Severance: A Thought Provoking Show about Controlling Thoughts

How would it feel to be fully present at home, without a thought or worry about any work-related issue?

How would you feel if you could experience that same presence while at work?

If that sounds appealing, would you ever consider a procedure that could create complete work/life separation?

That’s the premise of Severance, a sci-fi series set in a fictional town in which employees undergo a surgical procedure to separate their thoughts about work and home. Employees who are “severed” can’t think about work once they leave the office and they can’t carry their home stressors into the workplace.

I binge watched the series this summer and I can’t stop thinking about it, both because of its stellar cast and the thought-provoking questions it presents.

The first season focused on Mark, an office worker who undergoes the severance procedure as a way to deal with the loss of his wife. The procedure enables him to shed his grief each day as he rides the elevator to his office. Once the elevator doors open, Mark has no awareness of his life outside the office, which enables him and his colleagues to focus solely on their work.

At least that’s the intention. The reality is that the severed employees spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their “outies,” their selves outside the workplace. They wonder if they have families, whether they are good people and if they are happy. And when they need support, the severed employees are treated to stories about their “outies,” which suggests that the company understands how important it is for the workers to understand all aspects of their lives.

Although the show provides an extreme example of corporate culture and the quest for work/life balance, it presents some fascinating questions like:

  • What does it mean to be fully present? Is it necessary to clear our mind from distracting thoughts in order to focus on the present moment? If you’ve studied or practiced mindfulness, you know how unrealistic that is. And even in the fictional world of Severance, the goal of having a singular focus is not achieved, despite surgical intervention.
  • Is there an expectation that we can (or should) be able to compartmentalize our lives? In the show, the severance procedure is touted as a way to be more productive at work and to be more present at home. But is separating these parts of our lives a good thing? Do we want coworkers who can’t draw on life lessons, ambitions and beliefs formed outside the workplace? Is it good for them to be severed from the connections that ground them and the commitments that provide the motivation to tackle hard things? Conversely, don’t we want people to apply lessons learned on the job in their lives outside the workplace? And don’t we want coworkers to build connections and support networks outside the office?
  • Do we sometimes use work as an escape? Mark’s choice to undergo the severance procedure to escape his grief is not unlike the choices many people make to keep themselves busy and avoid feeling difficult emotions. [Spoiler alert] In the show, as in real life, that doesn’t really work.
  • What happens when we can’t find meaning, purpose or a reasonable amount of autonomy in our work? Mark and his team work in the Department of Macrodata Refinement sorting numbers. Aside from being told that their jobs are “mysterious and important,” they don’t understand the purpose of their work or how it fits into the larger picture. Instead, they are given rigid instructions, kept under constant surveillance and given meager incentives like company branded finger traps and team photos. Not surprisingly, this creates discontent, makes them less invested in their work and [another spoiler alert] sets them on a journey to change things. It is not that hard to see how this part of the series is an example of the disconnect that often exists between what employers think will lead to job satisfaction and what employees need or want.

My takeaway from Severance is that a complete separation of thoughts about your work and home life is neither achievable nor desirable. Although you may view the person you are at work as different than the person you are to your family and friends, the reality is that we bring our whole selves to the workplace – our experiences, our biases, our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes – all of it. And when we leave the job at the end of
the day, a piece of that work self comes home with us.

The story of Mark and his severed coworkers also shows what can happen when we are stuck in a life that exists solely for work. It demonstrates how connection is a powerful motivator and that even surgically induced-work life separation or carefully curated employee incentives are no match for the human need for community and purpose.

Laura Anthony is a lawyer who is fascinated by the intersection of law and human behavior. She is an education lawyer as well as a mediator, investigator and hearing officer and often draws upon her background and interest in psychology in her practice. She is also a not-so-regular practitioner of yoga and meditation and brings her real-world struggles making healthy choices to her role as the chair of her firm’s Wellness
Committee. Laura can be found posting about her practice and her love of chocolate and libraries on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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What Law Firm Leaders Can Learn from Better Call Saul

I was watching Better Call Saul with my husband as Howard Hamlin, the law firm partner with perfectly quaffed blonde hair and a toothpaste commercial grin, appeared on screen. After meeting with the title character, Saul Goodman, Howard gets into an expensive vehicle and drives away to reveal a vanity plate that reads “NAMAST3”. We already knew that Howard had been struggling with his past and had turned to yoga and new-found spirituality to tame his inner demons. Unfortunately, as the audience eventually learns, Howard’s inner peace is much like the spelling on his vanity plate: not quite right. 

My husband smirked, turned to me and said, “Does that irritate you?” He was mocking me, but I was nerding out far too hard to acknowledge it. Instead of rolling my eyes at him, I replied “No, this is a great example about how easy it is to gaslight ourselves with spirituality.” Indeed it was, but it turned out to be a tragic one too. In Better Call Saul, Howard had turned to yoga and mindfulness to soothe his tortured soul after the downfall and death of his mentor and Saul’s brother, Charles McGill. 

Despite this new-found ethos, however, there is little evidence of reflection on Howard’s part about his preoccupation with appearing perfect or the practices of his own law firm. Tragically, Howard’s obsession with his reputation left him vulnerable to Saul’s tricks, and it ultimately lead to his own death and the implosion of his firm.

I talk about the power of mindfulness all the time, so it may seem strange that I would draw attention to Howard Hamlin. If anything, he shows us that mindfulness has limits, right? And, to be sure, the characters on Better Call Saul are generally examples of what not to do as attorneys. So why talk about them? 

I talk about them because, of course, there are limits to mindfulness practices. As Howard demonstrates, one of the dangers of mindfulness practice is that it can help you feel better temporarily or on a surface level without achieving the clarity needed for real peace. If you don’t have other supports to ground you, you may end up deluding yourself instead of growing and understanding yourself better.

The show doesn’t tell us what practices and teachers Howard relied on to develop his mindfulness practice, though his license plate suggests he went for yogic practices. The show offers clues, however, that Howard is otherwise intent on appearing serene when his life in many ways seems to be falling apart. Though he experienced the death of his law partner, strife in his firm, and an impending divorce, Howard seems intent on showing everyone how happy and at ease he is. There’s also no mention of Howard trying additional strategies, like therapy for example, to support himself.

I don’t say these things to suggest that Howard was a bad guy. He really wanted to be a good guy. He wanted to be a mentor to young lawyers. He wanted to be a good leader and build a law firm that lasted. The problem is that Howard was not an aware guy because he was afraid to see himself as he really was. In this way, Howard Hamlin was entirely human, but his obsession with looking at peace tragically got in the way of him ever finding it. 

Research is clear that mindfulness practices, including yoga, can help you reduce stress and feel more at peace. They do that, though, by helping you face yourself as you are and life as it is. Part of that means accepting your own imperfections and learning how to share them with others. As Howard Hamlin shows us, your so-called inner peace can get torn apart very easily when you can’t allow yourself to do this. 

The legal profession certainly needs more law firm leaders who are willing to be examples about leading a good life, including the practices that help them do it. So, if you are a serious yogi, go ahead and talk about it and keep that yoga mat in your office. But, don’t just talk about it and throw a vanity plate on your car. You also need to act on the values that have served you well. You need to be real in a way that Howard Hamlin never let himself be about the struggles you’ve had rather than merely trying to convey an illusion of spiritual purity. Not only do you deserve all the support you can get when you deal with hardships in life, your law firm may need you to get it. 

Indeed, research suggests that emotional intelligence and relationship-building are essential leadership traits. Even the best lawyers would struggle to do either of these things without being honest with themselves and others about who they really are. Law firm leaders who embrace mindfulness to help stabilize themselves can certainly use the practices to become better leaders for their firms.

But they shouldn’t do so with the objective of always looking calm and serene, especially not when real crises in life or law practice are happening. Instead, the practices are there to help you accept and face what is there–in yourself or in life–and greet it with compassion. When you can do this, there will be no need to tell people how at peace you are because you’ll show it with your life, law practice, and leadership every day.

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