A Lizard Brain Attack

A thoughtful reader recently asked me about feelings of guilt those who leave law may suffer, given the state of the economy. “To be more specific, I mean the guilt that some of us might feel for walking away from Big Law $$$ to either start our own business or do something where the income is much lower or more inconsistent when we know that so many others out there are struggling to get jobs.”

Australian frilled lizard

Your inner lizard looks very scary when it is scared you're going to change and reduce its power.

Walking away from the so-called sure thing is a great way to find out what you really believe about the purpose of work. Most lawyers are fearful/risk-averse kinds of creatures. When you’re fearful, you are focused on the survival fears being constantly broadcast by your lizard brain. That means that jobs for you are going to be about money, i.e., survival.

I’ve touched on lizard brain before. It is an actual, ancient part of the brain, the amygdala. It’s responsible for broadcasting what Martha Beck calls “lack and attack” messages

—-food/shelter isn’t adequate, or you’re about to be attacked by something that threatens your life or limbs. The amygdala broadcasts these messages fairly relentlessly. While those messages can be useful, in our modern age where actual scarcity and starvation are pretty rare, as is being hunted for food by lions and such, the lack and attack messages usually get twisted into things like “I’m never going to be loved” or “I’ll never find a job that pays enough and makes me happy.”

The good news, the New York Times reports, is that doing things like meditation can decrease the amount of gray matter in the amygdala and increase the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The upshot of studies so far is that Buddhist-type mindfulness meditation produces lower blood pressure and longer attention spans. Yes, there are ways to circumvent your inner lizard. (I talk about a lot of lizard circumvention frequently—see any post where I discuss how to let yourself have fun.)

Yet the act of walking away from a high-paying job that is eating your soul away can still seem the height of stupidity. As Seth Godin recently pointed out in his blog, “It’s unreasonable to walk away from a good gig in today’s economy, even if you want to do something brave and original.” Unreasonable to a lizard brain, anyway.

But if you want to do something that sets your life and work on fire, that gives you freedom to use your gifts, that makes you want to get up in the morning, you need to do that scary, unreasonable thing. Your very soul is begging you to do it, in fact.

Worrying about the fact that other people are struggling is a desperate gambit from your inner lizard to keep you stuck, because your inner lizard is very, very scared that you might do that unreasonable thing. So the lizard, clever devil, appeals to one of your higher, noble sensibilities: concern for others.

Thing is, unless you are using that BigLaw salary to give buckets of money away to the underprivileged, staying in BigLaw isn’t going to help someone who is out of work. Nor is it going to transfer your talents, skills and abilities to another job-seeker. As another commenter noted, leaving BigLaw means another BigLaw opportunity opens up; a job for a less-skilled worker does not.

Starting a new business venture might open up a new job for you and someone else, and eventually many someone elses, though. I’m just sayin’.

In other words, tell your lizard to go take a nap. You have some important work to do—-chasing your unreasonably joyful dreams.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who tries her best to do something unreasonably fun at least weekly, over and above the unreasonable but highly rewarding business of coaching attorneys from fear into joy. If you’re ready to chase your career and life dreams, schedule a discounted, no-obligation sample coaching session by emailing jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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17 thoughts on “A Lizard Brain Attack

  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post. I really appreciate you writing about it.

    Also, you will be happy to know that I made my lizard brain SHUT UP, and I did what I had to do. I gave notice at my firm last Friday :) Seriously, I felt on top of the world afterwards! I am SO excited about the future!

    Thank you so much for this blog, overall. You really created some great posts that helped me when I needed it the most. I can only imagine what kind of career coach you must be, given what you’re able to do via this blog.

  2. I’m so honored that this little old blog helped you. And I’m wildly excited for you.
    Just remember to tell your friends where you got some good advice! :)

  3. Great post – I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I am “OK” with law. Don’t love it, don’t usually hate it. It is OK (no better than that). As I investigate other things to do, I have another type of legal opportunity possibly available. I feel zero enthusiasm for it – frankly, staying in practice until I find something really right is probably the better choice given my lack of interest and enthusiasm (and feeling that I’d have to be dragged into it screaming – largely because of what other legal stuff this opp would involve).

    I wonder, since you made your transition, how have you dealt with issues of enthusiasm and interest? On the one hand, you have to be tuned into what makes you feel “YES!” On the other hand, after a few years in law it becomes very hard to feel anything other than “oh crap!” or “please God make this end.”

    • I don’t mean to sound smug or anything, but in all honesty, I have never had a “please God make this end” moment about the core of what I’ve done since I left law. Some of the ancillary things about particular jobs–heck to the yeah. Esp. the politics at one particular place. If you find the thing(s) that you really enjoy doing, all the corporate crap is so much easier to get through.

      I think that’s one thing that those in law who really aren’t lawyers at heart don’t realize–once you do something that aligns with your values, with what your real talents are–there are so many rewards to that you simply can’t fathom if you’ve never had that kind of work in your life. Your soul starts breathing again.

      • Good points. I guess that my question is – how did you (or how do we) get from “OWWW!” to “my soul is breathing!” Baby steps, of course, and artist dates and doing things we enjoy. That has all helped me, though I still fear that a part of me is still too suppressed to know what will make it sing.

        How did you get through the possible suppression disease – take a chance and leap? Or did you leap to something that you knew you’d probably like (at least enough for a start)?

        I am guessing that there are a lot of lawyers who aren’t sure yet if they might like marketing, or teaching, or a finance job – they’re so used to being “UGH” all day that they don’t know how to recognize ‘hey, I should try that, and I’d rather try A than B, and if those don’t work, W might be cool.’

  4. @LeavingLaw – I am definitely spreading the word!

    @JP – I got into law because 1) I graduated with a degree in communications and didn’t know what in the hell to do with it; 2) thought I was supposed to get into a high powered career because I was so “smart” and “talented” as everyone said; 3) was lured by the big potential paycheck; and 4) found the law in general to be somewhat interesting.

    There is a “Plan B.” Plan B involves taking a detour that is related to “Plan A” (i.e. an alternative career within the same field). Plan B could one day involve going back to the law, as I am going to be engaged in a subject wherein my hands on experience could be very valuable should I choose to practice law again. But most likely, Plan B would involve something non-law related.

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