A View Of Life From 100,000 Feet

I learned the importance of seeing the bigger picture many years ago as a young trial lawyer working in Southern California.

When I began my legal career I was taught the art and science of cross examination by the senior partners at the huge law firm where I worked, and I quickly learned how to unravel people at trial by asking the right questions. I learned that by triggering people’s emotional buttons I could get people to inadvertently disclose any lies that they might be telling, or at least get people mixed up enough that they would say something ambiguous that, even if they were not lying, I could then use against them in trial to help my client win the case.

I became quite good at cross examination and had a reputation in the law firm of being a tough examiner, who would usually be able to get something from a cross examination that would really help the case. On one particular day, I was cross examining a woman at trial who was making a claim of discrimination against a large Fortune 500 company. As she was telling her story, I felt in my heart of hearts, that she was probably telling the truth. But I also sensed in her some emotional weakness, based on some discrimination she had suffered as a young girl.

Being blind to the 100,000 foot perspective at the time, I used this information as a tactic to rattle her at trial and twist her words in such a way that she badly hurt her case, said some things that I could misconstrue in our favor, and I got her to the point at trial where she could do nothing other than break down and cry. I am not particularly proud today of who I was then, especially given the fact that I remember the feeling I had as she broke down in tears. Rather than feeling compassion, or feeling sympathy or care for her, I felt victorious. I felt invigorated and my ego was full because of the victory I was able to get for the firm. I felt great because I knew the victory would help me get more prestige in the firm, and maybe more money. And it did.

I was not prepared, however, for the fact that life had something else in store for me that day. After the trial, the woman who I had devastated in cross examination came up to me and asked me a powerful question that would take my limited view, and propel me to the 100,000 foot perspetive – quickly. She came up to me and asked me one simple question. She said: “how did it feel for you today to strip me of my dignity, and use my emotions against me, when you know in your heart I was telling the truth?”

I was not ready for this question, and it shocked and rattled me. I was the one who was supposed to ask questions, not her, and I was unprepared for the effect it had on me. I ignored the question, and walked away from her without responding. But I could not get the question out of my mind. That night and for a long time afterward, I thought about what she had asked me. How did I feel? I started to feel ashamed that I had felt jubilation about my victory instead of sadness. In my quest and my zeal to become a great trial lawyer, who had I become? What was I ignoring or failing to see in my desire to satisfy my ego? In my pursuit of career, money, prestige, what was I really compromising? The question rocked me, and made me consider for the first time compromises that I was making to justify my choices rooted in ego.

It is easy at times to lose sight of the bigger picture, to make choices without thinking clearly or seeing the bigger picture reality of a situation. Our culture has lots of celebrated examples of this. People like Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of Enron, who helped bring that company down. Or the senior executives from Arthur Anderson, World Com or many other companies that lost sight of the bigger picture in life. That lost sight of principles like vision, passion and authentic power. I am sure in their honest moments, if they have any, that they would tell you this: that Stepping Up in life requires that we maintain a big picture perspective. It insists that, even in the day to day tasks of our lives and careers, we do not lose sight of the characteristics and values that inspire, motivate and elevate our lives, values like integrity, compassion and courage.

Live your life in the moment, but never lose sight of the bigger picture, the 100,000 foot view, of who and what you really are.

Imagining the best,

Austin