his bench press wasn’t actually that impressive for a guy his age and size who had been training for as long as he had, probably because he wasn’t letting himself recover.  His greater upper body strength was due to consistency and experience, not a superior training regimen.  If we want to turn it into a game of Top Trumps, I can point to the powerlifters I trained with who can lift even more than him and we can keep trading “experts” ad nauseum.

The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that the reason why we stereotype people or defer to people who appear to be more qualified is that, in reality, it’s not always practical to conduct a science experiment every time you have to make a decision.  The person who is resolutely unwilling to take action based on imperfect information can become a victim of analysis paralysis with possibly fatal consequences.  So we take a gamble based on probabilities and perhaps reassess our stance depending on the results.

I guess what I’m driving at is that, if you seek self-improvement through fitness, by all means consult those who have more experience than you.  But don’t feel afraid to use your own judgement.

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Are you chicken?

I’ve often heard it said that you have to be happy single before you can be happy in a relationship. People say it as if it’s obvious: “if you’re not happy alone, how can you be happy with someone else?”

The retort to this seems obvious: being in a relationship is better than being single, therefore a relationship can make you happy if you are not happy single. Duh, right?

I know from honeymoon phases I’ve had with some of my exes that a new relationship with someone who seems nice is way, way more fun than being single. But then the problems start, whether it’s paranoia or commitmentphobia. And I find myself tearing my hair out and trying to write some insightful blog post about it. Rinse, repeat.

Lately, I’ve come to believe that you really do need to be happy single first. Easier said than done, but true nonetheless.

I fell out with a friend of mine lately due to the way she treats her boyfriend. She frequently disrespects him in front of other people and even hit him in the face on a couple of occasions. Obviously, this behaviour is not right and it’s no better coming from a woman than it would be from a man in the same situation. But when I asked her about it, not only did she say she didn’t want to speak to me anymore, but her boyfriend followed suit. No good deed goes unpunished, right?

The problem my friend’s boyfriend has is that he doesn’t think he can do better than her. He may complain about how she treats him, but deep down, he feels like he has no choice but to accept this behaviour as a necessary compromise.

As much as I bemoan my single status and short-lived relationships, a lot of the people I know are not happy with their relationships and complain until the cows come home but won’t end the relationship. They might even engage in weird power plays designed to give the impression that they are stamping their authority in order to shift power back, but it’s all an act. Hell, even PUAs engage in these tactics in order to display their “alpha male” status. Why? Because they fear being alone forever if they really push the button. They wonder if they’re being too fussy.

If you are not prepared to pull the plug on a relationship that isn’t working – even it means facing singledom again for a long time, or perhaps even forever – then you are giving your power away. If you’re not prepared to walk away from the negotiating table then you will always be vulnerable, as people who want to treat you badly will be always able to exploit your fear of being alone. It’s like a game of chicken.

The German military philosopher Karl Von Clausewitz observed that, in warfare, the defender always has an advantage. The defender has more of an incentive to fight tooth and nail, while the attacker has to look at the situation via a cost/benefit analysis. Examples include American troops pulling out of Afghanistan and Vietnam and the British giving up during the war of independence.

Being happy single is the only truly effective way to protect yourself. And I will never let someone pressure me into an unholy compromise again.

The Bubble

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

– Gordon Gekko

Since I qualified as a lawyer and moved to work at (what I thought was) a good firm, the feedback I have received has been quite strange to me.

I am repeatedly told by senior colleagues – my boss included – that, on the positive side, I am a “brilliant” lawyer. It’s when we get to the supposed negatives that it all gets a bit odd.

One client we have is very important to the firm commercially, but their instructing officers can be very unreasonable. They are a typical example of incompetent staff feeling overwhelmed and blaming the lawyers for “delays” in progressing their cases. Many of these comments come from one particularly bolshy officer who gives uninvited opinions on her colleagues’ cases when she doesn’t know the full context. When I explain this to my boss, he agrees with me.

The weird thing is that this is still framed by my boss in our catch-up sessions as “negative” feedback despite his acknowledgement that the client is wrong. When we say “the customer is always right” we do so to appease them for commercial reasons and we don’t necessarily agree with them behind closed doors. So if you acknowledge that the client is being unreasonable then why are you still talking as if it’s my fault?

One of the senior partners at my firm is a very bad lawyer who has caused real problems for the firm by over-promising to clients and leaving others (including me) to clean up the mess. So they recently had this idea that I could work more closely with him so that we could have my legal skills combined with his client care skills to keep the client happy with things like “turnaround time”.

I winced when this last comment was made. I thought we had established that the client who complained was being unreasonable… so why the implication that I lack “client care” skills?

I have noticed during my time at this firm that the best lawyers are not always the ones who get to the top – or at least not the ones who ascend the quickest. There is a school of thought which says that legal knowledge is “a given”, therefore it’s really about client care – but when you see people like the partner I described above that doesn’t wash.

If you are a solicitor or legal exec then your role is really part lawyer and part salesperson. For some reason I really don’t understand, clients apparently place a premium on having a positive attitude, having a beer with you and chatting about stupid bullshit like where they went on holiday this year or who won what ball sport at the weekend. I just can’t fathom why this is the case. Do you choose a doctor based on whether you can “have a laugh” with them? Do you hire a plumber to fix your boiler or to have a pint and talk about football?

Although I am a classical liberal or perhaps even libertarian in my political outlook and staunchly pro-capitalism, this is one aspect that really makes me pause for thought. If I’m a “brilliant lawyer” but clients don’t like me because my email communication style is “too formal” or I’m not interested in making small talk with them, then can it really be said that they are acting in their rational self-interest (as libertarianism teaches us that people will do) by hiring an inferior lawyer who supports the same football team as them?

I often criticise feminism for reasons I won’t ramble on about here. But I recall one “rebuttal” parody video on YouTube in which the conversation went like this:

CONSERVATIVE: “If companies can get away with paying women less, why don’t they just hire all-female workforces and undercut their competitors?”

FEMINIST: “They are too sexist to try that.”

CONSERVATIVE: “Right, so you think company bosses care less about making money and more about hanging out with dudes in the office?”

This is the “greed is good” argument repackaged. I don’t agree on the specific example of the pay gap, but I don’t think you can assume that people’s rational self-interest – or even their greed – will always lead them to look past their irrational prejudices. It’s conceivable that Bob the middle-manager is sexist (these people do exist and I don’t deny it), complacent about his own status within the company and short-sighted enough to hire someone based on stupid factors like wanting to surround himself with blokes he can talk to about football.

Now, the libertarian rebuttal to this point would be that Bob is shooting himself (and the company) in the foot in the long term, and companies that are more focused on the bottom line will outperform his. I agree. But it doesn’t provide an immediate remedy to the person who has been unjustly turned down for a job or denied a promotion. I honestly don’t know that there is a perfect solution here as the alternative is that we lawyers mark our own homework, but it’s definitely a problem.

The plain fact of the matter is that Joe Public is not always completely rational, so providing what he wants is not simply a case of appealing to his commercial sensibilities and providing a quality service. There is a large element of pandering to his flaws, and I see that a lot in my line of work. You make money by providing what people want, not what you think they should want. The partner I referred to above epitomises the problem, but he is hardly the only one to advocate massaging advice lest the client go elsewhere. And to be fair, he has a point; sometimes clients are used to lawyers getting away with blagging things, so they don’t understand what the fuss is about if you try to get things done properly. The result is that I often feel like I can’t do what I trained to do and provide accurate legal advice; rather, I have to cavalierly promise to deliver exactly what they’re asking for and assume everything will be fine, otherwise they will accuse me of being “obstructive”. Surely they understand that I’m not telling them what I tell them for a laugh? Surely they get that I’m just being realistic? I became a lawyer because I am good at logical analysis, not to chat about your holiday plans or massage my advice because you are too thick to understand it or too emotionally immature to listen to something you don’t want to hear.

I’ve often struggled with the fact that, in the real world, people just aren’t as reasonable, intelligent or nice as you want them to be. Trying to persuade them to change their stance using reason is a fool’s errand; they won’t be interested. They will simply dig their heels in further and tell you to either accept them as they are or walk away. When you are studying or working as a self-employed advocate, results are all that really matter. So when you find someone to be unreasonable you can just choose not to mix with them. But when you have to work as part of a team and you have to appeal to customers who are often unreasonable and even downright thick then you don’t have that option anymore. You are outside the bubble. You are forced to accommodate other people’s flaws whilst smiling and nodding. And that’s the dark side of social skills. I resent the implication that I’m the one at fault for refusing to engage in that.

The Light

As I write this, I’m on the cusp of finally qualifying as a real lawyer.

Allow me to elaborate.

I qualified as a Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer in January 2017 and I have been entitled to call myself a “lawyer” ever since. This qualification enables me to charge the same hourly rate as a solicitor, to become a District Judge or Partner after a few years and to expect a decent salary in the job market.

The slight difficulty with being a Legal Exec is that not everyone is familiar with what a Legal Exec is – in fact, even many lawyers aren’t. You are also unable to practice without being supervised. Now, in practice, there are different levels of “supervision”, Legal Execs do the same work that Solicitors do, and you could say the individual is more important than the formal title… but if you’re explaining this to someone who doesn’t know about all of this then it can translate as “blah blah blah excuses excuses I’m not a real lawyer”. It also means that some people – who are out there – can play the “but you’re not a solicitor” card to undermine you in an argument, even if you’re right. Hence I now say that I am on the cusp of becoming a “real” lawyer.

My new qualification is “CILEX Practice Rights”, meaning that I have all the rights that Solicitors have – to litigate and to be given an audience in court – within the field of civil litigation. The rights I don’t have are for things I don’t practice like conveyancing, crime, family law and immigration, though CILEx do offer the same qualification for those fields for those who are interested.

(As an aside, I say “on the cusp” because there are a couple of admin bits to sort out – references and ID check – before I can be given my certificate. But CILEx have confirmed I’ve passed everything.)

The other benefit of Practice Rights is that it enables me to apply for an exemption from pupillage – the apprenticeship that forms the final stage of a barrister’s training. These are incredibly hard to come by and I’ve never even been interviewed, so I gave up seriously expecting to get one many years ago. But when I found out about this, the dying embers of the barrister dream began to rekindle. The only slight concern I have is that the Bar Standards Board can be quite inconsistent with their decision making in my experience, but on paper I don’t see why I can’t meet all of their competency criteria, so I am cautiously optimistic.

I’ve been working as a lawyer under supervision for many years, even before I got my basic CILEx Fellowship in 2017, so it feels great to finally have this vindication. No one can play the “but you’re not a solicitor” card anymore, and barristers can’t take cheap shots at my rights of audience when we face off in court. We can skip all the bullshit and get down to business.

And what if I did get my exemption? Well, it would feel great to have finally achieved what I set out to achieve, even if I carried on working as a Legal Exec in terms of my day-to-day work. But in theory, I could get a tenancy in chambers somewhere or perhaps even carve out an in-house advocacy role with my current employer. I could even apply for certain government legal jobs that don’t recognise CILEx. Who knows?

***

It’s funny when you look online for advice on how to progress at the Bar. I’m all for constructive criticism, but what I see is a rude, condescending, attitude towards anyone who asks for advice on a plan B. They appear to assume that anyone without a pupillage who doesn’t just lay down and accept defeat is simply kidding themselves.

For example, one guy who asked for advice on cross-qualifying was told that people who cross-qualify were not generally as well regarded as those who qualified “the hard way” via pupillage, and that people who cross-qualified should remind themselves that, if they couldn’t get a pupillage, there was probably a reason for that.

This sneering attitude belies several inconvenient facts. For one thing, there is such a surplus of pupillage applicants that barristers are turning away people with far better CVs than they had when they applied for pupillage, so I don’t think failure to get one today really implies that you’re incompetent. I also know people who completed the Bar Vocational Course at the same time as me – or even years before – who have only just got pupillage after spending time building their experience up, and Solicitors who cross-qualified and made a successful career for themselves at the Bar. So I don’t think reality is quite as hard as the naysayers like to suggest.

Moreover… what’s the alternative? Do these people really think I’m going to shoot myself in the foot by turning easier opportunities down just so people don’t prejudge me? If you’ve done the BVC or BPTC, what else are you going to do? Surely you might as well try to implement Plan B? What have you got to lose? Even if you’re “stuck” working as a Solicitor or Legal Exec for the rest of your career, that’s still a decent career path, isn’t it? And it’s not like you can’t continue to apply for pupillages as you go along. Worrying about whether people might look down their noses at you for the way you qualified is the mother of all first-world problems.

***

So here’s to never saying die.

Shields up. Red alert.

Sometimes, looking at someone else’s problem from the outside helps you to understand your own problems a bit better.

I have a lawyer friend who has ADHD, which gives him problems in terms of managing his workload, hitting deadlines etc. He works in litigation, but he recently told me he wanted to switch to a less deadline-intensive field, such as wills and probate, due to his problems. When I described my own issues with certain people at work, he insisted that I should speak to HR about getting reasonable adjustments so that I didn’t end up like him (I was also diagnosed with ADHD once and he is aware of this).

Now, I don’t believe my friend uses his ADHD as a crutch. Rather, I think he uses it as a lens through which to perceive all interpersonal problems. I find that he is too willing to resign himself to the fact that he can’t do X or Y “because of ADHD” and to accept other people’s criticisms when he shouldn’t.

So what are these problems anyway? Well, recently he missed a deadline because an order came in from the court while he was on holiday and no one told him about it; his boss, who knew about the deadline, simply “left a note on the file”. The boss blamed my friend, rationalising that he had discharged his duty by simply adding the note. In the disciplinary meeting that followed, he got in my friend’s face, pointed at him and shouted at him. My friend raised his voice in response and his boss claimed afterwards that he felt “intimidated” by this.

Now, my friend has decided that his failure to meet the deadline and to keep his temper in check are both attributable to his ADHD, hence he doesn’t want me to go down the same path. But I don’t see it that way. It seems quite obvious to me that his boss was at fault here. He tried to cover his back by blaming my friend for his own mistake, behaved aggressively towards him, and then played the victim when he realised he had bitten off more than he could chew.

If you are diagnosed with a personality disorder (or you at least believe you have problems with a particular aspect of social interaction) then people can exploit that. They know you are introspective, so they will blame their own failings on your supposed lack of social understanding when really they are just being arseholes. If you give an inch they will take every mile they can.

For a long time I have wondered what I was doing wrong with dating, perhaps due to the Aspergers, but these days I’m less sure that I really was doing anything wrong. It’s tempting to think “well, this keeps happening to me, therefore I am the common denominator, therefore this is my fault“, but the part in italics isn’t necessarily the case. Common social expectations aren’t necessarily reasonable, and world history is littered with examples of people who were victimised just for being different.

There is a dating advice channel on YouTube by Hayley Quinn, a pickup artist who advises both men and women. In one video, she and her girlfriends discussed why women sometimes act coldly and harshly towards you when you try to chat them up in bars. They said it was because they assumed, in that scenario, that you were only interested in their looks as you didn’t know them. Then, in other videos, Hayley said men should make their intentions clear from the outset to avoid being friend-zoned. Eh? Surely if I have to make my intentions clear from the outset then I only have looks to go on? The final hypocrisy bomb went off when I looked at another videos of hers designed for women in which she said it was normal to want to take your time and get to know a guy before deciding whether you want to go out with him! What happened to making your intentions clear from the outset? Or is it one rule for girls and another for guys?

Let’s call a spade a spade here. We humans are not all as angelic as we would like to think we are, so we come up up with excuses and try to blame others for our shortcomings. Psychologists call this phenomenon “social desirability bias”; when asked about our motivations, we often give the answer that we think others would approve of – or those which would help preserve our self-image – rather than the truth. An example of this is when people say they like rich, dark coffee because they want to sound sophisticated, when really they like Nescafé with lots of milk and two sugars. Likewise, people who don’t want to date you for entirely primal reasons will rationalise that you shouldn’t have even asked for some weird reason and act like you committed some kind of faux pas. And people with personality disorders are prime targets for this behaviour.

The willingness to look inward and to be aware of your shortcomings in an attempt to manage them better is a good thing. But be on your guard.

Way of the Warrior

Picard: Well, I know that I am an old man and I am out of touch. But the Worf that I remember was more concerned with things like honor and loyalty than rules and regulations. But that was a long time ago, and maybe you’re not the Worf I once knew.

Worf: You have always used your knowledge of Klingon honor and tradition to get what you want from me.

Picard: Because it always works, Worf! Your problem is that you really *do* have a sense of honour, and you really *do* care about trust and loyalty. Don’t blame me for knowing you so well!”

This blog post will be a bit different to my usual posts in that I won’t be seeking to put the world to rights or crying over the fact that I can’t.

The above quote is from the final episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, and to me it’s one of the most powerful parts of the series.

The genius of Star Trek is that it is thought-provoking. Worf is the famous Klingon crew member, known for being hot-tempered and serious but brave and loyal to the end. Other Klingons in Star Trek talk the talk about honour and bravery, but in reality they plot and scheme against their enemies (both internal and external), using cloaking technology to render their ships invisible and only picking fights with the Federation when they have a numbers advantage. Worf, on the other hand, sincerely believes in his warrior code and walks the walk; for example, in the movie First Contact, when his ship, the Defiant, finds itself hopelessly outgunned against the Borg, he gives the command “perhaps today is a good day to die! Prepare for ramming speed!” Of course, Picard turns up with the Enterprise and saves the day before Worf’s kamikaze plan is put into action … but still, it’s the thought that counts.

We often hear or read about romantic “warrior creeds” that were never truly implemented. Bushido didn’t stop samurai from testing their swords out on peasants, and chivalry didn’t stop Edward III from carrying out bloody chevauchee raids against French civilians. But that’s not to say that these creeds have no value.

I’m an atheist, but I’ve often wished I had faith in some higher power or purpose to get me through tough times. It must be nice to think everything will be alright in the end as long as you trust that [insert deity here] has a plan for you. Then again… perhaps you can take solace in the values themselves.

My warrior creed is as follows:

* Respect all, fear none

* Always protect your loved ones

* Lead from the front

* Let your word be your bond

* Never betray a friend

* Judge people fairly

* Be honest and transparent in your dealings

* Stand your ground against bullies

* Strength within and without

* If you falter – and you will – own your mistake and apologise to the person you let down

Whatever happens, I did what was right and became the kind of man I wanted to be. I find that, if you hold fast and stay strong, people will look to you for leadership.

Solo Tango in Southern England

Occasionally, I google self-help articles on a variety of social topics.  Many of those articles come from Psychology Today.   The reason I do so is that I like to try and challenge my own views in areas where I often find myself conflicting with others, such as dating traditions.

One topic I’ve been googling lately is the concept of having an argumentative personality.  I decided to have a look at alternative viewpoints on this topic because I have been accused of being argumentative and I often feel like I fall out with people more frequently than others do.  On the one hand, I feel quite weary of conflict, but on the other hand I don’t want to be a doormat.

The expression “he/she started it” is often derided as a childish excuse for participating in an argument or fight with someone else.  “It takes two to tango” goes the retort, eyes a-rolling, the insinuation being that you were both willing participants and therefore both equally culpable irrespective of who first put the offer of a tango/argument on the table.

Many of the articles I’ve come across on the topic of managing conflict “Better(TM)” approach the issue from this standpoint.  According to these articles, the mark of an emotionally mature person is a willingness to adopt a policy of appeasement.  Perhaps it’s because there’s a limit to the advice some internet commentator can give you when they don’t know you and all the details about your situation, but they always seem to admonish you to focus on deescalation rather than resolution as standing your ground and pointing out why they’re wrong is “only going to make them more angry and defensive”. Sometimes they even suggest that you should apologise when you don’t really mean it for the sake of maintaining an amicable relationship with the other person; see this article, for instance, which advises on methods of doing this without feeling like you are being fake (even though you are).  The obvious impediment to adopting this approach is that you feel that you have been wronged and it’s not fair to let them off the hook, but then this feeling of injustice is downplayed on the basis that people ALWAYS think they’re right… right? “Yeah yeah, it’s ALWAYS everyone else’s fault…”

The mantra of “it takes two to tango” simplistically assumes that, because the tendency in arguments is for each party to blame the other, the parties are automatically just as bad as each other and there’s no need to consider it further.  But often, that’s not the case.   Sometimes, one person really is right.  Sometimes, one person really does have a legitimate grievance and you can find out who that person is if you conduct an investigation.  I hate to use another legal analogy, but in a court case, the judge will not simply say “it takes two to tango” and send the representatives of both parties to sit on the naughty step; evidence and logical arguments will be presented and the court will endeavour to find out what really happened and who (if anyone) really is to blame.  “It takes two to tango” is the comforting rationalisation and get-out clause of the overwhelmed parent or primary school teacher who just wants five minutes’ peace.  This is what we lawyers mean when we use the expression “they want to have their day in court”; they want to feel like someone has really listened to and considered their side of the story.  Without getting that from authority figures, people feel resentful and may be more tempted to take dispute resolution into their own hands.

In short, placing the onus on the truly injured party to let their legitimate grievances go enables the perpetrator to get away scot-free by unfairly taking advantage of your reluctance to harm the relationship or to cause a scene.  Neville Chamberlain allowed this to happen when he permitted Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland for the sake of avoiding war, and as Churchill famously quipped, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour.  You chose dishonour, and you will have war.

If I believe that someone has mistreated me then I am entitled to point that out.  Likewise, if someone accuses me of some form of wrongdoing, I am entitled to challenge their views and to defend myself using facts and logical arguments whether they like it or not.  If they lack the emotional maturity to argue using logic rather than defensive hissy fits then that’s their problem.  It doesn’t always take two to tango.  Sometimes, they really did start it.

A final point I’d like to address is one that often comes up late in discussions on this topic.  “Well, no-one is perfect, you have your own challenging qualities, maybe don’t be so hard on people who wrong you.”  It’s true that no-one is perfect, but not all misbehaviour is equally bad.  I don’t need to forgive mass murder because I once dropped a coke can on the floor.