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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.