“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” asked Sheryl Sandberg in her bestseller, Lean In.
And what is it you’re afraid of? There are the common fears that many of us can relate to: heights; falling; spiders; darkness; silence; being alone. In professional life, your fears may include: forgetting something important; making a significant error; not meeting expectations; looking foolish; not having enough work or maybe having too much work.
The concept of courage has been front-of-mind lately. I am reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, which focuses on living a whole-hearted life and in that context, addresses the topic of courage head on. The need for courage is also a recurring theme in the CBA Futures conversations I’m reading, in the context of what is needed to effect change in the legal profession. And just recently I noticed the exhortation to “Have courage” on the inside of my Kate Spade iPhone case.
Courage is required whenever we are asked to step outside our areas of competence. Seth Godin recently wrote in Competence vs. Possibility about how restricting ourselves to doing only what we are already competent to do reduces opportunities for innovation. He wrote:
We often stop surprising ourselves (and the market) not because we're no good anymore, but because we are good. So good that we avoid opportunities that bring possibility.
This is particularly true for lawyers, I suspect. Our professional obligations not only require us to be competent but also discourage lawyers from taking on work in areas in which we are not competent. This is of course prudent, especially from a risk management perspective, but may close us off from what Godin describes as “possibility, innovation, art….”
When I take a risk and step outside my professional comfort zone, it is always difficult and uncomfortable at the start. Not knowing what I’m doing isn’t easy and creates many moments of angst. Every time I take on a new task, I struggle with the fear that I’m out of my depth and that I may not complete the job to my satisfaction or the satisfaction of those who hired me. But when I am able to harness my fear, the energy it requires can instead be channeled into mastery of something new, and through that process, my competence “zone” expands.
It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the worst happens or the result is less than hoped for. In those situations, grace is required, not to mention a good backup plan.
That backup plan is essential and should include reliance upon the supports that enabled you to step out from where you are most comfortable – whether your staff, colleagues or family members. Those supports can facilitate and enable your act of courage.
Brown suggests that living wholeheartedly requires that we open ourselves up and embrace our vulnerability. While some may see that as weakness, she says, rather:
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”
Sandra Petersson wrote here a few months ago about Brown’s research into living with vulnerability in the context of addressing the feeling of not being good enough and living with courage to be imperfect. I suggest the same truths also apply to those who feel capable and competent, especially where that competence acts to shield us from growth and development.
Living with courage to be imperfect isn’t at all inconsistent with being a competent professional. Indeed, Law Society Rule 2.01(2) Competence specifically sets out in the Commentary that “This rule does not require a standard of perfection.”
While you may not be ready to wholeheartedly embrace imperfection and vulnerability in all aspects of your life, there is comfort in knowing that, for each of us, doing so requires daily and ongoing doses of courage.