Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Reasons to Resist Getting Quiet

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca
Any reader of this effort (or my various social media streams) knows I am a pretty big proponent of the benefits of the pause.  Or finding some space. Or just getting quiet from time to time.

And I am certainly not the first to undertake to try to describe the benefits of doing so (aware that writing about getting quiet is like dancing about architecture).

But the last thing I would want is for anyone to accept anything blindly (especially something I espouse). And to that end, this post discusses some of the objections a skeptical person might have to practicing mindfulness (noticing), meditation, getting quiet, or other actions that allow for rest and recovery between the ears.

I Don't Have Time

Ours is a profession where someone decided it was a badge of honor to respond to "How are you?" with "I am really busy."

And undoubtedly time is valuable. And being busy with important things to do is better than the alternative. Ralph Waldo Emerson was on to something when he remarked that

“To fill the hour - that is happiness, to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.”

However, consider what "fill the hour" means: 1) what you choose to do, and 2) your capability (energy) to do it.  Put another way, your time is only meaningful if you have sufficient energy. Moreover, your brain simply cannot run all the time and be effective, especially when occupied by so much noise.  And brain energy is replenished when things get quiet. As Alan Watts said, "Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone."

But the tools of our current age are delivering a double-whammy that keeps the gray matter consistently muddy: 1) tricking our minds into thinking that constant stimulation is the same thing as time well-spent, and 2) siphoning off attention that we sorely need to adapt to a changing world and solve difficult problems.

Our ubiquitous technology (as well as other distractions) contribute to the feeling of being busy, by occupying every "spare" second of attention. And we pay the "task-shifting penalty" each time we indulge distractions, draining energy from the brain.

So think about the importance of making better use of your time by guarding attention and doing things to increase energy. In other words, add Production Capability (a rested, recharged mind) to your toolkit in to supplement Production (the frequency with which you use your brain). 

To quote Emerson again, the key is not the number of hours, but the number of meaningful hours:

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

You may have your day so structured that you literally do not have 20 minutes (or 10 minutes, or even 1 minute) to sit (or run or walk) quietly without distractions or other outside stimulation.  But evaluate whether that is really the case.

And as described above, the feeling of being busy is comforting. Which means that the opposite-- the feeling of getting quiet (i.e. not busy)-- is most discomforting. This idea is buttressed by the study showing that people preferred electronic shock to sitting quietly in a room even for a few minutes. But chew on this observation from Brene Brown: The only way to ensure long-term comfort is to have continual short-term discomfort. (I will come back to this in another post).

Also, I know that at times I have claimed to have a manically busy life without pausing to examine that proposition. And when I scoffed at carving out time for silence (or exercise, or journaling, planning, or simply playing) I did so unaware that I spent 13 hours at Williams Brice the previous Saturday, or 6 hours the night before binge-ing on Peaky Blinders (worst name, best show).  

I am not knocking spectator sports or (good) TV as a use of time:  my point is that if you had a little perspective or insight into how you actually spent your hours (the perspective and insight that often results when you step back from the noise in your life), you might be able to discern that indeed you weren't quite so busy as you complained/boasted/lamented. Read this piece about someone who tracked her time and realized just that.

I Am Not Any Good At It 

Oddly enough, that's the point: to get a little glimpse of your distractions. As Kelly McGonigal wrote in The Willpower Instinct, meditation is more effective the "worse" you are at it, because you get a sense of what is playing on a constant loop in your head (the tough case, the relationship you can't get over, your fears of an uncertain future, what is going to happen in the 2nd season of "Stranger Things").

And if you do give it a try, don't set yourself up for failure (and the dreaded "What-the-Hell Effect") by biting off more than you can chew. As Tim Ferriss has suggested, try sitting still with your eyes closed just long enough to hear your favorite song. Or just pay attention to your breathing.

It Doesn't Work


Do you look at your body after one trip to the gym and decide to give up because you can't see results? Like exercise, or other habits, you don't get to a certain point and cross a finish line. While it is true that you won't be able to admire your brain or your patience or marginal improvements in insight the same way you might a flat stomach or a larger bicep, there are tangible benefits to noticing things. The science is proving that over and over again. But you won't see those benefits overnight.

And, (prepare for paradox that causes a Type One brain to blow a fuse) to the extent it "works" it does so only when you drop the expectations that it work. Ultimately getting quiet, like most good things, is its own reward.

It's Inconsistent With My Faith


Every religious faith has its contemplatives. Getting quiet is not the exclusive province of any religion or tradition, but a common thread through all of them. Nobody has ever tried to convert me, and I have been at this for more than 25 years. See the quotes below. 

It's a Fad

Like everything, ideas and practices become buzzwords and cliches as the culture gets a hold of them.  (You see that I am not real keen on even using the term "mindfulness" very often because it has gotten so tired). But the only thing new about these techniques and routines is the science showing their benefits.

"Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around."- Marcus Aurelius. 
"Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom." - Francis Bacon 
"Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed." - Saint Francis de Sales
"In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves." Rumi
“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.” - Thomas Merton

It Will Make Me Lose My Competitive Drive


Does meditating eliminate the discontent that fuels the drive to succeed?

This is a particular question asked by Tim Ferriss to both Brene Brown and Tara Brach. From my perspective, as referenced above, growth and getting better and lifelong learning require some degree of Getting Comfortable with Discomfort. And getting quiet is not going to eliminate discontent and discomfort. Just the opposite.

And if your "drive" is a future-focused perfectionism that springs from a hole you'll never fill and which craves only extrinsic validation (from partners, clients, judges, etc.), then you have larger concerns than the effect a little silence may have on you.

On the other hand, if you strive for excellence from a solid place ( i.e., based upon  intrinsic motivation) and want to get better (trying to foster a Growth Mindset), then a little awareness may provide a little space in your head for the regret of the past, the uncertainty of the future, the demands of the present, and how hard you are on yourself.

Put it this way: there is not a lot of room for courage and creativity and the ability to co-exist with uncertainty when blame and criticism and fear occupy your head.

It Causes Me to Avoid Critical Thinking

On a similar point, and as pointed out in this article, these techniques can be used to withdraw and to avoid critical thinking or tough decisions. And who doesn't feel like crawling into a cave every now and then? But the key is seeing the utility of becoming more effective at rational thinking (by learning more about how good judgment gets clouded), as opposed to foregoing critical thinking altogether.

It is Self-Indulgent


Well, it certainly can be. As Nicholas Taleb remarked in The Bed of Procrustes, "Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone." But I believe strongly that taking care of yourself is not self-indulgent at all. As Adam Grant has observed, people who are selfless to the point of self-sacrifice are at a much higher risk of burnout and of being exploited.  As the saying goes, it's ok to secure your own oxygen mask first, and taking care of yourself puts you in a much better position to help others.

Similarly, I don't think that learning a little more about the way your mind works, in service of increased awareness,  self-regulation and resilience, self-control, decision making, recognizing and minimizing bias (mostly in yourself), and listening, is self-indulgent.


It is said that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. And every lawyer can find a hundred reasons for not doing something. All I know is that I am better when I get outside, sit quietly every now and then, or do something that takes me out of the constant barrage of stimuli characterizing most of my days. I hope you can do the things that give you that space.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Some Good Reads (Listens) for 2016

Below is a list (without specific description or review- at least for now) of some of the books I have picked up, or purchased via Audible, recently. It won't be too difficult to figure out that several of these were recommended specifically by Tim Ferriss. All are extraordinary and worth your time.

The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Want to Be a Better Writer? - Make More Arguments Outside of Your Head

For all the writing attorneys do in service of explanation and persuasion, most of us don't consider how to hone and expand that ability. Below are several ways you can sharpen your pencil (timely metaphor in the information age), mainly by subjecting more product to the light of day:
  1. Read (Or Listen To) Your Writing Out Loud. If it reads well, then it usually sounds pretty good, too. Hearing the way your "brilliant argument" comes across when actually spoken (after all, it is not so hard to win an argument in your head) will undoubtedly provide some insight. And there are tools that can read your briefs aloud to you
  2. Accept Some Coaching. There are a great many accomplished writers out there, some probably a brief's throw from your office. But the ability to hear some constructive criticism requires the recognition that you've got room to improve. See above about the way we see the world from between our ears.
  3. Write As Much as You Can. In addition to what you produce professionally, explore other ways to write. Consider keeping a journal, which will not only improve your writing, but help you Cage the Monkey Mind and bring you other benefits by (you guessed it) getting thoughts out of your head.
  4. Publish (Share Your Writing). There are so many ways to play to an audience these days.  And as I mentioned previously, knowing that you have any audience (of one or of a thousand) makes you write more effectively (again, because you are creating a written argument to be considered by someone other than yourself). And don't let the idea that what you've created is not good enough for an audience. After all, perfect is the enemy of the good, and the benefits of gradual improvement and potential collaboration that come from sharing your writing far outweigh whatever flaws exist in your "perfect offering."
Of course, very little of the above is earth-shattering. But sharing what you create is the best way to make it better. As one fairly accomplished writer put it:

"Write with the door closed, edit with the door open." - Stephen King 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Here's to the Dissenters and Non-Conformists

I very much enjoyed this HBR podcast episode featuring Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Several important points:
  1. Follow for the Right Reasons. If you are part of an organization, you can't avoid some going along. But if you choose to march, do it because the ideas and the leadership make sense, not because you are afraid to Rock the Boat.
  2. Explode the Myths of the Non-Conformists. Despite what you might believe, those who dissent often procrastinate, hate taking risks, feel doubt and fear, and have a great many bad ideas. Done, done, done, and definitely done. Also, those who "risk it all" are demonstrably less successful than those who may dip a toe in the entrepreneurial water. In other words, it is ok to Keep Your Day Job (at least until your "night" job pays).
  3. Beware of Group-Think and the Ersatz Devil's Advocate. The designated DA doesn't work because that person doesn't play the role forcefully enough and/or the audience knows its a role. Better to "unearth" a real devil's advocate, especially because dissenting opinions are helpful even when wrong since they help test assumptions. I also find particularly compelling the idea of evaluating people on the way they speak up and emphasizing the awareness of your own weaknesses (both as a leader and a follower).
In other words, you do yourself and your organization a severe disservice when you check your critical mind at the door in service of conformity. (Grant wrote Give and Take: Why Helping Others Fuels Our Success, also a must-read book).

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Shared Week in Review

What Makes Us Stronger. Stress is good for you. Without it, you'd never get out of bed and get better at what you do. And learning to re-frame the way you feel about stress (for example recognizing that a life without stress would not have much meaning) goes a long way toward helping you keep from getting stuck by distress and the helplessness that goes along with it.

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. Likewise, because stress is a normal part of performance, the ability to rest and recover the energy you expend is also crucial. And as emphasized in the next post, daily practices and routines (regular meals, exercise, scheduled breaks, etc.) help build energy. And mindfulness practices making you aware of how you feel throughout the day and how that affects your performance are also key.

Daily Practices for Lives That Are Anything But Routine (Part 2). Have you thought about the difference between the "deep work" and the "shallow work" you do, and how to jealously guard your time to give yourself sufficient time for the former?

Desk Jockey Workout: 8 Ways to Stay in Shape at the Office. What better way to maintain mental and physical energy throughout the day than to keep moving?

Hard Time Meditating? Stop Seeking Results. As pointed out above, meditation is not about getting anywhere, it's becoming aware of thoughts and feelings. The whole idea brings to mind this classic Onion post, "Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship".

On Zen as a Weapon Against Mind Control. If it is true that the goal of meditation is becoming aware (not to feel better), then becoming aware includes noticing when you're being played and manipulated.

If Computers Wrote Laws: Decisions Handed Down By Data. Some musings by The Economist on what the legal world may look like when computers become even more ubiquitous.

Viewing People As ... Trees? Yes! And because I have spent the week amongst the trees, a post by my good friend Ashley Pennewill about the snap judgments we make about the people we meet:

Friday, July 22, 2016

The (Shared) Week In Review

This Week in Law - AI, Oh My!. If you are interested in where the unevenly distributed future for artificial intelligence exists today, this podcast is a pretty good summary. Andrew Arruda of Ross Intelligence ("Your Brand New Artificially Intelligent Lawyer')  is a guest, as is Joshua Browder, founder of DoNotPay ("The World's First Robot Lawyer").  One of the takeways is a point I have made before: there are almost unlimited possibilities when computers and attorneys work together and leverage their respective strengths.

Kennedy-Mighell Report: The Future of AI in the Practice of Law. See above.  I really like the idea of calling it "Assistive Intelligence," especially to further the idea that computers and people are most effective when they work together.

How E-Signatures Will Make You a High-Tech Professional. Consider modifying your processes to take advantage of the E-Sign Act and the various state UETA laws.

Lawyers Should Take Notes By Hand. Why? Because it helps you process and retain the information you take in, as opposed to merely copying it.  In other words, and as described in the article, instead of transcribing everything you hear, instead you 1) pay attention; and 2) figure out what is important.

Time to Speak Up for the Next Generation. "21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28% struggle with some level of depression, and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety." There are a number of ways to de-stigmatize this problem, and it starts with raising awareness.

Keep Growing: What Got You Here, Won't Get You There. "Step back and take the time to look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself, 'How am I developing my skills as a lawyer?'"

What Great Listeners Actually Do. Don't just soak up information, reflect it back with insight and feedback.

12 Mindfulness Hacks You Can Use in 24 Hours. Pick one to start. Any one of these will benefit you. And this piece underscores an important point: mindfulness is not solely about meditation.

And tomorrow morning we head up the road for a family vacation. I will leave you with the view from our deck ....

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Week in Review

Yes, I know about the spacing and the fonts.

Daily Practices for Lives That Are Anything But Routine 

By Mike Ethridge over at Lawyers in Search of Soul.  I have written before about the importance of a number of daily ore regular routines, including  exercise, mindfulness meditation, and expressing gratitude. What morning routine can you cultivate to get fired up for the day?

How to Turn Lawyers into Better Writers 

By  Cari Twitchell  and published on The Lawyerist. For all of the writing we do in the profession, it's hard to step back and assess how well we're doing it and how to improve upon it. Can you accept a little criticism in service of improvement? 

What’s The Future of Work?  

Not a short read, but a thoughtful piece on the different values we assign to different types of work.

The Intangible Law Firm 

By Jordan Furlong. What assets does your firm hold that don't walk out the door when an attorney leaves? 

For all of this talk about "hacking," it makes sense to consider what we are tearing down and our intention in doing so in the first place.

How Technology Disrupted the Truth  

A long read on the consequences for responsible journalism brought about by social media and other forces.

The Improbable Life of James Taylor 

As a native Chapel Hillian, I couldn't help but add this piece about Sweet Baby James. And if you really want your mind blown, listen to his podcast interview with Marc Maron.

And of course, this week would not be complete without a little of the augmented reality craze sweeping the world. I found this little fella in our attorney lounge yesterday ...