“I am not happy doing what I’m doing.”
I’ve had that thought several times in my life. We all have – I hope.
In fact, the thought that I was unhappy doing what I was doing was the thought that led me to law school.
Back in 1999, I was working as a supervisor in a massive Target warehouse in East Texas, supervising a crew of 35 folks loading boxes to be shipped to Target stores around the state of Texas.
I got to work before the sun came up and went home after it was dark. I never saw my girlfriend at the time, rarely worked out or exercised, and never travelled. In fact, I did very little besides eat, sleep and work. Fun and enjoying life were not part of my calculus.
Early one morning, I got a call.
The police found a friend of mine hanging from a rope in a tree in the park near his house. I knew he wasn't happy. I did not know he was THAT unhappy.
For weeks after that, I was contemplating a lot about my life. What path was I on? What was I doing with my life that added any value to the world? Was I happy?
When I finally realized that the work I was doing prevented me from seeing the sun 5 out of every 7 days, I had to acknowledge: “I’m not happy doing what I’m doing.”
A months-long process of introspection ensued, and I found myself taking the LSAT. Then law school. The Bar exam. And now, here I am today, representing veterans in federal appeals to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Looking back, there is such power in those words:
"I’m not happy doing what I’m doing."
They are the catalyst for the kind of growth and change that will ultimately make us happier.
Throughout my legal career, I have several times had to acknowledge that I was an unhappy lawyer.
Yet, each time I hear myself say those words out loud, the first thing I hear is an admission of failure.
On reason is that, as men, we are told that talking about our feelings is weak, and that we need to "man up," and "drive on."
Part of it is that a disappointingly prevalent number of attorneys in the legal profession are vultures, feasting on the carrion of an unhappy lawyer.
The legal industry is only starting to get the first glimpses of the idea that happiness is as much a part of the practice of law as marketing, writing, or billing. Even still, even the American Bar Association is misinterpreting that knowledge, suggesting that competence as a lawyer is related to the happiness and health of a lawyer.
At those times when I finally admitted I was an unhappy lawyer - or at least unhappy in the “practice of law”- I was free to figure out what would make me a happy lawyer.
But what is happiness? How do I know I'm not just in a funk, annoyed with the petty antics of opposing counsel, or disappointed with the outcome of a couple of cases.
Here's how I look at happiness. Maybe it will help you.
For me, happiness is like cake with three layers.
The first layer is the kind of in-the-moment happiness of every day. Maybe I heard good news on a case. Perhaps my law school classmate’s chemo pounded her cancer into remission. One son made the varsity baseball team as a freshman. Another got a full ride to college. All those years of reading the “Furniture Enthusiast Monthly” magazine finally paid off and I won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes.
Picture yourself spinning a merry go round at the park. Right when it starts to slow down, a good strong push gets it going again.
That "strong push" is the first layer of happiness – those joyful or pleasant moments that provide a boost of energy into your life.
The second layer of happiness as a general sense of contentment or satisfaction with my place in life.
It’s that feeling when I realize I’m doing okay, I’m surviving – and maybe even thriving. I’m satisfied with my station in life.
Health plays a big role in this layer of happiness. When I was a pack a day smoker (from age 14 to 44), I became increasingly miserable because I couldn’t quit. I tried the pills and the patch, abstinence and accupuncture, hypnosis, cold turkey, and even Wild Turkey. Nothing ever took. I'd put together a few days or weeks clean from cigarettes, and I'd be smoking again.
By the age of 43, I could feel parts of my body not working as well as they used to, and I knew smoking was the cause. My unhappiness stemmed from my unhealthiness.
It is in this second layer of happiness that money factors in – at least for me.
I’ve been homeless part of my life and I’ve lived comfortably in suburbia at other times. I've learned here’s a certain amount of money I need to be happy, and it’s not much.
Beyond that amount, money becomes more of a hassle than its worth. Less than that amount of money, and life is more of a struggle than I want to deal with.
Happiness doesn’t come from money itself. A component of happiness does come, however, from having the money you need or want to cut your path through life.
The third layer of happiness is a bit more esoteric.
It is that sense that I am living my life to its fullest potential. Am I leaving something behind in the world that’s worth being remembered for? Or am I just leaving a big messy footprint on the earth?
Ultimately, in this layer of happiness, I am questioning whether I have lived the small dose of life that we all get to its absolute fullest.
I think most people really struggle with this layer of happiness. Sometimes unnecessarily - the whole self-help movement seems designed to keep us focused on this layer of happiness, when major or minor changes to our diet, fitness, or financial plans might yield far greater happiness.
And that same self-help movement seems fixated on requiring that we all find a single purpose for our life...our "One Thing". Some people have such a thing. Most don't. And many of us don't really want it.
Here’s how I like to think about the 3 layers of happiness.
Does the cake taste good? That’s the first layer.
Is it the cake you wanted? That’s the second level. True cake purists – not "cake posers" – would never be happy with an ice cream cake of Fudgie the Whale. And a 5 year old kid would probably rather get socks for her birthday than a poundcake with chocolate almond icing.
The third layer of happiness considers whether we are happy with the cake we are making. I would be extremely unhappy if he were trying to make a carrot cake with a brown butter cream cheese frosting and it turned out looking like more like the poo emoji than anything edible. But if I’m wanting to make a three-layer German chocolate cake, and I’m getting better and better at it each time I try, then I will likely experience happiness that is pretty hard to match.
The cake metaphor not working for you?
Think of happiness like a road trip.
The first layer of happiness is rolling down the road with the window down.
You're singing along to your favorite sing-out-loud song, the wind is whipping through your hair.
Maybe the kids are all singing in the back seat and getting along for the first time in, ever. You get the idea - and probably already have your own picture in your mind's eye.
The second layer of happiness considers whether you are in the vehicle you want to take on a road trip.
And the third layer of happiness considers whether you are happy with the destination you’ve set.
The “fix” for the unhappy lawyer requires an assessment of which categories of happiness are the fount of our unhappiness.
And this is the hard part.
The categories overlap – a change in practice area can theoretically fix all three layers. Leaving the practice of law might help the unhappy lawyer whose happiness issues derive from their lack of satisfaction or waning purpose. Meditation and exercise alone will not likely help the unhappy lawyer who realizes he is not living life to his full potential.
Here’s what I do to figure out why I’m an unhappy lawyer.
This exercise has proven incredibly useful in many areas of my life, and is a variation of a technique I was taught 22 years ago. (Thanks, and R.I.P. Buck.)
When I realize I’m an unhappy lawyer, I break out my journal.
For the next 30 days, I’m write 2 things at the end of each work day.
The first thing I’m going to write down is the ONE thing that I most LOVED the most about my work day today.
The second thing I’m going to write down is the ONE thing that I most LOATHED about my work day.
The purpose of this exercise is meant to identify what you really love about your work and what you really loathe.
Not what you liked and didn't like. The word "Loathe" conveys more than dislike - it connotes a sense of disgust. The word "Love" suggests an affinity that overcomes all struggle.
I like writing blog posts. It's a freeing form of writing where perfection and grammatical precision are exceptions, not rules. But I don't LOVE writing blog posts. I LOVE fitting them together into a cohesive story.
I hate phone calls. For many reasons, but I just do not like talking on the phone. But what I LOATHE is communication without a physical connection - eye contact, reading body language, etc.
Are you starting to see the difference between like/dislike and love/loathe?
This “LOVE-LOATHE” exercise is not meant to become a litany of gratitude or complaints. If you find yourself droning on for pages in your LOVE-LOATHE journal about why Judge so-and-so is a real jerk, or all the things you loved doing to day, you are writing too much of the wrong thing. At least the wrong thing for this exercise.
We are doing a quick note – in and out in 5 minutes or less. Two or three sentences for the LOVE, and two or three sentences for the LOATHE.
If you keep the exercise short and brief - and stick with it for thirty days - you will inevitably see patterns emerge.
You are going to have a much more clear picture of the sources of your current unhappiness. It may be evidence of what you suspected, or what you learn might shock you to your core.
Whatever it is, focus your next few months on fixing that one source of unhappiness, or on expanding that one source of happiness.
If you are still unhappy, rinse and repeat. Do another 30-day LOATHE-LOVE journal.
This exercise has been a game-changer for me.
Let me know how it works for you.