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The Scariest Day of My Life

June 2nd, 2010.  One of the scariest days of my life.

On this day, I got the news that rocked me.  During a routine day at my law firm, I was called into a meeting with the senior partners. The meeting began with small talk, and then one senior partner looked me squarely in the eyes and calmly said, “John, it’s time we part ways.”

This would be the beginning of the end of my dream job.  On this day, I was shown the door after almost 14 years of working at the only job I ever wanted.  With a wife and 3 little children at home depending on me, I had no idea what I was going to do. For the first time in my professional life, I was scared.

Suddenly, I was at a crossroads in my career. I did the only thing I could think of doing: I met with my clients to convey my gratitude for their trust and asked whether they would join me at my new law firm.  One by one, I got an answer that I didn’t take for granted: “Of course, we will come with you. We wouldn’t consider anything else.” This was the beginning of my new professional life.

My Lifetime of Failure

I have to confess that I’ve failed miserably many times throughout my life. 

  • I was fired at my first job as a lawyer after only 3 weeks and 2 days on the job. The senior partner told me, “This isn’t your bailiwick.” (I agreed with him).
  • My former partners laughed when I told them about my plan to write a book (“The Power of a System”) about law firm marketing and management. They questioned why I would give away all of the secrets (because no one else did).
  • When my new law firm opened, I was on the losing end of 3 consecutive defense verdicts (including a loss of more than $200k in case related expenses).
  • My new law firm lost $72k in our first year of operations.
  • Friends laughed when I told them about my wife’s plan to run a campaign for Supreme Court Justice in New York (a member of her political party had not won a contested election in our judicial district in 18 years).

It seems that everyone puts on a façade of perfection. No matter how things are really going, you hear people say that “everything could not be better.”  Blah, blah, blah.  Let’s face it, everyone struggles. And even when we think everything is going well, life surprises us with hardship and challenges that can seem insurmountable.

3 Proven Tips for Overcoming Failure

My personal and professional life has been filled with one failure after the next.  Each time I face failure, I question whether I am doing the right thing and sometimes question whether I should keep going. But even when I feel defeated and ready to give up, I try to keep moving forward.

Tip #1:  Never Give Up

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, was once asked how many times he failed.  Edison responded, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Turns out, Edison had more than his share of failures, but no one heard about Edison’s failures, because he refused to dwell on them. Instead, Edison kept trying and never gave up.

“There are times we come up short. Times when the best efforts fail. Pouring our time, life, entire being into benefiting another human against odds which, ultimately, prove insurmountable leaves us depleted, drained, demoralized. 

If you have not stood in this isolated, dark, desolate place, you are not a trial lawyer.”

Lee Patton, Esq., St. Louis, Missouri

When you doubt yourself and want to give up, NEVER QUIT. Success might be right around the corner.

Tip #2:  Live in Day-Tight Compartments

Dale Carnegie, author of the classic 1944 book, “How to Stop Worrying & Start Living”, teaches us to “live in day-tight compartments”. This means living for today. Don’t worry about what might happen tomorrow or down the road—only focus on the things that are within your control today. 

“It is not our goal to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what clearly lies at hand.”

Thomas Carlisle

When I am in trial, I try not to worry about the outcome. Why? Because I don’t control the outcome, a small group of 6 jurors decide who wins the trial. It isn’t productive to worry about something that I don’t control. I try not to worry about any aspect of the trial other than what I am doing that day. 

Tip #3:  Focus on Your Circle of Influence

Try not to worry about things that you don’t control. Stephen R. Covey, author of the classic book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, teaches us that there are 2 circles, namely, the CIRCLE OF CONCERN and the CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE. The Circle of Concern are those problems over which you have no influence, e.g., nuclear war, famine, while the Circle of Influence consists of a much smaller subset of the issues over which you control, e.g., your health, fitness, faith.

“The place to begin building any relationship is inside ourselves, inside our circle of influence, our own character.”

Stephen R. Covey

Why waste time watching the news and worrying about world-wide events over which you have no control?  This is a waste of your time. Instead, focus on the things that you control, e.g., read 5 pages of a book, spend 5 minutes alone in prayer, learn meditation or yoga, or go for a jog. Don’t worry about crazy dictators in foreign countries; instead, stop watching TV and get to work improving yourself, even in small ways.

Failure Can Lead to Surprising Results

Fast forward to a chance encounter with a defense lawyer in an elevator following a deposition. I had worked against this defense lawyer for more than 15 years and we knew each other well. Out of the blue, the defense lawyer bluntly said, “There’s something I have to tell you. I’ve never seen you this happy.” For the first time, I realized that the scariest day of my life (10 years earlier) was also one of the best.

I have had more than my share of tough days, doubts and defense verdicts. Life as a self-employed law firm owner is hard and I never stopped second guessing myself, but the security and stability of a job was nothing more than playing it safe.  While I had no idea at the time, I discovered over time that it is far more rewarding to work for my family. It just feels better.

Is it easy overcoming hardship, doubt and struggle?  Hell, no. But who ever said life is easy.

Leave a comment below telling me what surprised, inspired or taught you the most (I personally respond to every comment). And if you disagree with my take on running a personal injury law firm, or have a specific, actionable tip, I’d love to hear from you.