Some people find that life or death peril gives them new perspective on their lives and their mortality. I lead more of a Walter Middy existence. A look in the mirror that reveals that you no longer look like you did in your yearbook photos, a new job, and an evening of Drinking Liberally (and meeting a couple of the Soapblox bloggers in person) is a quite sufficient nudge.
For most of your life growing up, you have your long term plans more or less set out for you. Elementary school, junior high (or middle school, as they call it these days), high school, college, choosing a major and career, graduate school, marriage, a first job, kids, the mortgage, the writing is on the wall, and your just following the path set out for you. Oh, you have to deal with forks in the road and roadblocks and detours from time to time, but there is a road.
When you are sufficiently removed from getting yourself established, and sufficiently far from retirement that the decades away event is little more than an occassional contribution to the retirement funds because conventional wisdom and your financial planner tell you that it is a good idea, life starts looking less like a road with a clear direction.
While law involves far more sustained attention to single projects than say, a primary care or ER physician who floats from one appointment to another, or a plumber, both of whom can't take their work home with them, even if they are sometimes on call, like most jobs it does not have a clear beginning and end, and lacks a terribly rigid hierachy. Outside of the very largest law firms, there are, at most, two or three job titles for attorneys. It isn't like being in military service (with more than twenty progressive ranks) or a federal government job (also with more than twenty ranks to move up when GS and SES positions are considered). And, in court or in a negotiation or in a client meeting or when you are drafting a document, your title in the firm where you work is largely irrelevant.
While you do plan for individual clients beyond the next quarter, planning for a lawsuit rarely extends for more than a year or so, and even business transactions don't look in the far future. Personally, the time horizons tend to be even shorter. Frequently, it is hard to plan out even a single day with much confidence, as faxes, e-mails, phone calls, client visits and letters routinely disrupt the best laid plans as cases are begun and settled, clients change their plans or have to reschedule meetings, and new facts cast your old plans in an entirely new light. Few lawsuits proceed without multiple continuances and readjusted deadlines. And, of course, your many clients are never in synch. There is never a time when every matter for every client in the office is resolved. When you join a new firm, you inevitably jump into cases in the middle, and when you leave, you inevitably have loose ends dangling (although you generally have a professional responsibillity to provide some assistance after you have left).
Live like this long enough and you start living in the moment, instead of living for the future as you did before. Living sustainably stops being an environmental slogan and becomes an attitude about pacing yourself and deciding how you are going to live your life. The focus shifts from sacrificing for future achievement, to living each day and week in a way that is itself worthwhile. Instead of asking what you have to do to get from here to there, you start to think "this is my life, do I like what I am doing with it?"
It is a liberating attitude which doesn't have to be libertine. One day at a time, as opportunities arise, you can change the world, but you realize that you can't solve all of the world's problems either and that you must pick your battles. Instead of being bound by duties to the future or the past, you are self-directed. And, that is a positive thing.