“Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius.” – Sam Kean
At this time last year, I weighed over 300 pounds.
Most people who know me are shocked to learn that fact, and the truth is, I was shocked as well. I was never someone to obsess over numbers on a scale, and I figured as long as I was happy, and wasn’t experiencing any negative consequences, I had no need to hop on any trendy diet or exercise plans. But gradually over time I found that I avoided taking pictures. I started hiding from cameras like I was a celebrity, or purposefully giving my kids to relatives if someone wanted to take a picture of them.
Insurance though, insurance you can’t hide from.
I was looking into getting a life insurance policy, and surprisingly enough they weren’t willing to take my word for it that I was “pretty healthy.” One nurse’s visit later, and I was straining my neck a bit to be able see the numbers on the scale. Speaking with the agent later, I found out that despite my age and overall health, which was fine, my “risk” profile had been downgraded. The agent told me over the phone that he had a sheet of paper in front of him, and literally the only words disparaging my health were “applicant weight.”
That was enough, I had to do something. Paying extra for insurance bothered me, but it didn’t bother me as much as the number I saw on the scale. I had never obsessed over numbers before, but now I was fixated on this number, it represented years of sitting behind a desk or the wheel of a car and scarfing down fast food on the way to, or in between, hearings and depositions and motions. Most of all, it represented a failure. A failure on my part to control an aspect of my life as basic a food intake in proportion to energy output. The emotions I felt were complex, but could probably best be summed up as “spite.” This number made me feel spite, and all of a sudden this health goal, which felt so wishy-washy and esoteric before, became as black & white as words on a page.
Now is probably a good time to iterate that this is all just a personal story. I don’t begrudge anyone their lifestyle or their choices, I’m just trying to be honest about the emotions that went through my head in a certain time of my life. Please do not read this as a referendum or “call out” on anyone’s size.
So I did something, I made some small lifestyle changes and I started thinking about what I was consuming beyond “can I eat it with one hand while typing/steering with the other?” I did my best to avoid sweets and any liquid that wasn’t water, and just about totally cut off foods that had excessive carbs or sugars. 40 pounds later I’m by no means a shoo-in to play the next Marvel hero-lawyer now that they’ve cancelled Daredevil, but I feel so much better and am actually willing to participate in photography sessions at family get-togethers. But you’re not here for a feel-good story about overcoming adversity, you’re here for spite cookies, so let me get on with that.
My sister-in-law is a wonderful person. She is a super great aunt to my kids and has been invaluable as a free babysitting service on-call to us at just about any time. She is also very skinny. Like, not unhealthfully skinny, but the kind of skinny where she’ll be all in for a plate of fries “for the table” and then eat a single fry and claim she literally “can’t even” eat another bite.
While I was in the early part of my weight loss journey, in her honest-to-god benevolence, my SIL brought a half a container of grocery store cookies, left over from some party she had gone to, to our house. I was starting to feel better about my situation, and felt that I had earned a reward, so I ate a cookie. My wife also had one, and then we gave half a cookie each to the kids. My SIL came back to our house the next day for some reason or another and saw the container of cookies. She asked “are those the cookies from last night?” My wife responded “yeah, why?” My SIL (who is a wonderful person and does not have a cruel bone in her body) said “oh, I’m just surprised there’s still some left.”
After she left, I approached my wife to ask her if she had noticed the comment as much as I had. My wife admitted that she had noticed it but didn’t take it as strongly as I had. Here was the thing: my sister-in-law wasn’t wrong to think that. A mere month prior to the occurrence, her assumption would have been absolutely correct, I would have waited until after bed time and absent-mindedly snacked on the remaining cookies while watching a twitch stream or something. I felt the spite rolling over me again. I decided, no, these cookies would not all be eaten. In fact, these cookies would NEVER all be eaten.
I took a cookie out of the container, placed it in a little plastic sandwich baggie, and gingerly placed my prize in the freezer.
My spite fueled me to start changing my life, and then it fueled me to place that cookie in the freezer only to be seen when checking to see why the ice machine stopped working. Maybe someday I’ll take it out and split it with someone, but for now, seeing it laying there as a trophy to the reclamation of my self-control is reward enough.
So what does this story have to do with anything? Well, first of all, it’s a story of which I allow myself a modicum of pride. It may have taken extreme circumstances, but I finally took myself out of a destructive set of habits health-wise, and focused some energy into improving myself. However, it’s also a story of how a negative emotion led to a positive end.
New lawyers starting in the practice of law after graduating from law school and passing the bar are often woefully unprepared for the practice of law (which is a whole other topic on its own), but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be expected to represent their clients competently. In addition, they are almost guaranteed to come across clients, supervisors, judges, and opposing counsel who are difficult, condescending, or just plain mean. Mistakes may be taken advantage of, naivete may be exploited, lack of knowledge may be derided, and bad results may lead to bad reviews.
There are positive ways to deal with these pressures, but there are already plenty of people and sites out there selling over-stressed lawyers on positive emotions in stressful situations. I want to humbly suggest spite.
My billable hour requirement keeps me working enough to bill 8 hours a day, but having something to prove gets me working past that. When a partner I’ve never done work before gives me an assignment (particularly when I’m told it was over another associate), I take that shit home with me. It occupies my thoughts for the intervening days until the assignment is complete. When I have an argument or am writing something to an opposing counsel that caught me with my pants down (metaphorically) the last time we met, I burn the midnight oil to make sure that I have the sharpest citations to case law and am anticipating their arguments so that I can crush them.
In each of these circumstances, there is arguably negative emotion at play, and maybe that way of working isn’t for everyone, I’m more than willing to admit that. But if you find that positive reinforcement and ways of thinking aren’t getting you the results you want, take a second to think about some of your proudest accomplishments. I would bet that many of them came despite someone or something in your life telling you that you couldn’t do it. How many accomplished artists have stories of some teacher or role model who told them that they’d never amount to anything? That’s a rhetorical question, the answer is “plenty.”
I’m not saying that you should let spite run your life, or even that it should be a major motivator, just that sometimes it can be a strong motivational force to accomplish things that you wouldn’t necessarily prioritize as highly without it.
So, should you take Empower Palpatine’s advice and “let the hate flow through you”? Probably not, but next time you find it hard to get motivated to do something, take a second to think about what obstacles are in your way, and if you can personalize one or a few of them, see if spite doesn’t help you get started with a little extra pep in your step.
When you’re done, let me know, because there’s half of a spite cookie with your name on it.