Reflections On A Career: 5 Lessons Learned
I retired in December, 2021, and I had the honor of being asked to present a lecture on what I learned from my career. In that lecture, I discussed five "lessons" I have learned that made my career more productive and more enjoyable. You can watch the 30-minute lecture in the video, or if you want the “Cliff Notes” version, here are the 5 lessons below - WMU-Cooley Professor Emeritus Kimberly E. O'Leary
Don't be afraid to have original ideas In work, we frequently adapt the work of others to our needs. We use template and reference models created by colleagues. There's nothing wrong with that. Nobody needs to reinvent the wheel. But sometimes when you can't find the answer you're looking for, you need to develop a solution yourself. Over the course of my career, I had many times where I just couldn’t find an answer from other people. I had to dig into my creative brain to generate my own solution. People seem to be nervous about offering original ideas. We live in a time when the world is changing quickly. The world will need your original ideas. Don’t be afraid to find them and share them.
Focus on one thing at a time. I had a mentor who advised me that one way to develop expertise was to focus on one project/idea at a time. My interests are broad, and I was told, it was fine to pursue multiple ideas and projects. But, focus on one at a time. Such a focus allows one to gain deeper knowledge in an area before moving onto the next. Not only will you sharpen your own work skills, but you will become known for that area, and then invited to speak, be part of a policy making body, or publish, in that area. I have focused on many “one thing” areas throughout my career, but have most success when I follow this simple rule. One thing at a time.
Never stop learning. In work, I told people when it started to feel like I was "phoning it in," I knew it was time to start learning new things. When you get really good at teaching a course, or practicing an area of law, maybe it’s time to expand your range. Look for something new to learn. This way, your understanding will not become stale. You will exercise your brain and enhance and deepen what you already know. As a teacher, when I learned significantly new subjects and skills, I developed more empathy with our students – who are all learning new things on a daily basis.
Find the joy in what you are doing. When we think about making changes within our careers, we often think about what we are good at – what skills do we have. But a mentor asked me once, “What brings you joy? That is what you should pursue.” I realized that I could seek out projects that gave me joy. I found ways to work with people who made me smile and laugh, and were not afraid to challenge me in an honest, supportive way. Nobody has a job that contains only things that bring joy – every job comes with things you don’t want to do. But medical research shows that living a life full of purpose – however any one individual defines it – is the key to better quality of life and longer life. When I retired, I kept only projects that bring me joy.
Connect where you are. In my work, I had the good fortune to meet many interesting people: students, colleagues, clients, partners in other cities and overseas. I was lucky to be part of a culture (clinical law teaching) where it was the norm to really connect with people - personally and professionally. Every person I met enriched my life and my understanding of how the world works. The key is to listen. That is harder to do than it sounds - especially for those of us trained to talk. When you are able to slow yourself down and really listen to others, you will learn so much. Then, wherever you go, stay connected to the people who have made an impact in your life. I can’t believe it’s been 21 years teaching at WMU-Cooley Law School. I have connected with many of you. Please stay in touch. You can follow my travels in my retirement at www.rocinanteroad.com.