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Think Bigger Than a Plant: Why Stress Management Is The Wrong Goal

Stop listening to the stress-management gurus

‘Good job, take the weekend off—you’ve earned it,’ read the subject line. Melanie read and re-read the email, wondering what it meant. It was 5 PM on Friday afternoon, and the team had just adjourned a call during which the importance of a Monday deadline had been stated in no uncertain terms. Was this some kind of test? The body of the email did not give any clues—it was empty, except for the partner’s signature block. Perhaps it was permission to re-assign her portion of the project to one of the juniors? She was in the midst of a grueling three-month stretch that had already yielded upwards of 800 billable hours, so this made sense. Or did it? Melanie re-read the email again. Deep down, she knew the truth: the empty body of the email was a metaphor for the emptiness of the gesture. She replied ‘thanks’ followed by two exclamation points, and then clicked delete.

Even though she wouldn’t be taking the weekend off, Melanie knew she had to do something. Symptoms of stress, anxiety and burnout that were all too familiar to her had been flaring up recently with newfound intensity. Trouble sleeping, check. Trouble staying awake, check. Loss of appetite, check. Excess appetite, check. Mood swings, definitely check. So she did what any stressed-out Millennial would do—she asked the internet.

The internet told Melanie that to be successful in a high-stress corporate profession like hers, it was critically important that she practice ‘good stress-management hygiene.’ It told her that she should breathe deep down from her belly, counting slowly to ten. It told her that as little as ten minutes of extra sleep a night would improve her concentration and mood. It told her that studies had shown that home offices featuring plants were scientifically proven to increase feelings of well-being.

Melanie took a long, deep breath and counted slowly upward. Eight. Nine. Ten. Her heart rate slowed and she realized what she had to do. Enough was enough. She was going to start putting herself first. Melanie put up an away message and punched ‘florist’ into Google Maps. She was going to buy a plant.

You can treat the symptoms, or you can cure the disease

The last time you read an article with predictable corporate advice about stress management, did you read it and think, ‘Wow! Just what I needed!’ Yea, we didn’t think so… Don’t get us wrong, there are obvious benefits to deep breathing, extra sleep and even a nice plant or two (both of our home offices feature plants, for whatever that’s worth). But to suggest that belly breathing and faux greenery is an appropriate response to crippling stress is nothing short of laughable. We’re willing to bet that what you really want—what you really need—is something far more impactful than that.

The thing is, popular wisdom around stress management is to treat the symptoms that are getting in the way of your tireless efforts to create shareholder value. Too often, generally well-meaning corporate wellness experts offer tools to help you put a bandaid on your stress so that you can plug back into work as quickly and efficiently as possible. But stress is a disease, and you don’t put a bandaid on a disease. You cure it.

Attempting to actually cure your stress is a much tougher proposition. Perhaps it’s a journey that begins at the florist, but it certainly can’t end there. To truly cure your stress, you have to understand what is stressing you out in the first place. When we started contemplating this years ago, things got existential really fast. Was a career in BigLaw going to provide us with the time and opportunity to pursue what really mattered to us? Was our travel and adventure career nearing its end with the partnership decision looming? Were we going to spend the next thirty years in front of a computer, watching our bodies slowly deteriorate? Generally speaking, was our life headed in a direction that was going to spark joy and lead to deep fulfillment and personal growth? Were we even going to try to answer any of these questions?

Stress-management gurus aren’t interested in any of the really important questions. Those are too hard. Their tips and tricks are just about bringing you back from the brink, doing what little you can to avert a major meltdown as you lurch between stress crises. The very phrase ‘stress management’ betrays their narrow perspective and uninspired goal: stress is an ever-present force of malaise threatening to consume us, and the best we can ever hope for is to ‘manage’ it. Just loosen your muscles a little and maybe you’ll survive another day.

If a plant won’t cure you, then what will?

Ultimately, BigLaw stress isn’t just about being too busy, although that’s certainly a big part of it. From what we’ve seen and experienced, the most powerful driver of BigLaw stress are feelings (whether conscious of subconscious) that you have lost control of your life. A plant is an inadequate solution because it does nothing to help you regain the power over setting the trajectory of your own life. If you really want to take back control, then you’re going to have to start changing the way you think.

An uninspired environment leads to uninspired thinking

BigLaw is often so busy and so stressful that finding the time to contemplate the root cause of your stress often feels impossible. For most of us, the pressure of all the responsibility and expectations weighs heavily. So much so that, for many BigLaw attorneys, just surviving each week tends to deplete just about all available mental energy. Once Friday rolls around, your brain is running on fumes and the weekend is barely long enough to replenish enough mental energy—usually in the form of a few mindless Netflix episodes—to get you through the following week. It can truly feel like an episode of The Hunger Games: how many late-night emails can they hurl in your direction until one takes you out?

Being in the right environment for introspection is just as important, and similarly difficult. In the pre-COVID days, the right environment was almost certainly not seated at your desk, with stacks of papers that you were supposed to read last week on your left, stressed-out co-workers pacing the halls on your right, the gentle glow of fluorescent lighting beaming down from above, set to a soundtrack of soft digital chimes, each signaling the arrival of a new item to add to your to-do list. If that pretty much sums up your daily reality, then don’t blame yourself if you haven’t been able to diagnose your stress! Uninspired environments lead to uninspired thinking.

Even now, with COVID having forced us out of the office, your physical space at home may also be suboptimal for the type of reflective discussion with your partner or individual meditation that will enable you to uncloud your mind, revealing your priorities. There may be a mess to clean, or a child to tend to, all the while your home office—plant or no plant—is exerting its silent, gravitational pull. Perhaps you even pause to ponder the future, but then you see a light on your phone flicker and your attention is diverted. The opportunity, lost. Today will not be the day for introspection.

It’s time to induce a system shock

The simple truth is, if you live in your work thoughts, you are thinking one-dimensionally, and could very well be settling for a suboptimal life. Ask yourself: when was the last time you spent a few days—or even just one day—without having a single work thought?

In our opinion, there is nothing more important than finding the time and space to set all work thoughts aside, and deeply reflect on your life goals and what steps you need to take to achieve them. This is simply not an optional exercise. Under no circumstances should you ever thoughtlessly coast through your BigLaw career, wasting away the best years of your life without knowing what objectives you’re pursuing. If you don’t want to look back one day wishing that you could re-do certain years, or even decades, over again, then you must find the time for deep introspection. Live intentionally, not accidentally.

In BigLaw, where the job is only as far away as your smartphone, the best method we have found for ourselves to allow deep introspection is to induce a system shock. For us, this means going as far out of our comfort zone as we can, ideally in locations that have no reliable service or Wi-Fi, thus requiring a clean break from work. In the pre-COVID days, this meant annual or more frequent trips to bucket-list destinations from which you cannot reasonably do any work other than forward emails to your co-workers—think trekking in Patagonia, road tripping in the Namib Desert, tracking mountain gorillas in Uganda, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or temple-hopping in Myanmar. A few hours face-to-face with a silverback gorilla did more to help reveal our priorities than any amount of belly breathing in a home office ever could. Since COVID, system shocks have taken the form of grueling, marathon-length day treks in the Tetons that push our bodies and minds to the absolute limit and, in doing so, provide us with the mental clarity to take a step back, see the big picture, and identify and execute on some of the ideas that would change our lives.

Every single one of the transformational ideas that has brought us where we are today was the product of us leaving the gravitational pull of our desks: from the realization that what we truly craved was more time rather than partnership, which only meant that time would be taken away from us; to the goal of building our net worth while we’re young so that we can create more options for ourselves in the future, including the ability to retire from the law early and pivot to creative endeavors; to the idea that we should relocate to Jackson Hole so that we’re no longer putting our dream life on hold. A series of system shocks early on in our associate careers allowed us to reprioritize and determine what we really wanted from work and from life. We then began the process of restructuring our lives inside and outside of BigLaw to enable, rather than impede, the goals we had set for ourselves.

You can become the master of your stress, rather than letting it master you. But you’re going to have to think bigger than a plant.

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