On April 15, AABANY’s Young Lawyers Committee (YLC) hosted a fireside chat titled “Attorney Well-Being During COVID-19.” In the face of isolating social distancing protocols and prolonged remote working arrangements, Committee Co-Chair Janet Jun organized and moderated the event in hopes of spurring more dialogue on the subject of wellness in the legal profession. Janet was joined by former AABANY President Glenn Lau-Kee and YLC Co-Chair Jane Jeong, who also hosts and produces The Whole Lawyer Podcast. At the intersection of law and wellness, Glenn serves as a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, and Jane is a member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Wellness Committee. Together, the speakers led a candid discussion about the current state of mental health awareness, challenges in the legal profession, and tips for achieving attorney wellness during COVID-19 and beyond.
Janet kickstarted the discussion by asking about the promises and pitfalls of current efforts to improve wellness in the legal profession. Glenn spoke optimistically about NYSBA’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, which consists of nine working groups, each dedicated to a specific wellness issue. As the head of the working group on bar associations, Glenn described the end goal of the Task Force as a wholesale culture change in the legal profession. Glenn observed that attorneys tend to experience higher levels of stress than other professionals, with young lawyers bearing the brunt of this pressure. While larger law firms have established more initiatives to promote lawyer well-being, small firms and solo practitioners are disadvantaged by limited resources. In this context, Glenn identified bar associations as a possible avenue for equalizing wellness resources.
Diverging from Glenn’s opinion, Jane insisted that personal connections — not institutional initiatives — are the proper foundation for a more comprehensive culture of wellness. Invoking the fireside chat as an example, Jane stated that change starts at the individual level, with the creation of safe spaces for authentic conversations about personal mental health struggles.
Janet continued the discussion by asking about the source of rampant anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in the legal profession. Glenn broke the problem down into three factors: (1) a lack of boundaries for down time, (2) client expectations and demands, and (3) financial pressures. Jane connected the first and third factors, explaining that the billable hour gives lawyers a systematic incentive to work ceaselessly. Deeming many lawyers to be perfectionists who are conditioned to tie their self-worth to external accomplishments, Jane also said that self-selection bias contributes to a workaholic legal culture.
AABANY Board Member Andy Yoo joined the discussion by asking about ways in which clients can help drive change. Glenn and Jane both responded by stating that leadership buy-in is an essential catalyst for change. As Jane explained, how CEOs and CLOs treat their employees trickles down to how employees treat external counsel.
Cynthia Lam, AABANY’s Co-Vice President of Programs and Operations, then asked the speakers to share their personal strategies for maintaining well-being. Glenn emphasized the community aspect of any individual effort to promote self-care. He urged lawyers to look beyond their own team members, who are all fixated on the same work, and reach out to family members, friends, and colleagues outside of their firms. Moving forward, Glenn hopes that bar associations will also play a greater role in providing lawyers with a sense of community.
In enhancing her own mental health, Jane underscored the importance of setting and communicating boundaries with colleagues. She encouraged attendees not to cancel social plans for work except in the rare case of an emergency. Drawing on experience from her early career, Jane explained that by always saying yes to external requests, she had taught others that it was okay to overwork her. The lesson Jane derived from this experience was to treat yourself the way you want others to treat you.
Ultimately, Glenn and Jane urged attendees to carve out time for themselves to participate in communities and activities that are wholly unrelated to the law. While Jane personally benefits from working out, writing fiction, and doing yoga, she encouraged lawyers to access their own creative and reflective sides in whatever way works for them. Janet concluded the fireside chat by appealing to the desire of all attendees to be good lawyers. Only by striking a proper work-life balance can attorneys be fully enthusiastic about their careers and clients. To this extent, valuing well-being in one’s own life can help us all become more present in the lives of those around us.
AABANY thanks Janet, Glenn, and Jane for sharing their insights and leading this dialogue on the ever-relevant topic of attorney well-being. To learn more about the Young Lawyers Committee and its work, click here.
On March 1, 2021, Law360 published an interview with Jane Jeong, a member of AABANY’s Young Lawyers Committee and the host of its new podcast, The Whole Lawyer Project. Diverging from your typical legal podcast, The Whole Lawyer Project spotlights successful Asian American attorneys and the human side of their profession. As Marco Poggio of Law360 writes, “It tells the life stories that won’t be found on the bio page of a law firm’s website.” Poggio’s interview with Jane centers on how her personal and professional experiences inspired this latest creative venture. Invoking her own identity as a Korean American, an immigrant, and a woman, Jane explains, “there are not many leaders in the law who look like me, that have my background.” In the competitive and high-stress environment of BigLaw, this problem of representation fueled Jane’s imposter syndrome, which led her to start writing about the pitfalls of striving for perfectionism on AABANY’s blog. Now, Jane looks to the AABANY podcast as a new platform for the same passion project: increasing the visibility of Asian American leaders in the legal industry, and sharing her own hard-won lessons about balancing wellness and work. Ultimately, Jane hopes to inspire listeners to pursue their own passions, even when they deviate from preconceived plans or customary paths. “My goal for the podcast is to give people a chance to see what other people are doing in all these different creative ways, both conventionally and unconventionally, and see how life in the law can really fit them, instead of the other way around,” Jane says.
To learn more about the creation and content of The Whole Lawyer Project, Law360’s full interview with Jane can be found here (subscription required).
AABANY is proud to launch its official podcast series, The Whole Lawyer Project, hosted by Jane Jeong, which showcases Asian American attorneys and leaders throughout the nation and the human stories behind their success.
Most recently, Jane shared her story with Law360, in an article entitled The Pursuit Of Wellness In BigLaw: Lessons From My Journey (subscription required). In a heartfelt account, Jane opened up about mental health and wellness issues in Big Law — including her personal experiences with the pressures of the industry, the costs of perfectionism, reaching an emotional breaking point and, as a potential blueprint for others, how she has set boundaries and made changes to her daily routine to take care of herself. “I conflated sacrifice with success and exhaustion with excellence. I just continued to reach and reach — demanding that I become the perfect attorney I knew I was not, waiting for the day I could finally stop acting and just be,” she writes.
Together with Jane, AABANY is proud to further explore the human side of lawyering in The Whole Lawyer Project. The inaugural episodes of the podcast, which feature immediate past AABANY President Brian Song and AboveTheLaw Founder, David Lat, can be found under the tab for The Whole Lawyer Project on the AABANY blog. It can also be found on Spotify and iTunes. For anyone hoping to gain further insight into the human stories behind our external success, it is well worth a listen.
The typical Asian American formula for success goes something like this: Study really hard in school, graduate at the top of your class, attend an Ivy League college, meet an Ivy League spouse, attend an Ivy League grad school, land that six-figure job at a top law firm / bank / fund / hospital / Google… and then never stop working as hard as humanly possible. Be the first one in the office and the last one out. Keep your head down and let your work speak for itself. Say yes to everything. Please everyone.
I lived by this formula almost all my life. And now, I am trying to unlearn it all.
To their credit, my parents are not traditionally strict Korean parents who ever pressured me to succeed by any means—but then again, they never had to be: I readily did the job for them. I was born a particularly sensitive and amenable child who was very adept at reading others’ needs and emotions and beliefs… who then grew up to be a particularly sensitive and amendable adult who internalized all those things. I too readily absorbed external pressures like a sponge, making note of what others deemed admirable—a Harvard-Yale pedigree, a prestigious job, a pretty paycheck—and morphing them as my own desires without question. I took such a singular, hyper-focused approach to my goals, dedicating almost every waking hour of my life perfecting my resume at the expense of… well, just about everything else. I regularly cancelled dates and birthday parties for LSAT classes and conference calls. I prioritized every mindless assignment and deadline above my own sleep, dinners, and mental and physical health. I did not take a single day off for three years. I poured every ounce of me over to my career, my bosses, my coworkers, my clients—and then provisioned whatever leftover time and energy I had to myself and the people I love most. For years I roamed through my days utterly depleted, focusing only on the immediate task at hand and living at the complete mercy of my inbox.
And all of that did pay off. In many ways, my career has greatly benefited from my sheer, militant devotion to success: I have had many doors open for me that I never thought would be possible—precisely because of my masterful ability to architect a perfect-on-paper life. In my past life working for the World Bank, I had a fancy diplomat passport and travelled all over the world assessing potential investment opportunities. In my past life working for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, I worked alongside Michelle Kwan (my childhood hero) and attended swanky charity galas with Lady Gaga. In my past life teaching fitness classes, I had the honor of sweating alongside Michelle Obama (my adult hero) and her blessed biceps (ditto). And now, in my current life as an employment attorney, I consider myself very lucky to have the type of job that provides financial and professional security in spite of a global pandemic.
But as grateful and humbled as I am for all the doors that have opened, the mental and emotional costs throughout my journey were, at times, significant. Because the problem with having such a narrow and externally driven formula for success is that it provides us no freedom or permission to look within. It often tosses aside things like happiness and self-trust and authenticity, as though these are secondary afterthoughts rather than the actual essence of what makes us human. It often forsakes the voices inside our own hearts to please those around us. And it was not until I approached thirty (my scary “adult” age), well after I had unwittingly dragged myself to the brink of a crushing depression, that I began to wonder how I had managed to pass all that time without ever questioning what all this was for in the first place.
These days, this is my general story I tell students and law school recruits when they reach out for career advice. I tell them that I feel their concerns, because I understand better than anyone just how much pressure they are putting themselves under and how reassuringly addictive external validation can be. I tell them that graduating in the age of COVID seems really daunting—much like when I graduated from college on the heels of the financial crisis and wondered how my friends and I would ever scrounge up jobs in a recessionary economy with zero work experience. I tell them that most of us, as I am learning, actually have no clue what we are doing (no matter our age or title or degree).
I also share all that I learned from years of painful mistakes and detours—everything I wish I had learned long before I so deeply internalized all those external pressures of what my life “should” look like. Long before I began to look outward for truths I could only find within. I share, despite knowing that many of us will repeat my same patterns and mistakes. I share, despite the fact that I am still trying to figure all this out for myself (and probably always will).I share, hoping that the more we allow ourselves to question all these preconceived notions of success, the more we can give each other the courage to own who we truly are.
And this is what I share:
Let’s take it one day at a time, one hour at a time. I used to be one of those people who always obsessed over where my career was heading or whether I was in the “right” job or how I would ever figure out whatever it is I was supposed to do for the rest of my life. I used to try to plan everything, down to the promotions I hoped to land and the most optimal time in my career to get married or have a baby. But here’s the thing about plans: Life marches on anyway. Our careers—just like our lives—are messy and long and full of glorious surprises. There is simply no way we can see the full roadmap of our lives ahead until we actually live through it. So after years, if not decades, of fruitlessly obsessing over where I was headed and whether I will find my one true passion, I now take a much simpler approach: All I assess is whether I am happy now. Whether I am learning now. Whether the job serves my needs and goals, whatever they may be on any given day, now. I am trusting that the rest will follow suit. I am trusting that whatever information I would need to make a better decision tomorrow will arrive tomorrow—and that’s good enough for me for today.
Let’s be brave enough to bring our whole selves to work. We did not get that job or promotion or scholarship by accident; those doors opened for us because we are genuinely qualified to walk through them—just as we are. My first job out of college was on Wall Street, and it was really, really tough. I was very other: the youngest employee, the only minority, and one of only two women on a 25-person investment team. I was so intimidated and lonely and ashamed by my otherness that I spent every day feeling like an imposter and trying to hide anything true about myself. I checked my real self at the door each morning to be the Serious Adult Professional I thought I needed to be. And this persona was the embodiment of everything I thought I “should” be but never was—wearing grey boxy pantsuits, never showing emotions or vulnerability, always saying yes, forgoing sleep and family and friends and vacations all in the name of her career. My Serious Adult Professional was disciplined and ambitious and devoted but also exhausting and miserable and robotic. My Serious Adult Professional was a shell of a person who sucked up all the energy I had for the real me—the outgoing girl who loved to laugh and did not take herself too seriously and couldn’t care less about the endlessly menial tasks she toiled away at for sixteen hours a day. And trying to shrink myself into a box in this way was not only unsustainable and suffocating and unnecessary… it was also totally cowardly. Because being other—being me—is a privilege, no matter how lonely or daunting that may be at times. Because the bravest thing we can do is to own who we are and seek jobs (and, for the record, relationships and friendships and opportunities) where our real selves are truly valued.
Let’s not simply keep our heads down, hoping that our work will speak for itself. This is a common “good Asian” myth. Our work will only speak when we do. Even for an extremely chatty extrovert like myself, there were countless times I kept my mouth shut during meetings because I was afraid of asking a stupid question or wasting people’s time or appearing like I didn’t know what I was doing. There were countless times I stayed quiet, only to have someone else say exactly what had been on my mind and then receive credit for speaking up. There were countless times I kept my head down, assuring myself that my bosses knew exactly how hard I was working and how utterly devoted I was—only to realize they were too busy themselves to even notice. To me, speaking up and advocating for myself always felt weird and unnatural and super arrogant. But now, I am learning that my questions and thoughts and achievements are worth voicing—that the smartest people are the ones who speak up, stand their ground, and ask questions about what they do not yet know. That so long as I work hard and think through problems critically, then I can earn the privilege of captivating other people’s time and attention. That I need to give myself permission to own the room, because no one else can or will ever do that for me.
Figuring out what we do not want is also a crucial part of the journey. At some point in life, we will inevitably have a small still voice in our minds telling us: “Not it.” And this will feel stressful and isolating and confusing—like we trapped ourselves in a cage of our own making. That’s OK. Because “not it” is actually a blessing, a new birthplace. From “not it” is where we become. And why do I know this? Because every “not it” in my life was what propelled me forward to a different, truer path. “Not it” was always the first step in my journey towards me. “Not it” was the voice I heard after every all-nighter I spent hunched over the tax code as a corporate tax attorney, feeling as though my soul was being physically vacuumed out of my body. “Not it” was the voice I heard the night I got engaged, knowing the perfect-on-paper man sitting next to me was not the man I wanted but merely the man I thought I should want. “Not it” was the voice I woke up to every groggy morning heading over to that fancy Wall Street job, having to grit my teeth through the relentless demands of a toxic and fratty and isolating workplace. “Not it” has always led me to the only question we were born to keep asking: What now?
“No” is a complete sentence. Use it—unapologetically. This is by far the hardest lesson to swallow for a people-pleaser like myself, but I have found it is absolutely necessary to practice and master. Drawing boundaries for ourselves never warrants an apology.
Having empathy for others is an asset, not a weakness. Never forget the human impact of whatever it is we are doing. I really enjoy my current job as an employment lawyer: I love that my work revolves around people and their careers. I love that the field of employment law is constantly evolving—particularly now in the COVID era, when we are dealing with unprecedented questions concerning remote work and the future of the gig economy. But if I could change one thing about my job (other than, of course, the relentless pressure to bill), it is this: there is not much room for empathy in law, and I think that’s a real shame. This past spring, for instance, when corporate clients were suddenly reeling from COVID and firing employees left and right, I hated the fact that such a huge chunk of my job required advising on how to execute one of the worst days in someone else’s career. And yet, when I spoke about how days like that weighed on me heavily, many of my best-intentioned and seasoned mentors told me not to worry, that I will eventually learn to become unphased by it all over time. But here’s the thing, though: I don’twant to become unphased by it all. I don’t want to become a better attorney at the expense of becoming a hardened human being. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the actual human impact of whatever I am doing—even if, at times, that means I am left going to sleep at night questioning whether I am on the “right” side of what’s “right.” Because having empathy for others—regardless of who is paying the bill—is precisely what makes us better attorneys and effective advocates and good human beings. So let’s stay soft, regardless of the job, even if that means some days weigh more heavily on us than others. We may not always get to pick the client or the problem to solve on any given day, but mindfulness and empathy are absolutely necessary if we want a shot at doing any good in this world.
If there is an itch, scratch it. And then see where it goes. Following our curiosity, whatever it may be, could end up being a mistake we learn from… or it could end up being the very best thing we do. Either way, we will learn. Either way, we won’t know unless we try.
There is no “perfect” job—and that’s OK. Sometimes, being an adult plainly sucks—and that’s true for every one of us. Building a long, meaningful career will inevitably come with moments of intense pressure and times where we feel in over our heads and evenings where we cry our eyes out after work and mornings where we would do just about anything to stay in bed. At some point, all of us—no matter the job—will inevitably deal with dreadful tasks or unfair office politics or demanding clients or temperamental bosses or unforgiving deadlines or plans gone awry. But let us never forget that these are mere blips on the radar, and these kinds of moments arrive for each and every one of us. Let’s learn to take it all in stride and trust that the sucky moments will, too, pass.
We are all stronger than we know. We will all make mistakes and weather through some very tough rough patches in our lives. And when those painful moments inevitably come, let’s remember to be kind to ourselves. Let’s take however much time we need to pause and wallow and heal. And then… let’s get back up and try again. Because all of us are stronger and more resilient than any mistake or stroke of bad luck or crappy boss or hurtful situation. We didn’t get this far only to get this far.
Always dream big. It really is a privilege. All of us in AABANY have the privilege to ask ourselves what kind of life we want to shape—and being able to even ask this question is an honor in itself. It is a privilege that most of our immigrant parents and grandparents did not have—the very privilege they worked so hard to provide for us now. It is not childish to dream outrageously big dreams; in fact, exploring the boundless limits of our potential is the boldest thing we can do with our lives. For me, I have dreamt of becoming an attorney, a novelist, an astronaut, an entrepreneur, a marine biologist, a U.S. Senator, a law school professor, an Olympic athlete, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Shonda Rhimes, and Oprah. I still dream of becoming many of those things, and I hope to build onto this list of dreams for as long as I am alive. Because I want to live a life storied enough for dozens of different chapters and careers. I want to keep learning and reinventing myself and seeing where my curiosity leads me. I want to always remain hungry. We have the privilege to dream and create the lives we want, and it is up to us to steer ourselves toward whatever takes root in our hearts.
Jane Jeong shares her reflections on the effects of COVID-19 on our day-to-day lives.
I had a really, really good feeling about 2020. On New Year’s Eve 2019, after billing my final hours of the year (I had gotten roped into a Christmas-Grinch corporate merger that finally signed that morning), my boyfriend and I wrapped up the old decade grabbing a cozy dinner with friends in Chelsea, dancing until seven AM at a rave in Brooklyn, refueling at a 24-hour Subway on the way home, and then sleeping the day away like two blissful college freshmen without a care in the world. We woke up only to grab dinner in the West Village, where the quiet streets marked a sobering contrast to all the festivities the night before.
During that dinner, like the two optimistic overachievers we are, we shared several New Year’s resolutions we each had on deck for 2020. My personal list was ambitious: I wanted to find a new job, exercise more regularly, publish my writing, meditate every night, and send my parents on a cruise to celebrate their recent retirement. I hoped to hike Machu Picchu and go to Burning Man for the first time. I already had five weddings, two conferences, two law school recruiting trips, four weekend getaways, and one bachelorette party penciled in my calendar ahead. I had a really, really good feeling about this year, I told him—it was a fresh start of a new decade, and it brimmed with nothing but hope and exciting possibility.
… Well, I guess there is always next year.
There is no way we could have predicted how stunningly our day-to-day lives were about to change just weeks after that dinner. Even among the most fortunate or optimistic of us, there is no denying the emotional toll it has taken to face the stupendous degree and speed by which we parted with our pre-COVID lives. We have all been grieving some kind of loss lately:A loved one, a daily routine, a sense of normalcy or security or freedom, a job, a friendship or relationship, a sense of human connection, vacation plans, wedding deposits, graduation celebrations, our physical health, our mental health… and everything else in between.
My own COVID grief feels like a full-time job sometimes. In my thirty-one years, I have never been more keenly aware of the fragility of life—of just how little control and security we ever had to begin with (despite all the stories we tell to assure ourselves otherwise). There are the big, soul-shattering losses I mourn—like the thousands of lives we have lost and the countless families who are forever changed. I mourn for those of us who suffered alone in quarantined hospital beds during their final hours. I mourn for all the carefree memories and quality time we otherwise would have shared with those we love this year.
And then, of course, there are the smaller losses I miss—the little everyday freedoms I had once taken for granted—like those dinner parties filled with laughter and dates at cute West Village restaurants and sweaty Brooklyn raves and everything else that had all been so ordinary to me just seven months ago. I miss hugging people wherever I go. I miss wearing real pants. I miss old New York—the one brimming with pedestrians, 24-hour subways, rooftop parties, workout classes, bars, restaurants, yoga studios, coffeeshops, comedy shows… and every weird thing we could possibly imagine and then some. I miss the endless plans we used to make, things we used to do, strangers we used to meet.
Depending on the hour or day, I process our losses with varying degrees of grace.Sometimes, I relish the new normal: I appreciate the pockets of time we have gotten back in our days—all those dead minutes we used to pass idling in traffic or blow-drying our hair in the mornings—that now allow me to squeeze in some extra sleep and exercise and Netflix binges. I am grateful for the unexpected opportunity to work side-by-side with my new COVID officemate (and boyfriend, co-chef, roommate, breakfast-lunch-dinner-buddy, haircutter, lover, workout partner, quarantine buddy… all in no particular order). I appreciate how much easier it is now to eat healthier (since we cook most of our meals these days), to save money (it turns out doing nothing is pretty cheap!), and to find pleasure in the utterly mundane things (like rearranging our Tupperware cabinet).
Many days, though, I can’t help but feel like I am trapped in some kind of torturous Westworld loop, in which time is rendered meaningless and every day seems like an exact replica of the one before. July feels exactly like May and May felt exactly like March. I can’t help but dwell on all that we lost—both big and not big—that made the day-to-day once seem more exciting and brimming with promise. I often feel bored, isolated, trapped, lonely, frustrated, and desperate for normalcy again. I feel like I am stuck living at work instead of working from home. I genuinely can’t help but wonder if my youth is passing me by—with my days and weeks and months all bleeding together—all the while as I am stuck at home with nowhere to go.
But maybe… that is exactly the point. Perhaps there was nowhere to go in the first place.
This thought struck me on yet another nondescript Saturday night however many weeks ago (again, who’s counting anymore?), when I was curling up with my journal and realizing just how eerily still my life had become. Maybe this was a natural result of sheltering in place for the better part of this year. Or maybe all those attempts to meditate are actually working. Still, this new quiet is particularly weird for me, because “still” has never been the soundtrack to my life. My pre-COVID self was constantly on the move—always working, always going, always doing. My calendar was jam-packed with brunches and work and workouts and coffee dates and birthday celebrations and dinner parties (sometimes all of the above, all in one day). Even at work, I had my own workstation set up in my best friend’s office so I could avoid sitting alone in mine all day. For any pockets of downtime I had to sit with myself, I filled the quiet with FaceTimes, group chats, podcasts, yoga videos, books, errands, TED Talks—anything to avoid my own solitude. I was rarely, if ever, still.
A part of this is rather natural; I am an extreme extrovert and social butterfly by nature. But I would be lying if I didn’t now wonder whether there had been something more to this. Because for most of my teens and twenties, I never felt quite at home in my own skin. My mind was simply not the kindest place for me to live—and how could it be, when I was the only one in this world who knew all of my flaws and insecurities and mistakes? I was so exacting in all the ways I thought I fell short—all the ways I had wished I were someone “better” than the person I actually was. So was there a part of me that was constantly on the go—over-scheduled, over-stimulated—because I was unknowingly trying to avoid my own self (and all the criticism and anxiety that came with her)? Was I truly seeking joy, or was I unconsciously avoiding pain? And, if the latter, how many disappointments and heartbreaks and mistakes could I have then avoided, had I learned to embrace my own company much earlier in my life? How many Saturday nights in my past did I unknowingly choose to distract myself—with mindless activities and the wrong people—simply because the alternative of sitting alone was too uncomfortable to bear?
I do not suspect I will fully resolve these questions anytime soon; the truth is likely complex and layered somewhere in between. However, at the very least, I am beginning to see that there may be a different, perhaps more productive, way for me to start reframing this never-ending Westworld-loop of 2020. It might not make sense, and it might be scary and isolating and lonely as hell at times, but I am being pulled to my core in ways I never could have expected. I am not sure why it took more than three decades and a global pandemic for me to learn how to nest within for the first time, but regardless of how I got here, I can try to embrace it now—boredom, anxiety, and isolation and all—and see where this path leads me.Because when will I ever again get the gift to spend this much time to be still? After more than three decades of spending my time, money, energy, mind and body on external distractions, it is about time I look within. It is about time I learn there was never anywhere else to go in the first place.
In this way, I suspect my post-COVID life will look very different from the one I had just a few months ago. With some time and distance away from what was once normal, I find myself re-evaluating everything and stripping my life down to the very basics. I am learning I do just fine without all that makeup or pedicures or professional-grade haircuts or six-dollar lattes. I am outgrowing certain friendships and deepening others. I am exploring new recipes (like the perfect avocado toast) and hobbies (like acrylic painting) and DIY haircut tricks (my boyfriend is a good guinea pig). I am slowly mastering the art of doing nothing (and not feeling guilty about it). I am reading more and talking less. I am learning to trust in the disarray, even when I do not understand it.
I am growing and toughening up as we speak—and, if I may presume, I am not the only one. There are little, gentle reminders all around us of our boundless resilience throughout this weird and lonely time. There is my friend Meg, whose marriage crumbled in the early stages of quarantine and is now learning to live alone for the first time in thirteen years—all the while juggling a full-time job and a two-year-old daughter. And then there is Erin, who—after rebounding from a scary bout of COVID and is now seeking to reinvent her second chance at life—decided once and for all to trade in her fancy lawyer job and fancier Brooklyn apartment for the rustic charms of New Hampshire. There is also Dan, who lost both his job and girlfriend in March and—after nursing a badly bruised heart for the last couple of months—is now embracing this opportunity to finally launch that consulting business he had dreamed about since college. In this way, all our grief and fears notwithstanding, there have been unexpected opportunities this year for many of us to dive deep within ourselves and shed what was not meant to be—a relationship going nowhere, a toxic friendship, an unfulfilling job—and write the next chapter for ourselves ahead. We are learning to Marie-Kondo our lives from old attachments—to things, friendships, relationships, habits, jobs, cities, apartments, hopes and dreams—that no longer serve us.
I may no longer boast about that really, really good feeling I had about this year… but, at the end of the day, I still choose hope. And this is not to say that the storms won’t continue to rage on—we are in week who-knows-what of COVID, and there is no telling how much further we have left to go or even how much worse this may get. Our losses may continue to compound for a painfully long time. However, if I may try to find any silver lining here, perhaps it is this: Despite all the pain and senseless loss,we are still surviving. We are still evolving. Wherever we are, whoever we are, we are pulling ourselves through something we do not understand—and maybe that is precisely the test here. What we do with this opportunity, then, depends entirely on us.
Jane Jeong is an attorney at Cooley, writer, yogi, dog-lover, and former Wall Street analyst and fitness instructor. She is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School. She lives in Manhattan.
We are pleased to welcome AABANY member Jane Jeong to our blog with this post sharing some personal reflections during these challenging times.
“OK. But, Jane… who says that upside down will definitely be worse than right-side up?” He pauses for a breath to let that truly sink in. “Maybe,” he continues, “this is just evolution. Painful, yes. Scary, yes. But it could also be just what we need.”
Simon is my patient, no-bullshit-giving life coach, whom I met earlier this year mainly because (1) my firm offers free therapy to its attorneys, and (2) I never turn down free stuff. I called him because it was one PM on a Tuesday and I found myself crawling back to bed yet again, seeking refuge from the endless merger agreements I needed to redline and the constant stream of cataclysmic news alerts bombarding my phone. The world is turning upside down, I told him, and I am utterly exhausted. Exhausted from all the nights I have lied awake lately, wondering when I will get to hug my friends and family again. Exhausted from all the pain—all the lives and day-to-day normalcy we lost in this weird and senseless pandemic. Exhausted from all the anger, absorbing the depths of our heartbreak as we reel from yet another blow of systemic racism.
Perhaps Simon is right (I pray that he is). Perhaps, on the other side of all this, we will eventually find that upside down really was exactly what we needed. History proves that calamity is often the catalyst for change, after all. But none of this changes the fact that the last couple of months have just plainly sucked, with all the utterly terrifying things going on in the world awakening our inner demons—demons like Fear, Loneliness, Anxiety, Insecurity, and Depression… and whatever else we face behind closed doors but do not speak openly about.
I suspect I am far from the only one here who has confronted these guys lately. We hyper-achieving, Type-A attorneys tend to be fraught with higher levels of depression and anxiety as is, and these challenges only multiply once we sprinkle in the additional dimensions of being Asian American or immigrant or female (or all of the above, in my case). Even before the inexplicable mess of 2020, we Asian American attorneys consistently reported higher rates of mental health challenges than the broader population of lawyers as a whole, with half of us reporting some history of moderate to severe depression or anxiety.
These hiccups in our emotional wellbeing are perhaps rooted in the pressures of our culture: The pressure to be perfect and pleasing, the pressure to achieve, the pressure to obey, the pressure to prove our self-worth to the world with fancy degrees and fancy paychecks and fancy houses. We worship at the temples of Achievement and Perfection from day one, scoring straight-As and first-chair orchestra seats like all “good Asians” do. We are taught to constantly look upward to the next rung on the ladder—the first-place trophy, the valedictorian speech, the Ivy-League degree—and seek nothing but the best at all costs. And when we place external validation on a pedestal in this way, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to accept that we are inherently enough: There will always be something more to achieve—to close the ever-persistent gap between who we are and who we “should” be. And wherever that gap persists, it becomes all too easy for us to turn on ourselves—for all of those pesky insecurities and self-doubts to swoop in and take residence in our hearts.
I know these pressures and inner demons all too well. For most of my life, my ambition was my master: Its militant discipline and rigid motor were what propelled me through Yale College and Harvard Law and my shiny careers in law and finance. Fourteen-hour workdays and ten-mile runs were my regular repertoire. I was so proud of how fiercely disciplined and accomplished I was—feeding myself on other people’s compliments and admiration, never once considering the idea that my drive stemmed not from inherent greatness but from inherent fear. Fear of being unworthy. Fear of what it would mean if I did not have that perfect resume, that perfect body, that perfect hair. Fear of what it would mean if people didn’t think I was likeable or successful or beautiful. And so, I should-ed the crap out of myself. By the time I approached thirty—the age I always equated with fully formed adulthood, as if “being an adult” were some kind of destination—I made it my business to have everything I was told I should want: That perfect-on-paper fiancé—a tall, broad, Yale Law grad in my Summer Associate class—who was already researching good suburban school districts for our future kids. That shiny, six-figure lawyer job at a prestigious firm in New York City, which made my loving Korean parents beam with pride. That sleek junior-one-bedroom a block away from Central Park, brimming with the latest and greatest Vitamixes and Dysons one could possibly need for the said children she was expected to have.
But… was I actually happy?
This question astounded me at first. Because for thirty years, I never once paused to ask what would even make me happy in the first place. Because I never gave myself the luxury to pause in my Energizer-bunny pace of life; I was too busy checking off to-do lists, pleasing bosses, acing exams, disciplining my sugar intake, and putting on no fewer than five layers of SPF. Whatever made me smarter, better, richer, thinner, more successful, and more beautiful were the only matters worthwhile. But questions of happiness? Matters of the heart? Well… those things just got in the way, slowing me down and threatening to stain that perfect image I had hustled to project out into the world. Any doubts I had, I numbed by myself in my darkest corners, far away from prying eyes, before cajoling myself to sleep and pulling it all back together the next morning with a plastered smile on my face. I never allowed myself a moment to slow down, catch my breath, and ask whether the life I was hustling so hard to build was truly my own.
Silencing my heart in this way worked ridiculously well for a long time… until it didn’t. Perhaps it was inevitable. Or, perhaps, all the additional pressures I began facing—the grueling big law hours, the daunting foreverness of a looming marriage, the unforgiving expectations on minority female professionals in their thirties—were heavy enough to finally tip the scales for me. Regardless of the exact reason, however, the end result was very clear: My heart—after being ignored and silenced for nearly three decades—finally had enough. It began to betray me, cracking open under all that pressure and allowing Depression to gallantly swoop inside.
Once nestled, Depression swiftly swallowed me whole with its three vicious heads. First came Shame. People who equate Depression with pure sadness don’t immediately understand this: It is actually the sharp tentacles of Shame—not sadness—that initially gut you. Shame was cruel and ruthless to me, riling up every deep-seated parcel of self-doubt and making it impossible for me to function any longer. It played highlight reels of the most flawed parts of me—all the ugly ways I was selfish, petty, mean, unforgiving, conniving, cruel, utterly unlovable—and demanded that I reckon with them. That I stop cowering away from the weak, imperfect, and never-good-enough woman I really am. It was pathetic, Shame said, that I needed to armor myself with degrees and money and makeup just to prove to the world that I was enough. Parading around and showcasing to the world only the best parts of me—the easily digestible parts of myself that were smart and pretty and flirty—didn’t I know that’s not me? Didn’t I know that I will never be enough, no matter how much I try?
Once Shame sufficiently shrunk me down to size, Depression then unleashed Guilt. And Guilt was all too happy to shatter me and slap me around, doing all sorts of weird things to weaponize my mind and proving what a spoiled asshole I was. Because how dare I have second thoughts about my life—the very one I had hustled so hard to create? How could I be so entitled? Yes, perhaps I was discovering that I may no longer want to be engaged to this perfect-on-paper man … but didn’t I know how hard it is to find a suitable life partner? Didn’t I know how many single women in New York would trade places with me in a second, sporting that huge diamond ring signifying evermore security in the future? And speaking of security—yes, perhaps I should have figured that corporate tax law was not going to be my jam… but didn’t I know how lucky I was to have that steady, plump paycheck coming my way twice a month? All adults are tired and bored by their jobs; that’s part of the deal. Just like taxes and student loan payments and, one day, rearing children of my own—all these things, grown-ups just do. If I have any doubts, swallow them. Because who was I to say that all this wasn’t enough for me? Who did I think I was?
Depression’s third and final weapon was Despair, which was one of the most powerful yet ephemeral, all-consuming yet erratic, familiar yet foreign experiences I had ever tasted to date. It was so physically crushing that I regularly went to bed at night resting my palm across my heart—afraid it might actually break inside my body—and wondering if this was just the way I was going to end all my days from now on. I still found familiar glimpses of myself, even in the thickest part of this fog—like, for instance, the merciful snippets of quiet that greeted me every morning, if only for a few seconds, before my body realized I was awake and once again blanketed itself with the sorrow and loneliness it had hung out to dry the night before. For the remainder of my hours, though, I carried Despair with me, crushing myself under its hefty weight wherever I went and expending every ounce of energy to just survive the day. I knew on some level this was not me but rather some other energy taking over me, but even that I was not entirely certain—maybe this had just been me all along. I was not entirely certain of anything, perhaps, other than the cruel reality that I simply had nowhere left to go. I was already parked at my last resort.
It was only when I hit the darkest depths of Despair—utterly depleted, immobilized on the floor of that sleek Upper West Side apartment, accepting nothing else but the fact that I was alone and cornered—when my heart began speaking to me again.
And I actually began to listen, for the first time in my life…
Because I no longer had the energy to run away from myself.
Because it was finally quiet enough for me to hear my own voice.
Because… well, what other options did I have?
That conversation started off so small, so plain—because small and plain were all I could afford at the time. I did not know exactly what my heart needed to be happy, but I knew it needed something different—something more me. And since my evenings and weekends were still at the mercy of big law, I began waking up at the crack of dawn, well before anyone began asking anything of me, if only to give myself the simple privilege of being accountable to no one else for just a sliver of the day. And with that new pocket of time, I exercised, read, journaled, prayed, painted, danced, meditated, or took aimless strolls through our city. Other times, I simply went back to sleep. I also began setting a standing calendar appointment every day at four PM, simply to pause for fifteen minutes and give myself permission to do whatever else I wanted—like fetching an oat milk latte or calling an old friend for a quick hello. I started going to therapy and got in touch with my inner child. I chatted up my mom and dad, my best friends, my ex-flings, my coworkers, my bosses, my former professors, my other Simons—anyone else who might know a thing or two—and asked how they managed to figure all this out (answer: no one really has). I filled my commutes with podcasts and motivational speeches from every spiritual and religious teacher I could find. I sent out random affirmations out into the world all throughout the day, asking the Universe for inner peace and grace. For the first time in my life, I was learning how to do whatever I wanted purely for the pleasure of it—without any regard for its purpose or end goal.
Nothing really seemed to change at first. But little by little, over the next few months, two truths began to surface in my heart:
It is OK to slow down. It is OK not to be OK sometimes; contradictions are simply part of our human condition. For three decades, succumbing to the fullest range of human emotions—or projecting any image other than a perfectly-put-together one—was a thing I never had desire nor ability to do. But the simple truth is that I was not given this life solely to achieve, produce, perfect. Instead, I have the honor and privilege of participating fully in the human experience—and that includes not just the pretty parts I spent my entire life meticulously showcasing to the world but also the scary, ugly truths of my humanity that I had muffled for way too long. I can own the fullest spectrum of the human experience by embracing all possible truths about myself—particularly the ones I find difficult to love. Because I am in equal parts my weakness and my strength, my pain and my beauty. It is in these contradictions, then, where my heart and Self-Love actually expand.
Sometimes, as Simon says (ha!), pain is nothing more than evolution. And no matter how lonely or scared or anxious we may be at times—particularly right now, given the state of our world—we are never alone in our pain. In many ways, Depression ended up being a cruel savior: It brought me to my knees just to show me it could, to force me to sit still and begin listening to what was going on in my heart. It was what I needed to (finally) step out of the comfortable confines of my mind and scream for mercy when I could no longer take it anymore. And the more I screamed—the more I drew the curtains on all the self-doubt and insecurities and fears I thought were uniquely and shamefully mine—the more I learned that I was far from alone. Because pain resides within all of us. In this way, the more I released my inner Shame and Guilt and Despair, the less they ended up controlling me. The more I talked about my fears and self-doubt, the more I realized just how mundane and universal they are to our humanity. I had spent almost my entire life terrified of what it would mean if I accidentally revealed my inner battle scars—only to look around and see that everyone else had been hiding the same damn wounds this whole time.
All this is why I believe it’s more important than ever for us to lead a different, more authentic, dialogue here. There is not much I am certain of these days—it really does seem like the world has turned upside down and, Simon’s wisdom notwithstanding, upside down does genuinely feel crappy sometimes. But if there is one thing I know for sure, it is this: There are too many of us who are sitting at home in pain right now. There are too many of us who need a reminder that we are not alone, that this too shall pass. There are too many of us who can afford to be a lot kinder to ourselves—to let go of who we think we “should” be and learn to see all the beautiful contradictions of who we truly are.
So guys… let’s step it up and create that safe space for each other. I am tired of the mindless small talk and awkward Zoom icebreakers—let’s give up the jig and instead give each other the freedom to show up imperfectly. Let’s have some no-bullshit conversations on what we are going through and how we can help each other through an incredibly uncertain time. Because we have all been there, in some form or another.
Because it really is OK not to be OK.
If you are interested in joining this dialogue with me and other AABANY members, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Jane Jeong is an Associate at Cooley in New York City.