Monday, April 4, 2016

Autism Awareness Month: The Lessons Continue

It's April. That means it's once again Autism Awareness month. I've made no secret of how Autism has affected my family and my career (I've written about it here and here); and once a year I try to do my part in raising awareness for those around me.  A part of that awareness is realizing that instead of attempting to get an autistic individual to conform to society, there are so many things we can learn from their unique perspective.  And since everyone seems to love a list, here's my top 3 things my son has taught me in the last year:

1. We all need a break sometimes. Kids that are diagnosed with autism (whose parents have decent insurance) get a ton of therapy.  My son has had between 10 and 30 hours of therapy a week since he was almost three.  This is in addition to school - he's in a special ed class which he attends for a little over 7 hours a day. That's a lot of demands to put on a kid. Hell, it's a lot of demands to put on an adult.  And at least once a year he starts having a lot of breakdowns and tears flow when he's asked to go to a therapy session or to school where before he was having fun.  He needs a break, so we take a week off.  He gets a week with no demands but to just be him.  It revives and refreshes him and he almost always has a big movement forward in his development shortly after he resumes.

Transfer that to the land of lawyers and see what kind of jumps in productivity you get if you take a break before you're totally burnt out.  Even in house where we're supposed to have this mythological "work-life-balance", we work 50-60 hours in a good week and routinely average 70-80 stressful hours.  Unlike many in private practice, a boon isn't often followed by a short break while we have to find the next project or client.  We can finish up that big transaction only to fall into the pile of work that was only being triaged and has now turned into a volcano about to explode.  There's always a reason to put off that vacation because there's so much to do.  Combine that with the fact that many of us with families don't do true vacations - we do 'be-responsible-for-everyone-in-a-location-other-than-home'.  Which is often even more stressful.  It's okay to need a real break.  Take a day and let the kids go to school.  Sit and read a trashy book.  Binge watch a show on Netflix you've never heard of before.  Let yourself actually relax and see how a refreshed brain can boost your productivity.

2. Celebrate the small stuff.  Yesterday LG told me about a dream he had about his favorite video game.  It seems silly to celebrate such a mundane conversation, but it was a milestone for us.  See, his autism makes it difficult for him to communicate things that aren't literal.  He's actually still struggling with communicating even those things.  But when he enthusiastically told me about a dream he had where there were the monsters and levels of his game and he was the hero it was like I was seeing a new kid.  We also celebrate when he names an emotion instead of having a meltdown.  "He makes me sad." is enough for a party in my house.  On the surface these seem like small things, but they add up to a very big picture.  And thinking of the little wins renews our faith that we'll get those big ones.

The same is true in the workplace.  Regardless of your department, celebrating that little win can make a big difference in the morale and the engagement of your team.  We don't win big cases everyday, but getting that customer to finally sign the agreement without gutting all the protections is a win.  Getting 90% of the employees to complete that required compliance training on time is a win.  Talking the head of whatever department out of that stupid thing is a win.  Celebrate them.  Realize that the small things matter as much, if not more than, the big things.  They add up to make your team a team of winners.  Or if you ignore them and only celebrate the big wins, you'll have a team of nobodies with one or two 'producers' who get all the credit.

3.  Nothing beats hard work.  Not everyone is born with the natural ability to hit a ball out of the park, perfectly play Mozart or write the perfect blog post.  There are those who just holding a conversation is difficult.  One of the things I have learned from my son and his classmates is that those kids work so hard at things we take for granted.  And to a one, they are achieving things we weren't sure was possible in August.

The same is true for lawyers.  We're not all born superstars.  Most of us are of above average intelligence, which served us well to get into and graduate from law school.  But when you're in the board room with a couple of serial entrepreneurs, your founder who was smarter at 12 than you are now, and whatever other financial gurus the investors send to represent them, you don't always feel so smart.  Numbers may not come naturally to you.  Communicating in business speak may not come naturally to you.  Thinking of the business as a business and not a series of legal issues may not come naturally to you.  But all of these things can be mastered with a little hard work.  I've seen very talented lawyers get their butts handed to them my mediocre lawyers who spent time learning the business and digging into the issues.  Don't be afraid to work hard and don't be intimidated by those ivy league degrees at fortune 100 legal departments.  Odds are they haven't worked as hard as you have to understand your business.  So when they try to rely on their size or revenue and you push back with the truths of your industry, you can get more wins than you think.  And that's worth celebrating.