On Depression And Expectations

I didn’t have a great weekend. The pressure got to me, and I had to leave the house for a while. I could feel depression turning into anger and I didn’t want to take it out on the kids, so I left.

Sometimes building a law practice really sucks. The grind can wear you down, and you just want to curl up in a ball and engage in your favorite vices. I don’t have the perfect solution, but I thought a lot this weekend about the emotional burden a law practice can be.

So here are a few thoughts on possible solutions.

1. Change Your Expectations

Husbands and wives come to me all the time, asking whether they should leave their spouse. Like they’re asking my permission.

As a person, I definitely default to preserving marriages, but I also don’t see any value in going through the motions. So I always advise couples to make lists of non-negotiables.

Each spouse makes a list of the very few things that he or she simply can’t accept. There are only two rules:

  • The list must be short, and
  • You must let go of everything else.

Relationships have lulls just like our firm-building does. And sometimes we get lost in the lull.

Remember how in high school, once you’d decided you were going to break up with your girl/boyfriend, everything he/she did bugged the heck out of you?

Like, the way he chews drives you nuts, or the way she carries her books sends you up a wall. Little things that never mattered all of a sudden seem like huge things. You’re stacking justifications for the breakup before you have the nerve to do anything about it.

When married couples get to that phase, I encourage them to be open and honest with each other about the things that must be true for the relationship to continue. But I tell them they need to let go of all other expectations. If anything outside that very short list goes the way you want, it’s just gravy.

So what’s on your list? Make that short list of non-negotiables, the things that must be true for you to continue lawyering. But be humble and dedicated enough to let go of everything else.

Harm is a breach of expectations, which means you feel harm whether those expectations are reasonable or not. The goal with this list exercise is to mindfully get rid of expectations that don’t matter, and to focus on the ones that do matter.

2. Exceed Your Expectations

Once you’ve narrowed the list of expectations for your firm and professional life, knock the big things out of the park.

It’s so easy to get drawn into work that doesn’t matter. It’s easy to be defined by it. Especially as lawyers.

But by listing out the expectations that matter most to you, your work comes into focus. You know what to work on tomorrow because you know what matters.

Now focus like crazy on the important work. Become a professional at what matters most to you. Stop seeing all of your work as equal, and make your priority the priority.

Here are a few books I’d highly recommend that’ll get you started on this focused work:

  1. Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. (To help you decide what your important work is)
  2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. (To help you work on the important stuff every day)
  3. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel Pink. (To help you schedule your important work in a way that ensures it’ll actually get done)

What’s important here is that you do the work. You produce the results. You exceed your expectations.

If injury is a breach of expectations, then you’ll feel a win every time you exceed your expectations. And now you’re doing the work that really matters, so every victory has huge impact.

Don’t run away from the work when the depression sets in, just focus on the right stuff and get it done. Nothing is so satisfying as making progress on the work you’re here to accomplish.

3. Never Walk Alone

You can’t choose not to feel lonely, but you can choose not to be alone.

This work is incredibly isolating. And when we are lonely, we often make emotional decisions to hire staff too early or to partner with someone without really thinking it through. We know it’s unnatural to hide away with our laptops.

So how can you build community around your work?

  • First, you could work out loud. That’s what I’m doing with this blog, journaling as I stumble through building a practice. It feels self-indulgent at times, but transparency and intimacy are so rare in our industry. If you’ll open up your experience to others, you’ll find a tribe of friends who want to support you.
  • Second, join communities. Take a look at Meetup.com or Facebook. Search for groups you’d like to join, whether filled with lawyers, entrepreneurs, single parents, recovering alcoholics, sports fans… Whatever identity you want to explore, get some friends around you who’ll help you learn and have fun.
  • Third, and perhaps most difficult/rewarding, you could create your own community. This seems daunting, especially for the introverts among us, but technology has made this so easy. Go on Facebook and start a group, then invite acquaintances who might be interested. You’ll be surprised where it goes. And if the community is focused on your most important work, you’ll have built a supportive tribe that helps you grow.

Overcome However You Can

I don’t know how to overcome all forms of depression. I know there are some of us who are battling minds and hormones that betray. Please don’t take this post as chastisement or over-simplification.

But, whatever level of depression you face in your journey, the only person who can get you through is you. You’ll have to control what you can, only because no one else will.

If you surround yourself with a supportive tribe, and focus on your most vital work, I promise it will improve your sense of self-worth.

The greatest trap is to work on things that don’t matter. Doing that means surrendering your identity to others’ expectations. It will never satisfy you.

So, please, evaluate your expectations, focus on the work that matters, and try to let go of the rest. I’ve seen this exercise save several marriages (including my own), and I believe it will save your relationship with your work and yourself.

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