Okay. It’s exactly what you think. It’s about sex, and fantasy, and pleasure, and the things that turn people on. It’s about eroticism, and emotions, and fear, and shame, and orgasms. But it’s so good (obviously); I don’t care what you think.
“When you recognize and accept what you feel, without judging your emotions by logical standards, you will notice that the natural life of most feelings is remarkably short and fluid. If you are able to feel anger when you are threatened or when someone treats you unjustly, and if circumstances allow you to express yourself assertively, your anger will yield to a calm self-assurance. Likewise, if you’re not ashamed to feel anxious when you perceive danger, chances are that you will take whatever steps are necessary to protect yourself, thereby demonstrating just how courageous you can be. Feelings that are attended to and honored move along, sometimes veering off in unexpected directions [!!! I’ve been telling you this for months]. It’s the feelings that fester and won’t let go that cause us distress. People who ignore or resist their feelings often end up obsessed with them.”
One of the most famous books encapsulating ancient Toltec wisdom is don Miguel’s The Four Agreements. I’ve been studying and working with the agreements almost every day, and while on the surface they are just four simple sentences;
Be impeccable with your word,
Don’t take anything personally,
Don’t make assumptions,
Always do your best;
below the surface, they are really huge pillars of an entire philosophy of life. They are an entirely different way of living in the world. What I love about them is that every day, as I discover more of myself, I find deeper and deeper interpretations of the agreements. New situations and experiences keep teaching me new lessons, bringing me back to these four sentences. It’s an incredible transformative practice.
So a few days ago, I came across a chapter of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. Have you read it? Most people have – it’s one of those very old, very famous books. I’d heard about it over and over, but never actually sat down with it. I still haven’t read the whole thing, but what struck me was a wonderful section on the chapter about fear.
One of the ways we all sabotage ourselves, is that we make excuses for failing to follow our dreams. The excuses seem reasonable, and so we continue to believe them. This is how we remain stuck. In order to move forward and actually start living the life you want, you have to become aware of the excuses you make, and begin to question their veracity. As I listened to the list of “Fifty Seven Famous Alibis” in the book, I recognized these excuses in my own mind. (I pasted them below).
The wisdom here is straightforward – in order to live a “no excuses” life, you have to become aware of the excuses you actually use to keep yourself from taking action. If you bring these excuses to light, you can begin to question whether they are really true, and whether you want to keep believing them. This way you “undo” the strangle-hold they have on you, and then you can give IT (whatever your “it” happens to be) your all. Ta da! And just like that your life suddenly has meaning, and purpose, and passion. (I’m being flippant, but that’s exactly how it works).
And so, it is when there are no more excuses, that you can ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST!! Because if you are afraid to make that call; afraid to take that course; afraid to write that book; afraid to ask for that loan, you aren’t doing your best. You aren’t taking action. You are allowing fear to keep you stuck in place. I never read the agreement this way before – but now I see it!
(The flip side of the agreement is that you don’t judge yourself for not doing more on any given day. You give it what you can give it, and you are content with yourself. You don’t push past your limits. You don’t disrespect yourself with judgments. You don’t compare your performance yesterday to your performance today. You just do your best, without excuses, every single day. And your output will vary day to day, and that’s ok too.).
Which of the Alibis below resonate for you?
IF I didn’t have a wife and family . . .
IF I had enough “pull” . . .
IF I had money . . .
IF I had a good education . . .
IF I could get a job . . .
IF I had good health . . .
IF I only had time . . .
IF times were better . . .
IF other people understood me . . .
IF conditions around me were only different . . .
IF I could live my life over again . . .
IF I did not fear what “THEY” would say . . .
IF I had been given a chance . . .
IF I now had a chance . . .
IF other people didn’t “have it in for me” . . .
IF nothing happens to stop me . . .
IF I were only younger . . .
IF I could only do what I want . . .
IF I had been born rich . . .
IF I could meet “the right people” . . .
IF I had the talent that some people have . . .
IF I dared assert myself . . .
IF I only had embraced past opportunities . . .
IF people didn’t get on my nerves . . .
IF I didn’t have to keep house and look after the children . . .
IF I could save some money . . .
IF the boss only appreciated me . . .
IF I only had somebody to help me . . .
IF my family understood me . . .
IF I lived in a big city . . .
IF I could just get started . . .
IF I were only free . . .
IF I had the personality of some people . . .
IF I were not so fat . . .
IF my talents were known . . .
IF I could just get a “break” . . .
IF I could only get out of debt . . .
IF I hadn’t failed . . .
IF I only knew how . . .
IF everybody didn’t oppose me . . .
IF I didn’t have so many worries . . .
IF I could marry the right person . . .
IF people weren’t so dumb . . .
IF my family were not so extravagant . . .
IF I were sure of myself . . .
IF luck were not against me . . .
IF I had not been born under the wrong star . . .
IF it were not true that “what is to be will be” . . .
IF I did not have to work so hard . . .
IF I hadn’t lost my money . . .
IF I lived in a different neighborhood . . .
IF I didn’t have a “past” . . .
IF I only had a business of my own . . .
IF other people would only listen to me . . .
IF – and this is the greatest of them all – I had the courage to see myself as I really am, I would find out what is wrong with me, and correct it, then I might have a chance to profit by my mistakes and learn something from the experience of others, for I know that there is something WRONG with me, or I would now be where I WOULD HAVE BEEN IF I had spent more time analyzing my weaknesses, and less time building alibis to cover them.
As I was reading (and loving) Esther Perel’s book, which I told you about in Part 1, a question kept nagging at me. The process of self discovery (whether through spiritual tradition or in psychotherapy) leads to ever-deepening levels of awareness. Awareness leads to authenticity, with the self and with the other. And in relationship, when we show our authentic self to another, we call this intimacy. In my own experience, as I’ve gotten close and closer to my own authentic self, what arises is incredible desire and passion. A new ecstatic energy; not just in a sexual context, but in a creative context too. (My hypothesis here is that creative energy is the same as erotic energy, but that’s a different post). So how do I reconcile my experience with Esther’s seemingly sound position that intimacy kills desire? Is it true that if we cultivate “intimacy,” that desire necessarily dies?
I think that the answer requires taking a small step further into what we mean by intimacy, and then drawing a distinction. (I think Esther taps into this, but without a proper framework. I humbly offer my own reconciliation for your enjoyment).
The kind of intimacy discussed in Mating in Captivity is what I’ll call egoic intimacy. This is the merging of two into one. It is emotional safety and enmeshment, care-taking, clinging, and a loss of self into the relationship. A coping mechanism for the inherent anxiety of love. (“Please love me. Please promise you’ll never leave me.”). It feels safe and secure, but comes with a price. It is a fusion or a collapse of personal boundaries. In it’s most negative experience, it can feel like obligation, responsibility, control, and manipulation. The communication that manifests sounds sort of like surveillance masked as concern (“where were you? and what were you doing there so long? I was worried about you.”). The relationship engulfs the partners and threatens their individuality. This, says Esther, kills sexual desire. To reawaken the desire, partners must create psychological distance, separateness, emotional privacy, and a reclaiming of a sense of self.
This, however, is very different from the intimacy that is cultivated (with the self, or in relationship with another) in spiritual practice. I think of this as authentic intimacy. Regardless of tradition, the focus is always on grounding the self into the body, into feeling and into subjective experience. This leads into emotional awareness and equanimity. It fosters independence and personal emotional responsibility (while maintaining the aspect of “oneness” with everything that is). There is a conscious practice of non-attachment, non-clinging, and self-love and self-nurturing (which runs counter to the caretaking, anxious, needy vibe of egoic intimacy). There is a recognition that your happiness, security, and self-worth do not belong in the hands of your partner. This is the communion of two separate entities, choosing to engage freely, without emotional coercion, sacrifice, or obligation.
In this latter type of intimacy, you are confident (because you are aware of yourself, and able to handle all of your emotions). You have agency in your own being, and experience of living. You are passionate. You are completely alive. It is a kind of loving that leaves your partner free to be themselves, just as they are. This is what’s sexy. This is a kind of passion and desire that doesn’t die. This is awareness of your own needs and desires, and asking for them authentically, vulnerably, and courageously. This is sharing and communicating (without blame, or judgement, but rather with love and kindness). You cultivate desire (your own, and that of your partner) by being in awareness, by being open, authentic, self-loving, self-nurturing. That kind of confidence, competence, agency, surrender, courage, and vulnerability is highly seductive, but it’s an entirely different way of entering into a relationship.
If you’re interested in this latter version of intimate relationship, I highly (highly!) recommend The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion, by Mel Schwartz. I’ve been following and enjoying Mel’s work for a number of years (at www.melschwartz.com). Mel’s book answers the question posed by Mating in Captivity (although it was published a lot earlier), by re-conceptualizes the issue of intimacy. In essence, if you do intimacy correctly (with yourself and with your partner) from the beginning, passion doesn’t die.
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon… I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain mine or your own without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure yours and mine and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes.”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
I’ve been vaguely interested in Kabbalah for a while now, (Madonna notwithstanding) but every time I touched it, it felt too esoteric and incomprehensible. Maybe I’ve matured in my spiritual understandings, or maybe I just never found the proper teachings. Anyway, yesterday I took a quick dip into what it is, and what it does. And I finally get it!
Tree of Life. Image source: wikipedia
Here’s what I found:
1. The Kabbalah is not a book per se, but a tradition of mystical practices. The Zohar, the primary text, was written (or received, you can say) in 13th century Spain.
2. The Zohar offers many different things – it’s a huge compendium of stuff. It changes some large primary assumptions and reinterprets the whole Torah under this new light.
3. It introduces Ein Sof (the infinite) as the real supreme being, the creator of what we know as God.
4. It reincorporates the divine feminine as an aspect of God, (undermining the patriarchy), and shows how the Torah and Talmud refer to her all along.
5. It explains creation (which I think can be reconciled with evolution, if you’d like), the nature of God, cosmology, the souls, and the mystical world, as well as our purpose as human here on earth. (ie Tikun Olam in relation to consciousness, not specifically “good deeds.”)
6. It offers meditations (repeating the various names of God as the mantra) to induce altered states of consciousness (trance) in order to produce mystical experience. This accomplishes the same thing in Judaism that all the other meditative traditions accomplish – the breaking of the belief structure, the dismantling of the ego, ultimate self-awareness, access to the mystical realm.
7. There are also spells, incantations, and magic (both white and black).
8. There is the explanation and glorification of the hebrew alphabet. The letters carry an incredible symbology beyond language and numbers. They are also used to explain the structure and function of the human body (each one related to certain organs or systems) which reminds me of the energetic meridians in acupuncture.
Fascinating stuff. If you’re interested in learning more, these videos (here, here, and here) are very good background and context.
“We aren’t who we want to be. We are what society demands. We are what our parents choose. We don’t want to disappoint anyone; we have a great need to be loved. So we smother the best in us. Gradually, the light of our dreams turns into the monster of our nightmares. They become things not done, possibilities not lived.”
I just returned from a week in the land of wine and pasta, where I was honored to officiate (symbolically) the wedding of my brother and sister-in-law. I suppose it’s only fitting that I spent the entire week contemplating love, marriage, commitment, desire, and sex.
It all started before I left… I signed up for Psychotherapy 2.0 – a two week online summit of brilliant minds sharing their fascinating work. Regrettably, I only caught a few sessions, but I did get to hear the one I was most excited about: Esther Perel, The Double Flame: Reconciling Intimacy and Sexuality. The talk focused on:
Why loss of desire is the prime sexual complaint that leads to relational unhappiness, infidelity, and even divorce
How love and desire relate, but also conflict. How the need for security and closeness can coexist with our quest for separateness and freedom.
Eroticism as a quality of aliveness and vitality in relationships extending far beyond a repertoire of sexual techniques, frequency, and performance
(I think you can buy the program through Sounds True, if you’re interested).
I may have posted some stuff about Esther before, here’s her site, but I’m too lazy to go back and check. Fearless, brilliant, and hilarious, she’s one of my favorite authors, speakers, therapists. She studies desire and passion in the context of loving intimate relationships. Her latest work is on the subject of infidelity. Her two TED talks are here and here (both have millions of views).
In 2007, she wrote Mating in Captivity, which is perhaps one of my new favorites. I liked it so much that I read it twice this past week. (When I say “read” I mean listened to, because audiobooks are my favorite favorite thing; lots of “favorites” in this post, but so what.).
In the book, Esther explores how the concepts of increasing intimacy, transparency, and the comforts of best-friendship, which are considered the pillars of a good mature loving relationship, kill erotic sexual desire. They are, in fact, polar opposites to the mysterious, unknowable, lustful feelings associated with early stages of a romantic relationship.
And so the main question she considers is whether a loving committed relationship can sustain hot passionate sex over time. With intriguing case studies and surprising practical advice (humbly offered in deference to the elusive ineffable energy of Eros), the book is a must read for anyone seeking to reclaim that missing spark. What resonates most for me, is that in order to maintain passion, in order to remain attractive to, and attracted to, your partner, you must love yourself first; you must nurture yourself and maintain your independent sense of self, you must learn the art of embodied surrender, even within the confines of a committed relationship. A big big “YES!” in my opinion.
I posted some time ago (here) about Gaya’s famous teaching: “there’s no one out there, just a bunch of mirrors reflecting you back to yourself.” It took me nearly a year to really grasp the magnitude of how this principle actually operates. In short, there are many different ways to think about this idea.
One is that every time you are emotionally triggered by something, it’s an invitation to go inside and discover more about yourself. The trigger is a gift; a clue, of sorts, letting you know that there is some negative self-judgment hanging out in your subconscious, waiting to be healed. Another way to think about this is that the external world is just a reflection of what’s going on inside of you. If you have chaos, or drama, or negativity in the world around you, look inward and you’ll see that that is precisely what’s happening inside your mind. If someone is mistreating you on the outside, I’d bet you are mistreating yourself on the inside. (No blame or judgement – just food for thought). A third perspective is that all the judgments you hold about other people, are really all about you. They have nothing to do with the behavior or appearance of another person. This last perspective was the subject of my previous post.
I could go on about this all day, but what I wanted to share here is a recent article from mindbodygreen by Dr. Lissa Rankin. “What the universe is really trying to tell you.” Lissa does a great job of asking just the right questions about this, often controversial, topic. The article offers another avenue to think about the world-as-mirrors principle. Here is the response I posted to the piece (on facebook).
The way i see it – this principle operates in the macro and micro sense. Our unconscious shadow side may, in fact, be manifesting our external reality in order to teach us, or allow us to experience being human. But in the micro (or local) sense, we absolutely create the story of what happens to us. And those are the feelings we experience as reality. Events objectively are value neutral, neither good nor bad. It’s the story we create around them that creates our reality. What if our conventional stories about life events aren’t accurate? What if we celebrate someone’s passing, instead of turning it into a tragic event? What if we experience loss and savor the grief as a beautiful human experience, while at the same time feeling excited for the person’s transition? This may sound morbid, but if you consider the implications, what’s really lost by changing all of our interpretations to positive ones? What if we drop all the story-lines?
Before you all get out your pitchforks, let me just say that I’m not indifferent to suffering – just the opposite. It is with a heart full of compassion and great empathy that I offer the possibility that we can perceive life differently. That perhaps we aren’t victims of a cruel unpredictable world at all. Instead we are absolutely in control of our experience (if you take time to develop the awareness that you have a choice of how to live in the world). Maybe, just maybe, life is actually a beautiful magical experience, just waiting for you to be able to see it clearly.
Some time ago, along the path of intense self-discovery, I realized that I’m not good at conflict, neither the confrontation, nor the resolution. Ironic, for a litigator, yes? (You’d be surprised how many lawyers have a problem with conflict). But conflict happens in every relationship, and if you don’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy construction way, you’re in real trouble.
What I mean, in a practical sense, is that when my feelings are hurt; when I am mistreated in some way; when a friend or loved one oversteps a boundary – I don’t say anything. I just pretend it didn’t happen. I ignore it. I shove it down, deeper and deeper. I will push it down as far as possible, and will let it rot in the depths of my psyche. I always assumed this was normal, and called it “forgiveness.” Boy, was I wrong!
Here’s how this dance goes: My friend, Jennifer, says something to me that I perceive as hurtful. It’s not malicious. It’s not intentionally hurtful. It’s just some casual comment. I feel a slight inner pang, an unpleasant but familiar twinge of something. I brush it off without saying anything. Later I replay the comment over and over in my mind. “Why did she say that? How could she think that? etc. etc.“
But I never say anything about it, and because of that, Jennifer has no idea that her comment affected me. The next time we speak she makes a similar comment. And again, that unpleasant feeling bubbles up in me. Then another comment, another comment, and pretty soon I’m in resentment-land. That’s when I become passive aggressive. It’s not fun (for me, or for Jennifer). If Jennifer has the guts to ask me if something’s wrong, I will be annoyed that she doesn’t intuitively get why I’m upset. “How could she not get it?” I think to myself. And so I punish her by saying “nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” Let her suffer in guilt and confusion, I decide.
Sexy, right? Don’t all line up at once to be my friend!
Ultimately, Jennifer will do some innocuous thing, (which I perceive as “the final straw,”) and I lash out, in self-righteous rage, and sever the relationship entirely.
When I looked at why this happens, I realized it’s because I’m afraid to verbalize my hurt feelings when they first arise. I don’t want to appear petty. I don’t want to create drama. I don’t want unpleasantness between us. But at the heart of it, if I’m being really honest, I’m afraid that my feelings don’t matter. I’m afraid that this person doesn’t really care that they’ve upset me. It is, of course, a deep seated sense of unworthiness.
On the other side, what ends up happening, is that I don’t actually bond with people in a vulnerable way. I don’t ever allow myself to be seen, authentically. The friendship always stays at the surface level, because I don’t want to invest emotionally when I know it’s going to end in separation. I keep my distance, because I know they will just end up doing a series of hurtful things (which I won’t bring up or resolve), and I want to stay away from that drama and discomfort.
And so when I first realized this, I became embarrassed. I thought “Oh god. I’ve been acting like a complete childish jerk for so long!” (More self-judgment, which I promptly turned around). And I decided to make a note of all the places I do this – places where I don’t voice my feelings; where I don’t speak up for myself; where I am afraid of being vulnerable; where I am afraid of showing the side of me that is sensitive and scared; where I put the feelings and potential negative judgments of other people above my own. The list just grew and grew and grew.
That’s when I made the decision to stop compromising myself. I decided that I’m going to face my fears. I am going to find a way to communicate my feelings without drama, without anger, without blame, and without judgment. (This is an art-form that takes a lot of courage and practice). From now on, I am going to be honest and authentic. I am going to start valuing my own feelings. I’m going to care about my own heart. I am going to let people know when something has made me uncomfortable, and they can then value my feelings or not, that’s their business.
In my budding coaching practice, I’m starting to see that actually lots of people struggle with this. Most people are terrified of speaking honestly and vulnerably about their feelings. Their coping strategies vary, but at the root is the very same fear that their feelings aren’t valid, worthwhile, or important. Here’s the upshot: they are! Honor your feelings. Speak up for yourself in a kind, loving, and compassionate way. Be true to how you feel. If you see that you can take care of your own feelings, you will be able to bond intimately with people. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world when you allow yourself to be seen. Your heart will thank you!
Things are blissfully busy here, as usual, but I wanted to share some ideas and posts that are in the works:
1. I’ve been noticing an interesting trend lately, and I’d like to propose a theory. Maybe this is already common knowledge somewhere, but I haven’t yet found any articles or books on it. Here it is: Addiction to anxiety (among successful professionals). Technically, it’s an addiction to the adrenaline, cortisol, etc. that is present in the body during stressful times. We already colloquially call someone like this an “adrenaline junkie.” But I’m seeing this in the context of successful professional people in corporate jobs: lawyers, accountants, management consultants, bankers (even doctors, at times). I think this is distinct from workaholics, because it bleeds out into their lives, outside the office. It’s not an addiction to work, per se. It’s an addiction to stress. What’s interesting to me is the down time, or low stress points, in someone who is constantly busy, overcommitted, stressed out, and exhausted. They report experiencing a kind of boredom, restlessness, and mild anxiety. I think of this as a withdrawl symptom of the addiction. They cannot handle the discomfort of doing nothing, so they keep flinging themselves into high stress jobs, situations, environments, in order to keep the withdrawl symptoms at bay. Still thinking this through…
One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. Pema (I’ve spent so much time with her teachings, that we’re on a first name basis) describes an experience, on a particular retreat, of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate. Struggling with it for days, unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. After listening to her describe the experience, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” Hearing this, Pema became excited about her next meditation practice. After Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, however the feelings were gone.
“When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. -Rumi
I was out walking Linda recently when a man approached us, and struck up a conversation (with me, not with her). He said that he was thinking of getting a dog, but wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him. He asked a bunch of questions about the responsibilities and commitment required.
As we got to talking, I shared some of the experiences of having Linda in my life (lots of love and affection, but also lots of poop, vomit, allergies, and shedding). At the end, he said “you sound like a very compassionate person. I don’t really understand compassion. I try to be caring, but I just don’t feel anything. I don’t really care about other people the way I think I’m supposed to.” The old me would have been shocked at such an admission, but the new me seems to bring out this kind of thing in people. I took the opportunity to thank him for sharing his honesty with me, and I shared what I know to be true with him.
I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. I sent him the following email; probably worthwhile to share here as well.
I think that one of the issues with meditation is that proper instructions are not included. Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about. You are correct that meditation, in and of itself, does very little. Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. It’s what one does during meditation that leads to awakening (or doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most traditions (as they are presented in the mainstream), is the method of self-inquiry. (It’s what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation).
When I put aside my prejudices and looked at my deepest motivations and fears, I was surprised to be confronted by a rather sorry-looking individual, covered with bandages, limping along on a crutch, incapable of hurting anyone.
I immediately recognized him. It was me. It was my wounded self, a symbolic representation of all those doubts and fears about myself that I had so carefully hidden from public view for so many years. And when I looked a little closer at this injured being, my heart was deeply touched. I wanted to reach out and help him to heal, because I could see, beneath the bandages, that he was only a small boy, a helpless, wounded child.
Throughout the last few months of my work with Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.
At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them sometimes). I accepted what she was telling me, but it didn’t really sink in until much later. What she meant is that who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of how we see ourselves.
Conceptually, what we choose to see in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we have about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold about ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In clinical terms, this is called projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.
I came across a movie recently that challenged all of my old beliefs and judgments about who or what I ought to be. In watching the movie, I discovered that I could be happy living in many different ways – a possibility that never existed before. Then I found a news article about a little communist nirvana in Southern Spain, and my heart sang with delight. Me? Communal living? No way. I almost couldn’t believe my own reaction.
So dear friends, set aside your judgments and beliefs of who you ought to be, and give yourself the chance to really live!
While everyone was out drinking and barbecuing this weekend, I spent most of it on the couch with this book (the actual physical book). It was so powerful in so many ways that I’m adding it to my “books that will change your life” list. If you’re unfamiliar with the canon of feminist writing (I was), Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many amazing leaders. You can read more about her work here.
I want to share some excerpts with you from Beyond Wanting to be Wanted. If I’m being honest, I underlined, highlighted, and scribbled notes on most pages, so picking out excerpts was its own challenge.
In my opinion, Polly has brilliantly distilled a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern way of life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men). She encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires; to bring their truths into the light, so to speak. Because it is only when we are aware of what we feel and what we want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world. She has also articulated a very subtle phenomenon that resonates profoundly for me – the idea that women often focus on being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of their own. It is when you stop seeking approval of others, you stop trying to be the person you think you should be, that you can really live authentically, vulnerably, and with integrity.
This is a difficult one. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. Just be honest. Just tell the truth. The truth will set you free. How many times have you heard these words? And yet, it’s such a struggle for so many people. This lesson has appeared several times in the last few weeks. It has tested my strength and courage; but when I stepped up to meet the challenge instead of hiding from the truth, it left me feeling absolutely magical.
To look for truth, and to be honest, is terrifying. Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths. We are afraid to look inward, and to be honest with ourselves. And even if we are courageous enough to do that, then we are so concerned with the feelings of others, that we are afraid to share our truths with them. We punish ourselves with all sorts of guilt for causing someone emotional pain, when we really have no idea how they will feel if we’re honest. We jump through crazy ridiculous hoops, all because we want to avoid the turmoil of emotional pain (theirs and ours). Being honest and being kind are not mutually exclusive. You can and should deliver your truth without blame or judgment, but definitely with kindness. It just takes a little practice.
Some time ago I took a short business trip to Ohio. I picked up my rental car, and found that the agent had thrown in a GPS for free. (I usually opt out of the GPS because of a traumatic experience in Albany, but that’s a different story).
Anyway, I plugged in the address of my destination, and when I pulled up to the building, the GPS announced “You have arrived!” How nice, I thought. I have arrived. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that.
After my meeting, I returned to the car, and plugged in the address of my next destination. When I got there, the GPS again announced “You have arrived!” Again, I took a moment to savor my arrival and settle my thoughts. As I got out of the car, I felt great. I could stop worrying about the traffic, or the weird sound the car was making, or being late for my meeting. All those worry thoughts are no longer relevant in this moment.
Just taking that small second to recalibrate and calm my thoughts before moving forward made such a difference! What a lovely mantra that would be – with every step, at different points throughout the day (no matter what you’re doing), you stop for a moment and think “I have arrived.” In this way, you get to really cherish the journey.
How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! But what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself? How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, but you genuinely feel feelings of love for you, within your body?
It’s a three step process.
First you have to listen. Listen to your thoughts and judgments about yourself.
Pay attention to the internal dialogue that happens within you. How do you talk to yourself? Specifically, what do you say to yourself? Do you judge yourself? Are you mean and harsh with yourself? Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?
When I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would grimace internally. I could and would immediately pick out everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself? (I know you do). Next time you catch yourself doing that – try to shift to kindness for yourself. Look for the good things in the mirror, and forgive whatever you think is “wrong” with you in that moment. You can take a judgment like “I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good about being overweight. Turn your negative judgments about reality into positives.
Treat yourself compassionately. Treat yourself as if you were a little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old, and find that child still living within you. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love. Just this alone will shift so many things for you.
Second, find your standards of perfection. As you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling “bad” or uncomfortable, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). The negative opinions your internal judge voice has about you are not arbitrary. They are the perfect result of the standards of perfection you created for yourself long ago.
“If only I am __________ (strong, confident, smart, rich, sophisticated…), then I will have made it. Then I will feel good.” Your judge is always comparing you to some standard of perfection, and letting you know that you’ve failed, and thus making you feel unworthy. This whole psychological mechanism operates like a perfect machine – the standard of perfection generates an automatic judgmental thought. When you start to see your thoughts as separate from “you,” it will be almost funny. By bringing your standards of perfection into awareness, you will be able to release them, and actually feel better!
What are your standards of perfection? How do you find them?
They aren’t always self evident. Whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?” Ask yourself what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?
The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!! They sound something like:
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed”
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
“I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
The more you do this, the more you recognize how silly these standards are; and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is. Then you can let these standards go.
Third, begin looking at your patterns of behavior. Think about why you do the things you do, and what is the fear that’s really driving them. Try to articulate your own flaws and weaknesses (without judgement), instead of denying them. This is brutal honesty. This means you get really really still, and you examine yourself (with love).
It will look something like this:
When I feel intimidated by someone, I have judged this person as better than me. In a flash, somewhere inside of me it was decided that this is someone I ought to fear, respect, admire, and seek approval from. I have judged myself as worse than this person, and I immediately put on my armor (shiny and seductive, but made entirely of metal). I am so nervous that this person will see my flaws, my weakness, or something wrong with me, that I become like stone on the outside, impenetrable. Ice queen.
I try to appear as perfect as I can, in every way I can, in that moment. I try to stand taller. I consider everything I’m about to say two or three times, before saying it. Internally, my pulse beats a little quicker. I feel a little anxious and jittery. I am extremely self-conscious of how I look, how I stand, sit, walk, hold my wine glass, what I’m wearing. I don’t really pay attention to what the person is saying, because I’m either wondering if they’re judging me, or I’m planning my next witty response.
I want this person to know how smart I am; that I’m good enough. That I’m not weak. That I’m worthy of their respect and admiration. I want to “win him over.” I’m also extremely sensitive to everything he says – if I perceive something slightly offensive (even if it’s meant as a joke), my armor grows thicker and my defenses go up. I become a little aggressive, prickly even. I up the ante with a snide remark, all the while not wanting him to see that I’m exposed. I defend my position, my integrity, my worth at all costs. Maybe I have a zinger ready, with which I can retaliate. Maybe I just roll my eyes to let him know that what he said doesn’t affect me.
Alternatively, if his remark was intentionally offensive and combat ensues, I will get progressively more and more agitated and aggressive. The idea of concession, or even the slightest admission that he may be right, is impossible. In the heat of battle, I won’t budge a single inch. I will bend logic and reason in my favor in order to win. I will play semantics. I will use all sorts of manipulative tools to get my way. I will exhaust my opponent until he gives up in exasperation, usually because he sees that there’s no point in fighting me. I don’t care why he gives up, as long as I am the last one standing.
Regardless of the nature of the encounter, at some point it’s over, and I leave the person’s presence, but mentally I replay the conversation a million times. Sometimes the mental replay lasts until the next day. Sometimes it can last for weeks. I smile and congratulate myself for the moments when I said or did something smart or funny. I endlessly berate myself for the one dumb thing I said…
That’s the kind of self-examination I’m talking about. That is the level of honest reflection you make. Admit these things to yourself. We are all just human. We are all just doing our best. We are all perfectly imperfect. Accept that sometimes, you play out your patterns (maybe more often than you think). You don’t need to pretend that you don’t. You can admit it without shame or fear of judgment. When you do, and you see that there’s nothing to judge (because we’re all just acting like scared little children), you will come to love yourself. You will literally fall in love with your own self, and your patterns will slowly start to disintegrate.
Remember the only judgments that hurt you are your own.
Here are some prompts to get your started:
1. When I feel intimidated by someone, I ___________________
2. When I am hurt by something a friend has done, I ___________________
3. When I am hurt by something my lover/partner/spouse has said, I _________________
4. When my mother/father/parental figure makes me angry, I _____________________
5. When my boss calls me into her office, I ______________________
6. When I see my ex-husband’s/ex-wife’s number on the caller ID, I ____________________
7. When someone cuts me off on the highway, I ____________________.
I’ve been working my way through the Five Levels of Attachment by don Miguel Ruiz Jr. Although you can probably get through it in one sitting, I’m taking my time with the book. I will read a few pages, and then take some time to digest what it means. When I go back, I will re-read a few pages, and find a new deeper understanding. The words resonate in very interesting ways. The Ruiz family seems to have a knack for that kind of writing.
I came upon an exercise in the book that I find very profound – The Labyrinth in the Toltec Tradition. The instructions are pretty simple, the results however are very powerful. The focus of the exercise is a taking of responsibility for our own lives, a letting go of egoic conditioning and limiting beliefs, and a healing method of forgiveness.
And so without further ado, imagine yourself standing at the entrance to a large life-size labyrinth…
This is a review I’ve been meaning to share with you for weeks. You’ll want to file this one under “science-catches-up-with-spiritual-truths.” Here is a link to the amazon page. If you’re naturally skeptical, or you’d like some assurance from the medical community that all this self-love and don’t-believe-your-thoughts stuff is safe and healthy, this is the book for you!!
The book is written in really practical tone, almost like a manual to healing. The concepts and approaches suggested in the book are very similar to the self-inquiry and neutral observation we learn in meditation and spiritual tradition generally. The authors use, what I consider, platonic names for the mushy spiritual things that don’t seem to fit in with science.
For instance, we often talk about intuition, and how we ought to learn to listen to it, and allow it to guide our decision-making. In the book, this concept is called your “wise advocate.” The authors suggest that when your brain is sending you conditioned responses or compelling you to behave in certain ways, you ought to listen closely for your wise advocate, who will guide you in healthier, more loving ways.
The authors do stop short at one point in the discussion of mindfulness, to assert that their view doesn’t endorse the non-judgement standard we’re used to talking about here. But that’s fine; to each their own, right?
All in all, as my awareness grows, this book helped me take it a step further. It helped to understand myself from a clinical perspective and to see my spiritual practice from a scientific point of view. I would highly recommend it.
There is life. And then there is the story you tell about it.
One of the most important steps in the shamanic tradition of the Toltecs, is a taking of responsibility. While I’ve always considered myself a very responsible person, this is a different kind of responsibility. The tradition teaches that we must take ownership of our lives, of all the bad things that happened to us, of the stories we tell ourselves about those things, of the pain, and of the emotional wounds. This is the only path to true freedom and happiness.
After studying the basic tenets of the tradition, and learning the Toltec psychology, I embarked on the long, and sometimes scary, process of reframing my stories. As I looked at each painful experience of my past, examining my thoughts, feeling, and actions, I began dismantling the victim perspective. When I was done, I realized that I am no longer the victim of any of my stories.
I want to be clear that this isn’t about denying the truth of what happened, but it’s about finding the core negative beliefs that create the victim story. By removing the pity party dialogue, the right versus wrong dichotomy, and the negative judgments against ourselves and others, we are unshackled from the victim mind-frame and all the pain that comes with it. (If you’re familiar with Buddhist lingo, this is the second arrow of suffering).
The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the thinker. The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought. That thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter: beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.
You’ll forgive me for my absence over the last few months – I’ve been continuing on my intense, thrilling, and at times terrifying, journey of spiritual discovery. For the past year, I have immersed myself, heart and soul, into the study of Buddhism, mindfulness, meditation, awareness, past-life regression therapy, and Toltec tradition. I have found, through a variety of modalities, a peace, fulfillment, love, kindness, and a passion for all of what life brings. I’ve spent the last six months doing an apprenticeship program, that first took me deeper into my own awareness and spiritual practice, and then taught me how to teach what I’ve learned.
My adventures have now brought me back here, with a new set of skills and wisdom to share with you. Over the next few weeks, I will be refocusing my work in that direction. My intention is to use what I’ve learned, and what I now know to be true, to help lead you (if you’re interested), to your discovery of yourself and what is true for you. I imagine it will take the shape of a coaching practice, but I’m still working that out in my head. (If this resonates with you, please feel free to email me at email@example.com and we can discuss further).
I’m also preparing a very interesting interview with Judi Cohen, which I’ll post in the coming weeks. Judi is the founder of Warrior One, whose mission is to train lawyers in mindfulness (if you don’t know what that is yet, you will soon!). I had the great pleasure and privilege of participating in the Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers course over the last few months. I can’t recommend it enough!
That’s all I have to share for now. I’ll be back soon with more fun stuff to explore.
The last few weeks have been a difficult time in my life. A time of growth, of transition, of healing in disguise. These weeks have been a lesson in following my intuition and doing what I know is right, even when it’s incredibly painful and scary for the ego-mind. I’ve been watching myself, my thoughts, my emotions, from an observer perspective and choosing which beliefs to hold on to and which to let go of. It has made this time a little easier than I thought it would be.
On my way to run an ordinary errand yesterday, I came upon a new dollar store in the unlikeliest of places. I love dollar stores! To me, they are like a scavenger hunt. I always feel like I’m in a real life game; my task is to sort through the junk and find those rare decent items at ridiculously low prices. So fun. (more…)
Here are some additional resources to consider and investigate. I’ll just give you a brief annotated list and you can look further into anything that piques your interest.
* Mooji – His website is here, but his satsang videos (available on youtube) are terrific and plentiful. I was introduced to Mooji by a friend who is much more advanced than I am in spiritual practice – and I’d say that he’s not really for beginners. Mooji is a spiritual teacher or guru with a style that he calls “the lazy man’s way to enlightenment.” In my opinion, there’s nothing lazy about it – his talks are very philosophical, abstract, and often leave me feeling quite out of my depth when listening to him. If you’re ready to be taken to the proverbial “next level,” Mooji’s a great resource. If I’m not mistaken (which I might be), I think his teachings are of a Hindu lineage, rather than a Buddhist one.
* Lao Tzu – (from wikipedia) was a philosopher and poet of ancient China. He is best known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Chingand the founder of philosophical Taoism, but he is also revered as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. The Tao is full of nifty lessons, quotes, versus that align beautifully with spiritual wisdom. Here is one:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
As far as I know, one of the best modern interpreters of the Tao in our Western world is Dr. Wayne Dyer. His site is here. He’s a regular on the self-help circuit and is a best selling author many times over.
* A Course in Miracles – similar to how Esther Hicks receives Abraham (see my post on the law of attraction), and how Jane Roberts received the Seth Material (a future post), this guide to spiritual transformation (in my opinion, just another approach to the same universal truths) was received by Helen Schucman in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and compiled into what’s been called the New Age Bible. The most prominent teacher of this particular path is Marianne Williamson. She has a ton of books, audio courses, and interviews, if you’d like to learn more.
The subject of pilgrimages came up yesterday as I was watching the new PBS show called Sacred Journeys. The show follows Bruce Feiler as he travels the world on six historic pilgrimages: Lourdes, Shikoku, Jerusalem, The Hajj, Kumbh Mela, Osun-Osogbo. I watched the first two yesterday and was really fascinated. You should check them out.
I really got into researching the Camino Santiago pilgrimage a few months ago, even going so far as to read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino, about her experience. There’s a terrific documentary about it (the pilgrimage, not the book) here. The Camino (also known as the Way of St. James) is an 800+ mile journey from Northern France, across Spain, and all the way to the Atlantic.
This is a touchy and controversial subject. I’m not sure that I’ve formed any solid opinions about it yet, but let me tell you what I know, and share a quick story.
Some years ago, a friend cornered me at a family function, and basically held me captive for thirty minutes, telling me about The Secret. You’ve all probably heard about it/read the book/watched the video, or been similarly cornered by a follower. Well I gave it a fair shake back then, and decided it didn’t work for me. I now realize that I didn’t fully understand it, and wasn’t going about it the right way. (more…)
I’d like to share two resources for meditation that I find very helpful.
Let me first say (admit) that I didn’t awaken through meditation, and I wasn’t especially drawn to it at first. Meditation is difficult. It can be boring (if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing). It’s physically uncomfortable, if not downright painful… And that’s just on the surface!
I first believed that meditation was supposed to make me feel good and happy and peaceful, but after a few sessions, all I felt was anxiety and an odd emotional discomfort. That’s when I decided that meditation wasn’t for me.
However, as I got more and more into the spiritual teachings, I tried to force it. I tried to “make” myself meditate every day. My mind came up with thoughts like “i should do this. i should want to meditate. i should have enough discipline to actually do it and develop a daily practice because otherwise I’m not living a spiritual life.” These are all, of course, just more judgments and mind traps. Once I realized that and let go of what I “should” be doing, I suddenly found myself drawn naturally to meditation, without having to force it. (Sidenote for beginners: the anxiety and emotional discomfort is meditation gold – don’t run from it. Welcome it. Use it.)
So my advice to you – don’t force it on yourself. Allow what’s there. When the time is right, you will be drawn to it naturally, without having to push yourself.
Resource #1: The insight timer app. It’s free and available on iphone and android. There are a ton of terrific guided meditations, if you’re into that. Or alternatively, there is just a timer function with beautiful bells (are they called bells? gongs? chimes? I’m not sure). Be aware though, that if you set your phone to airplane mode, in order to avoid interruptions, you will lose access to the guided meditations during that time.
Resource #2: Gary’s gratitude meditation. (it’s the first of the free sessions – you’ll need to create an account to access it, but it’s entirely free). This was one of the first meditations I ever did and continue to do almost daily. For me (as for many spiritual people), gratitude is a huge and important aspect of practice and belief structure. I think it is a crucial component of happiness, fulfillment, worthiness, and love. I downloaded the audio to my phone and listen to it (most days) while I’m walking the dog.
Good morning internet friends! It’s cold here this morning, so with a hot cup of coffee, I’ve sat down to write some more…
Several weeks after I discovered Gary and the Toltec wisdom, I thought surely these ideas must be available in other traditions, and so my relationship with Buddhism began. Instead of following one specific sect of Buddhism (they seem to be country-specific), I cherry picked ideas and teachers from the different lineages. Here is a collection of monks and nuns and dharmas that I follow. (more…)
It is my belief that once you awaken, and you start on your own spiritual path, you begin to see that every religion and every tradition teaches almost exactly the same universal truths; they just all go about it in different ways. This is a great thing, because as I mentioned before, different modalities will resonate for different people. It is up to you to find the one that will open the door for you.
And so here are some resources that will take you along the Toltec path.
The best known modern teachings of the ancient Toltec wisdom are the Four Agreementsby don Miguel Ruiz.
This book is a terrific quick read. The concepts are seemingly simple, but when you try to put them into practice, you’ll see that it’s really hard work.
If you haven’t done a lot of meditative inquiry, you might also find some ideas to be revolutionary. My favorite one is don’t take anything personally. At first you think “ok. sure. I can try not to take things personally.” But when you dive deep with that one, and you really try not to take anything at all personally, you start to bump up against your value system, which makes you wonder if there are some things that should be taken personally – which is exactly the point. When you’ve gotten a handle on the Four Agreements, there is the Fifth Agreement, which will take you deeper into the mastery of awareness, transformation, and intent. These are the three pillars of the Toltec tradition. (more…)
I’ve come up with a series of ideas over the last few weeks, that involve making major decisions and investments of time and money. At first I felt a sense of excitement, and then some feelings of fear and doubt started to creep in. In trying to watch my thoughts from an observer perspective, I started to wonder if the fear and doubt was conditioned egoic thinking, or if it was my intuition telling me to stop and wait. A few articles and youtube videos later, I came upon one from Simone Wright – which resonated with me.
I think the main take-away from the video, and the answer to my question, is that intuition comes in an emotionally neutral way. If you’re experiencing an emotional charge, that is not the intuition speaking. It could be your own fear based thoughts or beliefs, or it could be an emotional reaction to the intuitive information itself. The key is to stop and watch what’s happening in the mind at that moment.
I also especially liked what Simone says right in the beginning: “Our intuition is the voice of our soul… who wants the highest good for us, who believes that we are capable of doing everything and anything that we set our minds to. So it’s also important to make the distinction that the voice of our intuition is going to guide us in supportive ways. It’s never going to diminish us. It’s never going to tell us that we’re a failure or we’re stupid.”
Happy Friday!! I came across two amazing new pieces in my spiritual journey, and since blog posts are free, I figured I’d share some more videos with you. (Also embedding videos is my new favorite thing, so yay!)
Here is a good sample of The Work by Byron Katie. Her entire message is that believing our internal beliefs is the cause of our suffering. Her program (which is easy and available for free) gets you to look at the roots of your beliefs, and to question them. In the questioning (or “inquiry,” as she calls it) you will find relief and peace and happiness. Check out this conversation where she walks through the basic steps of the program. (There’s a lot more of these available on her youtube channel).
The second thing I wanted to share is Jill Bolte Taylor’s interview with Oprah. Some of you may have seen her TED Talk. I think this video is much more interesting and gives a medical or clinical explanation to all this mushy stuff I’ve been talking about.
Since my recent “awakening,” I’ve spent the last few weeks getting deeper into this area of awareness, mindfulness, consciousness, and spirituality. Here, for your enlightenment, is a collection of some of my favorite teachers.
I know I promised a full post on Brene Brown, and I will get to that, but in the interim, if you haven’t seen this TED talk, you must. Here’s her groundbreaking book The Gifts of Imperfection.
Here is Tara Brach (who is awesome by the way), talking about Happiness. Her youtube channel has a ton of amazing content. One of my favorites is the video on learning to respond rather than react.
Here is Jack Kornfield talking about forgiveness. His simple meditation on forgiveness is intensely profound. Try it.
Here is Dan Millman’s amazon page. I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and the Laws of Spirit in the last two weeks. Both were very good and worth reading – the same principles presented in slightly different ways. (They are available on Scribd, by the way). Here’s his TED talk.
Here is Eckhart Tolle talking about the Power of Now at Google. Check out some of his other videos on Youtube. He’s a really interesting person!
Finally, I’ve decided that I’m going to start training for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Here is a documentary by Australian filmmaker Mark Shea.
Last week I shared my search for happiness story with you. (The tl;dr version is – I was unhappy. Found peace. Now I’m happy.) Thank you to everyone who wrote me, for all the love, support, and internet hugs!
This week, I’m so thrilled to welcome a very special guest, Will Meyerhofer, JD MSW, to continue this conversation about self-esteem. I’ve been following (read internet stalking) Will for some time, so I’m really excited that he agreed to sit down for a chat with me.
Here’s what you need to know about Will: he is the author of “Way Worse than Being a Dentist: the Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning” which was published in the fall of 2011. He has also written a book introducing and elaborating upon the central concepts of psychotherapy, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy,” which was reissued as a paperback in December, 2011. Will writes regularly for Above The Law, and maintains a blog about life, the law and psychotherapy, at www.thepeoplestherapist.com. He attended Harvard College, the NYU School of Law, and the Hunter College School of Social Work. From 1997-1999, Will worked as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. Since 2005 he’s been a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Manhattan and a somewhat inadvertent speciality in working with lawyers. Will’s new book, a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space, is called “Bad Therapist: A Romance.” For more information about Will and his practice, please visit www.aquietroom.com.
Now without further ado…
So my approach to this topic of self-esteem is obviously a spiritual one (and I have no mental health training), can you talk about the academic/clinical version of low self esteem and what it does to people?
I trace the roots of low self-esteem back to the evolutionary need to please the parent. Young creatures – especially mammals, and in particular, humans – are helpless when they’re born, and in our case, remain helpless for many years afterward. It is crucial that we please our parents so we can receive the care we need to survive. But none of us can perfectly please our parents – anymore than any parent can provide all for all the needs of any child. Parenting is an impossible task – just like being a perfect child is an impossible task. So we grow up feeling perhaps we haven’t succeeded in pleasing – that’s the beginning of low self-esteem. Essentially, we take in negative messages – in psychotherapy we call these messages “introjects” – that attack us. Tapes of our parents’ criticisms or our peers’ inability to accept us play in our heads even years after we’ve left our childhood surroundings. In the worst cases, we can wind up with a persistent feeling that there’s a “badness” within us, a defectiveness, something that makes us unacceptable, unlovable – that we’ve failed to please and are thus, somehow, broken.
I think it’s often difficult for people to admit that they have this “weakness,” or to recognize it in themselves. Can you describe some of the words that your lawyer patients use that signal low self-esteem or internal self judgment?
I’ve referred to law firms as “the abattoirs of self-esteem” and I mean it. There’s something about all those risk-averse, competitive pleasers stuck together in one office that leads to relentless competition and cruelty. With lawyers, it tends to come out as a feeling that they, alone, of all the people in the law firm (often enormous law firms) somehow “can’t cut it.” It’s usually a secret they keep to themselves – a terrible feeling they lock up inside until, perhaps, they feel safe enough to confide in someone like me. And I’ve been shocked at how far lawyers plunge in their own self-estimate after only a year or two in biglaw. How could someone who went to Yale, then Yale Law School, then won a place at one of the top law firms in the world, suddenly doubt his own abilities? As in, completely doubt his ability to compete with anyone else at the firm? But that’s what happens when you isolate someone and overwork him, then provide ceaseless criticism without a word of validation of his abilities, his dedication, his hard work and determination to please. I’ve seen it, and it’s brutal and destructive and senseless.
What is the typical treatment plan for someone who suffers from this lack of confidence?
The general approach in psychotherapy is to provide a supportive, accepting atmosphere where a person can express his authentic feelings and thoughts, and in so doing, get to know himself. If you truly understand yourself – it never fails – you’ll start to like yourself. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why shouldn’t you like yourself? You have so much in common! Low self-esteem normally comes from listening to negative introjects – the old tapes that play in your head – and trying to be someone you’re not – in effect, living someone else’s life. But if you start to live consciously, and authentically, you’ll be living your own life, and that generally produces happiness. What always astonishes me isn’t that people learn to love themselves – it’s that so many of us have been taught NOT to love ourselves. That amounts to reproducing the worst of our own parenting in the way we raise our own inner child. We abuse the child within us – and that creates mental and emotional distress. It’s tragic.
In talking to people about setting down their “quest for perfection,” I’ve heard them say “if I don’t drive myself to succeed, then I won’t get anywhere. I need this negative internal voice. If I set it down, I won’t be motivated to accomplish anything.” And it’s true that a lot of people “at the top,” are driven by the negative voice. My personal experience has been the reverse. As soon as I stopped trying to be perfect, I became even more energized and excited about setting new goals and achieving them. Can you talk about motivations and what are healthy versus unhealthy drivers for people?
I don’t believe in “coaching” and “driving yourself harder” and all that sort of talk. If you are procrastinating, or resisting doing something, it’s probably because your unconscious – your inner child – is trying to tell you something. Instead of trying to blast through the child’s reluctance and ignore that message, I’d propose sitting the kid down at a table and giving him a good listen – he probably has something important to say. It might be that you aren’t the person you think you should be – you’re the person you are. And that authentic incarnation of you doesn’t want to do what he doesn’t want to do. I’m always correcting my clients, when they tell me what they “should” be doing. I tell them I’m much more interested in what you WANT to be doing, because that’s what you’re actually likely to do, and succeed at, and find happiness with.
Unlike the tech and business sectors, the legal industry abhors failure and doesn’t allow for even the smallest of errors. How can people go through this restorative process (“I’m not perfect, and that’s ok.”) while keeping their jobs? Is there a way, or must one leave the Biglaw environment first?
Frankly, a lot of people go into law for the wrong reasons – they’re good at going to school and getting good grades, and they don’t know what else to do with their lives, so they look for a way to translate good grades into money and status. That means a lot of people go into law and find themselves doing stuff they don’t want to do and hence aren’t much good at. I’d advise everyone who really isn’t interested in law to do something else – at least, if, given the reality of school loans, they have that option. At this point the legal industry is such a mess that most law students leave school without a job, and maybe that’s a good thing. The loans may never get paid off – but at least they have no excuse to stay in a career they were never interested in in the first place. My advice is to give yourself permission to do something you honestly want to do. Don’t tell me “I can’t earn a living that way” because for the first few years of any career, it isn’t about money. It amazes me that a kid will sink himself into debt to the tune of $240,000 to get a law degree when he has no idea what he’ll even do with it – but he’ll balk at working for $40,000 or even unpaid as an intern, to start a career he knows he’ll love. Find someone who has the job you’d kill for – the dream job. Then figure out how you can work for him – even if you’re sweeping the floor. That’s the first step towards happiness and feeling good about what you do.
It seems to me that the profession, at large, operates on fear and control – first destroying confidence and then keeping everyone in line, so to speak, with the threat of shame. Not just in a large firm environment, but we certainly see it in most courtrooms, we read it in opinions and dissents and legal blogs. I’m talking about the snark, and “take downs,” and intellectually bullying of sorts. Can you weigh in on whether you think this is a necessary element of the profession, a result of the current economic climate perhaps, or can we make an effort to find a kinder, gentler law?
I never liked law – it just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t get excited about details and minutiae, and I hate adversarial relationships. I like the big picture and getting to yes. Everyone knows, as soon as the lawyers get involved, that the relationship will turn hostile and suspicious and argumentative, and the negotiations will bog down in details and everything will stop being any fun. I don’t think there is such a thing as a kinder, gentler law. You can try to do good with law – to effect social change – but I’m not sure you aren’t better off simply organizing and protesting and educating, rather than litigating. Consciousness-raising is the goal, and that doesn’t generally come about through adversarial battles in court. That comes about through sitting down and talking and sharing and empathizing with one another’s situations. Maybe that’s why I gave up law and switched to psychotherapy – I felt I could be kinder and gentler, and do a lot more good.
Thanks to Will for taking the time to give us a deeper view of these questions. I’ll be back again next week with more on this topic!
I have been on a bit of a hiatus the last few months… But now I’m back, and boy do I have a story to tell you! Buckle up…
As longtime friends know, I went from BigLaw to recruiting to essentially running my own business. I’ve had, what some people might consider, a series of professionally successful years, with my fair share of setbacks along the way. Generally though, I’ve been good at anything I tried, and even when I failed, it usually wasn’t for lack of trying.
A few months ago, running a million miles an hour, I realized that I was really unhappy. I mean really really unhappy. On paper, everything looked amazing, but in the pit of my stomach I knew something was wrong. First, I blamed everything around me: the hours I was working, the type of work I was doing, the difficult clients, or uncooperative economy.
Then my beloved dog died, and I wrote off my unhappiness to grief. Then when I got over that, I threw myself into one hobby after another – looking for something that would make me happy. I learned to cook, to code, to sew. I watched everything I could find on Netflix. I read one book after another and still … nothing.
I threw myself into the self-help arena. I practiced daily affirmations and learned about the laws of attraction. I read article after article about happiness and passion and what it means and how to find it… nothing worked. Hypnosis? Tried it. Didn’t work. I let a friend drag me to some kind of seminar, which turned out to be a cult. (I’m not kidding). I tried returning to my religious upbringing, and when that didn’t work, I investigated other religions. I even went to see a shaman in New York who chanted, waved feathers at me, and then and spit-sprayed me with fire and rum. (I promise this is all true).
I watched every TED Talk available and still nothing resonated. I read Godin and Gladwell and Daniel Pink… still nothing.
I guess you could say that I was depressed, although this feeling wasn’t debilitating. I did feel a little anti-social, but I was still functioning normally. I’ve also been through a few bouts of depression in the past, and this just felt different somehow. Not to sound pretentious, but the only words that made sense were “existential crisis.” I knew there was something else I wasn’t getting… Some elusive joie de vivre.
I finally threw my hands up and cried. Happiness was just not in the cards for me. I didn’t get it and I wasn’t ever going to find it. I just felt like I was going through the motions. Numb. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t specifically sad either. I was just unfulfilled. I saw people talk about life and work with such passion and enthusiasm that it made me green with envy. (These weren’t lawyer friends, obviously). I thought to myself “what’s wrong with you? You left the law, you are your own boss, what else do you want?” Then I felt guilty for being unhappy.
I didn’t get why I couldn’t feel this thing that I kept reading about. And then I found something that literally changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE. This is going to sound really corny; because I’m not this person. (I don’t do mushy, new agey, yoga, ashrams, or meditation…) But (drum roll please…) I found peace. You know where I found it? Inside my head. Crazy right?
Can you believe there was a vicious, brutal, fight-to-the-death, war going on inside me? I had no idea. I was just me; living life, doing things, striving to succeed, working hard, and all the while, it turns out, I was living in a war zone. One I created all inside my mind.*
You know who was to blame for my unhappiness? Me. No one else. Not the work, not the clients, not the economy. It was all in my head. And when I figured out how to call a cease-fire, the wave of joy and happiness and relief that came over me can only be described as a spiritual enlightment.
Now I know you hear me say “voices in my head” and you immediately jump to schizophrenia. No no no. Not actual voices. I assure you that, aside from some anxiety, a few panic attacks, and the occasional dip into depression, I’ve never had any kind of schizophrenic episodes or dissociative disorders.
The best, and I think only, way to explain what was happening is by example, so you’ll forgive me as I get a little personal. Let’s use an example we can all relate to:
Picture it. BigLaw 2008… I’d get a call from a partner asking me to come in to her office so she could give me a new matter to work on. If you looked at me from the outside you would see me get a notepad, run/walk to her office, get all the details, get to work right away, and work on the assignment until it was done and perfect. You’d see me rushing to hand it in as soon as it was done, and waiting impatiently for feedback, any kind of feedback. It was usually good work and I was thrilled with the praise.
On the inside, this would play out very differently. I’d get the call, hang up the phone, and as I was gathering my notepad, I’d think “oh god, what if this will be too hard? What if I won’t understand? What if I won’t know how to do it? What if this is the assignment where I finally fail and everyone will see that I’m a fraud, that I don’t deserve to be here, that I’m not smart enough…” All of these thoughts would fly by in a second, and then haunt me throughout the entire assignment. When I’d finally get my feedback and it was positive, I’d glow from the validation and praise. Wings would carry me home that evening … That feeling would last through dinner, and the next day the cycle would begin again. And that’s how my life went. It wasn’t confined to work alone. I felt this way in a lot of other areas of my life too. On the outside, I projected confidence, competence, and calm (most of the time). On the inside, disaster.
So here’s what was really going on – for whatever reason, trauma, bad parenting, etc., we grow up with a feeling that we’re not good enough. This feels bad on an emotional level, even if we aren’t aware of the thoughts that create that emotion. So to cope with those bad feelings, we create a perfect version of ourselves: an ideal image and we think that if only we achieved this level of perfection, then we’d be happy. Then we’d get the love/respect/praise/admiration that we so desperately want.
Insert your own type of perfection into this sentence and you’ll recognize this process in yourself. “if only I were ____________________ (successful enough, rich enough, thin enough) then I’d be happy.” In our corner of the world, it can be something like: if only I get the biglaw job, if only I make partner, if only I could bring in clients, if only I get to argue at the Supreme Court…
Then one of two things happens. Either:
we fail to achieve that goal and feel even worse about ourselves, or
we achieve it, feel good for 30 seconds, and then go back to feeling bad.
Why does that happen? Because the negative I’m-not-good-enough voice inside, the one that created the perfect __________ for you to achieve, the one that sets goals for you, and drives you to achieve them, is a nasty insatiable demon. As soon you achieve the goal he set out for you, he just moves the goal posts further away.
So what happens next? Unhappiness. Discontent. And a variety of other things, depending on the type of person you are.
If you failed to achieve the goals (didn’t make it to biglaw, didn’t make it to partner, didn’t bring in those clients, etc.) the demon keeps reminding you that you are a failure, that you should be ashamed of yourself, that you’re not good enough, and that everyone around is laughing at you. You feel this in the pit of your stomach. It’s not pretty.
Alternatively, you achieve your goals – you celebrate them for a while, basking in the praise and respect you get from others, and then the elation wears off and the same feelings come back. You start to worry about things like “well now I’m in biglaw, what if I can’t handle this job, what if I get fired, what if someone realizes I don’t belong here, what if those new clients leave….” It’s exactly the same voice. He never really goes away, no matter what you achieve.
Again, these “voices” or demons are thoughts in your head. And unless you know to “listen for them” closely, you don’t even know they’re there. They are a part of your belief structure. They are what Toltecs call mitote. They are what therapists call self-loathing and low self esteem.
People cope with these feelings differently. Some become workaholics (“I’ll just work till I drop so I don’t have to deal with these feelings and anxieties”). Some drink more than they should. Some turn to pills or pain killers. This is called “numbing.” You go to external substances to try to escape from the bad feelings.
So… now that we can all admit that we have low self esteem and we are secretly terrified inside, and using a variety of coping mechanisms to cover it up – let’s talk about what low self esteem does to you.
It makes you sensitive to judgment and criticism.
It makes you judgmental and highly critical of others.
It makes you either try to please other people for validation, or
It makes you strive for perfection to avoid embarrassment, or
It makes you angry all the time, so you lash out at people and things for no reason.
It makes you irritable and anxious.
Protracted self-loathing can lead to an intense feeling of shame. ** Shame prevents us from connecting with people. We try to hide our true selves from others because we believe that if they saw the real us, they’d be disgusted/disappointed/judgmental/etc. Shame prevents us from feeling empathy or compassion. It isolates us and creates fear and anxiety around social interactions… Then comes more “numbing” – alcohol, drugs, meds, retail therapy binges, overeating, over-exercising… Any of this starting to sound familiar?
The solution here is simpler than you think. This doesn’t need years of psycho-therapy. There is nothing wrong with you.
In its simplest form – it requires you to admit to yourself that you are imperfect. Get comfortable with that idea. Recognize your fears. Recognize that you are constantly judging yourself against a standard of perfection that isn’t possible. Learn to stop doing that to yourself. Then admit your imperfections to the rest of the world. And set down that mask you carry around. Be the real you. Stop pretending to be perfect, because we all actually see the real you, and accept you just as your are. You don’t need to punish yourself anymore.
Here come the skeptics: “But what if I have unreasonable expectations and they’ve gotten me pretty far in life. I don’t want to set them down, I need them. They drive me to succeed.”
Yep. I know. I thought the same thing. However, once you realize that perfection is not the same as striving for your best, and that by striving for perfection, you aren’t living up to your potential, you’ll see that you don’t need it. There are healthy, appropriate motivations and drivers that can help you achieve success without punishment. And when you achieve success with healthy motivations, you can enjoy that success and actually be happy. Not just for two hours, but forever.
This all means that you have to challenge the status quo – and I get that that’s scary. But it’s possible. And I’m not the only one who’s doing it. (More on this later).
Once you recognize these things and put them in perspective, a cascade of positive happy emotions fills you with a carefree confidence that is absolutely overwhelming. As soon as the light went off in my head, I suddenly felt like a completely different person. In fact, my friends and family keep asking me if I’m on drugs, because they don’t recognize this new happy, fun, carefree person I’ve become. If you’ve ever truly been in love and know what that feels like – this is the same feeling.
Once you are filled with confidence, and are free of self judgment, you can stop caring about what others think. You can stop looking for approval or validation from others. You can stop the drinking, or the meds, or whatever you use to numb the pain. I’d venture a guess, that if you did these things and found internal peace, you could even find happiness in BigLaw. (Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I now realize that if I had found my confidence and peace then, I could have continued working in what was otherwise a toxic environment.).
Now the question becomes “what does the real you want?” And the answers will come automatically. It won’t be a struggle. You won’t torture yourself with pros and cons. Once you find this peace and happiness – you can do anything. And that’s when you can start figuring out the rest of your life.
I found a quote recently that I thought captured this entire concept perfectly:
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want. ”
Margaret Young, Author of Hail and Fairwell
Why am I sharing this story with you here? Because sometimes I veer off from posts on recruiting, but also because I see this suffering often, not just among friends, but very often manifested in the candidates who call me. They don’t know what they want. They know they aren’t happy, but they aren’t entirely sure why. They aren’t sure if they like being a lawyer. The status/prestige is nice, but it’s not enough. Some like the money (if they make money), but it’s also not enough. Some know they don’t like the work, but are afraid of what that means. They try to job hop their way to happiness; because, the thinking goes: another firm, another area of law, or other environments – inhouse, government work, a nonprofit – will make them happy.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether inhouse is better than a law firm. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The absolute facts don’t really make a difference. The question is will you be happy? And what happens after you make the jump and are still unhappy? I’ll tell you what happens – you’ll call me a year later and ask for help again. I see it all the time…
I don’t know what will make them happy. The problem is they don’t know what will make them happy either. What they’re running from isn’t BigLaw, law firm life, or the profession per se. They are typically running from the bad feelings, the anxiety, the fear and lack of confidence inside.
This isn’t a sales pitch. I don’t have anything to sell you. I don’t benefit either way (except in the intrinsic way of being able to share my story), but my suggestion would be – find your peace and confidence. Heal the feelings inside. Then figure out what you genuinely want to do.
I’m also not suggesting that you give up on everything and become a fat lazy slob. I’m saying that you should find inner peace, let go of the impossible expectations you have for yourself. Then let go of everyone else’s expectations, so you can have the mental freedom to figure out what it is you really want. Then go do that thing.
Set goals – achieve them – enjoy them. But do it with the right motivation and for the right reasons. The beauty is that these goals don’t have to be noble. They can be completely selfish and that’s fine too. If you want more money because you really really want a Maserati – go for it. Work like mad until you make enough to afford it. But your days won’t be miserable, even if you’re working hard. You won’t feel scared and vulnerable. Do anything you want, just as long as achieving it actually makes you happy. It’s a question of running to something you want, versus running away from something you don’t want.
So the million dollar question – how? It took me a few months to recognize and admit how unhappy I was. I kept blaming everything and everyone else around me. Then once I committed myself to finding a solution, it took another few months to find the one that worked for me. (I have no affiliation with Gary’s program and do not receive any kind of compensation for recommending it. I recommend it because it’s the only thing that resonated with me.).
Once I started listening to the audio podcasts, and doing some reflecting, it took about a week. Once I understood intellectually what I was doing, and I “tried it on” by thinking about my own life and actions and beliefs and motivations, the cascade came in two or three days. Perhaps in therapy this is done in other ways… I’m not sure, I didn’t pursue the mental health option. I went the spiritual route.
I don’t have a clean and simple solution for you. This won’t take an hour or a day. It takes some heavy lifting and an adventure into some scary psychological territory. The only thing I can tell you is it’s incredibly beautiful and fun on the other side. So try it… I promise you, you’ll be so very happy you did.
* Absolutely all the credit for my spiritual awakening goes to Gary van Warmerdam, and his work based on Toltec Wisdom and the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz. Thank you Gary, for putting together the program and making so much of it available for free. For Gary’s much more thorough explanation of the thoughts and feelings of “not good enough,” check out his free mp3 podcast here.
** I will do a separate post on Brene Brown and her research, findings, and books about shame. A lot of this “spiritual” stuff lines up nicely with her academic social science research. Her approach in the book “Gifts of Imperfection” (which I highly recommend), is more platonic than mine… but the message is exactly the same.
A few weeks ago I used a loose dating analogy to discuss some of my frustrations with candidate recruiting. Well, it looks like my comparisons are not unique.
Remember Lauren Rivera from last week? Her research seems to echo this recruiting-dating sentiment. “In many respects [candidates were] hired in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners [then our previous understanding of the process].”
Now, much as online dating disrupted the age-old method of finding your one true love, sexy start-ups are trying to disrupt the recruitment and pre-hire selection process.
One company, EmployInsight, founded by Sean Glass of HigherOne fame, is taking an interesting approach. The company collects and analyzes candidate profiles, and matches them along psychological dimensions to the employers’ jobs. The algorithm ferrets out traits like creativity, ambition, drive, intelligence, etc. Glass is seeking to cure the “psychological blind spot” inherent in successful team building. Meaning every department or group needs a diversity of psychological resources among its members. And according to Glass, that aspect of candidate selection has been impossible, largely because no one has quantified these particular traits before.
A few months ago, there was a rash of articles (I say “rash” because they made me itchy) suggesting that employers (law firms and legal departments, for our purposes), no longer care about pedigree or credentials, and instead, are shifting focus to skills and other mushy factors in their hiring decisions.
This is both misleading and just NOT true. (I know my rage is a little late to the party, but so be it. I’ve been busy). It’s not that pedigree and credentials are no longer important; they very much are. It’s that they are no longer enough to get you the job you really want. I touched on this before in my interview prep piece. It may have, at one time, been sufficient to have a fancy law degree and a BigLaw name on your resume. Today, those things alone, will barely get you in the door.
Despite recent lamenting, the legal profession, and BigLaw in particular, is starting to look and feel more and more like General Electric. In this BloombergLaw interview, Kent Zimmerman, law firm consultant with the Zeughauser Group, explains what that means for partners and associates.
What does a typical recruiter do for fun on Saturday morning? We read craigslist ads, of course. The last few CL ads that made the rounds had to do with law firms offering new graduates “terrific opportunities” at minimum wage rates. We were all horrified. Here are a couple that will offend you, in a slightly different way.
This one (I don’t know how long the link will work, so a screen shot is below) must be some kind of NY State Bar/Ethics Board sting operation right? I’m mostly concerned that it’s “very part time.” Maybe to keep the company from being indicted, this position should be re-cast as full time + lots and lots of overtime.
Sounds fun right? Exactly the type of position you imagined when you so proudly received your law school diploma.
I’m sure you’ve all heard by now about the bloodbath at Weil yesterday morning. We also heard about some partners leaving Patton Boggs, and some big support/staff layoffs at Jones Day. All in all, not a great day in BigLaw, and some are speculating that we should buckle up for another round of BigLaw layoffs, ala 2009. I sincerely hope not. That would not be good news for anyone, me included. Fox Rothschild did report news of a merger in Denver, and NLJ ran a story about an uptick in large firm hiring, so that’s some good news, at least.
There was a lot of back and forth about these stories in the blogosphere and on Twitter (that is of course, when we weren’t busy looking for Rusty, the red panda). I don’t want to rehash the conversation, but there are a few topics that I think are worth addressing/considering further.
A few nights ago, I met a very old (high school old) friend for dinner. Naturally, as often happens when women get together, the conversation turned to men and dating (hers, not mine. I’m happily ensconced in married life). She relayed a story about a guy she “met” on Match. It went something like this: they exchanged several messages back and forth, he invited her to dinner, she accepted, he said he would pick the place, and then he disappeared. She and I then spent twenty minutes (over)analyzing the perfect, non-crazy, non-desperate, non-prideful way for her to respond to his lack of follow through. (P.S. if you’re a 35+ single smart sensitive man in NYC looking for a serious relationship, I’ve got the perfect girl for you. Don’t worry, I only charge for recruiting, matchmaking I do for free).
Anyway, why am I telling you a dating story on a recruiting blog?
This morning we got the latest What’s Hot, What’s Not midyear update from Bob Denney & Co.!
And if you’ve been here before, you know how happy this makes me. So without further ado, here is the complete update: Hot Not Update – June 2013. Highlights (with some editorializing) are below.
Labor & Employment
*Bob includes cybersecurity and social media in this category. I’m not sure I would categorize it that way.
**Except bet-the-company stuff, which remains pretty active.
***A rebound is expected later this year.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen an absolutely unprecedented number of partner transitions throughout BigLaw.
According to the American Lawyer, for 2012 (the statistics are tabulated from September to September), 2,691 partners left or joined Am Law 200 firms. That number represents an almost 10% increase over the year before, when 2,454 partners switched firms, and a 33.6% increase from 2010. For the 2009 year, a record 2,775 partners changed jobs. (Discounts need to be made throughout these years for the market flooding caused by the the failures of Howrey, Dewey, Thacher Proffitt & Wood, Heller Ehrman, Thelen, and WolfBlock).
However, it seems that this particular trend is likely to endure.
Can you believe it’s been almost two years since my last Dos and Don’ts post? Time certainly flies when your chasing ungrateful entitled millennials having fun. Anyway, in the past two years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see people heeding my advice. While overall the caliber and quality of resumes has improved, some people have found new ways to send me garbage disappoint me. It’s now time for another installment of Resume Dos and Don’ts. Here goes:
Earlier this month Washington University School of Law’s Online LLM program, @WashULaw, sent me the results of their report on the Eleven World Markets Where Lawyers Thrive. In the event you’re looking to move somewhere exotic – here’s the list of viable locales for your law practice.
For the dorks out there, who care about stuff like this, here’s the methodology they used to arrive at the results:
Recently, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a comprehensive report on the cities representing the best opportunities in the world market. Cities were rated on four metrics: 1) intellectual capital and innovation, 2) technology readiness, 3) transportation and infrastructure, and 4) health, safety and security.
In order to reveal which markets represented the best opportunities for lawyers, we cross-referenced the rankings against attorney job openings currently available [via major job boards like LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster, etc.]. Once we were done, we had eleven cities that combine great living experiences, business growth, and strong legal job opportunities.
I’m not sure that publicly available job boards are the most reliable source of job listings, but they’re probably close enough. Enjoy.
I came across this piece in Forbes this morning. It suggests that job seekers can/should actively approach employers, in the absence of a job posting, to build a relationship with the decision-maker. Sounds like good advice. The article even gives examples of how to go about it. Presumably, the point is that when a job does open up, the candidate will be front and center in the recruiter’s mind (the reference here is to an internal corporate recruiter, not an agency recruiter, like me).
While the article focuses on landing an exploratory interview, in the hopes that one day a fitting position will become available, agency recruiters (like me) can often take it one step further. Rather than sitting back and passively responding to job postings when they come in, a good, dedicated, well-connected recruiter will often take an active approach to create an opportunity, where one doesn’t otherwise exist. This is an aspect of working with a recruiter, which candidates sometimes overlook or don’t really consider*.
Lots of time and energy is spent these days, lamenting the misery of life as an associate in BigLaw. We’ve read all the books, blog posts, and snarky Tweets the subject can bear. It’s old news…
What we haven’t had yet, is a real conversation about what firms can do to improve their working environments. And I don’t mean putting together some internal committee, with a cheery sounding double-speak name, and tasking them with the impossible feat of improving firm morale. Everyone does that. I mean real change. The kind that will make life at a large firm enjoyable, not just bearable, for longer than say, three years. Of course, you can point to Meyerhofer’s Odd Ducks, who thrive in the current state of BigLaw, but I’m talking about the army of associates that are so burnt out, that they constantly (and consistently) look for an exit strategy. And not just out of the firm, but an exit out of the practice of law entirely. (I can’t begin to tell you how many phone calls I get, that start with something like: “What do you have that isn’t law related? I’ll take anything…”)
I suspect no one is talking about it in a real way, mostly because we don’t actually know what makes us happy at work. It’s obviously not just money – it can’t be. But if it’s not money, then what is it? What’s the secret sauce that makes for a happy workforce? I suspect somewhere there is a throng of labor consultants who claim to have these answers, but we all know the legal industry is impenetrable to those types. So let’s do what we lawyers always do, and take a closer look.
Folks, I know the market has been tough, and some of you are desperate to find a new job (or any job, for that matter). However, that’s no reason to allow a potential employer’s carelessness to jeopardize your current position.
Last week, a friend called to ask for some advice (let’s refer to him as… James). After having submitted his application to several large firms in the area, James was being seriously considered by one in particular – a prestigious global litigation firm. He had passed three rounds of interviews, conflicts check had cleared, and he was increasingly excited about the prospect of joining them next month. The hiring partner had verbally indicated to James that the firm was very interested in him, and he let James know (unofficially) that an offer would be forthcoming.
I did a quick blurb-and-link on this topic last year, but (without irony) that link no longer works. Now I’ll have to tell you myself.
I’ve written several pieces all over the interwebs about what we, recruiters, do, and what you should expect. You can see some of that here, here, and here. But, there are two specifics things that I’d like to talk about given the recent hatin’ on recruiters, that’s become so trendy.
Before I begin, let me just say this: I know that some recruiters conduct themselves like money-hungry sharks (or ahem… ambulance chasers). Some try to trap candidates, or law firms, with clever wording, and then demand some sort of payment for this, that, or the other thing. They sue firms, candidates, each other – just, it seems, to score a quick buck anywhere they can. (By the way, most of the American public thinks the same thing of lawyers, but I digress). Those are not the type of recruiters I defend. There is no excuse for the havoc that these bad eggs wreak on the rest of the (dare I say it) recruiting profession.
In our never-ending quest to learn more about (and peer further into) the business side of the legal profession – here are some tidbits that I thought you might find interesting:
This is an interesting look at what’s happening with billing rates at industry-leading firms. If you don’t have time to read the full article, here’s the upshot:
Having blown past the once-shocking price tag of $1,000 an hour, some sought-after deal, tax and trial lawyers are commanding hourly fees of $1,150 or more, according to an analysis of billing rates compiled from public filings.
But, as law firms boost their standard rates, many are softening the blow with widespread discounts and write-offs, meaning fewer clients are paying full freight. As a result, law firms on average are collecting fewer cents on the dollar, compared with their standard, or “rack,” rates, than they have in years.
It appears as though Shearman & Sterling has revamped their comp system, in favor of their newer, younger, business generating partners. Here’s the full article. I think merit (in this case, revenue generation) based compensation is always a good thing, but what do I know… I work on commission.
The talent wars in Silicon Valley continue. Here is a recent article from the American Lawyer. (A hit piece on Sheppard Mullin, or love letter to Cooley, you decide).
Sticking with the talent war topic – yesterday, I ran a search of all open positions for patent attorneys (prosecutors, litigators, and corporate/transactional folks) in California. Do you know how many open positions there are? Counting San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Silicon Valley/Bay Area, there are 184 open positions… 184! That’s not a typo. The patent job market has been really hot for a while, but it looks like it’s glowing a little brighter these days.
As I’m sure most of you remember, a couple of months ago I found myself in the middle of a heated exchange (more superficially than substantively), about whether mid-level associates should take some time off to clerk. Since then, I have received dozens of emails from midlevel attorneys, asking if I think clerking is right for them. I’ve written back privately to each of those people, but I am starting to notice a trend, so I thought I’d share one with you. (Obviously the name has been omitted… etc.)
I’ve read your opinion about clerking as a mid level. I was laid off from biglaw, worked in small law firm for a year, and am now clerking for a federal magistrate judge for two years. Have I totally screwed up my career? I never wanted to make partner or even return to biglaw, but I didn’t think a clerkship would be viewed so negatively. Or is your advice more geared towards biglaw hiring? Would clerking for a district judge hurt me more or help at this point?
Yesterday, my friend Casey Sullivan over at Reuters broke an interesting story about Don Prophete, former management level partner at Ogleetree Deakins.
It seems that Don has unexpectedly announced his resignation from the firm. Apparently, there was some dispute over the firm’s (mis)treatment of another attorney that Don had recruited. My guess is it goes deeper than that, but you can read the full story yourselves. What’s interesting here is not that he’s leaving the firm, nor that he’s taking his $10 million dollar book of business (and possibly a bunch of other lawyers) with him, but that he resigned without having lined up another firm. Sounds like things must have gotten pretty heated for a management level rainmaker to just quit (or be pushed out), without having arranged a safe place to land.
Now, while we may applaud Don (or deride him, I don’t know the details), I’d like to caution you, dear readers: unless you have a $10 million dollar book of portable business, and a tribe of shareholders that will follow you where ever you go, don’t quit your job without securing another one first. It is infinitely more difficult to find a job as an unemployed person, than while you’re still working.
This is a post I did for Girls Guide back in December, but it seems that in the holiday madness, I forgot to post it here. Enjoy!
During your first few months of law school, the National Association for Law Placement (aka NALP, you’ve heard of them already right?) has paternalistically lovingly kept you from worrying about what you will do this coming summer.
Now, just as everyone is recovering from their tryptophan-induced comas, the clock strikes December, and your cushy cocoon is suddenly shaken by the realization that you’ll have to start looking for your first legal job…
Several days ago, Above The Law ran a piece by David Mowry, suggesting that mid-level associates should consider going back to a clerkship after having worked for several years. In what I thought was a free space to share my opinion, I tweeted that I wouldn’t recommend it. While everyone’s situation is different and career decisions should be individually tailored, generally speaking, David’s advice should be taken with caution.
There are a variety of reasons why I think (in my professional recruiting experience), leaving practice to do a clerkship is a bad idea. I didn’t get into specifics on Twitter, but put the topic on my blog to-do list for a later date. Since I’ve been bullied to write this response, (and since the former litigator in me feels compelled to defend myself) I will tell you that I’ve seen many people try this approach – leaving BigLaw to go do a clerkship mid-career. In every instance, these people have found that they can’t get back in, because law firms don’t look kindly on mid-career clerkships. Mostly, that has to do with taking yourself out of the trenches for a year. After that year, you are professionally and psychologically out of shape. If post-clerkship, you want to return to practice, especially at BigLaw, it will be an insurmountable challenge.
This is a recent guest post I did for Vault. I covered this question in another post last year, but figured it might be worth re-visiting. Here goes:
Earlier this week I received an email from a prospective candidate asking for my advice. His concerns are so ubiquitous, it prompted this blog post response. This candidate, a recent graduate of a respected law school, with good grades, law review, moot court, and a clerkship on his resume, is unemployed. In addition to the multitude of applications he submitted directly, he has also sent his resume to several recruiters, but never heard back. He told me that these recruiters advertised job openings that matched his background and credentials, and yet they were not interested in speaking with him. He wanted to understand why.
We (recruiters) hear this question a lot lately; understandably so. Job seekers are very frustrated in the current market, and feel slighted by recruiters that don’t want to work with them. The reasons are pretty simple, and for the most part, have nothing to do with whether the recruiter is a good person or a greedy opportunist… (keep reading)
You know the holidays are here, because Bob Denney’s 24th annual What’s Hot, What’s Not report is out! (Yes, I’m a dork and very proud of it).
Here is a quick preview:
Labor & Employment
RED HOT Practice Areas
Energy – Oil & gas are the main drivers while air and water quality continue to be environmental issues.
Healthcare – This is all about the implementation of ObamaCare. Specifically, the setting up of exchanges, as well as whether or not employers will continue to provide coverage.
Sports Law – Read the details about this interdisciplinary practice area here.
HOT Practice Areas
IP/Patent Litigation (no surprise here),Banking (Dodd-Frank),Regulatory, Labor & Employment (Wage & Hour and Whistleblower suits, as well as CBA’s)
GETTING HOT Practice Areas
Online Gaming (no, not video games) – the movement to legalize Internet gambling
COOL Practice Areas
Litigation (generally at BigLaw, excluding patent litigation), Financial Services (except Banking), Bankruptcy (if the economy gets worse this area will naturally warm up), Real Estate (there’s still some interest in distressed low price commercial properties and it looks like the residential market is getting warmer), and M&A (we heard recently that M&A work is booming – guess it depends who you want to believe)
When you get that call from the hiring partner with the offer, don’t jump at it. You should thank him/her, and say you’re looking forward to reviewing the details in the offer letter. Be enthusiastic, but don’t commit to anything until you see it in writing.
Remember, the offer is always conditional on your clearing various checks. As you know from law school: conditional = revocable. So proceed with caution.
1. Preparing for background, conflicts, and reference checks. The offer letter usually arrives with several attachments, including… (keep reading)
(This is the second installment of my three-part guest post series at The Careerist)
Part 2: Practice, practice, practice
by Angela Kopolovich
Mazel tov! Your preparations have finally paid off, and you just got an interview at a firm. (Last week, we talked about the three essentials for your lateral move: resume, transcript, and writing samples.) Now, let’s discuss what you can expect over the next several weeks.
Firms will usually send candidates through a three-stage interview process (some firms more, some less):
• The screening. This is a short meet-and-greet, usually 30 minutes to an hour.
• The callback. This one takes significantly longer, more like two to three hours.
• The final round. This step means you’ve made it to the final cut, and you’re on the short list.
(The first of my three-part guest blog series at The Careerist)
Part 1: Resume, Transcript, and Writing Samples
by Angela Kopolovich
The legal job market is still shaky. Yet, despite predictions of more layoffs and a shrinking market, there is a fair amount of lateral movement in the associate ranks. So if you’re one of those brave souls, looking to make a transition in this uncertain economy, be armed.
Generally, if the stars are aligned in your favor, a lateral move typically takes at least eight weeks— from submission of a resume until you start your new job.
This week, Girls Guide to Law School has graciously given me the opportunity (and a good chunk of real estate) to address two common questions we get from junior attorneys:
1. Recruiters call me at work all the time. Is it okay to talk to them? I don’t really understand what they do. Will they charge me for the services they provide?
2. I just started working as a first year associate and I think I hate my firm. How soon can I start looking for a new position? Will moving to another firm at this point in my career look bad on my resume?
For the answers to these questions (and more) check out this post.
As thousands of you, newly-minted lawyers, step into your shiny offices for the first time this fall, the sighs of relief will echo through the book-lined halls of law firms all over the country. “I’ve made it! All those years of school, law review, moot court, clinics, and clerkships were all about getting here; and I have arrived. Whew!” And as the ink begins to dry on those new business cards, you feel as though you can finally take a deep breath and begin settling into the life you’ve dreamt about all these years. Well… not so fast.
Earlier this week, I came across a post on TheLawInsider.com that was doling out rather dubious career advice. In an effort to humbly offer my take on the subject, it seems that I inadvertently stirred up a bit of controversy. You can read the exchange in the comments section here. I made what I thought was an innocent, well-intentioned comment. Instead, the author, Helen Gulgun Bukulmez, had a visceral response. Calling my motives into question, she summarily dismissed my advice, because it seems that I, an attorney recruiter, can’t possibly have an opinion that isn’t self-serving.
Much like others in the business of serving clients and working on contingency (ahem… lawyers, brokers, realtors, etc.), legal recruiters have a bad reputation. I admit that some of my fellow “attorney search” professionals are not always so professional (or ethical, for that matter). They might deserve the bad rap, but not all of us are greedy vultures. Like us or not, we are experts when it comes to career advice, and every now and again we do offer some free advice, even when we have nothing to gain. I’m not here to convince you that recruiters are great, or even to win your love or respect. Rather, Law Insider has kindly given me the opportunity to set the record straight about the substance of my comment – that going solo is a step in the wrong direction, if your dream job is working for a large firm.
Here is the latest news on what’s happening in California’s legal market.
Latham and MoFo keep their top spots
Sheppard moves into third
Lewis Brisbois loses some headcount and moves to fourth
Arnold Porter and McKenna Long make the list after their respective mergers
Procopio makes the list after substantial growth
Most firms were conservative in their hiring (no surprise there). Fenwick, Gordon Rees, and Seyfarth, not so conservative. Lots of growth in Tech/Life Science, Employment/Health Care, and Real Estate practices respectively.
On the other hand, firms that “shed significant portions of their attorney rolls” include Bingham, Skadden, and MoFo.
Winston Strawn and Downey Brand dropped out of the list entirely.
Overall, “total number of lawyers employed at 2012’s ranked firms is down less than 1 percent.”
Whether you’re looking to make partner, move to a boutique firm, get some job security, or start your own practice, you’ll soon come to the nausea-inducing realization that you have to sell your services. Sell, Sell, Sell! Yes, sell as in sales; as in telemarketers, used cars, and Willy Loman. (!) They never told you that in law school right?
The legal profession euphemistically calls it “business development” and no one dares to mention it to you until you’re nice and comfy with that $250K a year salary. Then they pull the rug out from under you – if you can’t bring in business, you’re out. (Before I get nasty breathless comments telling me it’s not so black and white, and there are plenty of service partners and of counsel who don’t bring in business and are just fine – you’re right, there is a little gray. But ask any of those people if they’ve tried to transition to another firm and you’ll see that they’re stuck because no one else will hire them without portable business).
Back to the topic – the bad news here is that you’re probably not naturally sales-y; few lawyers are. (Something about left brain/right brain/risk aversion/self selection; I skipped that week of psych so I don’t have a great scientific reason to back that up. Just trust me). That means you’ll have to fake it. The good news is that it’s not as bad as you think and it’s absolutely a skill you can learn. Everyone these days is selling something – I sell my recruiting services to firms, firms sell their legal services to clients, clients sell their products to consumers, etc. In a real way, everyone is in sales. So get over the stigma and find a way to do it that doesn’t make you so anxious you stutter. I came across this article in my twitter feed today and wanted to share it with you. It is a brilliant must read for all lawyers that intend to build a long term career practicing law.
You’ve all heard about writing articles and signing up for speaking engagements as a way to generate business. This article takes a slightly different approach – it looks at what you do once you have a contact. How do you turn that contact into a client. How do you ask for their business without, you know, asking for their business. It does a great job of outlining, with examples, an elegant and sophisticated approach. No cold calling. None of what we call the “hard sell.” Just good advice that you can begin incorporating into your own sales business development efforts.
As we watch this latest saga unfold, I’d like to take a moment here to say “I told you so,” and to tell you how 15 minutes can save you 15% or more.
Recruiters spend a large portion of their day hunting for prospecting candidates. We call you at work, at home, on your cell, any which way we can, to tell you about the latest greatest opportunity that has just landed on our desk. We pitch the position, and pray you’re either already in the market, or willing to test the waters. Most of the time, candidates aren’t interested. You’re too busy filing your latest summary judgment motion to hear what we have to say. That’s understandable, especially if you’re happy and secure in your current position.
But what happens when you wake up one morning and see your firm’s name in a devastating headline on ATL? Before you even get to the office, you find out that 30+ partners have defected to other firms, and a spin doctor has been retained to manage the fallout. By mid-day you learn that most of your colleagues are interviewing and/or considering pending offers, and the firm’s chairman is relocating to London. @#!%&. Now what? Don’t you wish you had taken the time to talk to me? Don’t you wish you had invested a little bit of time to hedge against something like this? You pay for car insurance, home insurance, health insurance, disability insurance. What about some career insurance, especially since it’s free?
I’m not being dramatic when I say that we’re seeing a lot of this instability lately. One day everything is peachy, and the next, the firm is hemorrhaging. Good recruiters see these things coming. We’re on the front lines every day, and hear more gossip than TMZ. To all those people who didn’t believe me when I predicted this latest disaster, I told you so! We all saw it coming.
So how do you protect yourself? Find a recruiter you like and can trust. Develop a relationship. Open the lines of communication. Send him/her your materials. Check in every few months, even if only to say you’re still happy, and to catch up on the latest rumors. Ask them what he/she has heard. It’ll be your best line of defense should you ever find yourself in a “Dewey.”
[Update: for a sobering look at how we got here, visit here]
[Update 2: for a look at what remains, visit here and then watch the video (but you should sit down first)]
[Update 3: I just came across a Bloomberg Law video I can’t believe I missed from last year. Here is an ex-Dewey partner, former head of the firm’s Real Estate practice, blaming recruiters, blogs, and the media for the fall of the firm. I don’t even know how to feel about that… Insulted? Complimented? Incredulous?]
Apologies for being MIA the last couple of weeks. First, we had the holidays*, and then the firms’ new year budgets opened a ton of new positions, so it’s been a mad house around here lately. I’m certainly not complaining…
A couple of newsworthy items:
We’ve seen another colossal jump in demand for IP folks; Litigators, Prosecutors, and Patent Agents. If you have a tech degree, call me! So we’ve launched another Daily Rundown blog. This one is for IP positions nationwide. It’s brand new, so we’ve only had time to post a fraction of what we have available, but it’ll get there. We’re pretty psyched that we’ve already had a bunch of visitors and people signing up to follow the blog. Here is the link. Send your friends.
We’ve also seen a bunch of mid-level litigation and corporate positions come in; both in Northern and Southern California. Also, L&E seems to be steadily picking up. I heard through the grapevine this morning that some firms (I can name names) are expanding their L&E practices. That’s good news, unless you work for some of the firms’ clients I suppose.
Also, still in pretty high demand are ERISA/Executive Comp associates. Most of these positions want someone who has a tax background, but they’ll take an L&E background as well.
Finally a quick rant. Most of the attorneys we speak to/work with are truly lovely people; professional, responsive, courteous, gracious, etc. Occasionally, we come across a bad apple or two. It’s bound to happen; we talk to tons of people every day. I had that particular misfortune last week, so I’m mildly annoyed. Here’s the thing. We work really hard to get interviews for candidates. Sometimes the resumes, credentials, writing samples are stellar, and our job is easy. Other times we have to beg and plead with our contacts at the firm to get you in the door. No sweat. It’s what we do. (The competition is fierce [capital “F”] and unless you were top of your class at Harvard, and you’re making your first move after four solid years of the same practice at, say, Skadden, there’s going to be some begging and pleading on your behalf). However, when I’ve jumped through hoops for you, spent hours reworking your resume and getting to know you (so I can put together a real cover letter rather than standard crap), and I have arranged for the firm to pay for you to fly out first class to interview, DO NOT ask me if they’d consider doing the interview over Skype, because you’re not really “into flying out to LA right now.” I understand that you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. I understand that you would like to be respected, catered to, and treated like a professional, but please leave your attitude and sense of entitlement at the door. We just don’t have the time for people like you. Okay. I’m over it now.
Back to work…
* This past holiday season was my first official Hanukah/Christmas/New Years in California. I spent it in flipflops. It was glorious and surreal. I do not miss the east coast.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, I was a summer associate in BigLaw. Okay, so it wasn’t all that long ago, but it sure seems like it. Anyway, the office was swamped with work, and I spent the summer actually doing a lot of substantive lawyering (aside from, you know, the bowling parties and Broadway shows). I got a first hand look at what the day-to-day life of a law firm partner was like – the politics, the psychotic clients, the never ending meetings, phone calls, and hurry-up-and-waits. Although it was no surprise that my life as an associate was going to be miserable, it didn’t seem like it was going to get any better once I made it to the corner office. I would get urgent emails from partners at 3am, on Friday night, asking me if I’m sure I shepardized every single case cited in a particular memo. Their neurosis and anxieties started to affect me, and I found myself waking up, in a panic, checking my blackberry several times a night. It was right then, that very first summer, that I decided that this partnership business wasn’t for me. As driven and ambitious as I was, and as much as I wanted a challenging career, I didn’t want that life. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted exactly, but I knew it wasn’t that.
One night over drinks, I casually mentioned this new realization to some of my law school friends. Silence. And then the sound of jaws dropping. “You don’t care about making partner?!? What do you mean? Why not?” was the response, in unison, from around the table. Some of them even sat back in their chairs, as if I had just disclosed that I’m infected with a lethal, airborne virus. The “how can you say that?” and “what’s wrong with you?” comments all followed. I get it. They were shocked. I drank the Kool-aid with them all throughout our 1L year. We suffered together through journal write-on’s, bluebooking, OCI, and internships galore. And now, I was announcing to the world that this particular thing, that we all held sacred, was no longer important to me. They felt betrayed I guess, but their reaction was telling. We were all indoctrinated with this idea that making partner was our reason for living. It was everyone’s dream and to not want that, well, it was just unthinkable.
At the time, despite their disapproval, I was confident in my decision and I started planning a new career path that didn’t include making partner. I was not going to be swayed by peer pressure, but I was smart enough not to mention this at the office. When the firm offered me the associate position at the end of the summer, I accepted it without a peep. The rest is history.
Fast forward about five years, and now I spend my days talking to associates (and partners) throughout BigLaw. And what do you think I’ve started to hear in the last several months? That’s right! Junior associates frankly, and without shame or fear, telling me they don’t plan to pursue partnership; not at their current firms and probably not anywhere else. Can you believe it? (I can. I know how they feel). But more importantly, do the firms know how they feel? Do they care? Right now, most probably don’t care. The firms have all the bargaining power in a market flooded with competent (and, at times, desperate) legal talent. But what about a few years from now?
In just five short years, (and no, I’m not discounting the brand new economic reality we live in) it’s become socially/professionally acceptable to admit that you’re not interested in making partner. A couple of firms have even opened “career associate” or “non-partnership track” positions, to try to retain some of these renaissance Millennials. This recent trend however, got me thinking… What does all of it mean? I’m obviously not the first lawyer to reject the holy grail of law firm partnership. (I do feel a little vindicated among my set of friends, but I’m no pioneer). But what if this new generation of lawyers isn’t bluffing? What if, en masse, they see through the myth of “work-life balance” at BigLaw and they leave for smaller firms with less demanding positions? What will happen to these behemoth firms when there aren’t any competent mid/senior level attorneys left to promote. Will the talent gap become insurmountable in a few years?
Maybe you think that I’m being alarmist, that this is all cyclical, and the market will correct itself. Maybe you’re right. But there are mid-level positions, at top-tier firms, available right now, that have been open for months. The firms can’t fill them because the talent that’s available doesn’t have the credentials the firms demand. This is, to me at least, unbelievable given the national unemployment rate among lawyers. Is it because the folks with the experience, brains, and credentials left BigLaw long ago for greener pastures? Is this a sign of what’s to come? Is anyone paying attention?
Folks, in case y’all have been sleeping under a rock for the past few months, my new friend Bob has just published his annual report on What’s Hot and What’s Not in our little corner of the world.
Also hot right now (but I don’t think he mentions it in the report) is attorneys, disheartened by life in BigLaw, are turning into small business entrepreneurs. Here is a recent NY Times article about mid-level associates striking out on their own. Some are even flocking to firms in the cloud. (More on that later).
A quick word to some of my readers who are making their first lateral move. Perhaps you’re a junior attorney, or maybe you’re more senior, but have been with the same firm since law school. Now you’re looking at making a move, and you’ve lined up some interviews. You need to prepare for them. I’m going to say that again.
You need to prepare for your interviews!
OCI (on-campus interviews, or whatever your law school called it) did not prepare you for interviewing in the real world. Just because you snagged sixteen summer associate offers four years ago, doesn’t mean anything today. Lateral interviewing is an entirely different ballgame, and you’ll need to do more than shine your shoes and use a Crest whitening strip to get an offer.
Despite my warnings, candidates will often tell me, post-interview, that they were really surprised. Be ready, because you will get grilled! You will get asked difficult questions. You will be asked to discuss some of the legal work you’ve done, in detail. You’ll be put on the spot, and told to recite the issue confronted, and the legal analysis performed. You might be asked to critique/support recent legislation in your field. Or, the interviewer might ask you what you think the implications are, of the legislation. You might be asked for an opinion on a recent ruling of the Supreme Court. Are you ready to answer those questions on the fly?
In addition, you will be asked standard interview questions like, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” and “Why do you want to work at Bert and Ernie, LLP?” Do not kid yourself. If you’re not prepared, you will not get the job. Muddling your way through, with “um’s” and “er’s”, hoping that the interviewer doesn’t notice, will not work. Your grades, law school, or law firm credentials will not get you anywhere beyond the front door. The rest is up to you.
Pick several matters that you feel comfortable discussing. Take some time to crystallize the issues succinctly. Think about how you are going to present the information to the interviewer. Practice what you’re going to say out loud. Yes, out loud. I know it’s awkward, but it’s necessary. Stand in front of a mirror, or use a webcam. (I was going to say use a tape recorder, and realized how archaic that is. Does anyone even have a tape recorder anymore?) You might be surprised by what you hear/see.
Another couple quick ideas:
Before the interview, look up your interviewer(s) on social media sites: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Check out their profiles, interests, and backgrounds but do NOT connect, follow, or friend them. That’s weird and can lead to awkwardness.
Google your interviewer(s) to find recent victories or articles they’ve written. Perhaps they have a blog you might want to review.
Take the time to look put together and presentable. Folks, please have your suits cleaned and pressed. Hair groomed. Shoes need to be shined and scuff free. Gentlemen, please have your pants properly hemmed. Ladies, make sure the heels of your shoes aren’t worn down and making that clink-y sound when the metal screw hits a marble floor. (I shouldn’t have to say any of these things but I feel like I need to).
Prepare real questions to ask the interviewer(s) that the firm’s website doesn’t already answer. One of my favorite questions has always been some variation of, “tell me something you really like about this firm, and something you’d like to change.” Also, remember to ask them about the process including next steps, and what the time frame is, for the decision.
Be conscious of your non-verbal communication. Firm (but not aggressive) handshake. Sit up straight in your chair. Don’t nervously fidget around. Try to avoid talking with your hands. Make and maintain eye contact (but don’t be creepy). When your interviewer is speaking, pay attention with natural “mhm’s” and head-nods. Ask follow up questions that incorporate what s/he has said to show you were paying attention.
An interview is not the time to get lazy, or rest on your laurels. And furthermore, being “swamped” at your current job is no excuse. If you’re committed to finding another position, and you’re lucky enough to get that interview, put in the effort. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one. Here is an interesting take on how you might be scaring employers (or clients/partners/business associates) by being so “popular.”
In the legal world, this is even more dangerous, since you’re a walking, talking, tweeting file cabinet of confidential client information… Please be mindful of what you’re announcing to the world. Also, drunk tweeting should be absolutely prohibited. Got an app for that?
I’m told this piece comes from “Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith. It’s fantastic!
A man was suffering a persistent problem with his house. The floor squeaked. No matter what he tried, nothing worked. Finally, he called a carpenter who friends said was a true craftsman. The craftsman walked into the room and heard the squeak. He set down his toolbox, pulled out a hammer and nail, and pounded the nail into the floor with three blows. The squeak was gone forever. The carpenter pulled out an invoice slip, on which he wrote the total for $45. Above the total were two line items (1) Hammering, $2; (2) Knowing where to hammer, $43. Charge for knowing where.
We’ve been getting this question a lot lately. Understandably so. Job seekers are very frustrated by the current economy, and feel slighted by recruiters that don’t want to work with them. The reasons for it are unpleasant to speak about, and even less pleasant to hear; but if you want an honest (read callous) answer, here it is:
Recruiters (who work on contingency, for the most part) only want to talk to candidates that their clients are going to hire. They typically won’t invest the time otherwise. It’s crappy and unfair, but that’s the way it is. It is an unfortunate byproduct of the economy
To elaborate a little further, the legal market is flooded with competent, talented attorneys with lots of experience and skills. Firms and companies are taking advantage of that, and are being very particular about the candidates they’re willing to consider. If they have an open position, they’ll hold out until they find the perfect candidate with the exact skill-set they’re seeking. That harsh reality is manifested in recruiters only wanting to spend time talking to (and submitting) candidates that are likely to get interviewed and hired.
Moreover, although the lines are often blurred, recruiters are “employed by” law firms/companies, not candidates. We try to work with/advise/assist/coach the candidates we work with (hopefully, spreading some good karma along the way) but our allegiance, naturally, is to our clients and their needs.
Employers work with recruiters (often paying very large fees per placement) to get the best of the best. These days, those candidates are the attorneys with the exact skills the job requires, rather than an experienced and talented attorney that can learn a new practice area on the job.
All is not lost however. Just because a recruiter doesn’t have a fitting position for you today, doesn’t mean he won’t tomorrow. Submit your resume, keep it updated, and let the recruiter know what you’re looking for (with specifics like geography, salary, firm type and size, and practice area). We don’t discard resumes – we do really keep them on file and one day we will call you with your dream job.
Courtesy of the Ask Angela column; November issue of the Rifkin Consulting Newsletter)
I have a friend working at a law firm that’s hiring; should I have my friend submit me for the position, or is it better to let a recruiter submit me?
Thanks for writing in David. We hear this question from our candidates often. They tell us that since the friend works at the firm already, and has an “in” with the recruiting coordinator, it might be better to have the friend submit the resume. Some firms will even offer the friend a referral bonus if you get the job. Objectively, several issues can arise if you opt to go the friend referral route. (Since there are a lot of players here, let’s call the friend “Jane” for this particular example).
1) If you go with Jane, you won’t have the benefit of an adviser that knows exactly what the firm wants, and what they’re looking for. Not all recruiters are great, but if you can find one that you trust to do a good job for you, it will benefit you a lot more than letting Jane submit you. The recruiter will know the firm well, will have a good rapport with the recruiting coordinator, and will know what the firm is looking for, and (maybe more importantly) what might turn the firm off to an application. The recruiter will help rework your resume to highlight the skills relevant to the position, while also de-emphasizing trouble spots. (I know what you’re thinking and you’re wrong. Everyone, including you, has trouble spots!). He will write a glowing cover letter that will make your application shine while also preempting any questions that might arise. Jane probably won’t be able to offer you that kind of help or expertise. She may not be keenly attuned to the best way to present you to the firm. She might not know how to explain (read spin) your latest layoff. Despite working there, what does Jane really know about how resumes are reviewed, or what Human Resources looks for in an application? Moreover, Jane is busy billing 200 hours a month. She doesn’t have that kind of time for you, or your application.
2) Your representative in this process should be someone that the employer feels comfortable working with. A part of what recruiters do is smooth out questions or issues that come up when your application is being reviewed. Decision-makers reach out to us and ask questions like “Is this candidate really committed to moving to Los Angeles?” or “Is this candidate really willing to take a pay cut to work at a small firm?” These are moments when it’s crucial to have someone knowledgeable and reliable, in your corner, working for you. Are you certain that Jane will do the best job of answering those questions on your behalf? Do you trust Jane not to share
personal information about you that might inadvertently raise red flags? (i.e. your spouse isn’t crazy about the idea of moving to LA.).
Additionally, the firm might not feel comfortable approaching Jane with these sorts of issues. She might not be privy to a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in HR either – there are confidentiality issues here as well. Employers work with recruiters because they like having that buffer – it’s a trusted third party they can turn to when evaluating a particular candidate. By working with Jane, you might feel like you’re saving the firm a couple of bucks, but really you’re just putting your application and candidacy at risk.
3) You need someone with inside information to prepare you for the interview “gauntlet”. You might think the obvious answer here is to go with Jane. It’s not. Having worked with a firm for a while, a recruiter should be able to completely prepare you for the interview; soup to nuts. He should tell you what kind of interviewer the decision-maker is, what kind of questions you can expect, what kind of questions to ask, and what topics to stay away from. He might also fill you in on recent victories the firm has had, and/or tell you about the partner’s particular quirks or leanings. Jane might not be as knowledgeable about or experienced in those aspects of the process. She might know the hiring partner, she might even work for him, but does she know what he’s like in an interview setting? Does she know what his specific needs are, with respect to the position he’s trying to fill? Will Jane’s lobbying, and a potential rejection of your application, create a weird tension between Jane and the partner down the road? Is that something that Jane is considering when she talks about you? (I’m not trying to bad-mouth Jane here, but you know how office politics work. Jane might be looking out for number 1).
4) THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE! What does Jane’s recommendation say about you? What if Jane is not in good standing with the firm? She might not even know it, and/or might not be honest with you about it. We had a situation like this come up several months ago. A candidate we were working with told us that he’d rather have a friend submit him for a position. After a long drawn out review process, this candidate’s application was rejected; no interview, no explanation. The recruiting coordinator at the firm later told us that the referral from that particular associate is what made the firm nervous about considering this candidate. Obviously this won’t always be the case, but it’s certainly something to be aware of. There might be a proper time and place to have someone you know put in a call on your behalf. But are you willing to bet your potential job on Jane’s reputation at the firm?
I’m obviously biased, in that I want you to let me submit you for a position, because that’s how I make a living. But it’s important that you give these issues some thought. How well do you really know your friend? Do you trust her to represent you accurately? How much faith does this friend have in you as a candidate, or as an attorney? Will she go to bat for you if need be? A good recruiter will be invested in you and your job search – his interests are very obviously aligned with yours.
Can you, with certainty, say the same about Jane? Think about it.
(This comes to us courtesy of the monthly Rifkin Consulting newsletter)
Last month we asked some of our candidates to submit questions they have about the attorney recruiting process. We are kicking off a new section of our monthly newsletter to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how things work in our corner of the world. We believe that the more information a candidate has and the better they understand the process, the easier life will be for all involved. We invite you to submit the questions you’d like answered and we’ll do our best to answer them while setting aside our obvious self-interest. Here goes:
Why won’t recruiters disclose firm names when they call me about a position? Don’t they realize that I can’t know if I’m interested without knowing the name of the firm? -D.S.
I’ve been saying for several weeks now that we’ve been seeing a very strong bounce back and uptick in lateral hiring. But no one listens to me. So here is an article by our friends Valerie and Roberta that made its way to Law.com. Do you believe me now?
The jobs are back so the recruiting calls are back. Here’s what we’re calling you about: Patent Prosecution, IP litigation, Labor and Employment, Bankruptcy, Venture Capital and Fund Formation, Finance, M&A, General Corporate, Insurance Coverage, Securities and Commercial Litigation, Real Estate (transactional), and last but not least, Executive Comp. and Benefits (which is hot hot hot!).
There has been a lot of recent chatter in the recruiting/HR world about whether LinkedIn is replacing the good ol’ fashioned resume. (Here’s a pretty good discussion).
As with most technological advances, there are the defenders and the haters. As of right now, it seems that some companies have moved to include a LI recruiting platform while others continue to use traditional processes. The disparate methodology has confused everyone from HR departments to recruiters and has created a lot of angst and neurosis for job seekers.
At least for now we can all be grateful that law firms are slow to adapt to trendy technological solutions. Hopefully, by the time they get around to implementing something like LI in their recruiting efforts all the kinks will be worked out.
With all the books, articles, and career coaches out there, I’m still surprised at how clueless people are about resume techniques. So, for your enlightenment and my catharsis, here’s a quick list of dos and don’ts on resume style and presentation:
1. (This is my #1 pet-peeve) DON’T put periods at the end of job description bullet points.
They are not complete sentences and do not require periods.
2. DON’T put your home address on your resume.
If you’re like most jobseekers, you are busy sending out your resume to any and all relevant job posts. Sometimes (after a particularly miserable day at your current job) desperation may even set in, compelling you to blindly send your resume to an anonymized Craigslist employment ad. (Don’t gasp, you know you’ve done it!). Given the frequency of identity theft and the like, it’s becoming more and more important that you keep your private information private. Since you don’t always know where your resume is going, or where it might end up, it’s a good idea to leave your home address off the header. No one’s going to use it anyway.
3. DO put a professional looking email address on your resume.
This one is pretty obvious. Typically, some variation of your name is appropriate. Pimpdaddy@hotmail.com is NOT.
4. DO read, update, revise, and keep your resume current (even when you’re happy in your current job).
In uncertain economic times, there’s very little we can count on in terms of job security. Today you’re in and tomorrow you’re out. (What’s up, Heidi?). It’s important that your resume accurately reflects your skills and expertise. (The usefulness/relevance of a resume these days is reserved for a future post, but for now it’s unavoidable). As tedious and un-fun as it may be, it’s important that every few months you look over your resume, and add in any new expertise you’ve acquired. This is of particular importance for litigators. (If you’re like me, you get deeply involved in the current matter(s) on your desk. To clear some brain space, you forget about anything and everything that isn’t immediately relevant. Consequently, you have zero recollection of the matters you worked on last month). When time comes to look for a new job, it’ll be an insurmountable effort to go back and fill in the missing pieces. If you have to, set up a calendar alert to remind you to do this once a month. Your resume doesn’t have to always be submission ready, but you should be jotting down quick bullets every month which you can clean up quickly when the time comes.
5. DON’T put hobbies/interests on your resume.
I know, I know, your law school career office told you to; but you were a baby lawyer then, without much substance to fill your resume. Now you’re a grown up and a professional. No one cares anymore about your scuba diving certification or salsa dance lessons.
6. DO pay attention to details like fonts, sizes, and formats.
The conventional wisdom about one page resumes still holds today. Try your best to fit everything on one page. I work with lawyers who have 20+ years experience. If they can fit everything on one page, so can you. Adjust the margins, adjust the font, do the opposite of whatever you did in college to make your term papers appear longer than they were. Also, please be consistent – use the same font and size throughout (with the exception of the header perhaps). Finally, please minimize the use of CAPS (even small caps) and BOLDS. I don’t want to feel like your resume is yelling at me. Go for clean and elegant.
7. DO include the states you’re barred in.
I’m not sure why people leave this off their resume. It’s important to include it (preferably at the bottom, under a separate heading labeled ADMISSIONS). A simple “Admitted to practice law in the State of California” will do.
8. DO include specifics.
Vague entries leave room for doubt. Partners are busy and doubts mean that your resume gets set aside. A bullet point that reads, “Manage all aspects of litigation from pleading to trial” is fine but it needs to be followed up with specifics. How many pleadings have you filed? How many depositions have you taken or defended? Did you first or second chair a trial(s)? For transactional attorneys, what was your level of responsibility on deals? How much were they worth? Add a few bullets on representative matters (keeping client names confidential) – show off the caliber of clients you represent and issues you have experience dealing with.
9. DO make your resume easy on the eyes
Do you ever look forward to reading a dense, single spaced paragraph chock full of trite language? Neither do we. Make your resume easy to read by breaking up job description paragraphs into bullet points. Bullets make it easier for a reader to scan through, and they make it easier for you to emphasize and highlight your attributes.
That’s all the advice I’ve got about that. Hope that helps!