Early in the Pandemic I spoke with a lot of folks about how important it was to give folks grace when they say or do something that upsets us, because we just don’t know what they are facing. The plethora of the personal and professional challenges people can have were all magnified after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, the gassing of BLM demonstrators in DC, as lockdown went on, the virus spread, and so many law firms and companies crouched defensively.
As the year dragged on, young lawyers I mentor asked how I was able to maintain such a positive attitude. I shared that my calls and interactions with them—assisting them in navigating their careers—kept my mental health in balance. And it was true.
But after the New Year, I hit what marathoners call “the wall.” Unlike a real wall, it doesn’t stop you cold, but you get sluggish and even disoriented; your legs feel like lead (or so I hear—I was always more of miler/cross-country runner). I hit the wall. The thing is, I didn’t realize it.
My team and I were still cranking out solid work, winning cases, and landing new clients. I was speaking on panels, enjoying Zoom happy hours, and sharing the same weekend routine of exercise, relaxation and a bottle of champagne with my wife that I had for the past decade.
What could be wrong?
Mental health is a topic I’ve not really paid much mind. And yet so many people I care about and respect have really been struggling. Parents trying to homeschool their kids while working full time from home and having to be “on” for constant Zoom, Teams, and WebEx calls. Young single folks isolated from friends and family. Family members dealing with their own high-stress health issues.
What made me realize I was struggling was this blog. Or rather, me not writing it. Every weekend since Thanksgiving, I’ve started writing and gotten nowhere. Throughout my adult life, the only time I’ve ever had writer’s block is when I’m exhausted. But the simple math eluded me.
My mindset, like a lot of lawyers under stress has always been, “power through it; embrace the suck; failure breeds success if you’re persistent and have a growth mindset.”
I’m OK. I’ve dealt with many more stressful things than this before. That’s what I’ve been telling myself.
Both are true and both are not true. The truth is, we’re in a whole different world than any of us have been in before. I have been in far more stressful situations than I am currently. My dad’s losing battle with cancer and my own life-altering health issues, wrapped up in the near failure of my law firm in the Great Recession. THAT was stressful. I could list twenty more stressful things than dealing with all the ramifications of COVID overlaid with responsibility for my family, employees, and clients. And yet, this is different.
Here I am. Knee deep in a wall I’ve never seen before. (I will admit now, for the record, to occasionally mixing metaphors on purpose).
My epiphany has its genesis in one of my earliest blog posts. I wrote:
The key here is to make friends and then serve your friends. […] Look out for your friends. And when you’re not looking, they will look out for you.
First, a few of the lawyers I’ve mentored over the years independently sent me texts in January, just asking how I was doing. One came for a socially distanced visit, bearing a very fine bottle of Scotch. One just spontaneously expressed gratitude for what I’ve meant to her career. My wonderfully talented friend, Nishan Ardon, who does the design and production on this blog so all I have to do is write, reached out saying he was ready for me to send him something. So many others reached out in kindness, just because they could and not because they needed anything. It’s meant the world to me.
And then, this month, I got a LinkedIn message from an associate I’m pretty sure I’ve never met, in a firm I’ve never heard of. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember how or when but she must have previously sent me a link request. Her DM said,
How are you? I hope you’re well. Just checking in because you have not posted your usual gems here in a while. Be well.
I’m a big fan of the Tom Hanks plaintive line from A League of Their Own, “there’s no crying in baseball.” But that DM made my eyes well up. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.
I’ve meandered. But I have two points to this blog edition, the first of which is a little different than all before it and likely all that will come after it:
Give yourself some slack.
If you screw something up because you’re mentally exhausted, cut yourself some slack. If you piss off someone you care about (a recurring habit of mine), just apologize and try to do better.
I’m not saying make excuses—either to yourself or to others. I’m saying give yourself grace. In the same way that you don’t know what other people are going through, if you’re like me, you may not realize the weight of what you are going through yourself. So give yourself grace. Take a little time to do something that will bring you joy. Something healthy like walking in the woods or by the shore, or having a playdate with your child or life partner. Or my personal favorite, a long warm cuddly hug with my teenaged daughter. That’s joy.
My second point is this,
Offer a kindness, just because you can.
Do for someone what Joanita Gakami did for me. Reach out just to say, “Hello, how are you?” If you miss going for lattes together, say so. If you miss working on a committee with someone, say so. Else you have fond memories of talking about old school Hip Hop at the summer associate baseball outing, say so.
Those simple kindnesses may make all the difference to someone who’s hit their wall. Such a tiny kindness may even cure a grumpy old lawyer of a bad case of writer’s block.
I wish you all the best. For my three loyal readers who I’ve let down by not posting sooner, I apologize. I’m on it now. If any of you want to talk about how you’re doing or your options as a young lawyer of color, please reach out.
Because when we lift one another, we all rise.