Minnesota Lawyer
November, 2016

Lessons from Our Toddler Years

As a parent, I found the first year of parenthood to be pretty easy.  For the first few months, I could put my daughter down on the floor and she pretty much stayed put, almost like a potted plant.  Then there came crawling and walking and the requirement that I be more vigilant as my daughter began to explore the world.

The acquiesce that characterized much of my daughter’s first year of life slowly transformed as she entered the era of the two year old and learned the power of “No!”  Often, I heard the refrain: “You are not the boss of me.”  And indeed I was not.  She was establishing her autonomy, experiencing her boundaries, finding her voice and setting her course.  Those times were not a cake walk for me, or for her.

As I work with clients today, I am often in conversation with people who have lost their sense of autonomy.  It’s almost as though what they learned as two year olds they’ve forgotten in mid-career.  They seem to have tired of deciding how to live and what to do.  At such a time, it is easy for them to acquiesce to what they are told to do or encouraged to do.  As I listen to their stories, I wonder what might change if they had more sense of autonomy, a self-confidence that would enable them to stand up to a challenge and say (as once they did):  “You are not the boss of me.”

“Paula” comes to mind.  She came to see me because her law practice was faltering.  She was a well-regarded expert in an area of law that was no longer in fashion.  Her efforts to market herself in her specialty had not been successful.  There simply wasn’t much of a market for that practice area.  Even though Paula often went to the office early and stayed late, she typically had only a few hours of billable time to report.  Clearly, she was not meeting the metric of success established by her law firm.

Paula considered herself to be a failure and she acted the part.  Often, she had a dour expression, made little eye contact, and clenched her jaw.  She appeared “up tight”, perhaps aloof.    There was very little “spark” left in her.  She certainly did not appear warm, engaging, open and inviting.  For many people, Paula was more someone to avoid than someone to seek out.  No wonder others in her law firm did not want to team with her and prospective clients did not want to entrust their representation to her.

While Paula and I talked about marketing strategies and practices, it became clear that we’d have to do more than talk about selling legal services and retooling her practice.  In addition, Paula needed to re-establish the “spark” that had once enlivened her.

Paula had sacrificed a lot for her work and her family.  Now, Paula was divorced and her kids were grown.  Now might be a time when she could return to some of the interests that had once animated her.

Paula  had once been a competitive swimmer.  Yet, in recent years, she had let her gym membership lapse.  Paula had a beautiful voice and had been a music major in college.  For a while after college, she continued to sing, often as a soloist.  Yet, with the demands of her young family and her law practice, Paula found she had no time to sing.  In the meanwhile, she had less and less time for her friends and her circle of friends had dwindled.  As a divorced woman, her social life had dwindled even more.

With encouragement, Paula enrolled at a gym and signed up for the master swim program.   She joined the choir at her church and soon had a solo for a major service.  In the meanwhile, Paula wanted to have more friends in her life and to be in conversations that matter.  Paula invited some women to form a women’s group.  She was inspired to do so by a great book, Women Connected.  The book, beautifully written and lovingly illustrated, provides a session-by-session guide for women in conversation.

As she engaged more and more in a life that satisfied her, Paula looked beyond the confines of her current practice to consider other opportunities, both inside and outside the practice of law.  She enlisted her colleagues and friends to help her rethink how she might work in the world.  Paula was more lively, warm and inviting.  She appeared to be on a roll.

Then, one day I received an e-mail.  Paula advised that she had recently seen her financial planner.  She identified him as “Doctor Doom”.  She had told him she wanted enough money to both fund her retirement and leave money to her children.  In turn, the financial planner told her she didn’t have enough funds to do that.  Now, she was in a panic.

A week later, I received another e-mail, advising that she had decided to re-double her efforts to revive her existing practice.  Her note was gracious and she thanked me for the time spent coaching.  She went on to say that she’d no longer do more coaching.  I never saw her again.

From where I stand, I wish Paula well.  In our work together, I came to appreciate her many talents and her resolve to thrive, not merely survive.  I hope that she does not abandon her swimming, her voice, and being in meaningful conversations with other women.  I wonder how things might have been different in her conversation with Doctor Doom if she had some of the toddler energy to say: “You are not the boss of me!”  If she had not panicked, perhaps Paula could have reconsidered what she needed to fund and how she might do that, all the while continuing to reimagine her practice and her future.

Paula is not alone in her response to someone who speaks doom.  When have you been spooked by what you’ve been told?  When did the curtain seem to drop on the future you were planning?  What did you do?  Were you able to engineer a comeback?  If so, how were you able to do that?  And if so, you might thank your toddler energy and what you learned in those early and formative years when you first established your boundaries, found your voice and set your course.