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When the Hard Times Drag You Down or Don't Let your Brain Take You There

By Julie S. Rivers

Okay, I need Irvin Karp's presentation on procrastination. Should've had it weeks ago. The Friday before the Solo Small Firm Conference, I'm sitting here at the Starbucks with my chick drink (extra-hot ... so I don't gulp it down and want six more) hoping some sort of inspiration will hit. I've waited ever since I found out the hokey title for this speech for inspiration to hit. I've Googled "Don't let the hard times get you down" thinking Google might have the answer. Don't tell Jim Calloway, but even Google fails me. It's even mentioned throughout Google what a cliché the phrase is. All right, even tried the Oprah magazine (thinking hey, don't they always have those kind of tips?). Nothing.

I've been through one of the most difficult springs in my life and quite frankly, I don't feel all that inspired. I'd prefer to whine. What I have discovered though is this: I get to choose how I want to navigate this difficult time in my life. Some days are better than others. So, with that, I can talk about what has worked for me (constructors), the BFOs as they've hit (BFO means "blinding flash of the obvious") and the downers (or destructors).

I really would like to know why my first line of defense is to whine, avoid, procrastinate, sit down in the mess and let my brain wander into the room of "why me", "what if", "if only", "I should've," "he should've", etc. All of those are like needy, over-analytical, whiny children taking up room, constantly jerking on my sleeve. I was not apparently in the line when picking up the part of the brain that immediately goes to good attitude, happy thoughts and constructive ways of approaching difficulties. I am cut from the cloth of having to make all of my own mistakes. And boy, have I! Maybe you, kind reader, are more like my weird son: he learns from observing others making mistakes and logically says, "hey, I think I'll do this instead." Wow. So here's my two cents from 48 years of hard knocks. Take what you like and leave the rest.

The Truth: I Get a Choice

Because I'm a slow learner and a quick forgetter, I forget the whole choice thing sometimes – okay, a lot of times. I get a choice with everything – including how I want to perceive what's happening in my life. I forget that my biggest problem is always, unequivocally me. I also forget that I can also be my biggest asset. When the lawyer on the other side is a jerk and is forgetting we're restructuring a family, not breaking up Exxon. Or when my husband doesn't put moi at the first of his list, or he does but it's not convenient, or when the poor distracted human in front of me in traffic has just pulled in front of me, or when I'm absolutely terrified and don't even know it. Earlier I mentioned that I go to all of the destructors first. Fortunately, I've learned I don't have to live there anymore. I move on into constructors, which I'll discuss in a moment.

The Top Three Destructors that Live in My Head

My husband is a mystic. He says none of this is real anyway, Julie. I'm too practical for that. It's taken me years to realize that what goes on in my head is only in my head. My thoughts are just neurons following some old path I created. They go "oh yeah, I'm likin' this. Feels familiar. Think I'll get comfortable and follow that well worn path." One I created and worked out decades ago or one I created in a state of distress a few years ago. I forget that they're not friendly paths, just familiar ones. Here are a few of my destructors that live in my head.

  1. Avoidance: I've heard of that old fight or flight deal. I don't do either, at first. I could never have made it in the world of the cave man. The bengal tiger would have been leaping for my throat and I would have decided that I might be better off climbing up in a tree and thinking it through. Hmmm... What about, or maybe this. Let me think of the long-term strategy. Maybe I should consider it for a week or two, obsess on it and hey, I'll get back with you, tiger, next Tuesday. It's great in "lawyer world". We get paid to do that – think things through and think about the landmines. Sometimes, it's better to just RUN! After all, I'm not cool like Indiana Jones. Of course, I don't have script writers either.

    I realize I've landed in the land of avoidance when I think it's a good idea to watch movies (several in a row), get hooked on a book series and do nothing but read, watch TV for any length of time (I'm not a TV watcher by nature, except for the Today Show), don't call my friends — you get the point. I also avoid things that I love that feed me. This is when I usually think it's time for me to chuck it all and become a barista – not any barista, but a "bohemian barista"!

  2. Procrastination: I heard once that procrastination is just a lack of commitment. It might be for others. Sometimes procrastination happens, because I am just overbooked, overworked, overcommitted and a poor manager of my time. A lot of times that's not really the implementation of the destructor – it's just a byproduct of a busy life. Certain projects, like this paper for example, fall in another category. There, I unwittingly pull out my procrastination destructor because I'm in fear. All those little niggly things come to mind that erode my ability to just do it. What if everybody reads what I wrote and think it's stupid, what if I don't have anything to say (and I just think I do), what if everyone reads it and goes, "hey, I know all that – what's wrong with you because you don't", what if I really have nothing to offer?

  3. Victimhood: I know I'm there when I'm whining ("Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" ) or I'm blaming someone else ("She should have...", "But for....") or I'm namecalling ("he's so stupid," "she's a _" ...). I hated finding this whole victimy thing out about myself. I have no problem admitting avoidance or procrastination, but being a victim? Yech! One of those really old neural pathways. It's usually the easiest one to spot though, out of all my destructors.

The Top Three Constructors

As I said earlier, I don't live in my destructors anymore. I just visit them for a little while. Sometimes I choose them for an hour or two. Sometimes I realize I've wandered into them. Either way, I've learned some other ways of thinking, feeling and acting. One of the things I've learned is that my thoughts produce how I feel. A good example of this is listening to some old song on the radio. Immediately, that old song can put me into a certain state, remind me of someone or some event or some era of my life, which reminds me of ... , which then reminds me of .... , and then I'm feeling a certain way. All because of where my thoughts wandered. Pretty powerful.

A string of thoughts and feelings then produces my attitude. Here are three constructors that help me. When I use them then my attitude remains better, things improve – no matter how bad they may seem. It doesn't mean I don't look at life realistically. In fact, the three constructors actually help me approach my life with more courage and more candidly. What I notice with all of the constructors is that they involve the verb form "be". Call it hokey, call it whatever you want, but just "being" is something I've found incredibly powerful.

  1. Be a Visionary. No, I'm not talking about being a visionary in the "take on the entire world sense". I'm suggesting having a vision in your own life. Yeah, right. Who has time? It's the old "it's hard to drain the swamp when you're up to your end in alligators".

    What's the point of draining the swamp if you don't know why you're draining it? This is a big order. It's what gives my life purpose and helps me remember that whatever alligator is nipping at my heels is only temporary. This suggestion isn't a tool, it's a premise for living life. Some people create mission statements. Some people make vision boards. Some people just scrawl something on a sticky pad and put in the paperclip drawer. It doesn't matter. No drama need attach to this vision quest unless you want it to.

    Visioning helps us set goals and to move forward. I need purpose. Otherwise, I live in existential angst that Woody Allen would be proud of! Vision comes from the quiet murmur inside yourself. The one that gets ignored when the daily business of life takes over. The one that sometimes shows up when you take the weekend off and when the specter of Monday morning comes evaporates. Your dreams lie here. The size of the dream or vision doesn't matter.

    When I go down my destructor paths – any of the myriad ones I've created in my head – I forget that I had a vision or that I actually had decided on a different path. That's one of the reasons the destructors are, well, so destructive. Whatever destructors you might have are always insidious. They cloud the clarity of vision.

    Find a vision. For the week, for the day, for your life. It can change as you change. There are no rules here. We don't have to have a pleadings code, a discovery code, or an evidence code. Your vision springs from your passions and the values you actually practice. That's where that "BFO" comes in. I've found it's the blinding flash of the obvious. The thing that's in front of your face but never noticed. Oh yeah, your linear thinking won't work here. In fact, I've found it's a hindrance. It's a circuitous route that usually requires living in some ambiguity. When the hard times come, though it's your savior. You'll already have in place some tools that are helping you towards that vision.

  2. Be proactive. Wallowing in the mess has little advantage and usually results in depression and the use of our destructors. I read not too long ago that avoiding is the thing that keeps us stuck in the world we need to leave behind. Ouch. That also showed me how destructive my avoidance destructor can be.

    Living in a manner that brings me joy is part of my vision. For me joy comes from acknowledging the part of me that is creative – that's where my vibrancy lives. Glassblowing, welding (if it's just a junky piece of metal, I don't care – I love it!), painting a mural in my grandbaby's nursery. It doesn't matter. I like glassblowing and welding, because if I'm not completely present there and paying attention, I get burned. Something about a 2000° glob of glass keeps me focused and then, well, there's all the cool stuff that can come from it. For others, it's the magic of the golf stroke. Just move. Just be passionate in whatever is proactive. The vision gives purpose, which helps us be proactive. No, work doesn't count. That may be a refuge and a goal but it's also the thing that can kill you.

  3. Be a reframer. The saying attitude is everything is really true. Reframe your reality in a way that helps you be in your vision. It's all context. There is always a gift in everything that life brings us. By finding that gift, we find gratitude. We find in that difficulty the good, bad and ugly about ourselves. We do reframing all of the time in our work. We just do it at a more superficial level by spin doctoring our facts and the law's application. We already have the skill. We just have to apply it in an authentic manner to our lives at a fundamental level.

    When my daughter was in about 8th grade and was going through the worst of our teenage angst, I suggested that she write a gratitude list. She stomped up the stairs, dashed off a list and shoved it at me. The list was something like this: I am grateful for .... 1. Water 2. Electricity 3. My socks ... Sometimes that's where we are. It really is about the basics because life's coming too fast and too hard. I've found this though: it's all context and it really never is as bad as it could be. After all, it's all in our head.

The Wrap-Up: Being is Where It's At

It's always a choice: destructor or constructor? I've found it requires a life lived with intention. We can't control the maelstrom that we sometimes end up with as a consequence of our thoughts and actions, but we can control what rattles around in our head. May you quiet the committee that lives there and find a fulfilled life through visioning, reframing and constructive movement even when the "hard times drag you down". May you find "be."