I recently celebrated the 17th anniversary of one of the most significant events of my life.
Back on March 21, 2005, I came to what was, at the time, a stunning realization. I had accidentally fallen in love with a woman with whom I had been working very closely for six years. Luckily for me and all the other potential Defendants in this situation, she came to the same troubling realization about me at the exact same time.
There were a number of challenges that we would have to overcome to be together. Complications like: (i) the fact that we were both (unhappily) married to other people at the time; (ii) we both had children who we loved dearly and whose lives were going to be affected by our decision to be together; (iii) financial challenges; and (iv) given that she was an Associate at the firm where I was a Senior Partner, a lot of nonsense thrown at us by Partners, Associates and acquaintances who thought that they had the right to make some harsh judgments about our lives and to express them to us. Or just to gossip about us, or in some cases, to revel in our problems.
We went through hell but got to the other side and have now been happily married for many years. Best decision that I ever made.
This experience taught me many things. I want to share one such lesson because I continue to see lawyers who need to learn it. If they are lucky, some of them will learn it without having to uproot their entire lives.
When I faced the decision about whether to ‘run away’ with the love of my life or to stay in my marriage, I was unable to do so without professional help. Giving myself what I wanted so badly ran counter to the world in which I had lived for almost 50 years. A world in which someone stays married no matter what. A world in which I felt obligated to put other peoples’ happiness ahead of my own. A world in which I was paralyzed by guilt and by a rigid set of values taught to me when I was a child.
I went to a psychologist for many months to obtain ‘permission’ to do what I so wanted to do. What I learned was that we all construct psychological boxes in which we live. We construct walls that are impenetrable, but only because we make them so.
All of this by way of introduction to the idea that these psychological boxes explain some of the difficulties that lawyers have with their career decisions. I don’t know if lawyers are more or less afflicted in this manner than the general population, but I can tell you that I see plenty of this problem when I speak to other lawyers, both young and old.
Let me give you a few examples.
I recently spoke to a young lawyer who is making a great deal of money practicing an area of law which he enjoys at a firm which he despises. He has considered changing his area of practice, moving to another city, and getting out of law altogether. But on and on he toils in a firm which he describes as toxic. This fellow is financially secure. He has no debts. His savings are significant. To an outsider the solution would appear to be obvious: Get the hell out. Join another firm or start your own practice. If you decide to go solo, market like crazy and live off your savings until the work starts coming in. I expect that this fellow will get there, but first he has to break out of his box – the one which he has constructed and which tells him that a future outside of his existing firm is insecure.
Other examples abound.
There is the lawyer who is already working more hours than she is comfortable working but will not say ‘no’ to new files because if she did, her colleagues who never say ‘no’ will take the work on and be under too much stress. In her box, she finds it difficult to live in accordance with her own values because she feels responsible for her colleagues who have different values.
Another lawyer enjoys working at his firm but is drastically underpaid. Although he is willing to work hard, his billable hours are too low because the firm does not generate enough work to keep him busy. When he proposes new marketing endeavours to generate more billable hours for himself, his plans receive no support from management. The answer is obvious to me: Get out! But he is stuck in his box. Less and less happy all the time but sticking around for some reason.
Then there is the lawyer whose practice area has become a commodity but since he does not have confidence that he can pivot out of his box and into a new area of practice, he convinces himself that he can find a way to persuade clients to pay more for superior service. He cannot. They will not. He works harder and harder every year and earns less every year. He simply does not have the confidence to move into another practice area.
And finally, there is the law firm partner who is financially ready to retire and has personal and health reasons to call it a day. But, after a long career, her self-worth is wrapped up in her professional standing and she feels a tremendous sense of obligation to her partners and the lawyers in her department. She knows that if she were to retire the department would have to restructure. They may have to open up the purse strings and pay a great deal to hire a super-star. Or other lawyers would have to choose to say no to new work (God forbid!) or to work much harder. Her clients would not have access to her very considerable talents. She lives in her prison, completely stressed out, worrying about how everyone else will be affected if she puts herself first. She does not grasp the simple truth that if she were to have a heart attack tomorrow (which becomes more and more likely the longer she postpones the decision to retire) the firm would find a way to address her absence fairly quickly.
So, there you have it, the most important thing that I have learned about the human condition. We create psychological prisons composed of invisible and impenetrable walls. With the rare exception of the few who are truly mentally healthy, we all do it.
I have one final note about the dilemma that my wife and I initially faced when we decided that we would, in fact, take the leap. There were a handful of senior lawyers, trusted support staff and clients who knew us both well and who were wise enough and content enough in their own lives to say, very sincerely, things like “Congratulations – What took you two so long?” They could see that we were meant to be together long before we did. It may appear to be strange that others could see it before we did. That is the problem with living in a self-created prison. Your thinking becomes very limited and distorted, and limits not only your actions, but your happiness and success.
Whether it be your love life or your professional life, it is important to realize which limitations are real and which are the product of your own less than perfect mind.
2 replies on “Existing In Our Own Psychological Prisons”
Thank you, Murray, for sharing such a personal story. I am glad you found happiness. Life is too short to be unhappy.
May I tentatively offer a slightly different view? In summary: when working out whether or not to twist, you need to know why and how. Otherwise, you may be better off sticking instead.
I think that’s the point about psychological prisons is a really good one. However, the way I see it, it all comes down to sussing out what one wants vs what one needs. Quite often people get the two mixed up.
A common example is the desire to set up one’s own business, so that one can work for oneself. I have seen many instances of people doing this and failing horribly. In at least some of these cases, the person in question was eminently and suited, being strikingly uncommercial or not very hard working or lacking in initiative. They had for the most part given up fairly stable jobs to pursue their dreams. One particularly tragic example was a man that who had worked for 30 years as a doorman in a fancy London hotel, who had quit his job aged 50 and pursued his dreams by investing his life savings into to his own import-export business. He ran out of money within a year and my encounter with him was sadly in a courtroom where he was facing eviction from his social housing apartment due to his inability to pay rent. That is perhaps on the extreme end, but I do know people who have undergone similar situations. Perhaps it was useful for them to have tried and failed, but they all regretted their career change. I wonder if they might have been happier if they had stayed within their psychological prison of a stable but boring salaried job. Being unfulfilled and having savings is better than poverty.
Similarly, with relationships, I sense with many people that there is a large gap between their ideal partner, and the partner they actually need. I like to think that people in stable relationships recognise this, but are pragmatists. Most heterosexual young men for instance will consider that their ideal life partner is a female supermodel but in truth what they probably need is someone who can bring in an income and also do housework as well.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not oppose divorce (the legal and moral prohibition on which has caused a great deal of misery and harm to people, especially women).
However, I do think that many people do not know what they want in their relationships or lives. The psychological prisons that they construct are therefore based on a lack of self awareness perhaps. They are unhappy or unfulfilled, but do not know why this is fundamentally the case. However until people realise why they are unhappy or unfulfilled, they cannot escape the psychological prison. In addition, even after this realisation, they don’t know what to do. One thing that people do, quite often, is to try and change those around them instead. Sometimes this works (new job/spouse), but often it does not (because it is the same kind of job or same kind of spouse that is causing unhappiness). In some of these cases it may have been better not to have done anything at all. I know of at least one law firm partner who is on a 7 figure salary but who struggles to feed himself due to having to pay alimony to several ex wives and child support. Again, a graphic example but you get the point.
(And yes, I know that all of the above is classic lawyer, flagging risks everywhere and recommending inaction.)
Murray, what you descibe is a very human problem and not at all unique to lawyers!