Much has been written about “work-life balance” and the need for more of it, particularly among attorneys. Regrettably, the phrase often generates a negative reaction.
Resistance to the notion of work-life balance is often generational. Newer lawyers crave balance and time away from the office. Seasoned lawyers, with years of hard work under their belts, missed family obligations and battle scars, recoil at a generation of new lawyers who “just don’t get it.”
For that reason alone (and regrettably), using the phrase “work-life balance” too often becomes an impediment to advancing the ongoing conversation about improving the well-being of the profession.
In my writing about the Five Factors, I use a different term to describe what I’ve observed among successful lawyers (and non-lawyers).
I use the term “steady.”
While steady is a synonym for “balance,” it is also different. Whereas balance conjures the notion of a scale with one side up and the other down (which I think can be misconstrued as a total dichotomy of working and completely not working, all while remaining in one place), steady is altogether different.
Though being steady certainly implies being in balance, it also conveys a forward-directed, even determined, mindset and the motion that the phrase “work-life balance” can lack, particularly when speaking to attorneys.
But what do we mean by “steady?” Well, when we say “she’s a steady hand,” at some level we know exactly what that means: calm under pressure, measured, a hard worker. All of that is implied in the word steady when used in this context. And I think it quickly takes us down a different path than “balance.”
So a disclaimer: I am a self-taught, modestly proficient sailor. I sail on lakes in a land-locked state. Please don’t use my rudimentary sailing knowledge on actual open water.
But I’ve found sailing a wonderfully apt metaphor to talk about the first two of the Five Factors, grounded and steady. I mentioned the sailing analogy in my discussion of our first factor – grounded.
The sailboat is one of the oldest ways of getting from where you are to where you want to be. A modern sailboat has a very important component, a keel, which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The weight of the keel pulls the boat downward and creates a counterforce against the wind that can both propel the boat forward and sink it.
Metaphorically speaking, the keel is the grounding (though, hopefully, not literally) and the structural center of the boat. Just as losing your grounding in life creates a crisis, losing your keel has catastrophic consequences.
Steady is the how of sailing It’s keeping the boat trimmed up and headed where you want to go. This is where steady comes alive.
Here’s another interesting fact: modern sailboats are designed to sail most quickly and efficiently at a point of sail when the wind is directly perpendicular to the boat. This is called a beam reach.
Think about that for a minute. If you don’t have a keel and the wind is directly perpendicular to the boat, well, you get the picture – it’s not good. You are going to get wet.
But, if you are grounded, i.e. you have your keel in place, and you manage the wind, you will sail fastest and most efficiently where, in the absence of a keel and a steady hand, you face the most risk.
And that’s where I think the sailing analogy is helpful to our discussion of success.
It’s not about avoiding the wind. Wind will take you where you want to go. It’s how you manage it.
The work, the buffeting of life events, the physical and mental challenges that come at us are all part of that wind. It’s your task to keep your boat steady, on course and moving forward. Nobody wants to sit dead in the water with no wind. No wind equals no progress.
In this understanding of steady, we also begin to introduce the three additional factors in the Five Factors: being a continual learner, finding joy and giving back.
When you watch a sailboat of any size, as the boat gains wind and speed, the heel of the boat (the tipping motion to port or starboard depending upon the direction of the wind) often requires the crew to move to the windward side of the boat (the side the wind is coming from) in order to balance the heel. You will often see crew lined up facing toward the open water, legs dangling over the side.
I want you to think of these other three factors as your “crew” that create counter-balance for you. Modern science and biochemistry tell us that’s precisely what these other activities do. Each of them – being a continual learner, finding joy outside of work, and giving back – all create positive neurotransmitters in the brain that help even out the effects of the “wind,” just like a sailing crew moving to the high side of the boat.
We will talk about the research surrounding these three additional factors in coming posts, but suffice it to say here, successful lawyers are excellent at keeping the boat steady. You simply cannot sail fast in big wind, which is what so many of these lawyers do, without taking these steps.
Finally, there is another important dimension of steady. One of the first things any sailor learns is the phrase “when in doubt, let it out.” When you find yourself in big wind, or even just more wind than you feel you can handle, you can “let it out.” You physically let the wind out of the sails by un-cleating the sheets (the sailing term for the ropes that are connected to the sails). The boat will turn into the wind and stall.
When you find the winds of work and life starting to be far too much – let the wind out of your sails. Say “no” to something – and there is always something you can say no to. Rearrange your schedule. Move an appointment. Get an extension on that brief. Stop for an afternoon or a day.
However, you can also let the wind out of the sails gradually without completely stalling the boat. By making small adjustments and “trimming” your sails, you can find peak efficiency. In light wind, that may mean trimming the sails to take in more wind, but most often it means letting out some wind to find a safe, efficient and fast trim.
This is managing your wind.
Just like watching a well-trimmed boat glide across the water, we see successful lawyers and leaders navigating the wind in what appears to be an effortless dance through life.
But what you quickly learn in sailing is that being at the tiller usually doesn’t involve sitting back with a drink and watching the world go by. A sailboat is a busy place. The captain is constantly managing the wind, making adjustments and keeping the boat steady.
Though it sometimes appears that way from a distance, the most successful lawyers aren’t just sitting back and watching life pass alongside their boat. They find wind and they are constantly doing the necessary self-management work to make sure they are steady: reading the wind, trimming their sails and checking their course.
As we talked about last time, all of this work requires a regular check-in and a weekly, if not daily, practice of assessing your steadiness. Ensuring steadiness is a daily practice.
For now, here are just two quick ideas to help integrate the concept of steadiness into your daily life:
First, this coming weekend, take ten minutes to look back over the past week and ask yourself “Was I steady this week?” How did you feel? Give yourself a score from 1 to 5.
This practice may seem simple, but thinking back on your past week, your workflow, your projects, your family life and giving yourself a score on your steadiness can be illuminating. You will know quickly whether you were steady because a lack of steadiness often brings with it a sense of physical unease. Are you flat exhausted from the past week? Did you feel out of control?
If you are not satisfied with your score, look to next week and see if you can rearrange just one or two things in your schedule to bring some additional steadiness to the coming week.
This one is tough but critical. Look at your coming deadlines. While sometimes a busy schedule with lots of deadlines can be more than challenging, ask yourself if you can do something to make help build steadiness in your schedule. Just pick one or two things to start. Even mixing up your work schedule (tackling something early in the morning or later in the evening) to relieve some pressure can make a difference. I recognize that sometimes it can seem impossible to move anything, but try to approach the coming week with a renewed awareness of being steady.
Finally, know that anyone juggling a lot of responsibility in a busy law practice or any other job with a lot of responsibility is going to feel the stress of the wind. And we all have weeks where we look back and think, “that was a mess!” But becoming an observer (just like the skipper on a sailboat) and making a few minor adjustments – trimming our sails – puts us on the path to bringing more steadiness into our daily lives.
Tell me what you think.
My observations about successful attorneys come from my own nearly twenty years in the legal profession and my study of and work with some amazingly successful leaders in the field, but I want to know what you think. Drop me a note and let’s talk about what it means to be steady.