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Leaning Into Change: Career Pivots to Meet Your Evolving Strengths and Interests

by Will Graebe |

I have never been a big celebrator of my own birthdays. It is just another day of the year—another trip around the sun. I suppose that when I turned 16, it seemed like a big deal. I was able to drive. It gave me a new sense of freedom. Since then, I have not given much attention to turning a certain age. That changed this past year when I turned 60. There was something different about 60. I don’t think I can describe myself as middle-aged anymore. I might even qualify for free or discounted coffee at some restaurants. I can legitimately wear a shirt that says, “Old Guys Rule.”

I would like to think that I am still 30 and I sometimes act like it. To some degree, I think that has helped me to age well. But there can be a downside to living in too much denial about one’s age. In his famous poem “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann writes, “Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” I can see the wisdom in Ehrmann’s words. By no means is he suggesting that we give up. He is simply recommending that we welcome the wisdom that comes from our years of experience.

Ehrmann was a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana. He wrote Desiderata sometime around 1920. At that time, we did not know much about how our brains aged and how our intelligence was affected by the aging process. It was not until 1963 that the concepts of fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence were introduced by the psychologist Raymond Cattell. Cattell’s work showed that we have two forms of intelligence. Fluid intelligence is that innate ability we have to reason, think, and develop techniques to solve problems. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use acquired knowledge and information to solve problems and present solutions. Studies have shown that our fluid intelligence peaks in our 20’s and then declines as we age. In contrast, crystallized intelligence continues to increase as we grow older and may peak in our 60’s and 70’s.

Drawing on these studies, Harvard Business School professor Arthur Brooks wrote his bestselling book From Strength to Strength. Like Ehrmann, Brooks suggests that we age gracefully in our careers. To do that, we accept that our fluid intelligence is not what it once was. In contrast, our crystallized intelligence has grown and created a new and different kind of strength. We become better at assimilating information acquired in the past and using that assimilated information to solve problems or teach others. Brooks did this in his own life. 

In his 20’s, Brooks worked as a professional French hornist. He later returned to college and completed his undergraduate degree in 1994 at the age of 29. He then earned his Ph.D. in public policy analysis and taught economics at Syracuse University. He moved on to become the president of a Washinton think tank. Most of his work to that point had tapped into Brooks’ fluid intelligence. When Brooks was in his 50’s he started looking at this theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence. It occurred to him that it might be time to shift toward something that allowed him to rely less on his fluid intelligence and lean into his crystallized intelligence (the ability to see the big picture and synthesize ideas). This is exactly what he did. He became a full-time writer and teacher. 

Brooks’ book and story helped me to understand my own career evolution. When I was a younger attorney, I depended heavily on my fluid intelligence. I did not particularly enjoy writing and definitely did not enjoy teaching or presenting CLE courses. Those very things that I struggled with as a younger attorney are now my greatest passion and strength. What once terrified me now inspires and energizes me. I find great satisfaction in assimilating information and ideas and presenting what I have learned to other lawyers. Like Brooks, I have become a teacher of sorts. I have leaned into my crystallized intelligence.

Whether you are transitioning into the later years of your practice or beginning your legal career, do not be afraid to pivot. It is natural for our abilities and interests to change during the course of our life. If you feel like your daily routine has become a bit like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, consider stepping outside your comfort zone to try something new. Maybe it is a new practice area or a different firm. Maybe it means leaving private practice to move in-house or to practice public interest law. Pivots can also come in the form of small changes to the work you do. Pay attention to what you enjoy most in your job and then look for opportunities to do more of that. If you like your firm and want to stay but want to change the kind of work that you do, you can use job crafting to modify your work life. 

If you are a more senior lawyer like I am, embrace the gift of your crystallized intelligence. This might mean synthesizing your vast knowledge and experience to teach other lawyers. Or it could mean becoming a mentor to a young lawyer who is just starting out. Do not be afraid to use your new superpower.

Whatever you do and wherever you are in your career, do not get stuck doing something that you do not love or that no longer plays to your strengths. As Stephen Colbert once said, “Thankfully, dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”

About the Author

Will Graebe

Will Graebe came to Lawyers Mutual in 1998 as claims counsel. In 2009, Will became the Vice President of the Claims Department and served in that role until 2019. After a two-year sabbatical, Will returned to Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel and relationship manager. In his role as claims counsel, Will focuses primarily on claims related to estates and trusts, business transactions and real estate matters. Will received his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Stetson University. Prior to joining Lawyers Mutual, will worked in private practice with the law firm of Pinna, Johnston & Burwell.  

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