September 19, 2014

Killing Them Softly (Part One): The Attack on Lawyers’ Brains

rhodesI borrowed the title of this series from a Loyola Law Journal article by DU Law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D.: Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance.

The phrase “neural self-hacking” comes from Google, which runs a class for employees by that name, plus other classes on brain well-being. Yeah, it’s a Silicon Valley thing, but don’t be fooled: the companies offering these classes mean business, and they think mindfulness is good for it. As Prof. Austin says:

Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.

Killing Them Softly makes the case for why the law profession might want to catch up with that idea, instead of mounting a systematic attack on law students’ and lawyers’ brains. Prof. Austin’s article describes in detail just how we do that, and the implications of this practice. Consider these excerpts:

Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.

Cognition, Latin for “the faculty of knowing,” describes the process by which humans perceive stimuli, extract key information to hold in memory, and generate thoughts and actions to achieve goals.

In other words, the way we initiate lawyers into the profession and how we approach law practice is counterproductive on the most fundamental neurological level. We make it hard for lawyers’ brains to do what we ask of them. We impede their ability to learn, to store knowledge and access memory, and to exercise sound judgment. Most critically, we restrict that essential ability to sort through the facts, discern what’s important, and figure out what to do about it. And while we’re at it, we also heighten susceptibility to the distressing psychological conditions that plague our profession.

And guess what? That’s what happened to all of us. It’s amazing any of us can function as our studies and work require, but our brains are amazingly resilient, and we’ll talk about how they get the job done in the face of all this neurological aggression. Before we get that far, we’ll look into how our brains learn, and how the stresses of the profession damage them. And we’ll take a look at the case for neural self-hacking.

Stay tuned.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Seven): Life in an Alternate Reality

rhodesThere’s a scene at the start of my running video where my wife and I are walking along, with a voiceover saying I never really wanted to run a marathon, I just wanted to be able to go on walks with her like we used to.

I can’t do that anymore. Walk like that, I mean. We shot that scene about ten months ago, and I can’t do that anymore.

When I saw my neurologist six months ago, I told him I’ve been surprised at how quickly my physical abilities are degenerating. It’s like there’s a timer running. I’m awesome on the machine at the gym, but when I walk it feels like time is running out. And running? Time ran out on that a long time ago.

That’s my reality. Or is it? No it’s not, but you already knew that. I don’t like living with that timer, so I relegate it to an alternate reality. Einstein said, if the facts don’t fit your theory, change the facts. That’s what I do.

The alternate reality with the timer is persistent, though. It wants to know how long I’m going to keep fighting, why I don’t just give it up as a lost cause. The people at MS Fitness Challenge have the fighting spirit. They inspire me, but I’m aware that fighting causes stress, and if what’s going on in your body is degeneration, you don’t need more stress. So instead of fighting, I relegate the timer to its alternate universe, and go on living in the reality I’ve chosen, where working out aggressively on a machine turns into healing.

The alternate reality with the timer also wants to know when I’m going to acknowledge that my experiment has run its course and come up wanting. I can’t answer that. Someone had to invent the light bulb, and we’re all glad he did, never mind how many iterations it took him. How would I ever know if I’ve tried all the possibilities of my experiment, tweaked it in all the ways it might be tweaked?

In the video I say, “I don’t have to get motivated to do this. I run from here [tapping my chest]. That’s what impossible feels like That’s what your impossible would feel like.” All the research in the world won’t give you that.

How long should you try?
Until.

Jim Rohn

I’m in this until. Pretty simple.

In the video, the guy behind the camera asks me if my experiment is working, and I admit it’s not. Because of that, I wondered out loud one of our planning sessions whether doing the video was worth it. He brushed my hesitation aside. “Everybody needs inspiration,” he said. End of discussion.

So the timer ticks away in its alternate reality, while I keep working out in this one. I get a lot of benefits from doing this. Discipline. Perseverance. Amazing overall good health. Not to mention lots of material to blog about and use in my workshops. Plus the joy of trying to hit a training goal that has me sweating buckets and willing my errant foot back into line, then finishing and barely making it to a nearby chair to sit down and massage the feeling back into my feet. If I quit, I’d miss all that. Honest.

But I’d trade it all for a walk around the block with my wife.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Six): Science and Snake Oil

rhodesA friend shared a TED talk with me about how a rat with a severed spinal cord had its nervous system regenerated so it could run again. The researchers used a combination of chemical and electrical stimulation to get the rat’s legs moving involuntarily, but that wasn’t enough. So they created a robotic harness that allowed the rat to move if and when and where it wanted. After that, the rat’s spinal cord grew new connections. The scientists created an opportunity for healing, but the rat’s desire to move took over and made it a reality.

No wonder some scientists built a statue to honor lab rats. God bless that rat. It’s my hero; I want to be just like it. We all know you can’t move again after your spinal cord is severed. The rat proved us wrong. We also know you can’t win a marathon if your MS makes it hard to walk. How about if I be the lab rat who proves us wrong?

The rat needed scientific help, and so do I. Seriously, now: if by any stretch you know someone who is seriously researching MS and exercise, would you please email me with an introduction? Let me be honest: I don’t want ideas, like have I contacted the National MS Society. If you can think of it, I probably have already. What I’m looking for is a real relationship handoff to a real person. If you can do that, then many, many thanks.

Once we’ve got a research lab on board, we need a committed rat. No problem there. The rat introduces the X Factor: how does the desire to move generate healing? The scientists don’t know, and the rat’s not talking. If it could, it would probably sell us snake oil, and we’d probably buy.

Last year I wrote about “the placebo effect”: believing yourself into an altered state in which the healing you want actually happens, even though it’s not supposed to, there’s no rational reason why it should, and you’re actually putting your faith in a sugar pill.

I know one guy who got rid of his MS by visualizing miniature beavers chewing up his brain scarring (“Multiple Sclerosis” means “multiple scarring”). I’m not making that up. If that’s not a placebo I don’t know what is. I’ve haven’t tried his approach, but I’m not above a daily practice that includes mind tricks, even though I honestly believe some of what I do is pure snake oil.

Is it still a placebo if you don’t think it will work? The authors of a book on personal growth called The Tools answer that question by telling this “famous story about Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist and father of quantum physics”:

A young physicist visited him in his home and saw a horseshoe hanging on the wall over the hearth. “Surely, professor, you don’t believe that a horseshoe will bring you good luck,” the young physicist exclaimed. “Of course not!” Bohr replied. “But I’ve heard that you don’t have to believe in it for it to work.”

(If you’re like me and wonder if this story is apocryphal, check this out. Sounds valid to me, both because Niels Bohr was quite a quotable guy, and because the story is in the spirit of quantum physics. Moving right along….)

And so we’ve got science, and we’ve got snake oil. Should work.

The next installment will be the last in this series. We’ll tackle the feeling that time seems to be running out on this experiment, and then we’ll be done.

For this year, at least.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Five): A Random Idea Gets Scientific

rhodesIn the video I told you about a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine (his name is “Angel Vigil” — no kidding) describes my workout routine as “his own self-invented alternative treatment to keep the nerves and his muscles and everything working as long as he can, and fight the progressive, debilitating nature of MS.”

Angel didn’t know it, but he was summarizing two neurological concepts that underlie what I’m doing. The first is neuroplasticity: our brains rewire themselves when we learn. The second is myelination: if we use those new neural pathways often, our brains coat them with a substance called myelin, which acts as a learning and skill development supercharger.

Developmental molecular biologist John Medina describes neuroplasticity this way in his book Brain Rules:

Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for figuring out the cellular basis of [the process of how the brain learns]. For it, he shared the Nobel Prize in 2000… Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brain changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. The brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself.

Myelination got a huge popular boost from Daniel Coyle’s 2009 book The Talent Code. As the Amazon book blurb says:

Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds—from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York—Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, or just about anything.

These three elements work together within your brain to form myelin, a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. Scientists have discovered that myelin might just be the holy grail: the foundation of all forms of greatness, from Michelangelo’s to Michael Jordan’s. The good news about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth; to the contrary, it grows, and like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished.

Put neuroplasticity and myelination together, and you’ve got brain flubber. Both are at work in our brains all the time, whether we know it or not. My approach is to harness them consciously and intentionally. Technically, what I’m after is re-myelination — when damaged neural pathways get rebuilt. I need that because MS has a destructive effect on — you guessed it — myelin. Therefore, in neuroscience terms, my exercise routine is an attempt to use neuroplasticity and re-myelination to restore my MS-damaged neuro-pathways.

Just like Angel said.

I didn’t know any of this three years ago when I began my “self-invented alternative treatment.” I just had an idea. Turns out I got the idea about the time neuroscientists were hot on the myelin trail. Apparently I somehow got on somebody’s memo routing list.

Now that I do know about these things, I have a new goal in life: to become a lab rat.

More on that next time. 

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Four): Running Just Because

rhodesAnd sometimes you run just because.

Forget the inspiration, the challenges, the training techniques, the goals.

Forget researching neurology for scientific support. Forget constantly recalculating the odds, feeling like they get worse every day, wondering how much life this experiment has left in it.

Forget all that. This morning, just be that 12-year old racing a friend home after a Friday night small town football game, suddenly noticing that his feet aren’t even touching the ground and he’s leaving the fastest kid in town far behind.

Or just be that 17-year old running wind sprints on the football field and coming in just a few yards behind the fastest kid ever to play running back in your town, the holder of three conference championship records as a sophomore, and all the coaches are looking at their stopwatches and saying, “Who’s that kid in second place?”

Or just be the kid the varsity track coach pulls aside one day and says, “You’re built just like Jim Ryan — we should make a miler out of you.”

That conversation never went any further. Every now and then I wonder what might have happened if it had, and I always end up being glad it didn’t, because like Jim Ryan I might have walked off the track in the middle of a race one day.

But never mind any of that, not now. Just be who you are, right here, right now: a kid’s soul living in an adult’s body. Step on the machine and you’re out of that body, running like your younger self, running for the pure joy of it. All the struggle and trying to figure things out fade and fall far behind, like the fastest kid in town who couldn’t keep up with you. There’s nothing but the movement, nothing but the stride, over and over, churning up the invisible ground under your feet. Machine metrics? Who cares? Moving is all that matters.

Your heart swells, you’re just so grateful you can do this.

Jim Ryan had the perfect stride. I’ve studied it frame by frame. I visualize it when I run on the machine, patterning my brain, telling it, “Make me look like that.”

This past Sunday, I looked like that for two hours and ten minutes. It was only during those last ten minutes that I noticed the machine was telling me my heartbeat was up in the “high performance” category, that my right foot was starting to spaz out and turn sideways, that I was feeling tired.

It didn’t matter. I was running. My long legs were put on this planet to run; there’s no other explanation for them.

And so, this past Sunday, that’s what I did.

I ran.

Just because.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Three): Mission Impossible

rhodesA friend who’d been involved with making a documentary film got interested in my running regime. We shot a video one fine day last October. It’s short: 7:15. Go ahead, we’ll wait while you watch it.

The video begins with me challenging our conventional notions of what’s possible and what’s not. “Impossible is just a label we put on things,” I say. “It’s state of mind. There are people doing impossible things everyday. I think it’s time we all stop believing in impossible.”

The idea that “impossible” might not be hack-proof was first embedded in me at a Cirque du Soleil show called Varekai, which premiered a year and a half after 9-11.The Varekai story is loosely based on the Icarus myth: the manmade wings and failed flight too close to the sun, the familiar parable of the human race outstripping its own aspirations and crashing down in its pride.

Yes, humans can’t fly like birds; we all know that. But Varekai went beyond the myth and ended in triumph. Pride was forgiven, love and courage restored the fallen, and the joy of aspiration and the magic of the dream were reclaimed. The impossible became possible.

Dominic Champagne, writer and director of Varekai, began his program notes with these words:

Puisque les temps sont fous Since these are crazy times
Et que nous avons le devoir And it is our duty
De ne pas abandonner le monde To not surrender the world
Aux main des nullités Into the hands of fools
Je fais le vœu que ce spectacle soit pour vous I wish that this show may be for you
Comme il a été pour moi As it has been for me
Une célébration A celebration
De la rencontre des fraternités Of the coming together of friends
Et de la joie des dépassements And of the joy of challenging limits
Pour dire au monde In order to tell the world
Que quelque chose d’autre est possible That something else is possible

 

I put those program notes in a frame that still hangs on my wall. I live them everyday. They inspire me, keep me centered, keep reminding me that something else is possible.

We want things that appear to be impossible. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe the only reason they’re impossible is because we haven’t done them yet. Okay, so we ran a search of our brain’s memory data base and it came up “no match found.” No big deal. That doesn’t mean what we want is impossible on some grand cosmic level; maybe it’s a possibility waiting for us to make it happen.

I feel that way about my personal impossible of overcoming MS with exercise. I’m sure the other people in the video felt that way about their impossibles, too. And yet they did them, just like I intend to do mine.

The video ends with a series of questions: How about you? What’s your impossible? What would you be like if you did it? What would our world be like?

If you haven’t done it yet, go ahead and watch the video now. You’ll be inspired, I promise.

To be continued.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Two): A day (and Week) in the Life of an MS Athlete

rhodesSomeone told me about MS Fitness Challenge. Great organization; you should check them out. The founder David Lyons is in showbiz, so they get a lot of celebrity endorsements. David did a terrific interview of me for his blog. I just looked at it again, and it gave me the idea for this post.

All MS athletes share symptoms that would stop us if we let them. The trick is to make them irrelevant. Well-meaning people at the gym sometimes ask how I’m feeling, whether I’m having a good or bad day. I’ve learned to pause and explain that I don’t think in those terms. They aren’t helpful. If I paid attention to how I feel, I’d never show up, and I sure wouldn’t keep going when it gets tough.

And it does get tough. You do this, you suffer. Not whining, just sayin’.

The MS symptoms create practical challenges beyond the workout itself, too — like getting off the machine when I’m done. I can barely walk; it takes all my focus to cross about 20 feet to sit down. I drag myself along and hope nobody is noticing, and one time I took a facer. Lately I’ve been wondering if I should just bring my cane. Same thing with walking down the stairs to leave the building. These days I mostly take the elevator.

I work out 5 days a week on average, with goals for every workout and for the week. I alternate strength, stamina, and speed workouts, and something I call “heart elasticity” training. (Did one of those yesterday. Two hours all out. Looked like I was standing under a rain spout, which is something for a guy with MS, because one of things you lose is your body’s ability to cool itself. Guess my training has reversed that.)

The differences in workouts are a matter of metrics: varying machine settings such as stride height, length, and resistance, and watching how they interact with body metrics such as stride frequency, target heartbeat, breathing pattern, even how much I sweat. On stamina runs I can zone out, but the other workouts require constant attention, changing the machine settings and monitoring body metrics.

Daily workouts are a couple hours, weekends take longer, but training is really 24/7. It’s a whole, integrated practice embracing details like how much I sleep and when and what I eat. Mostly, there’s an action/recovery cycle to be observed. Cut corners, you suffer. Like I said…

The weekly cycle culminates in a major weekend workout. This past Sunday I went three hours, in one-hour segments. The first was for speed, the second (my fastest, as is usually the case) for combined speed and strength, and the third for stamina. Around 2:50:00 I hit the point where my right foot spazzes out so entirely it turns out like a ballet dancer’s. I’ve learned to pull it back straight by sheer focus, and can keep it there for 20 minutes; on Sunday I only had to deal with it for the final 10.

The Open Stride machine is stingy about mileage: best I can tell, it credits just under half what a regular elliptical machine gives you. Sunday it gave me 15.35 begrudging miles — not much to show for 3 hours and 2,000 calories. Curiously, when I go that hard that long, my feet and legs often work better than they do after a shorter workout. That was the case yesterday.

So I took the stairs instead of the elevator.

To be continued.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update (Part One): Time to Get Personal (Again)

rhodesThe past two years, I’ve taken a summer break from topics like lawyer career satisfaction and legal entrepreneurship, and instead have gotten personal.

The first year, I worried about doing that, but justified my departure from objectivity by telling myself I’d stumbled onto something so powerful it could change the world. Honest. I was using it to meet a challenge in my own life, but thought it was much bigger. (Actually, I still do.) The series told my story, but also talked about believing in ourselves, finding our internal “coach,” doing the impossible, and other inspiring things. A couple readers said they thought it was my best series ever.

Changing the world wasn’t the focus last year, mostly because I’d learned that the challenge I face goes by the big hairy scary name “MS.” I focused not on changing the whole world, just my world with MS. Still, getting personal was okay because there were plenty of lessons to extrapolate to other kinds of challenges, and again readers liked it.

At a recent CLE seminar, I got one of those intuitive hits to share some of my Running Past Our Limits story. My departure from the script paid off: it was an energizing moment (right after lunch!) that drew several comments on the evals.

Do something once, it’s a novelty; do it twice, it’s a tradition. So here’s the Third Annual Running Past Our Limits Update.

If you like, you can get caught up by going here for the 2012 and 2013 editions. Briefly, this adventure started because I was frustrated with what I thought was an unresolved injury rehab issue. I’d tried pretty much everything to no avail, until one day I got the idea of using an elliptical machine to reprogram my body into moving again. (Where do we get crazy ideas like that, by the way? We’ll talk about it.) In the first year, I ran several marathons on the machine, some at world record speed. By the second year, however, it was clear my rehab theory wasn’t proving true: the faster and further I ran, the less I could walk. I went to get checked out, and found out I have MS. Immediately I went into denial, determined to fight the disease (if I even had it, which I wasn’t willing to admit), and doubled down on my workouts.

And this past, third year? (Take a deep breath.) Even though I’m not in denial anymore I’m still not ready to give up, although to be honest it gets harder all the time, but there’s some cutting edge neurological research to back up what I’m doing, and in the meantime my workouts and what I’ve learned from them have turned into a whole new way of approaching life that has made it better in ways I never could have imagined, not to mention giving me all kinds of new insights I regularly use in this blog and in my workshops… and did I mention that some people have gotten inspired by what I’m doing?

Against that background, the real question for me at this point is:

And I’m supposed to be okay with that?

Seriously, am I just making lemonade because life gave me lemons, reaching for the consolation-less consolation prize I warned you not to accept in a post not long ago? And what’s the difference between conceding defeat/failure and the practice of pivoting I’ve been talking about? And how DO you move from denial to acceptance without giving up?

Good questions. Let’s tackle ’em.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Enlightenment Made Simple (Part 8): Is It Worth It?

rhodesWe want purpose, meaning, autonomy, happiness, and all the rest of what career and personal enlightenment have to offer. We also want getting them to be safe, easy, and certain. We don’t want to rock the boat. We want to be able to look around and know where we are. We want to be able to do the things we’ve always done, think the way we’ve always thought, but just be happier about it.

In other words, we want enlightenment to be different, but we also want it to feel as safe as the life we’re trying to leave behind.

Where in the world did we ever get such an idea? From ego. From the survival instincts lodged in the most ancient part of our brains. From our brains’ embedded practice of maintaining status quo. And from the collective expressions of those things in the organizations, cultures, firms, and other institutions that make up the milieu of our lives.

Challenge all that in the name of greater satisfaction and happiness? Better think twice. It’s not going to go well. Status quo gets old, but so does constantly having to create our chaotic new lives in the name of making them better. It’s fun at first, but eventually it feels like all we accomplished was to trade one kind of stress for another. It’s possible to get past that point, but a lot of people never do, it’s just so entirely demoralizing.

For some crazy reason, life is set up so the pursuit of enlightenment is optional. We can get it, but it’ll cost us, and the cost is high: we have to end the reign of ego. Most people won’t do it. Most people probably shouldn’t. Better for them if they don’t turn pro in the enlightenment game. Better if they keep the day job, don’t cash in the 401k.

That’s not cowardice. Nobody says you have to do this. After all, ego and status quo are effective: they get the job done, pay the bills. We challenge them at our own risk, and the people who do aren’t exactly good role models.

Ever notice that so many of the people we admire live unbalanced lives? It costs a lot to do be who they are and do what they do. They’re the creative fringe, the radical, aberrant few. They left the safe center of the bell curve behind long ago, and now they’re statistically irrelevant, three or more standard deviations out. They’re out there on the edge, delusional by any standard of normalcy. They’re no longer productive citizens — at least not as status quo measures it. They take irrationality to new extremes, become a danger to themselves and others. They think “getting a life” is overrated. They work too hard and don’t know when to quit. They’re often not likeable or fun or safe to be around.

They’re also the creative leaders we’ve always needed in our world, and need again right now.

And who knows, you might be one of them.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic will appear in an upcoming article in the August and September issues of The Colorado Lawyer. His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. Follow this link for a FREE book download (available in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a pdf. etc.). You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Enlightenment Made Simple (Part Seven): Micro-Brewed Bliss

rhodesThe last two posts in this series were about pivoting. A few decades ago we would have talked about guerilla marketing. More recently, the topic would have been the nimble organization. Nowadays, you probably know about the microenterprise movement, you’ve noticed all the Colorado microbreweries and wineries, and you’ve probably seen stuff online about micro-housing. Long before any of that, we had Small is Beautiful. Plus variations on the theme along the way.

That adds up to four decades of thought leaders telling us the same thing: our world isn’t supporting monolithic monuments to status quo anymore. There’s just too much change going on. Centralized, formalized, institutionalized “corporate cultures” can’t stay relevant and responsive. Globalization has paradoxically both homogenized world culture and shattered the “market” into a gazillion shards, where it’s indie-this and indie-that, micro products delivered to micro markets.

What does all this have to do with our desire to live fulfilled and meaningful and satisfying lives? Lots, actually.

For starters, it’s evidence of a systemic pivot that’s running through human existence — an evolutionary neurological adaptation playing out on billions of micro-stages. Consider this quote from a blog post entitled “Nimble: The New Big.”

We define organizational nimblenessas the ability and willingness to make smart and timely decisions about core organizational strategies, resources and actions based on real-world dynamics.

Consider what mind scientist John Medina says about human history and our ability to adapt:

“How, then, did [humans] go from such a wobbly, fragile minority population to a staggering tide of humanity 7 billion strong and growing? There is only one way. You give up on stability. You don’t try to beat back the changes. You begin not to care about consistency within a given habitat, because such consistency isn’t an option. You adapt to variation itself.”

Less stress and more peace, freedom, autonomy, meaning, satisfaction, fulfillment, purpose, and whatever other qualities of experience we put in our enlightenment bags aren’t about settling down, getting low and slow. Not so in a world where a single new product announcement can wipe out a whole industry, and dealing with “Big-Bang Disruption” is part of a CEO’s job description.

If we want personal and career enlightenment in the year 2014, we need to “adapt to variation itself,” which means staying light on our feet, nimble, ready to pivot. We need to go micro, create meaning in small, powerful doses, while simultaneously sticking to “core organizational [and personal] strategies.” In other words, we need to embrace chaos while staying centered.

That’s a lot to ask the human race. We were just getting comfortable in our evolutionary recliners. (“Hey, grab me some more self-actualization while you’re up, would you?”) And it’s especially a lot to ask the sector of the human race that makes its living in the legal profession, where precedent is our shared genome. No, we’re not all hidebound — as we’ve seen in past blogs about “disruptive innovation” in our profession — but most of us aren’t exactly early adopters either.

Is the prospect of enlightenment worth all this chaos and disruption? How do you find peace in the midst of chaos? Even Bob Dylan had his reservations: ““I accept chaos,” he said, “But I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” Are those dreams of enlightenment more trouble than they’re worth? How bad would it be to just hunker down into ego and enjoy a decent paycheck and let the Avant Garde do the crashing and burning for the rest of us?

Good questions. We’ll tackle them next time.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic will appear in an upcoming article in the August and September issues of The Colorado Lawyer. His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. Follow this link for a FREE book download (available in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a pdf. etc.). You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

 

Enlightenment Made Simple (Part Six): More About Pivoting

rhodes(For more about entrepreneurial pivoting, check out The Art of the Pivot in the May/June 2014 issue of Inc. Magazine.)

We rarely seek enlightenment and the things we want from it — peace, meaning, fulfillment, and all the rest — for their own sake. We’re not in the habit of doing nice things like that for ourselves. Instead, we justify our quest by embracing some noble and idealistic and altruistic vision. We’ll make life better for ourselves, but we’ll also help someone else while we’re at it. Thinking that way gets us off the dime, makes us willing to defy the odds and the gods.

It’s a good way to start, but it won’t sustain us, especially when the resistance we meet makes it obvious why we haven’t done this before, or why we failed when we tried. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to make an impact in the world, but those ambitions take their cues from outside ourselves: we’re focused on changing something, instead of changing someone — namely the person who lives inside our own skin. As long as we maintain that external orientation, our status-quo-loving and change-resistant brains will be quick to turn tail when things turn tough.

And they will turn tough. Enlightenment is an inside job that’s harshly unsympathetic to whether the externals are lining up to support our grand visions. In fact, it’s usually the case that we’ve barely taken a few baby steps when the path to Paradise plunges us into the cavernous muck where ruined dreams rot.

We need to pivot in order to move on from that place. In physical terms, pivoting is rotating around a still central axis. In entrepreneurial terms, pivoting is what we do when we find out the market doesn’t want our brilliant ideas. In enlightenment terms, pivoting is what we do when we find ourselves wallowing in the mess we created in the name of doing something awesome with our lives. Entrepreneurial and enlightened pivoting rotate around the center of what we’re really after and who we really are. The externals spin and blur, but not the core.

Our enlightenment quest takes us to that core. Along the way, we detach from ego, which is necessary because, if truth be told, our plans to save the world were probably just a spiffed-up version of ego. Ego is immobilized down in that creepy chasm; it becomes dead weight we need to jettison if we’re going to make it through. And often, when we get rid of ego, the vision goes with it.

That doesn’t mean our grand visions won’t ever come to fruition. They might, but you can bet it won’t be the way we originally envisioned, or because ego wrangled them into being. If they come to pass at all, it will be because they resonate deeply with our core selves. Find that core, and pivoting is both possible and powerful: execute that one swift, nifty move, and suddenly we’re unstuck and unleashing whole new worlds of creativity that make surprising things happen.

Then another wonderful thing happens: enlightenment hands us our bag of swag, full of peace, freedom, and all the rest. And we find ourselves living the truth of that inspirational saying that it’s not about making change happen, it’s about becoming the change we wish to make.

And by the way, was that a paraphrase just now of something Gandhi said? Or was it Thoreau? Or maybe Nelson Mandela? If you’re wondering, you’ll enjoy this article about what they really said, and where those inspirational sayings really come from.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic will appear in an upcoming article in the August and September issues of The Colorado Lawyer. His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. Follow this link for a FREE book download (available in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a pdf. etc.). You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

 

Enlightenment Made Simple (Part Five): Pivoting on the Path to Paradise

rhodesWhen we start down the Path to Paradise, we lay our “Life Capital” on the line: we stake what we’ve been and done and have on a dream, a vision of what could be. It’s a bold, risky, scary venture. We’ll run into big time challenges, and to meet them we’ll need to stay light on our feet, be adaptable, flexible, resourceful. And we’ll need to do that without compromising, rationalizing, or otherwise losing the essence of what we’re after.

How do we do all that? By learning to pivot.

Pivoting is a term borrowed from the entrepreneurial world, where the idea is to create continuous feedback loops that monitor market response to innovation. You want to know what works in real time, and you want to find out before you blow through your startup capital.

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, describes pivoting this way in his blog, Startup Lessons Learned:

In a lean startup, instead of being organized around traditional functional departments, we use a cross-functional problem team and solution team. Each has its own iterative process: customer development and agile development respectively. And the two teams are joined together into a company-wide feedback loop that allows the whole company to be built to learn. This combination allows startups to increase their odds of success by having more major iterations before they run out of resources. It increases the runway without additional cash.

Increasing iterations is a good thing – unless we’re going in a circle. The hardest part of entrepreneurship is to develop the judgment to know when it’s time to change direction and when it’s time to stay the course. That’s why so many lean startup practices are focused on learning to tell the difference between progress and wasted effort. One such practice is to pivot from one vision to the next.

So how do you know it’s time to change direction? And how do you pick a new direction? These are challenging questions, among the hardest that an early startup team will have to grapple with. Some startups fail because the founders can’t have this conversation – they either blow up when they try, or they fail to change because they are afraid of conflict. Both are lethal outcomes.

I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you’ll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration.

Pivoting is disorienting because when you do it, it’s hard to tell if you’re still moving toward your vision or if you’re giving up on it. The key to “learning to tell the difference between progress and wasted effort” is to stay in touch with those “common threads that link each iteration.” In enlightenment terms, that means staying anchored in the purest distillation of what you’re really after, and allowing the rest to fall out as it will.

To be continued.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. He has also been in and out of the practice more times than anyone can count, and his reflections on that topic will appear in an upcoming article in The Colorado Lawyer. He also plans to publish a book on that topic later this year. He’s a certified mentor with the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program, offers career and performance coaching, and leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including University of Denver Law School, the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section, and the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.