I was doing a difficult mediation at a law firm sometime back, and one of the senior partners turned to me when we were walking down the hall together and said, “You know, Ross, this is one of those days that I think about quitting and just going up to the high lonesome.” This was a very solid conservative guy who was holding that firm together, and an excellent, dedicated lawyer. His comment was a bit of a shock to me. Yet he was just expressing what we all feel at some moment. It’s the moment when when we think about quitting law.
We all want to chuck the whole damn thing at some point in our careers, and it may not be just on “one of those days.” It might be a consistent urge that needs to be listened to, and perhaps acted upon. Just how to handle this life-defining impulse, to interpret it correctly, and to make a good choice, is one of the most important things that you need to know about. What follows is something they will never teach you in law school.
Let’s begin by talking about a romantic myth.
There is a big story going around, which has been firmly embedded in our culture, that says that the path to a better life involves quitting the one we have, and going off on an adventure to find a boon. This story-line has been made famous by a person in who has been a profound influence on my life, Joseph Campbell, who wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Campbell studied the hero myths from many cultures around the world, and found a consistent story line. He discovered what he felt was an archetypal story, so widespread to suggest that it was the story that humans needed to follow to lead lives connected with their deepest and best impulses. Following this story line would lead to a life of ultimate joy, meaning, and significance.
This story begins with our hero (the fool) leaving everything he/she has known, and starting out on a journey. The Hero meets friends along the way, overcomes adversaries, and faces a critical test. The test is so great that it cannot be passed with the powers of the hero’s old self, and that old self must be destroyed. What emerges (if the test is passed) is a new self with unexpected new powers. With these powers, the hero is able to claim a boon, (a chalice, blade, or other object) and then return to his old world through a perilous return with the boon, only to discover that the boon is actually the hero him/herself, the transformed person who brings a new way of being to culture.
In graphic form, here’s what the hero’s journey looks like:
This story has become the standard plot line for basically every Hollywood movie known to man. Star Wars has been running on it now for nearly 40 years time. It’s deeply embedded in our culture, and along with it the myth that the first step to whatever it is we’re seeking involves leaving our current world and starting out on the hero’s journey.
I came in contact with this book and its story early on as a young man, and bought its method hook, line, sinker, rod, reel and most of the boat. I even went to the trouble of writing a big book based on the hero’s journey, in an effort to unpack its secrets. It’s a story about a lawyer that chucks it all and goes out on a vision quest. You can get a copy of the book, called Keepers of the Field here and learn a little bit about it on the book’s website.
Follow Your Bliss!
According to Campbell, the right thing to do with one’s life is to quit the ordinary world and go off on your quest with a single instruction: “Follow your Bliss.” Following one’s bliss (whatever is immensely attractive to you, holds the promise, and gives you joy) will lead you along. One must be prepared, however, to hit a wall where nothing is working and all seems lost. If one can only sit before the wall and wait, according to Campbell, a “door will always open” that will allow you to live a life that is consistent with your bliss, and all will end well in a sunlight upland.
Doubtless if you are a lawyer, there are days when some alternate reality looks pretty darn good. Visions arise of you riding bareback on the beach on a white stallion, living in Paris with a secret lover, opening that cozy bed and breakfast somewhere beautiful, or, in my case, living the life of an award-winning novelist.
Sounds good doesn’t it?
Having tried this experiment, I have this boon to bring back to you from my hero’s journey: Following your bliss doesn’t really work.
Campbell himself acknowledged this later in life when he saw a generation of hippies turning on, tuning in, and dropping out to follow his advice, and the results. He is now famous for his late-in-life retraction: “What I should have said was follow you blisters!”
A Brief History of Our Romantic Narrative.
Just open your internet browser, start looking for online advice, and within a few minutes you will find no shortage of advice about life direction. There is a huge body of that advice that has one central message: To ‘follow your heart,’ ‘follow your bliss,’ ‘follow your passion,’ ‘listen to your feelings,’ and ‘trust your instincts,’ usually accompanied by the statement that ‘you can be anyone you want to be.’ There is a ‘true self’ out there waiting to be discovered and embodied which would come alive if only you have the courage to break the shackles of a social role and ‘be yourself.’ There are whole websites devoted to the proposition that choosing how you want to feel is the starting point for all life thereafter. It has created a culture where self-determination is not an option, but in fact expected and required.
So now I want to let you into a little secret, which you need to know about if you are thinking about quitting to follow your bliss.
Although there is an entire culture now that tells you that you can be anyone you want to be, that culture has very little idea about how to actually do it—what this path really involves ‘on the ground.’ Pure self-determination is actually a very heavy burden. It’s hard to do, in part because of the immense and sustained internal drives that are required, and in part because culture has no obligation whatsoever to recognize your romantic vision as something it needs. There is little information in the ‘you can do anything’ mythology about how to decide what is best for you, other than the fleeting resource of one’s feelings and imagination.
There are a whole host of problems with the follow-your-bliss approach.
- Your bliss is not obligated to keep your refrigerator stocked with almond milk and tofu. What you do for other people is what keeps that refrigerator stocked.
- The follow-your bliss mythology can produce people who are highly narcissistic, thinking only about themselves.
- The feelings you are attempting to follow turn out to be endlessly shifting psychic weather patterns, blowing one direction one day, and another the next.
- Relationships come and go, because you can’t make a commitment that might tie you down. You have created a covenant relationship with your romantic ideal instead of a real person, and this is hard on any partner. It’s especially hard on your children who need you to show up in a stable way.
- There turns out to be no ‘true self,’ but many, many possible selves that can be imagined, all clamoring for attention.
- There is a profound difference between a romantic vision, and a powerful creative vision that puts you in the traces and requires you to bring something new into the world. Doing something creative requires real work, as any successful artist will tell you.
- One can imagine most anything, but actually becoming someone who makes a difference on your watch is quite another story.
- The Hero myth requires a parallel reality for the hero to go into— a separate world. Such worlds do in fact exist in the human imagination, but there is actually only one reality that’s here in the flesh, the same reality that you are in right now. The slogan “if you can dream it you can become it” is often combined with the false idea that you can manifest anything with your thoughts alone. This is just not true. The world does not work that way.
You can indeed ride bareback on the beach on that white stallion, but if you want to do it everyday, be prepared for a life of mucking out stalls. You can write that book, but be prepared to be paid less than minimum wage doing it. You can quit, but you might find yourself in a set of circumstances that dominates you by its’ realities in ways that start to make the old office look pretty good.
Within our legal context, there are environments that are very poor in producing positive, life-giving feelings, just like there are economically poor households. There are some environments that are so toxic and oxygen depleted that we can scarcely breathe. Making a big, external change may be required to get into an environment that is more feeling-rich and life-giving—where we can breathe and be more of who we are meant to be.
I know that in my own life, I had a huge uptick in my emotional portfolio when I gave up my lucrative litigation practice and became a mediator. I went from a person snarling on the phone every day to someone who actually linked arms with 30 other lawyers in a conference room dedicated to the mission of creating a better way to get disputes resolved. I found some real friends. I felt good about what I was doing. I found my niche. It felt good.
But at a certain point, we begin to get diminishing returns by changing our external environment in a quest to produce better feelings. We find that the next spouse or the next environment does not produce a situation that is vastly more satisfying. At length we discover that the best course of action is to find ways to feel better and move forward where we are, and not keep changing our externals, which is both time-consuming and very expensive. Happiness is in fact a discipline that requires us to continue to evolve.
The Right Way To Quit.
The right way to quit does not involve quitting at all. It involves moving from the foundation of our current context toward a definite vision of the future. This path is the evolutionary way out, the path forward. What this is going to involve is the work of actively and intentionally creating a new context in which your life as a lawyer is to unfold. This creative and powerful act is one of the most interesting and exciting things you can do. It will likely involve the work of coming into a new level of adult development, a sea-change in the rigging, but not a whole new boat. Your values, your ways of seeing and interpreting the world, your behavior patterns, and associations with people may change. What you now see as fixed are actually things that are flexible. This personal evolution is a process of differentiation of yourself from the herd, based on a definite vision of the future that you are working to progressively make real, instead of dissociation. The right way involves conserving the best of what we have, and going beyond it. The mantra of an evolutionary attorney is to Include, and Go Beyond.
So If you are thinking about just walking out the door to follow your bliss, I hope you give me a call before you do. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it just needs to be done with the head as well as the heart. I know from personal experience just how god-awful difficult and heartbreaking Joseph Campbell’s path of following your bliss can be. I learned that the hero’s journey actually promises nothing except the journey itself. If this is adequate reward, and you are ready to have a series of experiences instead of a career, you might be ready for the hero’s journey. It’s a valid approach. But even this requires some preparation, and what you will experience out on the street will be determined in large part by the qualities and attributes of character and the well-developed capacities that you bring into your adventure.
 Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949-1973.
 Joe Campbell did not understand evolution very well back in the 40’s when he was writing his book and telling everyone to follow their bliss. That guidance turned out to be terrible career advice, because “bliss” is a feeling-state, that is brought forth through a disciplined meditative practice. Campbell actually took the term as a translation of the Hindu word Ananda which describes a body/mind state of bliss. Bliss in this context emerges as a product of meditative practice. It might be more accurately stated that bliss is something that is always already here that simply emerges when some of the overburden of the thinking and stress-creating mind is lifted off. The whole idea that it could be ‘followed’ somewhat ridiculous in its original context, because all the chasing is the thing that keeps a person from experiencing bliss! It’s right here, now! It just emerges when one is still enough, no striving required, with no more work than taking a breath.
This is important information to keep in mind when we undertake a process of moving our life situation around in order to feel better.
 One dirty little secret is that the follow-your-bliss idea arises out of the culture of post-modernism. Despite its inclusivity, the post-modern mind is still a dominator mindset, and is fairly fixed in its thinking and approach. The green meme really does believe it is right. Within its structure, you are required to believe that the promptings from one’s interiors, one’s feelings, are the true guide. These assumptions cannot be challenged. Doing something that does not produce the proper feelings, even though it produces a life-giving income for yourself and others, and creates an objective social good, is ‘selling out.’ The post-modern mindset is passive-aggressive, because it demands space to do whatever one wants too, all of the time, and the post-moderns have no problem manipulating the situation to get what they want, often at your expense—all the while avoiding any confrontation. If you don’t believe me about this, I invite you to come visit me in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, one of the global meccas of the post-modern mindset. There’s a lot that’s great about it. But it’s not the end of human history.