Deciding What’s Important

What I learned from adjudicating inmate discipline

Deciding What’s Important

If someone told me in law school that I would love practising litigation at a private firm, then also love leaving it for something else, I would have laughed and laughed because I was of course going to become a law professor and stay in school forever. Life takes us in unpredictable directions and, if we are lucky, transforms us, and transforms us again.

I could not have predicted where I was going to be a few years after hanging up my barrister’s robe. I had defined being a lawyer a certain way and adjudication, while related, was not advocacy in the way that I had enjoyed it. As I took on roles that increasingly departed from my view of being a lawyer, I learned lessons about the value of deciding what is important.

One day, while I prepared to render a decision regarding an inmate who had tried to kill another, the reality that we are all trying our best with the tools that we have hit me and I caught myself, hoping that my choices were the right ones. The marginal costs of doing the wrong thing is alluringly low. Be guided by a clear sense of purpose for the things that matter.

What might these be? I am not sure that I have the answers — or even all the questions — but what I learned from adjudicating inmate discipline might be helpful for your consideration:

  • Focus on what you are doing, according to your values, and not on where you want to be. Our lives are rarely galvanized by a single spectacular moment, but defined by habits formed from how we decide to allocate resources. It is easy to squander away time and energy on acquiring short-term signs of achievement. But this can lead you astray. Take time to define what you stand for, draw the line in a safe place, and create relationships that are built on trust and mutual respect.
  • It is easy to think of power as glamorous and important. To be powerful is to come first and have control and influence over others. But power is a responsibility. It should be used to make difficult decisions in service to others, so that you are giving value before you seek it. The more you repeatedly deliver value, the more you become relied on for your value and more power can be created by helping someone else lead a better life.
  • If you are too focused on areas for improvement, you may not see strengths and the things that are working. We are all driven by hopes and aspirations. The most powerful motivator is not the fear of consequence or the promise of reward. It is the opportunity to learn, grow, contribute, and be recognized. Force creates resistance, but satisfying basic human needs of belonging, self-esteem, and the ability to control and live up to one’s standards builds influence.

It is simple, but not easy, to decide what is important. Finding those things that are bigger than yourself and the values that you are willing to struggle for determines how you will succeed. Is it worth leaving something you love for something better? Only you can know that. Even in deciding to look, however, goes a long way toward the most meaningful aspect of life — to do something that matters and be willing to be transformed by it.

Life is happening for us, not to us, and we become defined by the risks that we take, not the risks that we avoid. So decide what is important and be willing to fight for your life for them. We may not be able to predict the future, but we can create it, shape it, and change it.

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