Learn how to climb outside of your comfort zone.
By Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, and Mark Gorkin,“The Stress Doc”
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.
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.
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
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
Do you associate failure more with a learning opportunity instead of
with feelings of humiliation, guilt or being a “loser?”
Do you tend to see things as shades of gray rather than black or
Can you usually work effectively on a problem despite feeling
In general, are you relatively comfortable with uncertainty or
When you are
wrong, can you publicly acknowledge an error or mistake instead of
attempting to cover it up?
Do you tend to
become more focused under time or performance pressure?
Are you self-motivated rather than needing to be motivated by other
people, structured goals and rewards?
During times of
meaningful change, do you feel positively excited and curious rather
than feeling anxiously out of control?
In general, do
you like to explore new paths or procedures instead of following
well-practiced or trusted paths?
Are you able to
see or reframe a problem as an opportunity?
When it comes
to problem-solving, do you tend to be more logical instead of
Do you make decisions quickly and easily without fearing that you
might be wrong or make a mistake?
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
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.
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
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
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.
Steps Outside of Your Comfort Zone
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Strive to Survive the
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.
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!”