For my entire professional life, I have adopted a habit from my martial arts teacher. He was a medic for twenty-five years, and he has been a martial artist for longer than that. You would think that he would have various ranks, certificates, and awards fit to plaster the walls of his home. And he does... except that they aren't plastering his walls. A quarter-century worth of hard work, accomplishment, and aid to others is unceremoniously stuffed in a small drawer in his guest bedroom.
When I first discovered this, I was more than a little amused, but as I thought about it, the idea started to grow on me. Like a difficult novel or a fine piece of art, I think humans are perhaps most interesting when all of their beauty isn't easily accessible on the surface. There is something profound in having to look deeper to really appreciate something. There is something humble and spiritual in putting aside the desire to show others how accomplished you are, and instead have your actions do all the talking.
For these reasons, I have established my own "rank drawer". It currently contains all of my college and law degrees, all my awards for trial advocacy, all my rank in martial art, and every thank-you letter and certificate of recognition I've gotten in the course of my career.
I recently decided to dispense with my rank drawer and break with my teacher's habit.
Don't get me wrong. I still agree with everything above. And if I were a paramedic and a martial arts teacher, I would keep to the rank drawer.
But my circumstances are different. I am a public defender. I have a large number of clients, and they are expected to walk into my office, meet me for the first time, and in some cases, trust me with the next twenty years of their future and their freedom. All after a twenty minute conversation.
If you think about that, it is more than a little unnatural.
How much time did you spend talking to someone before you bought your last computer? I bet it was more than twenty minutes. In my estimation, twenty years of someone's life is worth considerably more than a computer.
In a perfect world, I would spend enough time with my clients that I could keep all my diplomas, ranks, and certificates hidden, and they would come to appreciate me based on my actions.
Unfortunately, I don't live in a perfect world. I don't have that kind of time. With the size of our caseloads, triage is a way of life for public defenders. My contact with my clients has to be concise, effective, and productive. Before I have any productive discussion with my clients, I have to help them get a hold on their fear and anxiety. Visual symbols, like all those fancy diplomas, help do that. They provide a visual re-assurance that the person sitting behind the desk had to go through a lot in order to sit behind that desk. It helps to build the tenuous bond of trust enough that we can actually get down to the serious business of figuring out what the hell is going on with a particular case.
So, I am ok with putting all my rank on the walls now. I'm not doing it to toot my own horn. I'm doing it to help do my job. I don't think there is too much "ego pollution" in that rationale.
Interestingly enough, I discussed this whole issue with one of my friends after writing this. "Pat," he said, "Maybe there's another reason you've been reticent to put up all your diplomas and stuff."
"Did you ever think that maybe you don't want to be put on the spot? Think about it... when people see all that stuff on your wall, they will expect you to live up to ALL of it, each and every time. Maybe you were nervous about creating high expectations, because it puts pressure on YOU."
Did I mention that I hang out with some smart people? I think that my friend is right... but I also think that I'm ready to be accountable for everything I'm supposed to know.
So I'll be looking into frames this afternoon.
- Diplomas, Ranks, and Certificates