I’m guilty of humblebragging. Are you?

4 mins

Noticed a recent trend on LinkedIn? It’s the good ol’ humblebrag. We’re all guilty of it. Let’s go for a deep dive into the psyche of the lawyer.

We recently reached humblebrag saturation point, or what I might call “peak humblebrag” on LinkedIn. It points to a much more interesting issue of prestige-chasing that so defines the legal profession.

Lawyers have always obsessed over markers of achievement, which makes law school a baptism of fire for most. In short, many law schools generate an ultra-competitive and downright unpleasant culture. I enjoyed my substantive law classes but avoided the “law crowd” during my studies. If you find yourself in this group, don’t worry—you’re not alone.

For those in law school and disliking the vibe, I can say with confidence that it’s usually uphill after. Some of the most fantastic (and actually humble) people I’ve met were through the profession. One realises that the law is a wide profession and that no one person can be an expert on everything. You need to work with all parts of the profession, drawing on the expertise of others to provide the best possible advice. Making enemies, or frenemies, is not how you do it.

The humblebrag defined

Back to the humblebrag. So where does it all fit in?

Humblebragging evolved from a person’s desire to convey a specific message of achievement to others within a social group. However, as bragging is often deemed an unacceptable trait—this has resulted in the person couching their statements in a self-deprecatory way or faux humility. In Australia, we are ever cognisant that “tall poppies” get cut down to size.

A self-deprecatory humblebrag might sound like this: “I’m so embarrassed that my lecturer praised my work in front of everyone in class!” (OK then.)

A faux humblebrag often sounds like this: “I am so humbled and grateful that…” (Oh dear, there we go again.)

The second form of humblebrag seems to have made headway in the last two years and spawned a bunch of articles, including a TIME article on why humblebragging makes people dislike you.

Few might go out on a limb to accost the humblebrag, but one rather amusing recent example was this LinkedIn post:

Solution 1. Own it

Just. Own. It.

Own your achievements, don’t hide it under a layer of not-so-humble humblebrag.

“I’m delighted to win this prize X.”

This unadulterated version says what it needs to say without the psychological mind games. It’ll make people appreciate you for your honesty to own your achievements.

You might want to throw in a word of thanks to whoever helped get you there. Because as the English poet, John Donne (1572-1631), wrote:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends
or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

—MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

Solution 2. Get someone else to brag for you

This is a great one—we should also get into the habit of bragging for others.

Unlike oil reserves, praising others isn’t going to deplete your resources. Can you think of someone who did a great job recently who deserves praise? Tell someone about it, post it on LinkedIn, anything.

Needless to say, you should do it with the best of intentions—not because you want to extract a favour from that person. That would be downright dodgy.

Solution 3. Show, not tell

This is what lawyers find the hardest to do.

Instead of letting prizes and grades define us, why is it that we can’t live with doing a great job? We shouldn’t need recognition in the form of prizes to pursue our craft to the highest standards. Do a great job without an expectation of equal return, and recognition will come naturally.

What prizes don’t tell us include the following:

  • Are you a creative person?
  • Do you have compassion for others?
  • Do you genuinely want to solve problems?
  • Or do you just want to have the highest billables for the month?

Of course, it’s easier talking about this under controlled conditions. I understand how lawyers are under some pressure to be “recognised”—one way is through awards. But we are not remembered for these. Instead, we’re remembered for how we build genuine connections with people and care—actually care.

I would be surprised if someone called you for help because you won some award. They would call you because they knew you as a person.

Ditch the “Lawyer” Tag

We finally get to the main premise of this post. As lawyers, we’re defined by the “lawyer tag” early on. It starts as soon as you know that you’ve made it into law school.

Proud mother: “My son made it into law school!”
Another parent: “Wow, he must be brilliant.”

This is a difficult tag to shake. The number of times people would “ooh” and “ahh”, either inwardly or outwardly, about your lawyerly credentials create a sense of expectation for the self. And losing that identity can be very painful.

It’s a tag that you wear around and few, you might say, are immune from its curse. There are ex-lawyers who, while they don’t practise law anymore, keep their practising certificate so that they can continue to identify as a lawyer.

For those who continue to practise law, collecting prizes and recognition is a way of supplementing the lawyer tag. It’s why lawyers (and I have equally been there) think that our tag and CV are going to get us through every possible door and portal. We struggle to explain the value we bring, other than the tag. For our entire career, the lawyer tag can be a “free pass” of sorts, without justification of our very substance. Awards and prizes are another form of this free pass.

This is a clear crisis that we need to resolve within ourselves. Once we ditch the lawyer tag and say—in clear terms—that it only forms one part of our identity, but not the consummate whole, that we can truly find ourselves. Also, that we stop using the lawyer tag as a means of assuming our own greatness. There is so much out there in the world that we don’t understand, and will never be an expert in.

Now, you might say that this sounds like a whole load of hocus-pocus. But I believe that, when we shed the lawyer tag and stop defining ourselves by the profession that we originally chose, we can open our minds more broadly to discover our true potential.

Image credit // Jason Rosewell