Picture your commute home tonight
As you’re driving through that last stop light before hitting your driveway, a car comes out of nowhere and hits you head-on. You come to a minute or so later, knowing you’re seriously injured and cannot move. After being transferred by air ambulance, given some major pain-killing pharmaceuticals, and an initial attempt at surgical reconstruction, you find yourself in the hospital severely disabled, likely there for weeks or months. What do you do?
Once you move past the initial shock, and the reality sets in, you might start by thinking about everyone else and the obligations you’ll now be unable to meet. For lawyers, once we move past our immediate family members (and sometimes before family), that anxiety-ridden question will likely appear next: “How will I get my work done?”
This was precisely the situation I found myself the morning of January 18, 2021. The day before, I had been out enjoying a motorcycle ride on a beautiful day in the San Diego mountains. Out of nowhere, a local college student turned left in front of me while I was going at about 60 mph. I hit her rental car head on, flew over my handlebars, and landed on my back in a ditch. The following morning, I told myself “What the hell do I do now?”
As a solo practitioner with ad hoc support staff, I was immediately overwhelmed. There were deadlines in my cases, client calls planned, other things that I HAD to be doing. But quickly, this worry and anxiety faded, if only by necessity. A voice in my head said “What would happen if you’d died?” followed by a calming realization of “I guess they’ll have to wait.” As I was forced to lean into this unexpected interruption, my anxieties began to subside.
For years, I had listened to the relentless voice in my head that told me my only value was in my work and what I could earn or accomplish. And because I had mostly been able to meet those challenges, I never had the opportunity to consider what might happen if I simply could not do it. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with limitations that I had never envisioned, and which took time to work through.
You are so much more than your work
Although our individual circumstances may be different depending on practice (big firm, small firm, solo, government, public interest), a serious life interruption such as a major accident, divorce, loss of a loved one, or other life-stressor can often leave us dizzy and wondering how to begin the process of moving through and moving on, while also trying to maintain and sustain the things that provide stability—like a job.
Yet, for most of us, our work forms a major part of our sense of self. It brings us pride, and it can bring profound meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, because it plays such a significant role in our lives, work can also undermine our overall self-confidence—telling us that our only value is in the work that we accomplish, and that unless we are able to bill “enough” this year and the next (year after year, our very survival is at stake.
Pressing pause is risky. So we don’t. Until we’re forced into a corner and don’t have an option.
Pressing pause before you have to
Eventually, we are all forced to face the fact that we are somewhat expendable as individuals. If you’re not available or able to pitch in, things will move on, simply because they have to. Unfortunately, the world will not stop spinning because you’re too busy. But you don’t have to wait until life-or-death emergencies to feel the impact of this revelation.
The trick is to take an inventory before you come to such a critical juncture in your life and career. By setting up your expectations and motivations and making small incremental behavioral changes, you can begin to operate from a place of confidence, rather than want or need. And that makes all the difference.
For example, the next time you hear yourself saying “I have to do this because there’s nobody else who can/will do this,” take a step back. Is that because you’re uniquely talented (which may be the case), or because you’re simply the only one willing to sacrifice yourself for others’ benefit.
In my experience, while we like to think of ourselves in the former category, most of us are actually in the latter, telling ourselves that unless we do this for the boss, the client, the friend, or whoever, we have no value to add and are worthless. And when you’re coming from a deficiency mindset, there will always be someone else who will sacrifice themselves and take your place. When you’re coming from a place of confidence, seemingly big obstacles aren’t so big after all, because other people are willing to work through any obstacles to have the benefit of your help.
For me, this has entailed some serious pondering about where my value lies, and moving beyond the imposter syndrome. If I can just get out of my head, I can do great things for my clients, my community, and ultimately my self. But it takes significant effort to keep this in mind as we go about our everyday business. Focus on what truly makes you unique . . . or, if you don’t know, figure it out. That will be the starting point for the truly transformational change that you are longing for.
In the meanwhile, stay safe.