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Table of Contents


Risky Business

Learn how to climb outside of your comfort zone.

By Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, and Mark Gorkin,“The Stress Doc”

May/June 2006 Issue


A paralegal stands alone on a street corner in downtown San Francisco, miles from home. A realization hits her: She agreed — for reasons now unfathomable — to present a seminar on trial assisting to a group of top-notch, big-city paralegals who probably know more about the subject than she does. For the first time, she will use a Microsoft PowerPoint slide show as she speaks, and she has no idea how to connect the computer to the projector. As she walks down the sidewalk trying to figure out which skyscraper she needs to go into, it occurs to her that she is utterly outside of her comfort zone.

A psychotherapist struggling to build a stress management workshop business signs up to do a weekly feature on a cable television magazine show. Although he has never been in front of a television camera, the psychotherapist attempts to reassure himself with the know­ledge that he is an experienced public speaker. D-day arrives and he finds himself in a sweltering room under blinding lights with no TelePrompTer. Feeling like he is facing a firing squad, he begins a live demonstration of stage fright morphing into oral paralysis.

These two examples are true stories that happened to us, the authors of this article. Stacey’s seminar went off without a hitch and was well-received. Mark recovered from his initial fumble and finished his 12-week show with good reviews. Both learned they could take enormous personal risks, learn from them and come out ahead.

The fear of failure holds many of us back and keeps us from exploring our true potential. This article provides key strategies for confronting and overcoming your fears, and developing your risk-taking potential.

The Benefits of Risk Taking

For most people, having to speak formally in public is a nightmare. They would rather contemplate their own deaths than risk possible embarrassment or humiliation. This fear keeps us trapped in our own comfort zones, afraid to take chances that might lead to new opportunities. As Jonas Salk, the great scientific pioneer, observed, “Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down, being courageous one more time than we are fearful … trusting one more time than being anxious.” Without taking on an occasional challenge, you will cease to evolve, both as a paralegal and as a person.

Today, you can take baby steps to overcome your doubts and stroll with confidence outside of your comfort zone. The benefits are enormous and include increased self-confidence, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, as well as a heightened awareness of your growing abilities. Each new success will give you a sense of euphoria and encourage you to continue pushing the envelope.

The Risk-Taking Self-Assessment Quiz

To evaluate how much of a risk taker you are, answer the following questions. Be honest with yourself. There are no right or wrong answers. This quiz will let you explore your personal feelings and gain some insight into areas of strength and vulnerability when in or out of your comfort zone.

  1. Do you associate failure more with a learning opportunity instead of with feelings of humiliation, guilt or being a “loser?”

  2. Do you tend to see things as shades of gray rather than black or white?

  3. Can you usually work effectively on a problem despite feeling anxious?

  4. In general, are you relatively comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity?

  5. When you are wrong, can you publicly acknowledge an error or mistake instead of attempting to cover it up?

  6. Do you tend to become more focused under time or performance pressure?

  7. Are you self-motivated rather than needing to be motivated by other people, structured goals and rewards?

  8. During times of meaningful change, do you feel positively excited and curious rather than feeling anxiously out of control?

  9. In general, do you like to explore new paths or procedures instead of following well-practiced or trusted paths?

  10. Are you able to see or reframe a problem as an opportunity?

  11. When it comes to problem-solving, do you tend to be more logical instead of intuitive?

  12. Do you make decisions quickly and easily without fearing that you might be wrong or make a mistake?

If you answered “yes” to a majority of the above questions, you tend to feel comfortable with uncertainty, performance anxiety, change, i.e., taking risks. If you answered “no” to more than half of the questions, or have two or three big “no’s,” it’s time to develop risk-taking characteristics and explore a larger world.

The Traits of Risk Takers

To be a conscious and productive risk taker you must be willing to hear the boos, to let go of a “secure” image while recognizing gaps, unfilled needs and outdated rules underlying operating procedures. Here are five vital traits of risk takers.

Acknowledge mistakes and accept social disapproval. Risk takers have a lot of practice admitting error. When you are dissatisfied or disillusioned with all the “be safe” messages and messengers, and you are tired of plodding along the “way it always has been” path, you might want to test limits and boundaries. Explore what is possible despite the potential for criticism or rejection, being a lonely voice and having to confront your fear of exposure.

Have a strong enough ego. A sense of confidence and competence is essential if risk taking is to be purposeful and productive as opposed to impulsive or irrational. Possessing a strong ego doesn’t guarantee results. It does mean that a risk taker can sort out the pros and cons regarding his or her enterprise. And while preplanning is needed, realize that you can’t anticipate every mistake or deviation before embarking on a new venture. A strong ego means you are not seduced by perfection. You recognize that staying on a narrow, safe course only yields the illusion of achievement and control, and in the long run can lead to boredom or stagnation. Moving outside of your comfort zone can open up new challenges and opportunities. Once you are positively rewarded for risk, you just might be ready to take a new risk.

Analyze and learn from trial and error. When error is seen as vital feedback, you can assess the adequacy or insufficiency of your skills and strategy along with your emotional and personnel resources. Of course, this isn’t usually one-trial learning, but by purposefully analyzing your choices and taking much-needed risks, you can shorten the time and heighten the payoff of a learning curve process.

Ponder a range of possibilities rather than perfection. When you understand there isn’t one fixed or ideal outcome, then you are in the position to see with fresh eyes. You are not biased or constrained by custom or habit. You can build on past learning and also reflect a new, “out of the box” environment. In fact, open people see error and feedback as fuel for on­going self-organization and useful reorganization.

Build a support system. Being a productive risk taker takes considerable physical, mental and emotional energy. It’s essential to cultivate a select group of trustworthy and objective people — a colleague, a supervisor, mentor or a close friend — who can embark with you on that road less traveled or let you know when it’s time to take a pit stop to rest or reflect on errors and successes. We all need people who can tell us when to come up for air, especially during challenging undertakings. We need people who can provide tender loving criticism and tough loving care.

Taking Baby Steps Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Most of us don’t want to be stagnant or complacent. We recognize the need to continue growing and honing new skills to stay competitive at work and for personal growth. Sometimes we have personal goals that we just don’t have the courage to tackle. How do we give ourselves the boost we need to take baby steps to becoming more exploratory and risk-taking individuals?

Redefine success. Too often people don’t explore because they presume they will not be successful or there is no tangible reward in sight. For example, paralegals have said they are not interested in making the effort to become a Certified Legal Assistant or Registered Paralegal because they don’t believe their firm will recognize or financially reward their achievement. Are these paralegals’ definitions of success monetary gain, or is success only success when it’s observed by others? In the law firm environment, it’s common to define success by material wealth. In his book “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success,” Deepak Chopra wrote: “There are many aspects to success; material wealth is only one component. Moreover, success is a journey, not a destination. Material abundance, in all its expressions, happens to be one of those things that makes the journey more enjoyable. But success also includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being and peace of mind.”

By limiting your definition of success in terms of tangible rewards or recognition by others, you will miss out on many chances for that intangible feeling of self-fulfillment and a journey well made. The sense of self-satisfaction and the increase in confidence that comes with achieving a difficult goal, such as certification, can jump start your enthusiasm for your work. The people you might meet in a preparatory study group can open doors to new profes­sional relationships that will make the jour­ney more pleasant.

Confront old voices. The beliefs, expectations and values internalized from past significant people, such as family members and teachers, can provide an anchor of stability and tradition in our day-to-day lives or during a troubled storm. However, if the anchor is so heavy or rigidly placed, your lifeboat might never leave the harbor.

For example, Mark worked with a client, a paralegal named Carol, who had contracted degenerative muscle disease as a child. Carol’s mother had been quite protective and also subtly critical. Not surprisingly, Carol had some self-esteem issues. She never truly confronted her mother’s behavior partly because of the “sacrifices” she felt her mother had made for her. And for Carol, being critical was a sign of disloyalty. These issues later impacted her professionally. When Carol began therapy with Mark she was laboring in a fairly dysfunctional law firm. For a few years, a circle of colleagues and friends helped her cope. However, because of the progressively deteriorating working conditions, one by one her support group jumped ship. But Carol stayed because she had unwarranted doubts about her competence and skills. She also was overly grateful for her position. Despite the fact that a couple of senior partners piled on overtime assignments without commensurate pay, she remained loyal. Fortunately, a year of therapy and gradually learning to stand up and set limits with authority figures helped her break the chains of low self-esteem. Carol gained a more realistic sense of her strengths and need for support along with a greater willingness to shake up her career puzzle. She eventually found a paralegal/administrative position with a nonprofit organization that advocated for individuals with disabilities.

You might never explore new waters or uncharted territories because those old voices are saying, “don’t risk failure or embarrassment,” “don’t do anything that will threaten your job or financial security” or “this is our family’s standard and nothing else is acceptable.” While those old beliefs might have gotten you this far, it’s time to trust your own judgment and instincts.

Hang out. A powerful motivator for risk taking, good and bad, is hanging out with a peer group. In particular, keep company with folks a bit outside your normal comfort zone. If there are more advanced-level paralegals in your office, take breaks with them or invite them to lunch. Pick their brains about how they tackled difficult projects or talked the boss into letting them try something new. As you get to know them better, ask them if there were situations where some project went sideways and what the consequences were for them. Soon you will begin to see that your peers have overcome failures and setbacks. For example, perhaps they got fired, overcame their fears, learned from them and continued to grow as paralegals and employees.

Be an awkward beginner. People who have mastered a profession through the requisite blood, sweat and tears, as well as the investment of ego, time and money, often abhor the thought of starting over. They recall the anxieties of an earlier age and don’t ever want to feel so vulnerable or inadequate again. This sort of “bunker mentality” can keep us stuck in a dead-end job or working for a boss we don’t particularly like. The fear of the unknown always is worse than discomfort with the known. The fear of having to start over with a new firm, learn a new practice area or work with a new attorney often will cause paralegals to rationalize that they are not really that unhappy where they are. Of course it’s awkward at first starting in a new position, learning the laws of a new state or switching practice areas. It’s difficult to return to the feeling of being a novice, but you must not let that fear of awkwardness prevent you from beginning a new and better path for your career. Be focused on your needs and ­not on your fears.

Find a coach. A key component to exploration and growing in new directions is working with a coach. You never see a sports figure who isn’t working with a coach, no matter how famous. The same concept can apply to your career. Find someone who is an experienced expert who walks the talk. Then trust must evolve. If the coaching relationship is to be maximally productive, the student will need to accept both supportive feedback and constructive criticism. Places to look for possible coaches are attorneys or other paralegals, both inside and outside your law firm. Perhaps a favorite teacher from your paralegal program can serve as a coach. Professional career coaches can be hired to help you set and reach goals. Friends don’t necessarily make good coaches, as they often have a difficult time delivering constructive criticism. You need someone who has enough distance to be able to view you with a critical eye and push you to achieve your goals.

Be gentle with yourself. Errors of judgment or design don’t irrevocably mean you are incompetent. They more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. For example, suppose you have been asked to design a numbering system for a mega-documents case. After reviewing the potential types and sources of documents, you decide on an alpha-numeric system, with the first letter assigned pursuant to the name of the producing party. After you have implemented this system, you realize it’s inadequate. Different departments within a corporate defendant are producing different records and it has become critical to know exactly where they came from. With the system you have in place, you can’t identify exactly which department was the original source. This doesn’t mean you are an incompetent paralegal. It might mean you got into a case so large it was outside your experience, or it could mean you were not given enough information from the attorneys from the start. You were bold enough to accept the responsibility for a difficult assignment, but for what­ever reason, your design didn’t meet the needs of the case. Learn from this situation, do your best to come up with a plan to remedy it and make a mental note not to make the same mistake again. Don’t write yourself off.

 Our so-called failures can be channeled as guiding streams of opportunity and experience that so often enrich, widen and deepen the risk-taking passage. If you make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Don’t dwell on them and allow them to stall your efforts to broaden your horizons. Although you might imagine people are laughing at you, many of your peers secretly admire those who can dust themselves off and get back in the saddle.

Strive to Survive the Climb

There is no guarantee when grappling with new heights or depths, but four fail-safe measures apply:

  • Strive high and embrace failure. Failure isn’t a sign of unworthiness. Consider failure simply as a gap between a future ideal and your present reality. It’s a transitional space that fosters growth rather than absolute mastery.

  • Develop a realistic time frame. Remember, establishing a beachhead doesn’t mean you have conquered the island. Recognize that many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking is won.

  • Be tenaciously honest. Continuously assess the impact of outcomes, changes within yourself and your environment. An objective coach can help you with this process.

  • Establish a support system of caring friends and colleagues.

Imagine a life without the limitations we have set for ourselves. You now are ready to get out there and see just what you can do. As the ancient Roman poet Horace said, “To begin is to be half done. Dare to know — start!” 



Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, is a freelance paralegal in the San Luis Obispo, Calif., area. She is the co-author of “Hot Docs and Smoking Guns: Managing Document Production and Document Organization” (Clark, Boardman, Callaghan, 1994) and “The Successful Paralegal Job Search Guide” (West, 2000). Hunt is an instructor for the paralegal studies program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She is the immediate past president of the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations and recipient of the NALA 2001 Affiliated Associations National Achievement Award.

Mark Gorkin, “The Stress Doc,” a licensed clinical social worker, is a keynote speaker, “motivational humorist” and a team building and organizational development consultant. Gorkin is the author of “Practice Safe Stress” and “The Four Faces of Anger.” For more information, e-mail [email protected], call (301) 946-0865 or visit www.stressdoc.com.


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