Shedding Light on Lawyer Creativity

When I first read The Artist’s Way (still the best book on creative recovery out there), I kept searching and searching my memories for those Creative Monster moments. Those are the ones seared in your memory, where someone makes you feel about 2 inches small over some creative effort. The teacher who crumples up your precious doodle and throws it in the trashcan, and lectures you about not wasting time. The person who sniffs at your very first attempts at writing poetry as “not exactly Shakespeare, is it?”

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Except, I couldn’t really dredge up anything. I had no huge scarring experience to heal from. I felt so wimpy—why couldn’t I just get over my fear of doing something highly creative, of writing the novel I long to write?

Hell, I coach people all the time about vulnerability, and I practice it in many ways. I am pretty darn good, I must say, at detaching from a lot of society’s judgments and not feeling “less than.” I often go without makeup (at 47, this is getting more and more daring!), I don’t value myself by how much stuff I have or whether or not I go on exotic, glamorous-sounding vacations.

But yet, the fear ran deep. And I kind of despised myself for being unable to just get over it. (Yep, we all have our issues, life coaches included.)

Peering into the Past

A few months ago, I got together with both of my sisters and their kids. It was the first time in a couple years we had all gathered at one of our houses. We embarked on a game of Quelf. (If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Lots of wacky yet intelligent fun, great for a wide age range.)

In Quelf, one of the possibilities is drawing a card that requires everyone to come up with synonyms to a word. The word on one particular turn was “night.” There was the predictable “dark,” and a few other equally predictable synonyms. Then it was my turn.

“Inky,” I said.

“WHAT????” exclaimed both sisters. “How is that about night?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“No, how is ‘inky’ about night?” they demanded.

My inner dialogue went like this: “Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a big stretch. Maybe I am just weird. No, wait Continue reading

Saddest Lawyers: “I Don’t Even Know What I Like Doing”

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there's iPads for distraction, right?

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there’s iPads for distraction, right?

A lot of you know you hate law. But a lot of you also do not know what you would do if you had free time, except maybe sleep. I’m not talking about taking any steps toward making a career change, mind you; I’m talking about the basic concept of doing something purely for fun.

People who have no idea of how to have fun have been marching along to society’s, parents’, and teachers’ idea of what they should do for a very, heartbreakingly long time. They have become numb to their own desires and their own voice.

Far too many lawyers fall into this category. One-third to one-half of my clients usually fall into this category when they initially contact me. It’s often the result of being a smart kid who does well in school. Those around you think all those A’s should be encouraged; after all, those grades will be terrific on your college application.

And that may be just fine with you, because great grades sure look like the start of the path to a good life, and you like school anyway. In fact, you internalize all this and don’t explore non-academic things that won’t help that college application, like art, dancing, writing poetry, ultimate frisbee, or making goofy videos. Because unless you have some unbelievable gift in a non-academic area, these things aren’t likely to win you awards and praise. They are, sadly, usually viewed as time-wasters.

Except, they’re not. Exploring stuff simply because you’re interested in it is how you get to know yourself and honor Continue reading

Compassion for the Asshole Lawyers in Your Life

I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.

boy with angry sneer on face

A mean little kid, or a kid who just got told by his step-dad that he wasn’t included in the lavish vacation plans to Disney?

But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?

The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.

In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson

For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.

But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.

I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.

Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Continue reading

What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands

Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating; Continue reading

What It Takes For Miserable Lawyers To Blossom

The hardest part of a life change for lawyers, whether it’s your career or other important parts of your life, usually is the waiting. In our go-go, get-it-done-NOW culture, waiting is seen as weak, passive, and therefore completely unacceptable.

Punga tree fern frond

Your inner wisdom may be curled up in a ball and rocking inside, but give it a little attention and love, and it will unfurl in ways that will astound you.

Unfortunately, it’s also very necessary for any big change to occur. Miserable lawyers, especially, hate this fact. They fight, they rail, they apply to any job that looks like it will propel them out of their current misery into something new and at least different.

Adjusting to the new is at least something to do. It serves as a fine distraction indeed from facing the harder questions of any real job or life change: What do I really, truly, want?

Note that the question is not, “What do I want that allows me to maintain my career status and income and doesn’t make me miserable?” I get that question a lot; it’s usually from folks who want a menu of 5 things they can do with their law degree that aren’t practicing law. People who can answer that question for you abound, and if you’re not willing to put your heart and your true self into career change, I suggest you contact one of them. Everyone will be happier, at least in the short run.

But if you’re at the point where you’ve tried changing law firms, or even given up law firms for safe alternatives like government or in-house, and still you can barely get yourself into the office, Continue reading

Thawing the Frozen Souls of Unhappy Lawyers

At this point in winter, even people who aren’t miserable lawyers are growing desperate. The eternal cold (except on the odd day when it’s 50 degrees), the oppression of snow, and the stingy daylight are, obviously, going to go on forever. Your life feels frigid, meaningless, and depressing. And that’s if you’re a fairly happy, life-ain’t-bad person.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, plunging, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, radically warming up, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

For unhappy attorneys, the situation feels yet more dire. Your soul was already stuck in permanent winter before the actual cold and dark encroached. Now, getting out of bed and getting to work are sheer acts of will and heroism. More than a few of you may have sneaked a look at your insurance policy’s coverage for being a mental health in-patient, and wondered if you could convince someone you are a danger to yourself or others. Three days away from billable hours and all your other worries sounds like a sweet deal.

If you are at this point, don’t despair just yet. I have some tricks you can use to summon back a few flickers of light. Soon enough, actual sunshine will start to appear, the Heat Miser will again triumph over the Cold Miser, and life will feel a bit better.

1. Consider Hibernation.

Winter is a time of quiet and stillness, and of dreams. If we insist on keeping the same frenetic pace year-round, we miss out on the renewal time that is crucial to long-term, sustainable functioning. If you feel like you need to sleep more, then turn off the TV early, and GO TO BED.

2. Consider a Polar Plunge.

OK, I’m not really suggesting you do one of those crazy jump-into-a-34-degree-lake things. Unless that’s your thing. I am suggesting a plunge into something that makes you stretch and sweat and generally reach a bit, physically.

This can be as simple as Continue reading

Working Hard Won’t Solve Your Career Problems, Unhappy Lawyers

It’s heresy to suggest that working hard won’t solve your problems. Especially in the dysfunctional billable hours culture that lawyers have constructed for themselves. Since my job is to be a heretic, though, I’ll just say it: Hard work is not going to get you out of the miserable mess of a career you’re in.

While I rail a lot about how working too many hours makes you about as useful as the average lush in your job, this rant is not about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about when  you need to cut your losses. That’s right: when to actually quit, bail out, cut and run—you get the idea.

The Theology of Hard Work

But first, let’s focus on the whole theology of hard work. I’m not actually suggesting that hard work doesn’t have a place in your life. It absolutely does. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl, author of Flow and several other superb books, talks about how hard work is what gets you to mastery, to the place where you are so deeply immersed into your work that you lose time, in a very connected, joyful way.

guy in front of desk drowning in paperwork

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Problem is, most lawyers don’t work on hard on stuff that they even like, let alone love. They just grind through the task list. Think about it: Is there anything, even one little item, on your to-do list today that you’re looking forward to? Something that lights you up a tiny bit? Or is it more like a list of mildly to completely loathsome tasks that lie before you?

That, my friends, is why the theology of hard work fails us so often. There are certainly many things in life we must do that don’t bring us particular joy (dishes. laundry and cleaning toilets are at the top of my list). But when the vast majority of your time and energy gets sucked into a list of loathsome tasks, you become depleted rather quickly. Is it then any wonder that it’s hard to get out of bed, and go to face that list of loathsomeness?

So when I hear clients say, “But I’ve put so much time and effort into law, I don’t just want to walk away,” I quietly gnash my teeth. In my head, that statement translates to “But I’ve put so much time and energy into killing my soul, I can’t stop now!”

Value First, Then Work Hard

For hard work to work, you need to value the thing you’re pouring that effort into. There has to be something about it that feeds you, nurtures you, and has meaning for you. And please, when I say has meaning, I’m talking about your very own, personal definition of meaning. Not your parents’, your schools’, or society’s definition of meaning. If the reproductive cycle of newts holds meaning and fascination for you, then THAT, dear reader, is what you need to work hard on. There is a reason for that attraction, and your job in life is to follow the Universe’s lead and figure out more about it.

Do you have to quit your job to follow that pull? Maybe. Maybe now, maybe later. My crystal ball is on backorder (dammit), so I really can’t say. But what I can say is that refusing to follow a call means you are putting all your hard work into the wrong thing, and that is a sure-fire recipe for misery.

If you cannot scale back the demands of hard work on stuff you hate in your current job,  or if you cannot add things that bring you some slices of joy, then yes, it is probably time to get serious about cutting your losses. Figure out the direction of your dreams, and then find a job that will put you closer to them. Find a job that requires hard work on something that you can look forward to.

Work hard on what matters to you. For everything else, there’s phoning it in. Or outsourcing!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who works on hard on her writing and other creating, and on helping unhappy attorneys discern the thing that would light them up if they worked hard on it. If you need help with finding your inner light, schedule a discounted sample session by contacting Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

Change Your Miserable Lawyer Life—With Facebook. Really.

I firmly believe that Facebook can change an unhappy lawyer’s life. Just not in the way that other people think it does. I mean, yes, connection is wonderful. Entertainment certainly eases the crush of boredom and tedium that is often law practice. And yes, you might even get some clients, start a romance or make some enemies or whatever.

Change your life---find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

Change your life—find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

My favorite use for Facebook, though, is to make life’s little annoyances and tragedies a little bit funny. In doing that, I’ve found that I obsess much less over the annoyances, hurts and heartaches of life, get over them faster, and—maybe the biggest bonus—get to take my creativity out for a spin.

Here’s a recent example, just so you can see how my demented (but charming) mind works. I noticed one morning that the clean silverware in the dishwasher had been put into the drawer. I knew I hadn’t done it. So I said to my husband, who was slaving over his laptop doing all manner of indecipherable IT things, “Thank you so much for unloading the dishwasher! I really appreciate it!” To which he responded, “You’re welcome.”

After I’ve finished the school run and get back to my empty house, I thought I should put the morning dishes into the dishwasher before getting to work. I opened up the dishwasher and there sat a bunch of dishes. CLEAN dishes. For a few more moments than I care to admit, I was pretty ticked off about this. It hit a lot of those marital sore spots about communication, paying attention, and a laundry list of other things that I won’t bore you with.

I desperately wanted to post something really bitchy, snarky and my-husband-sucks on Facebook about it. Along the lines of “I’m so sick of this shit!”

But that would violate my personal rules about not whining, complaining, or generally airing my dirty laundry on Facebook. So I had to figure out a funny way to relate my little tale of ire and woe. After working it over in my head for several minutes, I came up with:

I’m not sure what label to put on it, but I clearly don’t live in the world where “I emptied the dishwasher” means “I had our son put away the silverware and left everything else in the dishwasher.” That is, however, the world my husband lives in!

I admit I may not have completely succeeded on avoiding snark and a whiff of complaining, but compared to how I initially felt about it, this was a vast improvement.

And that’s pretty much the point: By focusing on how to view the whole thing as funny, rather than the source of anger and frustration, I was able to do an important thing, psychologically speaking: I reframed the situation. I (mostly) got over being angry. I made the best of something that wasn’t ideal. And that, according to noted psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, is a key to happiness in life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys put some happy into their lives. If you’d like to do that, schedule a discounted, sample coaching session with Jennifer. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com and get going into a happier life!

The Low-Down on Pain, Gratitude and Unhappy Lawyers

Unhappy people, maybe especially unhappy lawyers, spend a lot of time and energy avoiding more pain. This avoidance takes many guises, and some of them get a lot of societal approval. Overwork, just to name an example. Staying “in touch” by being glued to your electronic pacifiers, often in the name of work, is another. Gotta know the latest current events to understand a client’s needs, right?

Are your evenings spent in this kind of pain avoidance, perhaps?

Are your evenings spent in this kind of pain avoidance, perhaps?

On the one hand, it sounds perfectly rational to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Except that the way most people seek pleasure doesn’t actually bring them pleasure (it just numbs them out). In fact, that act of avoiding pain usually prolongs the pain, and adds anxiety and depression on top of it far too often. It’s like anticipation, but on a downer.

Happiness Comes Rushing In—But Only If . . .

It’s not just me, some crunchy recovering lawyer, who knows this. As I watched an interview clip of Louis C.K. talking to Conan O’Brien, I realized Louis C.K. Continue reading

Unhappy Lawyers and the Myth of “I’m not creative”

When I say “use your creativity” to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I get some highly revealing responses. Sadly, a common reaction is “I’m not creative.” I blame traditional schooling, Martha Stewart and Pinterest, and our consumerist society for this false belief. Every human being is born creative. At its most basic, creativity is solving a problem for which there is no known (to them) solution, or for which the current solution isn’t working. The artistic expression part of creativity is often just icing on the cake. Icing is yummy, mind you, but it’s not the whole cake.

School Conformity Nukes Creativity

With their focus on correct answers and conformity, schools tend to squash the creativity of all but the most abundantly talented creatives. As Dan Pink points out in his book A Whole New Mind (which you need to read if you haven’t), when children in 1st grade were asked if they are artists, all the hands flew up. By 6th grade, none of the hands went up. (pp. 68-69)

rubber ducks in colors

Education’s idea of creativity. Hey, the ducks may be in rows, but look at those different colors!

My own belief is that tween social pressure—when, developmentally, conformity pressure crescendos—exacerbates the message kids have gotten from most of their teachers: There is one correct answer, and one correct way to get there. Creativity is weird, and should be hidden from view.

Standardized tests ram this message down everyone’s throat. I’ve seen this pressure to conform thinking to a standard pathway again and again in worksheets my 4th grade son has brought home over the years. Far too many times, Continue reading