Seth Godin writes about a friend of his, a middle school teacher, who avoided the teacher’s lounge because “he couldn’t bear the badmouthing of students, the whining and the blaming”:
Just about every organization, every on-line service, every product and every element of our culture now has chat rooms and forums devoted to a few people looking for something to complain about. Some of them even do it on television.
The fascinating truth is this: the people in these forums aren’t doing their best work. They rarely identify useful feedback or pinpoint elements that can be changed productively either. In fact, if you solved whatever problem they’re whining about, they wouldn’t become enthusiastic contributors. No, they’re just wallowing in the negative ions, enjoying the support of a few others as they dish about what’s holding them back.
It pays no dividends to go looking for useful insight from these folks. Go make something great instead.
It is hard to argue with Godin on this. Who wouldn’t agree that, in order to remain happy and productive, we should focus on the positive things in life?
Upon starting work as a public defender in Philadelphia, I was taken aback by how disdainful some of my colleagues seemed to be of our clients. There was one lawyer in particular who showed up during our training to regale us with her stories. Every judge, every prosecutor, and every client was a complete idiot. She was the only sane and reasonable person in the courtroom.
At the same time, I began to have a better appreciation for this dynamic after I had worked there for a while. We are social beings, and we work in a high-stress profession. With the defender’s office experiencing at least one lawyer breakdown a year, you have to wonder if some of the meltdowns might have been avoided had the lawyers been better able to vent pent-up anger and anxiety. It is reassuring to know that other people share the same frustrations that we do.
During my first career, I used a technique I called “constructive venting.” I had a few hotheads on my staff. I insisted that they come to see me before they sent out an angry email or did something else they would later regret. Although my father’s idea of assigning “mental demerits” to offenders never quite took hold, we would sit down and talk about the problem, trying to see the humor in things. The idea was to get the poison out of their system. They were then to move on.
Without the benefit of a built-in social network, it is harder to engage in constructive venting as a solo practitioner. Other lawyers don’t know your clients, and they don’t want to hear your complaints anyway, just as you don’t want to hear theirs. As a result, the person who remains my greatest lifeline to sanity when it comes to the pressures of work is my investigator, Wayne.
Wayne and I chat regularly by phone, usually in the late afternoon. My son tells me he always knows when it is Wayne on the phone by the relaxed tone in my voice.
Wayne and I talk about family and sports. We also strategize about our cases. If we have a difficult situation or difficult client, we will talk about it, usually finding some humor in the situation to keep things in perspective. And I can do this with Wayne not only because he is the only person who actually knows what I am talking about but also because I know that he shares my affection and commitment to the very people we are discussing. It is like dealing with siblings. They can get away with saying things about your parents you would never tolerate from anyone else.
If, as in Godin’s example, teachers have it rough, so do lawyers. Godin can serve as an inspiration during my good days. On my bad days, I have Wayne.