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Adapted from article originally published on Shrink Tank blog February 2018.

“The Red Pill makes you aware of the true nature of the Matrix. The Blue Pill keeps you ignorant of reality.”

It’s the beginning of a new year, and like many attorneys, I’m not only breaking my resolutions but also scrambling to cram in my continuing legal education or CLE credits before the winter grace period ends. Recently, I attended my first CLE since I left the full-time practice of law. At lunch, we went around the table introducing ourselves. Most attendees were either partners or associates at large law firms. Some were working in corporations.

Then, it was my turn. In one breath, I introduced myself and said, “I used to be an intellectual property attorney at a large law firm, and now I’m a psychologist and a professor.”

There was a collective head snap, and thankfully, the stares relaxed into smiles. By the end of the day, no less than ten lawyers asked me how I escaped my corporate law job. It was sad to hear how so many brilliant men and women chose to stay in jobs that made them unhappy when making a move—even within the legal profession—could have made a huge difference.

I told them the truth: “There’s no quick and easy solution. Have you ever seen the Matrix? That’s probably the easiest way to explain it.”

“You take the Blue Pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the Red Pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes…” ”

— Morpheus

Almost twenty years ago, the Wachowski sisters introduced the world to The Matrix, which Entertainment Weekly called “the most influential action movie of a generation.” Often interpreted as a symbol of contemporary experience in a commercialized, media-driven, and hedonistic society, the Matrix introduces the pop culture philosophy maxim outlining the choice between the red pill or the blue pill. This choice can also be seen as an allegory for the choice of corporate life (blue pill) versus the alternative (red pill) choices such as self-employment, hybrid entrepreneurship, or career change.

In the movie, choosing the blue pill means you stay in the Matrix and represents the choice of falsehood, ignorance, and illusion that values security, hedonism, and happiness.

Choosing the red pill means you want out and represents the opposite—the choice of truth, knowledge, and reality that values freedom, suffering, and vulnerability. Yet a paradox remains—either choice involves pain—you just get to choose whether you will embrace or deny it.

The Red Pill makes you aware of the true nature of the Matrix. The Blue Pill keeps you ignorant of reality.
The Red Pill makes you aware of the true nature of the Matrix. The Blue Pill keeps you ignorant of reality.

Not long ago, I was in the Matrix. I was an intellectual property attorney working in a large, multinational law firm. My colleagues were brilliant, and my clients were amazing. I was living in a beautiful place, spending my weekends hiking, skiing, or kayaking, and making more money than I thought I could ever spend.

Yet, like Neo, something felt wrong. I kept seeing glitches in the system, and I couldn’t unsee them.

My dilemma is not unique. Like many professionals, I was unhappy with my current situation but did not change because I felt uncertain about my alternatives.

The human mind craves what the blue pill offers—what we already know—and avoids what the red pill requires—what is still to be determined. Why?

It’s your autonomic nervous sysstem. Your nervous system sets at the thing that you do repeatedly, even if you don’t like it. What is known feels better than what is unknown to a nervous system that is evolutionally geared to protect you from harm. When you have thoughts about leaving your job, it causes a threat response in your limbic system. This is the older emotional center of the brain that is critical to our survival. Once your limbic system is activated, it hijacks your prefrontal cortex or thinking brain—the later evolved part of the brain responsible for decision-making and planning. It’s like a wave.

Once the process starts, you can’t stop it on a dime. Water will find a way. But, if you are willing, you can learn how to surf—by leveraging the opportunity this emotional response brings.

I was able to leave the Matrix by defining what I really wanted from my career and developing the willingness to experience the anxiety that comes along with making a value-based decision.

“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind…”

— Morpheus

But the first step towards meaningful change is identifying the NEED for change. So how will you know when you are ready to take the red pill?

1. You’ve accepted that it exists.

Think back to when you first became aware of the Matrix. When did you first become aware that you knew something was wrong? That you were on the wrong path?

How has staying plugged into the Matrix worked for you?

When I was working in BIGLAW, there were tons of benefits – regular takeout paid for by the firms, a paid car if I worked late on deals in Palo Alto and New York, free sodas, a dog walker, discounted food in the lunchroom, a mobile car detailer, and expensive vacations. Although the short-term benefits of the status quo may feel good, what have been the long-term consequences to your family and career?

Like many attorneys, I knew something was wrong in law school, but I found myself working in Biglaw before I even realized it. Although psychologically healthy when they enter, after entering law school, according to a literature review by law professors Susan Sturm and Lani Granier, law students turn into the human version of a hot dog—experiencing significant increases in depression and negative mood along with decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction. By graduation, these students are in debt and have been reprogrammed to focus on extrinsic over intrinsic rewards when the latter is known to lead to higher motivation and better outcomes.

This social and educational “programming” towards status quo employment is not unique to law. Fortunately, for lawyers, their leading professional organization—the American Bar Association—is making a clear effort to help. Yet it’s still a lot of programming to overcome.

If you realize that you have been miserable with your blue pill existence and want to change the path you are on, then you are likely ready to take the red pill. And try to have compassion for yourself. We are all pretty much set up to stay plugged in.

2. You’re figuring out what matters to you.

Values clarification is typically covered in the first or second session of my executive coaching sessions (and usually my therapy sessions) for a reason. Figuring out what really matters to you can guide your actions. If Neo had not been committed to knowledge and authenticity, he would have joined Cypher back into the Matrix for a ribeye.

What are values anyway? Dr. Steven Hayes, the developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—an evidence-based approach used in treatment and coaching defines values a“desired global qualities of ongoing action.” These are

global qualities that you desire—in other words, what matters to you and how you want to act—on an ongoing basis. If you cannot imagine doing it an ongoing basis, it’s probably not a value. For example, happiness is not a value because you can’t control it and can’t do it on an ongoing basis. Relationships, knowledge, and authenticity are values because they meet all of those criteria.

Values often drive us whether we like it or not. So, the driving force of your current unhappiness is likely a mismatch between some aspects of your job and your values. You can take the red pill before this step is complete, but it’s likely going to be very difficult to successfully leave the Matrix without it.

Values clarification is like setting a compass for your life and your day-to-day decisions. It makes decisions so much easier. (Check out my more recent article on values-based living here!)

“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?…Ignorance is bliss.”

— Cypher on the appeal of experiential avoidance

3. You’re willing to accept the consequences of taking the red pill.

It is important to note here that you don’t need to like the consequences of taking the red pill—you probably won’t. You just need to be willing to accept them. Ever tried Whole 30? I’d like to tell you it will be easier than that, but that would be such a blue pill thing to do.

You will have to think, live, and work differently. You will need to take uncomfortable risks—financial and personal. Not to mix movie metaphors, but, as Yoda says in the Empire Strikes Back, you will have to “unlearn what you have learned.”

Taking these risks is difficult because they require you to lean into your uncertainty about the future. And you know how your brain feels about that. You should expect feelings of anxiety and loss in exchange for making a choice that is more in line with what matters to you. Try to surf your emotional brain’s fight, flight, or freeze response and ask yourself: are these risks leading me closer to what matters or farther away?

If it gets you closer, then ask yourself “what am I willing to do to pursue my values now?”

4. You understand that it’s not “in or out or “all or nothing.”

Many of my clients pose the question in black-and-white terms: Do I leave my job or career, or do I stay? Yet an important corollary of taking the red pill is understanding that change is not all or nothing.

It’s not like you take the red pill and—boom—you’re living happily in Zion. To build a new reality and find Zion, Neo and his crew had to keep going back into the Matrix—for three whole movies. If you’re like most people, like Neo and like me, you will have to stay in for a little while to get out.

Most clients who are successful in making a change make a plan for a gradual transition to something else. It’s the original decision to leave the Matrix that is the most important one and the one upon which all further change is built. Even if everyone is still plugged in and thinks you are too, you know you are going to get out.

Before I left corporate law, I switched firms, geographic locations, practice areas, and explored some alternative careers. All of those incremental changes helped me develop a strategic, values-aligned plan on how to leave on my own terms. With each change, I just made sure I was getting closer to the life that mattered. When it felt overwhelming, I just broke it down into smaller pieces.

Regardless of when or how you leave, however, you must follow your plan and continue your progress towards what matters to you.

“There is a difference between knowing path and walking path.”

— Morpheus

5. Find the red pills and have compassion for the blue pills.

If you are in this stage, you may be relieved to know that many people are aware that the Matrix exists. You need those red pills who are supportive of change and encourage risk and independence.

Most red pills have days where they question their choice, but can’t imagine life any other way. Ask them how they deal with those days and what keeps them going.

You may find that many people are comfortable with their blue pill existence. They’re fine with complaining and swapping war stories with you, but they aren’t ready for change and won’t be as supportive when you want to make real changes.

Try to recognize that when family and friends naysay your red pill choice, most likely it’s not really about you or your choices. Often, it’s very simply that seeing you do something different makes them feel uncomfortable. They might feel uncomfortable because they’re worried about you – will he be able to support his family? will she regret this decision? Or they might feel uncomfortable for themselves. Hating on your choice makes them feel better about the fallacy they’ve told themselves – that staying put isn’t a choice. It’s called cognitive dissonance (the conflict that happens when someone experiences two conflicting beliefs, values – someone makes a different choice than you to “do the right thing” and you look happier doing the thing that they labeled as “the wrong thing” but really wanted to do) and positive confirmation bias (cognitive bias of believing your way is right) comes into make them feel better.

And that fallacy is based on an assumption that we have forever. Not true.

All we have is right here and right now.

6. You will need Morpheus and Trinity.

Neo had Morpheus to guide him from the Matrix to reality, so you may need a mentor or executive coach to guide you through this transition. Good mentors and coaches and Jedi therapists share certain qualities. They do not try to give you quick fixes or easy answers to complex problems. They believe in and inspire you. They give you honest yet compassionate feedback that highlights your strengths and abilities but considers your needs. They help you stay committed to your values and steer you when your GPS is “recalculating.”

If you have a partner or friend like Trinity, then you’re going to need that support, this type of change will be very difficult to do without it.

With or without a mentor, I would have never been able to make the transition without my partner’s support. He was my tireless cheerleader through many years of transition.

““I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.””

— Morpheus on choosing

If you’ve gotten this far, to quote the Oracle, “you’ve already made the choice, now you have to understand it.” By this, the Oracle means to understand what you’re choosing – not understand life or the movie for goodness sakes! This was the entire problem with Matrix Revolutions! Life is often better fully lived than understood. Behavioral change is the goal, not insight.

Taking the red pill is choosing to lean into uncertainty in exchange for what matters to you. There is no guarantee that you will be happier or more successful. But you will be living the life you chose on your own terms.

Momentum’s resources are for informational purposes only and are not intended to assess, diagnose, or treat any medical and/or mental health disease or condition. Our resources do not imply nor establish any type of therapist-client relationship. The information should not be considered a substitute for consultation with a qualified mental health or medical provider who could best evaluate and advise based on a careful evaluation.