I’ve always loved the icebreaker game “two truths and a lie” (ugh, I know, I’m one of those). I love the novel factoids you can learn about people. I also love that I can come up with some pretty far-fetched sounding truths about my life. Unless you knew me at a particular time, you’d have no reason to know that I used to be able to disassemble and reassemble an M-16 with my eyes closed (thanks ROTC) or that I played trumpet in the Baltimore Ravens marching band. These little nuggets from my past seem implausible now simply because they bear no visible relationship to my present. The best "lies" in this game do just the opposite - they seem to fit with the current context.
Yes, I'm aware that this little primer in “truths and lies” is entirely elementary. You already knew this. I’m raising it because it helps illustrate why I, for a long time, held onto a mistaken belief as a young lawyer, and also why I missed a couple of pretty big truths. Context (law school, the firm, my own achievement orientation) made the mistaken belief seem totally reasonable, even after it stopped being helpful and started harming me. And context also made the truth more difficult to believe. [A word about terminology: I’m intentionally using the word “belief” instead of “lie” when discussing my learning. I’m doing this for two important reasons: 1) for there to be a lie, there has to be a liar with the intent to deceive, and 2) the word "lie" also connotes shame/blame to the one who believes it. Neither of these help us here.]
It took awhile, some outside support, and some focused attention for me to get enough mental distance from that context to see things a little differently. When I did, I gained space in which to breathe, to make choices that made a significant difference in my sense of well-being, and, for the first time, to feel a sense of agency over my career trajectory as a lawyer. But I didn’t come to these realizations easily. Something forced my hand.
If you’ve read my prior blog you know that three years ago I was a burned out junior associate. At the time, I didn’t actually know that I was burned out. I knew I was more stressed and anxious than engaged at work, more frustrated than energized about my career prospects, and more bored than grateful for all of the myriad opportunities available to me. But burned out? Nah. I was fine, really. I thought I just needed to reboot my career. So, I switched firms. And practice areas. I opened up some new doors (bigger firm, more options to relocate to a different city if I wanted, a broader practice are) and closed others (leaving behind folks who had taught me everything I knew to that point about how to be a lawyer). And I took a vacation - with NO work email.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. Things seemed to get worse, not better, after the move. I didn’t have a meltdown at the office, throw things and tell my boss to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. But, I still had the same low-key combo of stressed out, frustrated, and bored as before. And my anxiety definitely kicked up a notch. I’d walk away from conference calls where I’d ably represented my client or negotiated a key contract point, earning praise and thanks in the process, and feel as if I’d escaped the execution chamber by the skin of my teeth. I’d hustle to my office and close my door behind me, doing deep breathing exercises to keep myself from descending into a full blown panic attack. No one really saw this. Except me. And I wasn’t blowing it. Far from it. I was getting good feedback on my work. All looked hunky dory. So, I allowed the visible evidence of my success to trump how I was feeling. I was making good money, I was earning praise, I was advancing along the path to partnership, and I was doing “the right things” to keep my career on track. It seemed like I should be fine, so I kept going.
What I found most distressing, and what ultimately convinced me that I needed some outside support, was the dawning realization that I didn’t actually know myself anymore. There was this intense dissonance between my thoughts - my inner life - and my real-world external self. It felt like “imposter syndrome” on steroids. I felt detached from most anything that actually mattered to me and, more distressingly, with the exception of my marriage I couldn’t even tell you what did actually matter to me. I simply didn’t know anymore.
Years later, I’ve realized that many many associates (and partners too) simply “keep going” when they feel as I did. They live for years doing battle, alone, with the firm and with themselves, feeling that they should be fine because things around them aren’t totally falling apart. It is a demonstrable trend in research on attorney well-being that unless and until a lawyer’s misery begins to measurably impact their work (quantity or quality), they don’t seek support or change. And sometimes, that is far too late. If you work at a firm, I’m sure you know lawyers like this. They are succeeding (sometimes tremendously) by every measure that seems to matter (money, prestige, promotion, power), but they are miserable and stuck. Most of us have been there at one point or another, but it is tremendously sad to me that so many never get unstuck.
The work I do with individual coaching clients creates space to get to the bottom of what’s keeping you stuck. Often, as with with me, there is a mistaken belief hiding in plain sight. Often, as with me, there are some healing truths that can support the effort. But, the first step toward getting unstuck is to actually make the choice to value your internal experience - your physical and psychological well being - at least as much as the externally visible markers of success. This is particularly hard for lawyers. We’ll get into why, I promise.
Over the next three weeks, I’ll be writing a series of three posts to address three key pieces of learning that supported me in becoming unstuck, my two truths and a belief. Hopefully, these will resonate with you and may even give you a glimpse of what needs to shift.
But, before we dive in, I actually want to play this little icebreaker game with you. I’ll give away the farm and list the three statements below. Which do you think is which? Let me know in the comments.
Two Truths and a Belief:
- Law school changed me.
- There is only one right way to be an associate.
- Most “demands” are really “requests.”