I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog, “Getting Productive By ‘Getting Real,’” which is about how letting go of our need to create an image for the people we work with — whether we’re trying to look tough, likable, or something else — can actually help us get more done and find more joy in what we do. I hope you enjoy it.
I admit it — I have moments when I doubt the value of everything I do in my life. I doubt whether I’m really interested in my work. I question whether the relationships in my life are worthwhile. I seriously consider whether I’d prefer a life of solitary, cave-dwelling meditation.
I think doubt is wonderful. If I’d never stopped to ask myself whether my path was taking me in the right direction, I wouldn’t have changed my career, written my book, or done many other rewarding things.
In my experience, doubt only becomes a problem if we either (1) give it complete control of our choices, or (2) try to deny that it’s there.
Letting Doubt Do The Driving
To illustrate the first of these, I know several people who are in the habit of revamping their lives every time doubt arises. Each time they find themselves questioning whether they’re on the right path, they immediately find a new one. They leave their job, their graduate program, or their partner.
Unfortunately, they never find a perfect, doubt-free situation, so they keep flailing around in frustration. What they don’t see is that doubt is part of the human condition — it’s in our nature to question whether we’re on the right path, no matter how ideal our situation may look on the outside.
Thus, if we always flee our situation whenever doubts come up, we’ll spend our lives in a fruitless search. I think we’re better off keeping our doubt in the backseat, if you will, and listening to what it has to say — not putting it in the driver’s seat of our lives and giving it the keys.
We also run into trouble, I think, when we pretend our doubt doesn’t exist. Perhaps we don’t want the hassle of pondering whether what we’re doing is right for us, or we want others to think we’re confident and sure about where we’re headed.
I find, both in myself and in working with others, that repressing our doubts actually drains our energy, and takes away from what we can accomplish in our work. Refusing to admit we’re uncertain about what we’re doing creates tension in the body, as if we have to physically push the doubt away.
But when we admit to ourselves we’re in doubt, we release that tension. Many times, when I’ve been honest with myself about my uncertainty, I’ve found myself spontaneously relaxing my shoulders and sighing with relief.
Calling It Out
Interestingly, often the doubt itself falls away when I acknowledge it. For instance, recently, I’ve been preparing to lead a full-day workshop. At one point, while experiencing the usual frustrations that come with getting ready for an event, I realized — with a sinking feeling — that, in that moment, I didn’t want to put on the event at all.
However, things changed when I called out my doubt. I said to myself aloud: “I don’t want to lead this workshop.” In that moment, my body relaxed, and suddenly my desire to hold the workshop and serve others with my work returned. It’s like the uncertain part of me needed to be heard — but once I gave it a hearing, it fell silent.
I invite you to try this the next time doubt creeps in — you being human and all, it’s bound to happen.
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be holding a full-day workshop, which I’m calling the Inner Productivity Intensive, in the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday, June 12, 2010.
This will be an intimate, small-group affair, limited to ten people, where we’ll be deeply exploring the challenges each participant is facing in their work, and how mindfulness practices can help them stay focused and inspired in what they do.
You can register for the event here. More information about the workshop is below.
Supercharge Your Focus And Motivation In Your Work!
Why do you know what you want to do in your work, but you still don’t do it?
Why do you know you want to work more efficiently, but you end up wasting time on e-mail and social media? Why do you want to write that book or start that business, but it’s never gotten off the ground? Why do you want to change jobs, but you can’t seem to begin your search?
I think we’ve all asked ourselves this kind of question at some point, and the answer often seems maddeningly unclear. What is clear, however, is that the usual organization and time management literature doesn’t shed much light on it.
Yes, there are neat tricks and “hacks” out there for organizing your e-mail, color-coding your folders, and finding the right iPhone apps. But as I think you know from painful experience, these tricks are useless if you aren’t focused and motivated enough to put them into practice.
What Are You Running From?
So how do you find the focus and motivation you’re looking for? In my experience working with people around their productivity issues, to really get what we want out of what we do, the first step is to take a close look at what we’re avoiding.
What do I mean? You’ll see for yourself, I think, if you carefully watch what’s happening when you’re at work, and you’re about to start procrastinating. You’ll notice that, in that “clutch” moment right before you put off a task to do something else, you start having some thought or sensation — some inner experience – that feels uncomfortable or even dangerous to you.
The thought or sensation I’m talking about is different for each of us. For some, it’s tension in their body — maybe a tightness in their neck or shoulders. For others, it’s a painful memory or a worry about the future. Perhaps, for you, it’s something else.
While the inner experience I’m talking about is unique for each person, the way people tend to deal with that experience is pretty much the same. Because it’s scary and uncomfortable, we try to distract ourselves from it — perhaps by checking e-mail, playing Minesweeper, surfing the Web, or something else.
The trouble with this approach is that, when we distract ourselves, we take our attention away from our work. We can’t code that computer program, paint that painting, or do anything else that’s productive when we’re messing around on Facebook.
The Art Of Allowing
As it turns out, there’s a better way to relate to this inner experience: to fully allow it. When you feel that tension, painful memory, or whatever it is coming up, simply hold your attention on your work, keep breathing, relax your body, and allow that experience to pass away on its own. If you’ve done meditation, you probably have some idea what I mean.
The more you practice this, the more comfortable and familiar that experience will become. You’ll start to realize it isn’t as scary as you’d thought. More importantly, you’ll become able to move forward in your work, even in the face of that pesky experience.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Usually, we’ve become so accustomed to running from that troublesome inner experience that we’re no longer aware we’re avoiding it. We just “find ourselves” checking e-mail, playing FreeCell, or whatever our favorite distraction is, totally oblivious to why it’s happening.
The Inner Productivity Intensive is about getting conscious of that difficult inner experience, and developing a new relationship with it that gives you a new sense of purpose and freedom in your work.
What This Workshop Offers You
As you may know, I wrote a book called Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work. Inner Productivity, which Getting Things Done author David Allen calls “a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging,” is all about learning to allow – rather than resist — the thoughts and sensations that tend to disrupt our focus.
In this full-day workshop, we put the book’s ideas and techniques into practice. Basing our approach on meditation, yoga and other mindfulness practices that have improved people’s lives for thousands of years, I and my skilled facilitators will help you notice, and transform, the patterns of thinking and behavior holding you back in your work.
You’ll come out of the workshop with an increased ability to focus on your work, a stronger sense of mission, and a deep-seated knowledge that you’ve got what it takes to face the challenges that arise in what you do.
This workshop is unlike any other seminar on organization or time management. I’ve designed the course to be small — ten people or so — to make sure each person gets the individual attention they need, and the breakthrough they want. This won’t be a lecture — you’ll be diving right into exercises that make you aware of the places where you’re limiting yourself.
I’d recommend this workshop to people who are ready to take a deep look at what’s really holding them back in their work. If that’s what you’re interested in, this course will radically change the way you think about and relate to what you do.
The workshop will be on Saturday, June 12, 2010, in San Jose, California, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Registration for the workshop is $135.00 per person. You’ll receive more information, including directions and the schedule, when you register, which you can do by clicking here.
After my last post, I thought of a few more things it’s helpful to consider when deciding whether to pursue a career that strongly interests us. Like I said before, I’m not specifically coming out for or against seeking the work you love — that’s a decision each person must make for themselves based on their own wants and needs. I’m pointing to questions it’s important to ask when making that choice.
Doing work we’re deeply engaged in usually goes hand in hand with being vulnerable — exposing parts of ourselves it feels risky to share. If you’re a blogger, I’ll bet you’ve experienced this sense of vulnerability when writing on something you strongly cared about. “Do I really want people to know I feel this way?” you may have found yourself asking.
Often, revealing these parts of ourselves feels risky because they’ve been criticized or ridiculed before, and they feel fragile. If you were told “no one thinks you’re funny” when you were little, allowing your sense of humor to emerge in something you’re writing is likely to feel unsafe. Someone might make a similar comment, and then you’d be forced to relive the pain of that old wound.
The Perks Of Disengaged Work
This points to a reason why many of us are doing jobs that don’t deeply engage us. In most jobs, we don’t need to bring out tender parts of ourselves to do our tasks. You don’t usually have to expose your sense of humor, your compassion, or some other vulnerable aspect of yourself to draft a PowerPoint, plug values into a spreadsheet, or review documents.
I know many people who prefer this approach to work. After all, they risk getting hurt enough in their personal relationships — why bring that vulnerability into what they do for a living? And it’s okay with them if working feels mechanical, because they find exciting things to do in their off hours. As the saying goes, they work to live — they don’t live to work.
Can You Separate “Work” From “Life”?
Although it’s easier in some ways to “work to live,” that approach, like anything, has drawbacks. For some of us, when we don’t bring all of ourselves to our work, we’re nagged by the worry that we aren’t giving our gifts to the world.
To take my earlier example, it’s true that, if you do work that doesn’t require you to express your sense of humor, you don’t take the risk that someone will criticize that part. But by locking that part away, you also keep people from enjoying it — you deny people a gift.
Also, the idea of “working to live” — disengaging from your work, but showing up fully in other activities — sounds good in theory, but the reality is messier. You can’t work for 8+ hours a day with a detached, emotionless attitude and expect that not to spill over into other parts of your life.
I know this from experience. I took pride in the work I did as a lawyer, but I wouldn’t exactly say my most vulnerable parts shone through in it. I spent my working days in a cool, rational headspace, which was ideal for what I did. The trouble was, I found myself, out of habit, slipping into this mindset with friends and loved ones — relating to them like they were colleagues or adversaries.
If you do something you really care about, you’ll almost certainly have to let others see parts of you that you normally keep under wraps. This involves a risk, but also a great reward, because offering all you have to give brings a feeling of aliveness that’s exhilarating.
(I’m still tweaking the Work Consciously site a bit, so I thought I’d tide you all over with my latest musing.)
Earlier this month, as you probably heard, only 51% of the Americans surveyed in a Conference Board study reported that they find their jobs interesting — the lowest number in 22 years. On the surface, this may seem like a problem. But my sense, from working with clients and just talking to people I know, is that many of us actually don’t want to do profoundly interesting work. And I think that’s perfectly okay.
Some Like It Smooth
For many people, in my experience, work offers an escape from the emotional messiness of the rest of their lives. When they’re in the office, they don’t have to handle conflicts with family and loved ones, ponder what they’re really contributing to the world, or do anything else that requires them to feel deeply. And when they go home, they can leave it all behind them for the evening and relax — because they aren’t very invested in the projects they’re working on, they don’t find themselves obsessing over those projects after hours.
People who find their work really meaningful and interesting, on the other hand, don’t seem to experience working this way. When we care deeply about what we’re doing, the stakes are higher — our accomplishments are more exciting, but our failures also carry a sharper sting.
Look at artists who are seriously devoted to their craft, for example — they suffer to produce their work in a way that the typical employee does not. When the painters and sculptors I know tell me about how they experience their work, I can easily see how the term “tortured artist” came to be.
This is one reason why, I think, we’ve seen a lot of recent writing questioning whether the common personal development idea of “finding the work you love” is really all it’s cracked up to be. (See Lisis B.’s post, for instance.)
If you change careers or start your own business to do something that feels meaningful, you not only set yourself up for financial uncertainty — you also board an emotional rollercoaster that the average 9-to-5 job simply doesn’t entail. It’s certainly not going to feel like “work you love” all the time — in fact, there will probably be moments when you loathe it more deeply than any “regular job” you’ve ever done. (I’m speaking from personal experience.)
Some Prefer Extreme Sports
Obviously, pursuing “the work we love” has its drawbacks. And, like anything else, it has its perks. For one thing, the emotional rollercoaster we ride when we do work that we care deeply about can be a blessing as well as a curse.
There’s something appealing about having a life full of peaks and valleys, rather than one that’s merely a stroll across flat ground. I suspect this is why people do “extreme sports” like mountain climbing and skydiving — the fear we feel when we do such things, although it’s unpleasant, has a certain aliveness about it that I think we all crave.
So this is my take on the issue of whether to seek out the “work you love”: it’s a choice each person needs to make for themselves, with both eyes open. People who prefer a smoother emotional experience, and are in a job where they feel comfortable, may be better off staying where they are.
But if, like some people, you want a richer emotional life in what you do — bigger ups and downs, and a stronger sense of aliveness — doing something that feels deeply meaningful might be for you.
I have a friend who’s an avid gardener, and she has fun doing things many people would find unpleasant or even disgusting. One example that stands out for me is that she enjoys removing snails from her flowers and vegetables by hand. True, she’s wearing gloves when she does it, but still I think a lot of us would find it hard to believe someone could love gardening enough to actually like snail-picking.
Watching her do this recently got me thinking. Many of us see certain tasks we have to do in our work and other areas of our lives as inherently boring or unpleasant. Doing your business’s taxes, cleaning your desk and drafting invoices are examples of work people tend to see as, at best, necessary evils. They’re awful, but you have to do them to keep your job or business going.
A Matter Of Perception
But is this true? Are the tasks themselves awful? Or do we simply experience them as awful? And, if so, is it possible to experience them differently? After all, if my friend can have fun snail-picking—something many of us wouldn’t even do for large amounts of money—doesn’t that suggest it’s possible for human beings to enjoy doing almost anything, if we have the right mindset?
I’ve noticed, both in my own self-inquiry and in working with others, that we can transform how we experience doing something if we develop an understanding of why we see it as painful or difficult. That is, don’t just take it for granted that doing something is awful—ask yourself why you feel that way. That kind of understanding, by itself, can shift our perspective, and make things we hated to do before start to seem tolerable and maybe even enjoyable.
Reaching this kind of understanding involves simply doing the task you dislike, noticing whatever thoughts and feelings arise as you do it, and getting curious about why you’re having that experience. If you find the task so unpleasant that you can’t bring yourself to do it, try visualizing yourself doing it—that will probably be enough to bring up whatever thoughts and emotions you associate with it.
Listening To Boredom
Let’s look at how this process works in the context of boredom. We tend to think of boredom as a simple emotion that happens for obvious reasons—”I get bored when I’m not doing anything, or doing some dull activity like organizing my file folders.”
But when we become willing to let ourselves “get bored,” and closely examine what we’re feeling and thinking in those moments, we find that boredom actually isn’t simple at all. What we call boredom is really a complex bunch of ideas and emotions that’s unique and deeply personal to each of us.
If I find myself getting bored, for instance, and I take a close look at what I’m thinking and feeling in that moment, what I usually find is that I’m having the thought “I’m not accomplishing enough right now.” And I’m feeling frustrated and despondent, and my shoulders are tensing up. That is, when I look closely enough, I see that what I’m feeling in those moments has very little to do with the specifics of my work, and that it’s actually pretty complex and nuanced.
If I look even deeper into my experience, what I notice is that the sense that “I’m not accomplishing enough” isn’t only with me in moments of boredom—it’s in the background, subtly nagging me, most of the time. This realization has helped me take the belief “I’m not accomplishing enough” less seriously.
When I’m having that thought, I now understand, it’s not because I’m being lazy or the work I’m doing is inadequate. No matter what I’m doing—even if it’s the most important and dedicated work I’ve done in my life—that thought is still there. Eckhart Tolle aptly describes this kind of feeling in The Power of Now as “the background static of perpetual discontent,” which is “easy to overlook because it is so much a part of normal living.”
In other words, it’s just a deeply ingrained aspect of how I see myself and the world, and the more conscious I become of that, the less suffering it can cause me. Now, when it comes up, I can simply tell it “thanks for sharing,” and continue what I’m doing. And I came to this self-understanding just by getting curious about why I found myself feeling bored sometimes.
My point is that, if we take a moment to sit with the feelings of boredom, anger, or whatever else that come up in our work, and stay curious about what they’re doing there and what they have to teach us, we can transform our relationship with our work. Not only can we become able to tolerate tasks we used to avoid before and increase our productivity, but we can learn a great deal about ourselves.
(This is the second part of a series I began a few months back with “Don’t Wait To Do Your ‘Real Work’,” an article about overcoming the fears that often hold us back from pursuing work that genuinely excites us.)
Much has been written about the importance of finding work that not only supports you financially but also deeply moves you. Many people react to this kind of advice by thinking something like “well, it’s nice that you can do something you’re passionate about, but I’m focused on trying to survive right now.” Presumably they figure that, once things are more financially stable for them, doing work that feels meaningful can finally become a priority. Or maybe they’ve grown too cynical to believe it’s even possible for them to enjoy working.
Doing something we’re genuinely interested in, of course, isn’t the only thing we tend to put off until we find the financial security we’re looking for. Many of us also put off taking our intimate relationships and outside pursuits as deeply as we’d like, hoping one day we’ll feel secure enough to go for what we want. The trouble is that, for many of us, the sense of security we crave never seems to arrive. For many of us, no matter what we achieve in terms of money and material rewards, a nagging fear that it could all disappear tomorrow lurks in the background.
We tend to assume that the sense of stability we’re seeking will come if we just work a little harder or longer. But is this true? I’ve known many wealthy people who, despite their material success, seem trapped in “survival mode,” fearing they’ll make a mistake and the abundance in their lives will dry up tomorrow. And of course, there are more public examples of famous actors, like Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez, who have, surprisingly (at least to me), been concerned that their careers won’t last.
What this suggests to me is that money won’t give us the lasting feeling of security many of us are chasing. Instead, I think it has more to do with our view of the universe. That is, do we see it as a basically safe place, where we’ll probably come out okay if we take some risks and even make a few mistakes? Or do we see the universe as unforgiving and hostile, likely to punish or destroy us for even a minor slipup? If we hold the second view, it’s not surprising that, no matter how secure our job seems, and how much money we have, that fear that “everything’s going to fall apart” keeps its hold on us.
If the degree of security we feel really depends on how we see the universe, how can we shift our perspective to develop the feeling of safety we want? In working with clients, I see it as one of my roles to help them cultivate what A.H. Almaas calls a sense of “basic trust,” or a “confidence in the goodness of the universe.” Here are three approaches to developing a more trusting perspective on life that I’ve found useful:
1. Let Go Of The Idea That “Insecurity Equals Success.” Many of us have spent our lives believing, consciously or otherwise, something like this: the more afraid I am of failing, the more successful I’m likely to be. We tend to assume that anxiety about running out of money or not achieving the status we want in our careers will keep us motivated. If we weren’t so afraid, after all, we’d have no reason to get out of bed or off the couch.
First, notice that this way of thinking puts you on a treadmill you can’t get off. If you really have to stay fearful to stay motivated, you can never allow yourself to relax and let go of your anxiety, because if you did, you’d lose your will to go on. Also, notice that this mindset can actually harm your productivity. When you’re constantly worried about your career security or performance, the time and energy you spend tossing and turning at night, endlessly second-guessing the work you produce, and so on don’t contribute much to advancing your career.
Most importantly, if you recognize that you’ve been thinking this way, just consider for a moment the possibility that sources of motivation other than fear exist. There are things you can enjoy doing so much, and feel so deeply moved by, that you don’t even think about the money, material rewards, or whatever else you’re earning when you do them. In other words, you can enjoy the process of doing those things without even thinking about the end product you’re creating.
Take the activities in your life you see as “play,” for instance. Suppose you enjoy running. Running is obviously a great way to stay healthy, but while you’re running you don’t need to focus your mind on the product—good health—to like doing it. You can enjoy the pure process of it, without giving any thought to the results you’re getting. Once you see this is possible, the next step is to find something you enjoy the process of doing—whether it’s fishing, computer programming, dog training or something else—and incorporating that into the work you do.
2. Face The Possibility Of Failure. Although we all seem to be afraid of failing in our careers and elsewhere, many of us never seriously consider what “failure” really means to us, and what we’d do to pick ourselves back up again if we did fail. When we take a hard look at these issues, we often find that the risk of failure no longer seems so terrifying.
I invite you to honestly ask yourself: what’s your definition of failure? Would it mean losing your job? Getting negative comments from the boss on a project? Not meeting your sales targets? Once you have an answer in mind, give some thought to what you’d do if that worst-case scenario came true. Would you find another job or career? Sell a few of your possessions? Take some time off and write a book?
Most of us are unwilling to seriously consider what we’d do if we “failed,” because even thinking about that feels too scary—it’s almost as if we’d die if the situation we’re imagining came about. But when we actually contemplate how we’d handle a “failure,” and begin coming up with fallback plans, we often discover a strength and resourcefulness in ourselves we didn’t know we had. In fact, we’d probably manage to survive and even thrive in the face of setbacks.
When we recognize we’re capable of dealing with most of the challenges we may face in our work, a peace and focus set in as we go through our normal routine. The risks we thought were too frightening to take, the conversations we thought were too difficult to have, and so on start to feel more manageable, and the success we’re looking for starts to feel more available.
3. Notice How The Fear Of Failure Feels. Ultimately, the worry that things will “fall apart,” in your career or elsewhere, is just a sensation you experience somewhere in your body—for many people, it’s the feeling of some part of their bodies tensing up. Like a cramp or a crick in your neck, it may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t likely to seriously hurt or kill you, and in fact it tends to pass away quickly.
Take a moment, the next time you’re feeling anxiety about your career, financial security, or something similar, to observe how that fear manifests in your body. What sensations let you know you’re feeling afraid?
When you simply start to notice how anxiety about failure feels for you, your relationship with that sensation begins to change. Many of us hold back from pursuing our most deep-seated goals—whether it’s the business we’re interested in starting, the screenplay we’d like to write, the relationship we’d like to have, and so on—to avoid experiencing this fear. But when we realize that the emotion of fear is actually a quickly passing bunch of sensations in our bodies, it ceases to look so threatening.
When we perceive our anxiety about failure for what it really is, the universe starts to look like a less hostile and more welcoming place to exist. And we come to see that the feeling of security we’ve been looking for can actually be found within ourselves.
I wanted to share with you another excerpt from my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course. This exercise helps us transcend our tendency to replay painful memories and imagine negative future scenarios while we’re working, and thus helps us find more productivity and peace in what we do. This exercise is an example of how the course isn’t just about making career transitions — it’s also for people who just want more fulfillment and success in what they do right now.
You can download the MP3 file by right-clicking on the link below and selecting “Save Target As.”
In other news, I wanted to point out two other special offers related to my audio program. First, I’m offering affiliates who sell the program a 30% commission from sales to buyers who visit from their websites. Second, if you’re a blogger and you’d be interested in reviewing the course, please contact me — I’m planning to provide free copies to bloggers who review the program.
(This is Part Two of a two-part series on transitioning out of the legal profession. For nonlawyers: as I said in Part One, although this post is about transitioning out of the law, I suspect you’ll see many themes and ideas in it that bring clarity to your own situation.)
In Part One of this article, I talked about the anxieties and limiting beliefs that tend to get in the way of lawyers interested in a career transition. In this article, I’m going to describe the specific strategies I and others have used to exit legal careers in a way that has had us both survive and thrive. Before I start my list, bear in mind that addressing the beliefs that tend to prevent us from creating change in our lives is just as important as, or more important than, the specific bullet points in our plans for a career transition.
For example, if you’re identified with the prestige of your law career, and would see yourself as a “loser” if you entered a field that didn’t require a graduate degree, no amount of advice about financially preparing for a transition is going to have you feel comfortable with making one. To take the steps I discuss below, I had to deeply believe in myself and my business ideas, and be able to continue respecting myself even if things didn’t go exactly as I wanted.
With that in mind, here are four of the key actions I, and other ex-lawyers I know, have taken in making successful transitions out of the law.
1. Start thinking long-term about your finances. I don’t need to tell you that law can be a stressful profession, and that many attorneys see constantly acquiring more stuff as the only way to make their jobs livable. Although we’re generally a stuff-obsessed society, lawyers can become particularly addicted to constantly upgrading their cars, remodeling their houses, souping up their stereo systems, and so on. Legal employers encourage attorneys to develop this habit, in the hope that their employees will accumulate debt and thus shackle themselves to their jobs with “golden handcuffs.”
I’m assuming that, in whatever you plan to do after you leave the law, you can expect to be paid less than what you received as an attorney, at least in the short term. Thus, if you’re planning to leave the legal profession, you will probably need to start weaning yourself off any stuff addiction you may have, and saving where you can, at least a few months before your departure.
I recognize that it won’t motivate you for me to just tell you to start saving money. I think it will help inspire you, though, to constantly keep in mind how fulfilled you’re going to be when you enter your new career with some extra money to invest in your business and your new life. Every dollar you don’t spend on landscaping and plasma TVs today is another that can contribute to your new venture’s success in the long term.
Here are the specific steps I took to maximize the size of my financial cushion. I rented out my condo at $2,000 per month, and moved into a studio apartment that rented for slightly over $1,000. I sold my second computer (I really only need one), my stereo (I can play CDs and MP3s on my desktop), and my TV (I don’t watch TV anyway—having one was just a way of “looking normal,” which I’m no longer concerned about). I canceled my magazine subscriptions and nearly anything—except my car insurance and gym membership—with a monthly recurring charge. I stopped buying books and CDs for a few months.
You may also find encouragement in some of the things I didn’t need to do to become self-supporting once I left my law firm. I was able to keep my car, as I paid off my car loan before I left. I completed the last several months of a year-long coach training program, for which I was paying $500 per month. I didn’t have to cook all of my meals—I could eat out occasionally. Leaving my firm to start a business didn’t mean starvation or even a big drop in my quality of life—though, admittedly, I’ve never had expensive tastes.
2. Explore contract legal work. Contract work is one way to make ends meet in the midst of a transition out of a conventional law job. Many attorneys fear working on a part-time or contract basis—either because it’s considered less prestigious than working in a firm or corporation, or because they have nightmare visions of reviewing documents sixteen hours a day in a warehouse with hundreds of embittered out-of-work lawyers. I did a few contract projects to pay the bills after I left my firm, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll make three observations here about contract legal work that may encourage you.
First, I was surprised to learn that there are contract projects out there that allow you to work from home without setting foot in an office. I worked on one project that solely consisted of doing legal research on the Internet and summarizing what I found. I never met any of the people who worked with me in person. This may sound a little isolated, but in fact it simply allowed me to interact with people on my own terms. I could call friends or go outside if I wanted, and I didn’t have to explain myself to a supervisor.
Second, as I alluded to, not all contract work consists of reviewing documents. As I mentioned, one type of contract work I did involved research and writing. I know several other lawyers who previously worked at firms and now draft agreements or motion papers for other attorneys on a contract basis. Some have even gone to court and argued motions and attended conferences. So don’t be discouraged from making a transition out of fear that you’ll have to do document review to make ends meet.
Third, despite what I said in my second point, I have worked on document review projects, and they really aren’t as bad as some make them out to be. At first, I imagined that, as a “temp,” I’d be treated rudely and condescendingly, I’d be on call 24-7 to meet my temporary employer’s review needs, and I would have no access to the Internet outside of the web-based document review software.
None of these proved to be true. Everyone, including the partners at the firms I worked at, was decent to me, I worked regular, predictable hours (with optional overtime), and I was allowed to check my business e-mail and such on the computers I used. Granted, document review probably isn’t anyone’s idea of ideal work, but in my experience it’s really quite tolerable.
To me, the main drawback of doing contract-based legal work is that it pays me on an hourly basis, as opposed to compensating me based on the quantity or quality of my work. But that, for better or worse, is no different from the pay structure at most jobs, including law firms, in that most employees are paid a straight salary regardless of their performance or productivity. (That, of course, is one of the reasons I became an entrepreneur.)
3. Leverage your legal experience. Back in law school, many of us heard that a law degree would help us no matter what we ended up doing, and I suspect many of us doubted that advice. However, in my experience, it’s actually true—letting others know you’ve been a lawyer can open doors in terms of finding a job and growing your business. After all, most people know that lawyers are generally hardworking, intelligent people who pay close attention to detail.
In my own case, my legal experience has been helpful to me in finding coaching clients—some of the people I’ve worked with have been attorneys seeking a career change, and it’s comforting to them to know they’re working with someone who’s actually been through the process they’re seeking to enter. In another project I’m working on where I’ve been seeking investors, prospective investors have told me that, in determining whether I could run a company, they felt encouraged by my experience as a lawyer.
Another great example is an attorney I knew who harbored a lifelong dream of being a professor. What made his path a little rockier was that he was interested in becoming a philosophy professor, rather than teaching law, and he didn’t have an advanced degree in philosophy. But on the strength of his legal credentials and publications, and a few philosophical writings he’d done, he was able to land a teaching job at a college, and eventually move into a tenure-track position.
What’s more, if you’re an attorney and you’re interested in entrepreneurship, you likely have a lot of knowledge about going into business that many first-time entrepreneurs lack, and you can probably save a substantial amount of money by using that knowledge. For instance, if you start a business, you’ll probably be able to do at least the first draft of the related legal documents without hiring an attorney. You’ll also be well-equipped to research the regulations that apply to your business, and avoid violating them and paying fines.
Even if you were a litigator, as I was, you’ve still probably read a heck of a lot more agreements and corporate statutes than the average person striking out on their own. Based on my legal experience, I drafted the operating agreement and certificate of formation of a limited liability company I’m starting, the legal disclaimers for this site and my products, and the lease on a property I own. I’ve yet to hire a lawyer for business purposes. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed.)
Bottom line: don’t underestimate how much your legal experience and credentials can benefit you, even if you’re transitioning into a career that on the surface doesn’t look law-related.
4. Consult your colleagues. Some lawyers I know, particularly those looking for jobs as opposed to starting their own businesses, benefited greatly in their searches by reaching out to people at their law firms or whatever organizations they planned to transition out of. I know a few attorneys, for instance, who wanted to go into consulting or finance, and ended up finding positions through connections at their law firms.
I also know a few lawyers who received some friendly advice from their colleagues—sometimes from partners—that helped them start their own non-law businesses. This advice touched on issues like which business form to use, where to incorporate, and how to find investors.
Some attorneys I know have felt reluctant to reach out to their colleagues, particularly while they were still at the firms they planned to leave. They feared that their colleagues would get angry if they raised the possibility that they might do something else, and even that the senior lawyers in their organizations would somehow “blackball” them and make sure they didn’t succeed in the field they were interested in.
I’ve never heard of either of these scenarios happening, and I now know a number of people who have successfully transitioned out of the legal profession. Both in my own experience and based on what I’ve heard, other lawyers tend to be supportive and sometimes provide valuable information to people who express interest in making a change. If you’re thinking about leaving the law, your colleagues and other lawyers you know will likely be invaluable in helping you with the logistics of your transition.
I hope you’ve found these ideas helpful, and if you’re transitioning out of the law or any other field I wish you the best of luck.