Torn apart (by work and life)

“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”

Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

Consumed as we are by work, rarely, if ever, do we find peace between our work self and the rest of us.

In short, we live divided lives.

Of course, what you never hear about is the devastation wrought on families when we bring home our deep frustration in not being contented at work. I should know, because that’s how it was for me. Try as I might — and the weekend was never enough — I couldn’t shake off the displacement of my true self and recapture ‘me’ from all those hours spent shapeshifting born out of a need to preserve my job.

I’d like to say that living divided was what tipped me over the edge (or was it that I recovered my sanity?) but it wasn’t. I had to spend six days on a high dependency ward to bring me to my senses. In hindsight, I wish I’d listened to my soul and instead of shoving everything down, adopted a posture that enabled me to think more clearly, decide how much I valued my life and come to a rational, not ill-judged decision. However, the issue that always shadowed me was that I’d invested so much of my life doing one thing to the exclusion of everything else, I was scared to death that I’d lose everything, and not just my livelihood.

But I made the leap. In truth, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do save that I had this born-again optimism brought about by my passion for social media. I was lucky though: first, because I knew someone who was prepared to offer me a part-time consultancy role; and secondly, because I managed to attract, through dint of my assiduous blogging efforts, a major London law firm as a client. Taken together these provided sufficient income so that I didn’t go into complete meltdown about meeting my financial obligations, but they also gave me the much-needed space to think.

In a way, this was the easy bit. The harder bit was to come to terms with an identity built around, dare I say subsumed by, the label ‘lawyer’. (Like a lot of people, we’re defined by what we do rather than who we are.)

There were other thoughts in the mix not least here I was having given up a skill set, honed over the better part of 20 years, only to lay down for something as quixotic as social media consultancy — was I mad?. (I know for a fact that even though my wife didn’t say so, she must have thought: “What the hell is he doing?”)

But I’ve never been one to look back with too much fondness, and onwards and not so upwards I went.

Cutting to the chase, in my journey from lawyer to CEO, speaker and coach, the biggest evolution has been to understand who I am — and I don’t mean the labels that even now I fashion around my beingness (that’s more for others to understand where I’m coming from). No, to live out a life where I live divided no more, i.e. what you see is the authentic, soul-full me whether in work or at home.

Like all journeys, though, it’s a road I’m still travelling (I crawl more often than I walk…); but one thing’s for certain, I know that without this unfolding not only would I have become a physical and emotional wreck, but there was a real risk that my soul would have been so eviscerated that I might as well have died.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that every lawyer is buried in a cesspool of their own choosing, but I’d be surprised if all or the majority of them aren’t torn between being who they truly are and struggling with the work, clients and market, which from my vantage does everything in its power to deform or, more likely, break their soul.

Is there a remedy for this malaise?

Yes of course: leave the profession and follow your passion, but you and I both know that that’s very unlikely to happen. At best, all I can hope for is one of two things: (a) lawyers work for a firm or business whose values and purpose chime with theirs; or (b) they develop greater resilience via a process of self-inquiry.

One thing I know for sure is that if we don’t want to see a profession riven with guilt — “How the hell do I balance work and home?” — then anyone who has their hand on the leadership tiller needs to make this a priority issue. I don’t mean to suggest that they throw away all the good stuff that’s been going on these past few years, but soft skills need to be understood for what they are: making the very most of the intellectual capital by investing in people beyond what they can bill.

PS. Here’s an excellent talk by Parker J Palmer dealing again with the subject of the divided life.