Attorneys, The Soul, Addiction, and Heroes

FAMSAG Magazine
March 2021

Attorneys, The Soul, Addiction, and Heroes - Dr. Don Kennedy

I am a doctor. Last month I saw a vacationing young attorney who tripped over her daughter’s baby carriage and broke her right wrist. After we splinted her arm she asked for a written excuse. Odd. Why? She explained she needed the wording to be explicit: Please excuse [name] as she will have decreased productivity for the next four weeks.

Whether you’re a doctor like me, a law student, a practicing attorney, or a driver of the culture in which you work, this article is about and for you. It presents burnout in a different context, an important twist from the noisy jargon that flits and threads through every high-pressure professional practice.

This is about your soul, that part of you that never dies and only speaks to you when, as I wrote in The Surfer’s Journey, “You are challenged to choose between good and evil and when your body says quit.”

In 2013 I quit. I walked into the office of my thirty-year family practice, stared at a picture of me sitting on a log next to my surfboard in Costa Rica and realized I was no longer the fun -loving surfer-doctor I dreamed I would and could be. I was burned out.

Burnout relates to your dreams, yesterday and tomorrow. The goal of this article is to educate and motivate attorneys and other professional to recognize the cousin of the beast of burnout: Addiction.

Surfer's Journey Retreat in Nosara, Costa Rica

How Attorneys Discovered Burnout from Addicts

In a free-clinic in Queens New York in the 1970’s where addicts and the homeless came for mental and legal assistance a man walked in and slumped in a chair. He hung his head and then looked around at the faces in the crowded waiting room.

I’m so tired of this,” he said to the man next to him,”
The man responded, “Me too. “
“I’m so burned out,” he said.
“Yep. Yep. I know.”

The receptionist heard the conversation and on her way home she thought that’s me. I can’t do any more than I’m doing. At the staff meeting the next morning she asked if anyone knew what burnout meant. They all shook their heads and the clinic psychologist wrote the word in his notebook. It was a new term coined for an old and indefinable disease. A real disease.

The Other Cause of Burn Out

The cause of burnout is described as a mismatch in the work environment. The literature reassures those who are frying that it is not their fault. The cause, they say, is multifactorial and difficult to grasp. But cause and effect lie deeper than brick and mortar.

Burnout is the end result of a journey from dreams to disillusionment. It’s only discovered, or better yet brought to corporate cognizance, when other’s expectations of that attorney’s performance on the production line become variable and trending down.

Too late. Burnout cannot be fixed by those who allow its existence and ignore its human toll. The psychological burn-scar doesn’t heal. Instead, it exists in the subconscious quiet as a growing and too often ignored voice that says, “I’m so tired of this, there’s got to more to life.”

VW Van - Dr. Don Kennedy

The Burnout Ritual

Burnout begins with the three-part ritual of law-hood: (1) Separation, (2) initiation, and (3) return. The college student leaves what he knows, is initiated in the theoretical law-school curriculum, and returns as the wide-eyed and invincible conqueror.

Then, reality lights the burnout fuse, the soulful superpowers are gradually smothered, and the dreamer turns from Hercules into a survivor dependent on other means of fulfillment. Sound familiar?

Three Steps to Healing Your Soul

I learned and teach that there is no such thing as beating burnout. Burnout is indefinable, personal, invisible, and by the time the fuse turns into a forest fire, choices are reactive, and confusing. But know that re-designing a life is never too late.

Remember, the mismatched culture and system an attorney enters may not be that attorney’s fault, but the decision to begin a journey of rediscovery of love, purpose, and health is that individual’s responsibility.

The answer is not in one overnight, exhaustive hop of escape into another flame, but rather a daring dive into the childlike imagination that make all things possible.

Here are the three of the steps I learned, live, and teach.

Surfer's Journey Preparation Guide - Day Seven

1. You must leave what you know – again.

You must take an experience-based sabbatical away from the present work and world to re-discover the kid in you.

On the day after I left my family practice I jumped on a plane to Maui, Hawaii and did what I loved as a kid, surfing. I wandered the beaches and drove the crooked road to Hana and sat next to Charles Lindbergh’s grave on a cliff overlooking the wide Pacific Ocean. I wrote and thought and retraced and reimagined.

When I returned, I worked part-time urgent care, went back to school and earned a PhD in leadership, wrote books, became a teaching professor, and created a surfing based Motivational Medicine practice to help others get better at being alive.

2. You must forget the reactive plan and discover flow

Intention and planning are the antithesis for imagination, creativity, and life-change. Rich epiphanies only occur when you can hear your inner voice again.

I once coached a young attorney named Lisa whom I met on a plane and told me she went to law school to continue the legacy of her parents and grandparents. She was overwhelmed, unhappy, at risk, and planning to move to another law firm in another state. Her passion was running.

After mentoring and reflection, she decided to forgo the rebound plan and develop an exclusive and colorful women’s running shoe company with a portion of the profit going for running shoes for needy young girls. Happy, autonomous, and driven.

3. You must actively seek new experience

Whether it’s law, medicine, accounting, or architecture, the story is the same, we are inculcated into a life and belief directing tribal culture. Mismatched attorneys spend their days and nights on what I call the beach of same never daring to swim to see what life is like on another island.

Pam is a gifted international attorney and professor with thirty years of practice. She has two issues: She has been burned out for years and has a fear of swimming. When she attended our Costa Rica Immersion event she waded into the ocean and surfed. Her mindset clicked.

During her immersion time she settled into a chair under the palms and pulled out the blank art book she had stuffed into her suitcase. She began. Today she is developing two personal art studios and her curriculum vitae lists her as an artist, then an attorney.

High Five Accomplishments - The Surfer's Journey Retreat in Nosara, Costa Rica

The transformational hero and leader

Greater than 30 percent of all practicing attorneys are suffering from burn out, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and I believe that number is low. That doesn’t have to be you or someone you know and love.

In The Surfer’s Journey I created and defined a transformational hero as:

  • A purpose driven leader who is willing to give all they have for a cause greater than themselves.
  • They are not burned out, but rather wake each day guided by a fiery clear, soulful, subconscious voice.

Can you hear it? It’s time. You’re being called. Paddle out and never look back.

What Are You Waiting For?

Paddle Out and Live!

You can join Dr. Don Kennedy for CLE on his next Surfer’s Journey retreat to Costa Rica. For information on mentoring / coaching and other programs please visit his website at